- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 5, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghans are watching with a mixture of sympathy, satisfaction and fear as the Taliban that has menaced their country for years makes gains across the border in Pakistan.

“Now they know what we have been dealing with for so many years,” Kabul carpet merchant Rauf Hamed said as he waited for his first customer of the day at his downtown shop. “The terrorism, the suicide attacks - they are killing themselves.”

As fighting intensified in Pakistan on Monday, however, Afghan and U.S. security specialists expressed concern that the growing militancy of Taliban forces in Pakistan will boomerang against Afghanistan as an additional 21,000 U.S. troops arrive. The presidents of both countries will meet with President Obama at the White House on Wednesday to discuss the deteriorating situation.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday that he is “gravely concerned” about Taliban gains, although he said Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is safe for now.

“The consequences of their success directly threaten our national interests in the region and our safety here at home,” Adm. Mullen said.

The Taliban, in violation of a peace accord in the Swat Valley 100 miles from the Pakistani capital, attacked an army convoy Monday, killing a soldier and wounding two others, and unleashed more attacks in the former tourist region’s main city, Mingora.

“The militants have launched fresh attacks. Security forces are exchanging fire with them at various places,” Swat’s top official, Khushal Khan, told the Associated Press.

Waheed Muzda, a security analyst in Kabul, said the Swat deal was bad news for Afghanistan because it permits the Taliban to deploy more of its foot soldiers to the Afghan front as the summer fighting season approaches.

Dismissing the notion of two Taliban forces, he said that these groups all receive direction from Mullah Mohammed Omar, the one-eyed cleric who founded the movement in Kandahar and is now thought to be in Pakistan.

“The situation in Pakistan is worse for Afghanistan, not better,” Mr. Muzda said.

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency helped found the militant movement two decades ago to fight Soviet troops then occupying Afghanistan. Swept from power in 2001 in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, some Taliban retreated into the tribal areas in Pakistan. In recent years, the militants have combined with other jihadists nurtured by the Pakistani state to oppose Indian control in Kashmir.

Last year, terrorist attacks in Pakistan claimed 2,293 lives, nearly twice the 2007 figure of 1,340, according to a report released last week from the U.S. Counterterrorism Center. In the tribal areas, home to the same Pashtun ethnic group found in Afghanistan, fighting has displaced tens of thousands, while the insurgents’ ability to move freely throughout much of Pakistan has stunted investment and economic growth.

A pattern of bold attacks on urban centers and the recent deal with the government to establish Islamic law in Swat signal a movement intent on reaching deeper into the Pakistani heartland.

The militants latest advance into Buner district, 62 miles from Islamabad, has alarmed the United States and others who view Pakistan as a fountainhead of trouble in the region.

Pakistan last week launched a major clearing operation in Buner under heavy U.S. pressure.

But the Taliban has refused to disarm, raising fears that it is pulling back to regroup for future offensives. The fact that the government launched its offensive just days before Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is to visit Washington also raised suspicions about Pakistan’s willingness and ability to deal with the threat.

Afghans frequently blame Pakistan for the resurgence of Taliban on their side of the border.

Since 2001, militants have used the tribal areas in Pakistan as rear bases to stage attacks against the Afghan government and U.S.-led coalition forces.

Kabul has been a frequent insurgent target.

Because of fears of terrorist attacks, an annual parade celebrating the victory of Afghan guerrilla fighters against the Soviet-backed communist regime was canceled last month for the first time in 16 years. Last year, a high-profile Taliban attack directed at President Hamid Karzai killed three people, including a lawmaker standing 30 yards away from the president.

Three months later, a suicide car bombing at the Indian Embassy left 58 people dead and 141 wounded. U.S. and Afghan officials claimed that Pakistani intelligence agents were involved.

Now, the consensus among Afghans is that the same militant forces that Pakistan has long manipulated for strategic purposes have backfired against the Pakistani state.

Haroun Mir, co-director of the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies, a Kabul-based think tank, said the general sentiment here is that the people of Pakistan are getting paid “back for their [government’s] policies in Afghanistan.”

At the same time, he said, there is a perception that the war on terrorism is “moving away from Afghanistan.”

He said the shift may be a part of a Pakistani military ploy to secure more funding from the United States.

Pakistan has received $10 billion in U.S. military and economic assistance since 2001. The Obama administration is seeking $1.5 billion in annual economic aid for Pakistan for five years and may expedite $400 million in emergency aid.

When the Swat truce was approved by Pakistan’s central government earlier this year, some lawmakers here as well as in the U.S. Congress said aid must be conditioned on concrete results against the militants.

The deal was especially troubling because the civilian government “conceded just how weak it is,” said Shukria Barakzai, a member of parliament and prominent womens rights activist.

Just back from a trip to Islamabad, Ms. Barakzai lamented the changes she has witnessed in Pakistan over the past two decades.

“Democracy is the rule of law, not a few TV channels. Its extremely hard to see a modern city move closer toward the dark ages,” she said.

The governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan are equally threatened by an “extremist cancer” that they must confront together, she said, “whether we like each other or not.”

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