(NYT) For months Afghan and American officials have complained that even while Pakistan cooperates in the fight against Al Qaeda, militant Islamic groups there are training fighters and sending them into Afghanistan to attack American and Afghan forces.
Pakistani officials have rejected the allegations, saying they are unaware of any such training camps. Now the Afghan government has produced a young Pakistani, captured fighting with the Taliban in southern Afghanistan three months ago, whose story would seem to back its complaints about Pakistan.
The prisoner, who gave his name as Muhammad Sohail, is a 17-year-old from the Pakistani port city of Karachi, held by the Afghan authorities in Kabul. In an interview in late July, in front of several prison guards, he said Pakistan was allowing militant groups to train and organize insurgents to fight in Afghanistan. Mr. Sohail said he hoped that granting the interview would increase his chances of being freed. Mr. Sohail described his recruitment through his local mosque by a group listed by the United States as having terrorist links, his military training in a camp not far from the capital, Islamabad, and his dispatch with several other Pakistanis to Afghanistan.
He did not give all the details that intelligence officials said they gleaned from him in interrogations, but he talked easily about his party and its leaders, and said they had high-level support from within the establishment. He said he was recruited and trained within the past eight months by Jamiat-ul-Ansar, the new name for the Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen party, which was designated a terrorist group by the State Department and banned by President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan in January 2002. Under its new name it is functioning, if more discreetly, and its leader, Fazlur Rehman Khalil, moves around freely.
Mr. Khalil has been involved in recruiting and training militants since the 1980’s. In 1998, American planes bombed his training camp in Afghanistan when they were targeting Osama bin Laden after the bombings of the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The bombing killed a number of Pakistanis, and Mr. Khalil at the time vowed to take revenge against America for the attack.
It is an open secret in Pakistan that groups supporting separatism in Kashmir have not stopped their activities, despite official declarations, and have continued to train men and infiltrate them into Indian Kashmir. Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said during a visit to the region last month that Pakistan had not dismantled all the camps used to train militants for Kashmir. And while he praised Pakistan for its efforts against Al Qaeda, he urged the country to do more to stop Taliban militants carrying out attacks from Pakistan.
Mr. Sohail is not the first Pakistani to be captured fighting alongside the Taliban and other militants in Afghanistan over the past two years. On at least one occasion, Pakistanis who were captured in a joint American-Afghan military operation last year were handed back to Pakistan. But he is the first made available for an interview by the Afghan government. Intelligence officials said they found on him a Jamiat-ul-Ansar membership card and a list of phone numbers of high-level party officials.
A Pakistani official interviewed recently described Mr. Sohail as a “one-off case,” and denied that Pakistani militants were showing up in Afghanistan.
The Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan, Rustam Shah Mohmand, said he thought Jamiat-ul-Ansar and its network had been dismantled. “There is no ambiguity in our policy,” he said. “The government does not sponsor, nor create, nor is aware of training camps. If they were aware of any, they would go and dismantle them.”
Zalmay M. Khalilzad, the American ambassador to Afghanistan, has stated publicly that Pakistan has not done nearly enough to stop the Taliban and other militants from using Pakistan’s border areas as operational and recruiting bases.
In a speech in Washington in April, he warned that if Pakistan did not do the job on its side of the border, American forces would have to do the job themselves.
A Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity in an interview last month in Kabul said: “When you talk about Taliban, it’s like fish in a barrel in Pakistan. They train, they rest there. They get support.”
Western diplomats in Kabul and Pakistani political analysts have said that Pakistan has continued to allow the Taliban to operate to retain influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan supported the Taliban in the 1990’s as a way to create an area where Pakistani forces could retreat to the west if war erupted with its the country’s longtime rival and neighbor to the east, India. Pakistan has also long tried to maintain influence over Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, because of its wariness of its own Pashtun minority in the border areas.
