JALALABAD, (AP) – As the spotlight of the Afghan war focuses on the south, insurgent activity is increasing in parts of the east, with Arab and other foreign fighters linked to al-Qaida infiltrating across the rugged mountains with the help of Pakistani militants, Afghan and U.S. officials say.
Security in eastern Afghanistan is critical because the region includes the capital, Kabul, which the insurgents have sought to surround and isolate from the rest of the country. The east also borders Pakistan, where al-Qaida’s leaders fled after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion drove the Taliban from power.
Gen. Mohammed Zaman Mahmoodzai, head of Afghanistan’s border security force, told The Associated Press that infiltration by al-Qaida-linked militants has been increasing in his area since March.
“One out of three are Arabs,” he said, coming mostly from Pakistan’s Bajaur and Mohmand tribal areas where the Pakistan military is battling Pakistani Taliban insurgents.
The advent of spring makes it easier to move through mountain passes into Afghanistan, though Mahmoodzai believes the influx of Arabs has been greater than can be explained by seasonal trends.
A NATO official said he thought Mahmooodzai’s estimate of Arab infiltration was high but acknowledged that activity by foreign fighters was running “a little more than average” in the east. He said most of them were believed to be Pakistanis, Chechens and Tajiks although it was difficult to determine their origins.
He spoke on condition of anonymity because the information is sensitive.
In some cases, militants enter the country through legal crossing points such as Torkham, 35 miles east of Jalalabad. Mahmoodzai said the infiltrators carry fake passports and visas provided by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based group that India blames for the 2008 attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai that left 166 people dead.
“We know it is Lashkar-e-Taiba because we have sources inside the Afghan Taliban,” Mahmoodzai said. “They said the Arabs are coming here through Lashkar-e-Taiba.”
Last month, the NATO-led command announced the capture of two Taliban commanders it said were helping Lashkar-e-Taiba (LASH-kar-e-TOY-bah) members slip into Afghanistan. In reporting the second arrest, a NATO statement referred to a “recent influx” of Lashkar-e-Taiba members into the eastern province of Nangarhar.
The mixture of insurgent groups adds to the complexity of the war in the east, often fought in terrain much more rugged and challenging than in the north or south.
In eastern Afghanistan last year, the U.S. Army pulled out of two outposts in the mountains of Nuristan province after insurgents nearly overran the bases in two battles that claimed a total of 17 American lives. Insurgents operating from bases in the eastern part of Nuristan are believed to have killed the 10 members of a medical team, including six Americans, gunned down last week in a northern province.
Longtime smuggling routes through the east link militant sanctuaries in Pakistan with northern provinces such as Kunduz and Baghlan, where insurgent attacks are increasing. Al-Qaida’s links to a Taliban faction led by Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin are believed stronger than with Taliban groups in the south.
The Haqqani group was believed to have played a major role in the Dec. 30 suicide bombing at a CIA base in the eastern province of Khost that killed seven agency employees.
A NATO official said that if al-Qaida is in Afghanistan, it’s probably in Kunar, the eastern Afghan province along the Pakistani border where Osama bin Laden maintained bases in the 1990s. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to release the information to the media.
Gen. Mohammed Afzal, the Afghan army’s commander in the east, said the insurgents were focusing their eastern operations in the provinces of Kunar and Nuristan — which also borders Pakistan — and the area south of Jalalabad, the region’s main commercial center.
“The enemy changed their tactics this year, and al-Qaida has started to become even stronger this year,” he said.
He cited greater use of suicide attacks and roadside bombs — many against NATO supply convoys coming in from Pakistan. Such tactics had not been used as frequently in the mountainous east as in the south.
“The government is there by day, but by night it is the Taliban who are in control,” said Malik Naseer, who is running for parliament in next month’s election from a district of Nangarhar. “Residents say there are some foreigners among them.”
The NATO official said the Taliban were accelerating a campaign of intimidation in Nangarhar, including letters left in front of homes warning residents against dealing with foreigners and government officials or listening to music.
The role of Lashkar-e-Taiba is especially disturbing because of the group’s extensive network throughout South Asia and its purported links to Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI.
The Pakistani agency helped organize Lashkar-e-Taiba, or Army of the Pure, two decades ago to launch attacks in Indian-controlled Kashmir, the disputed mountain region that lies at the heart of the rivalry between the two nuclear-armed nations.
Lashkar-e-Taiba, which the U.S. military refers to as LeT, is believed to have played a role in the Feb. 26, 2010 car bombing and suicide attack on two guesthouses in Kabul frequented by Indians, and in the October 2008 car bombing at the gates of the Indian Embassy that killed more than 60 people.
Pakistan says it broke ties with the group after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States. Nevertheless, it is widely believed that some factions within Lashkar are still close to the Pakistani military, which has not pursued the organization as vigorously as it has other Islamic militant groups that have staged attacks inside Pakistan.
“I’ve watched them since 2008 … move to the West, become more active in other countries and more active throughout the region and more engaged with other terrorist groups,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, told Pakistani reporters in Islamabad last month. “So there is an increased level of concern with respect to where LeT is and where it appears to be headed.”
Christine Fair, assistant professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies, says Lashkar-e-Taiba has been attacking coalition soldiers in Afghanistan since 2004. Fair said she has tracked Lashkar-e-Taiba operations in several eastern Afghan provinces, including Kunar, Baghlan, Nangarhar, Logar and Nuristan.
The NATO official speculated that Lashkar-e-Taiba is using Afghanistan to “get up their jihadi street credentials” among the militants’ support base.