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Pakistani militants focus on fighting Afghanistan

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — In early June, about 300 fighters from jihadist groups came together for a secret gathering here, in the same city that serves as headquarters to the Pakistani army.

The groups were launched long ago with the army's clandestine support to fight against India in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir. But at the meeting, they agreed to commit more fighters to another front instead: Afghanistan.

"The message was that the jihad in Kashmir is still continuing, but it is not the most important right now. Afghanistan is the fighting ground, against the Americans there," said Toor Gul, a leader of the militant group Hezb-ul Mujahedeen. The groups included al-Qaida-linked Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, banned by Pakistan and branded terrorists by the United States, he said.

The U.S. military says militant attacks in eastern Afghanistan have increased 40 percent this year over 2007. And for two straight months, the death toll of foreign troops in Afghanistan has exceeded that of Iraq. Sunday, nine soldiers were killed in an ambush in Afghanistan's Kunar province.

Pakistani military and European intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the June meeting and said it was the second such gathering this year. A senior military official described the inability to prevent the meetings as "an intelligence failure."

Despite growing pressure on Pakistan to quell Islamic militancy, jihadist groups within its borders are increasing their cooperation to attack U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, according to interviews with a range of militants, intelligence officials and military officers.

Militants say they operate with minimal interference, and sometimes tacit cooperation, from Pakistani authorities, while diplomats say the country's new government has until now been ineffectual in dealing with a looming threat.

Mark Laity, NATO spokesman in Afghanistan, said Pakistan's new civilian government has reduced its preventive military action and is trying to negotiate peace deals with the militants. He expressed concern that the deals were leading to "increased cross-border activity."

The Pakistani government also appears to be loosening its grip on the volatile northwest, where the influence of Islamic extremists is expanding. Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding along the rugged, lawless Afghan-Pakistan border.

Maulvi Abdul Rahman, a Taliban militant and former police officer under the ousted hardline regime, said jihadist sympathizers in the Middle East are sending money to support the insurgents and more Central Asians are coming to fight.

Rahman said under a tacit understanding with authorities, militants are free to cross to fight in Afghanistan as long as they do not stage attacks inside Pakistan, which has been assailed by an unprecedented wave of suicide attacks in the past year.

"It is easy for me now. I just go and come. There are army checkposts and now we pass and they don't say anything. Pakistan now understands that the U.S. is dangerous for them," he said. "There is not an article in any agreement that says go to Afghanistan, but it is understood if we want to go to Afghanistan, okay, but leave Pakistan alone."

Pakistani militants focus on fighting Afghanistan 07/13/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 4:36pm]
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