WASHINGTON — Islamic insurgents are expanding their numbers and reach in Afghanistan and Pakistan, spreading violence and disarray over a vast cross-border zone where al Qaida has rebuilt the sanctuary it lost when the United States invaded Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks.
There is little in the short term that the Bush administration or its allies can do to halt the bloodshed, which is spreading toward Pakistan's heartland and threatening to destabilize the U.S.-backed governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In Afghanistan, U.S. and NATO forces are facing "a classic growing insurgency," Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday.
But the U.S. military, stretched thin by the war in Iraq, is hard-pressed to send more than the 3,200 additional Marines the Bush administration is dispatching to Afghanistan. The growing insurgency there is fueling rifts within the NATO alliance as Germany and other nations refuse to allow their troops to participate in offensive operations in Afghanistan. The Afghan army is making progress but still cannot operate independently.
"Make no mistake, NATO is not winning in Afghanistan," warned an Atlantic Council of the United States report last week. The report was directed by retired Marine Corps Gen. James Jones, the former top NATO commander. "What is happening in Afghanistan and beyond its borders can have even greater strategic long-term consequences than the struggle in Iraq."
In Pakistan, the army, trained for conventional warfare against India, has declined to send major forces into battle against the Islamists, fearful that heavy casualties could unhinge the military along ethnic and sectarian lines. The U.S. and its allies can do little more than help train some Pakistani troops because a major U.S. military role in Pakistan would further enrage a population that's already seething with anti-government and anti-U.S. rage.
The threat of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the West by jihadis indoctrinated and trained in the frontier zone is now higher than ever.
"The Taliban in Afghanistan now control more of the country than at any time since 2001, and their confederates in the tribal areas of Pakistan are expanding their operations almost day by day. While our attention has been diverted by Iraq, we've overlooked a potentially far more serious threat to the security of all Americans," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden, D-Del., told McClatchy.
There's no hard evidence of direct collusion between the Afghan Taliban and a new Pakistani Taliban alliance, both of which are made up mostly of Pashtun tribesmen, who dominate the region of soaring mountains and rugged deserts that span the frontier. Indeed, the Afghan Taliban deny links with the Pakistani insurgents.
But the ties among the Pashtuns are personal, historic, ethnic and ideological, and experts worry that the region faces a growing jihadi movement that's aided by al Qaida with Arab and Central Asian fighters, coordination, money and motivation.
"You see some indication that there is a blurring of the lines and some associations that are not helpful," said a senior U.S. defense official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The groups "have become one seamless whole," said Husain Haqqani, a political scientist and former aide to the late Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The Pakistani government blamed Bhutto's Dec. 27 assassination on Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban.
The Taliban groups on either side of the Afghan-Pakistan border are descendants of the Islamic guerrilla factions that fought the 1979-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan with Pakistani coordination and arms supplied by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Britain.
Pakistan's powerful military intelligence service helped the Taliban come to power in 1996 to ensure a pro-Pakistan regime in Kabul. The Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate also encouraged Pakistani extremists to support the Taliban and an insurgency on India's side of the disputed Kashmir region.
Some U.S. military intelligence officials have argued that ideological and strategic differences between the groups will trigger crippling disputes. Some in the groups are hard-core Islamists, while others are fighting for money.
"It is true that there are degrees of separation developing between them," said Army Col. John Lynch, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. "But when you are in the land of plenty and there are fighters and money to be spread around, these differences are minimal."
There's widespread agreement, though, that the Bush administration bears much of the blame for the worsening crisis.
The administration diverted U.S. troops and resources to the 2003 invasion of Iraq without first securing Afghanistan after the 2001 U.S. intervention there.
And Washington pressured Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to send tens of thousands of troops for the first time in his country's history into the tribal region to hunt down al Qaida chief Osama bin Laden and his core supporters, who had escaped there from Afghanistan. Little heed was paid to the Taliban.
The Pakistani army's presence enraged the tribes. Its heavy-handed tactics claimed civilian lives, as did U.S. cross-border strikes on al Qaida targets. Support for militants exploded last summer after Musharraf ordered an assault on a radical Islamabad mosque that killed scores of people.
Since its formation in December, the new Taliban Movement of Pakistan has extended its reach to all seven tribal agencies and into the settled areas of North West Frontier Province.
It has rocketed the provincial capital, Peshawar, captured and killed hundreds of Pakistani security forces, hijacked ammunition trucks and briefly seized control of a major tunnel, cutting off a key city from the rest of the country for the first time.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban have expanded the territory they control and where they can move freely despite suffering huge losses last year in battles with U.S. and NATO troops.
"The number of districts in which the Taliban operate exploded last year," said John McCreary, a former senior intelligence analyst with the Joint Chiefs of Staff who's now with the private contractor dNovus RDI. "This is the first year they have managed to sustain over 100 attacks per month for the whole year since they started to climb back. One hundred attacks per month used to be surge figure. Now it's the new norm."