- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2003

KABUL, Afghanistan — Hundreds of Taliban fighters have crossed into the country from Pakistan and are claiming large swathes of territory, the American commander of coalition forces in Kabul said yesterday.

As the Taliban intensified its attacks on American and Afghan forces over the weekend, Maj. Gen. F.L. “Buster” Hagenbeck said the Taliban and its allies have regrouped in Pakistan, recruiting fighters from religious schools in the city of Quetta in a campaign funded by drug trafficking.

Groups of fighters have crossed the porous border and divided eastern Afghanistan into three zones for mounting attacks, he said, adding that they have been joined by al Qaeda commanders who are establishing new cells and sponsoring the attempted capture of U.S. troops.

“There are large numbers of Taliban coming back into southern Afghanistan, but there have been some recent successes in resisting them,” said Gen. Hagenbeck, acting commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan.

“We have a very robust intelligence feed out there, and we have a continuing strategy in which we will go to all the places that we need to track down the Taliban,” he added.

“There are three groups made up of between 25 to 100 Taliban operating in Helmand province, and they are facilitating the drugs trade.”

Helmand is adjacent to Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. Thousands loyal to Afghanistan’s deposed Taliban regime now live in the province’s capital, Quetta, where they congregate at the city’s Islamic colleges. Remnants of the Kabul regime are believed to be recruiting young men to fight in Afghanistan.

Pakistan denies it is helping the Taliban, but has done little to stop their activities. U.S. officials said they will be taking up the issue of Taliban operating from Pakistan when Gen. John Abizaid, the new commander of the U.S. Central Command, visits Islamabad next week.

Relations between Kabul and Islamabad are already tense. On Friday, Pakistani soldiers and Afghan fighters exchanged artillery and mortar fire across their disputed border at Baba-Doud, near the Khyber Pass.

Gen. Hagenback, whose command is based at the Bagram airfield near Kabul, said that in northeastern Afghanistan, also close to the Pakistani border, the forces of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the renegade commander allied to the Taliban, are “operating on the Jalalabad road moving up and down.”

Also, “There are second- or third-level al Qaeda leaders trying to establish cells on the road between Khost and Gardez.”

Jalalabad is on the main road between the Pakistani city of Peshawar and Kabul; the other two towns are in traditional Taliban areas.

“The Taliban and al Qaeda are offering monetary incentives to kill or capture a United States soldier in order to undermine the Afghan government, but it is clear they have very little local support,” said Gen. Hagenbeck. Militants are being offered between $5,000 and $100,000 depending on the target, he added.

The resurgent forces pose a fresh threat to Kabul’s fledgling government and the country’s fragile security.

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