General Musharraf may also fear that a crackdown on the Taliban will provoke protests from an alliance of hard-line Islamist political parties that are now the third largest block in Parliament, the Western diplomat in Kabul said. And Pakistani officials may fear that the United States will abandon the region if Mr. bin Laden is captured.
In interviews along the border over the past two years, Pakistani government officials have made statements that they do not see the Taliban as a threat to Pakistan. They have also, at times, said the Taliban have a legitimate political grievance in Afghanistan.
Mr. Sohail was probably chosen to fight in Afghanistan because he is a Pashtun, the dominant group in the Taliban. Born in Swat, near the Afghan border, he grew up in Karachi, left school at 15 and went to work in a confectionary shop.
“I was going to the mosque every Thursday, and they were saying you should go and do jihad,” he said. “In Palestine, Chechnya, Cuba, France and a lot of places all over the world, they are mistreating Muslims. So I decided to do it and got training for one month.”
He traveled with a group of 15 others from his mosque to a training camp near Mansehra, north of Islamabad. It was a remote place, in the mountains with lots of trees, he said. There he received one month of training in explosives and weapons.
An uncle of Mr. Sohail’s, reached by telephone in Karachi, said the family recently received a letter via the Red Cross from Mr. Sohail saying he was in an Afghan jail.
After their training in Mansehra, Mr. Sohail and his group went to Islamabad and met Mr. Khalil, the leader of Jamiat-ul-Ansar, at his headquarters.
Three months later, Mr. Khalil went to speak at their mosque and called the group up to fight, Mr. Sohail said. “He said, ‘Go and fight the Americans.’ “
They went to the Pakistani border town of Quetta, and then Mr. Sohail set off with four other fighters. They crossed over the main border and drove to the city of Kandahar. They went to a designated hotel and in a room found a bag with weapons. The next day they headed to a mountain base near the town of Panjwai, not far west of Kandahar, where they joined some 50 fighters and rapidly became involved in combat operations themselves.
Mr. Sohail’s account becomes vague after that. He said he only fought for one night and returned to Pakistan. Sent back into Afghanistan to gather information about casualties, he approached some Afghan police, thinking they were Taliban. They arrested him.
He is accused of taking part in an attack on the Panjwai District center in April, in which a police officer and two aid workers were killed, security officials said.
Other militants who have been captured are Afghans from the refugee community in Pakistan. They have described receiving training in large, walled residential compounds in and around Quetta, rather than in military camps, according to Sher Muhammad Akhundzada, the governor of Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan.
One Afghan prisoner interviewed recently in Kandahar, who spent 10 years in a madrassa, or religious school, in Pakistan from the age of 14, complained that the arrival of American troops in Afghanistan brought behaviors that were against the Koran, including drinking alcohol and prostitution. “They are destroying Islam,” the prisoner said.
Mr. Sohail has received a 20-year sentence from a judge in Kabul. His appeal is in progress.
“I’m very sad,” he said mournfully. “The jihad is over for me.” But he showed flashes of fanaticism, too. “I wish I was a prisoner of the Americans,” he said. “Then I could die a martyr at their hands, or kill myself.”
Heavy Fighting Against Taliban
KABUL, Afghanistan, Aug. 3 (Reuters) – Afghan forces backed by American attack aircraft engaged in heavy fighting with suspected Taliban guerrillas near the border with Pakistan, the United States military said Tuesday. The military said as many as 50 guerrillas had been killed, but both an Afghan commander and a former Taliban official in the area said only 2 had died.
The military’s casualty figure was based on estimates by pilots flying in support of Afghan soldiers in the battle, which started when the Taliban attacked the force on Monday morning. If confirmed, the total would be one of the heaviest losses the insurgents have suffered in a single battle in recent months.
But Abdul Rauf Akhund, the former governor of Khost under the Taliban, said by satellite phone that 2 Taliban fighters had died and 8 had been wounded, and that 10 Afghan soldiers had been killed.
Gen. Khialbaz Sherzai, an Afghan military commander in Khost, said Monday that he only knew of two Afghan soldiers and two Taliban fighters killed.