- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 27, 2007

From combined dispatches

KABUL — The Taliban is gearing up for a massive summer offensive, with more than 2,000 suicide bombers ready for action and even more preparing, a senior Taliban commander said yesterday.

The commander, Mullah Hayat Khan, issued his threat a day after a top U.S. diplomat warned that Afghanistan was in for a bloody and dangerous spring after the bloodiest year since the hard-line Islamist Taliban was ousted by U.S.-led forces in 2001.

“The Taliban will intensify their guerrilla and suicide strikes this summer,” the mullah said, speaking with Reuters from a secret location. “This will be a bloodiest year for foreign troops.”

He said 2,000 suicide bombers were ready — about 40 percent of the total suicide force — adding that numbers were so high that it was sometimes hard to find enough explosives and targets.

“Our war preparations have been completed to a large extent, and we’re waiting for summer to set in,” Mullah Khan said.

More than 4,000 people died last year, a quarter of them civilians, as the resurgent Taliban fought back with what NATO generals said was surprising ferocity.

Calling the guerrillas virulent and tough, Richard Boucher, U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asia, warned on Friday the spring would be bloody and dangerous after the traditional winter lull in fighting.

“I think we will face a strong offensive and will have a difficult and dangerous and bloody spring,” he told BBC radio as NATO foreign ministers discussed Afghanistan’s future at a summit in Brussels, “but we are also better set up to deal with it.”

The threat coincides with an upsurge in attacks by Muslim terrorists on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Pakistani investigators probing a suicide blast at a top hotel in Islamabad said yesterday they were looking at possible links to pro-Taliban extremists near the border. Police said they were examining the head, a leg and an arm of the bomber who detonated explosives strapped to his body when he was prevented from entering the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on Friday, killing a security guard.

“Experts are examining the few remains of the bomber’s body in a bid to identify him,” said Brig. Javed Cheema, the Interior Ministry crisis-management chief.

Officials said a sketch of the bomber could not be prepared because no witnesses so far had come forward, nor had hotel security cameras filmed the attacker.

Interior Ministry officials said no group had yet claimed responsibility for the attack.

“We suspect [the attack] could be by militants opposed to the government’s drive against Taliban elements in the tribal regions,” a senior security official said on the condition of anonymity.

Pakistan is under pressure to curb Taliban activity in its lawless tribal zone bordering Afghanistan.

Afghanistan and U.S. officials said the Taliban uses the area to recruit and train fighters for cross-border attacks on Afghan, NATO-led and U.S. forces.

Kabul also has accused the Pakistani government and intelligence services of backing the insurgency, which claimed about 4,000 lives in 2006, the deadliest year since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in 2001. Pakistan denies the charges.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a delegation of U.S. lawmakers met with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf yesterday in a mood of concern over a provision in a U.S. bill proposing restrictions on military aid to Islamabad. Neither side was scheduled to make any public comments.

The bill, passed by the House and awaiting action in the Senate, calls for ending U.S. military assistance to Pakistan if the country fails to stop the Taliban from operating on its territory, according to Pakistani news reports.

Under the provision, President Bush has to certify to Congress that Pakistan was doing its level best to combat insurgents before releasing any new military assistance. The Bush administration thinks that such restrictions on aid to Pakistan would undermine cooperation in the war on terrorism and is trying to persuade the Congress to drop the provision before it becomes law.

“Such conditionality [would] be counterproductive to the important goal … of fostering a closer relationship with Pakistan,” said a statement on administration policy from Mr. Bush’s office.

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