Pashtun and Punjabi militant groups pooling foot soldiers

Rival militant organisations on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border have increasingly been teaming up in deadly raids, in what military and intelligence officials say is the insurgents' latest attempt to regain the initiative after months of withering attacks from U.S. and allied forces.

New intelligence assessments from the region assert that insurgent factions now are setting aside their historic rivalries to behave like “a syndicate”, joining forces in ways not seen before. After one recent attack on a remote base in eastern Afghanistan, a check of the dead insurgents found evidence that the fighters were from three factions, military officials said.

In the past, these insurgent groups have been seen as sharing ideology and inspiration, but less often plans for specific missions.

Now the intelligence assessments offer evidence of a new trend in which extremist commanders and their insurgent organisations are coordinating attacks and even combining their foot soldiers into patchwork patrols sent to carry out specific raids.

The change reveals the resilience and flexibility of the militant groups. But at the same time, officials say, the unusual and expanding alliances suggest that the factions are feeling new military pressure. U.S. and NATO officials say these decisions by insurgent leaders are the result of operations by U.S., Afghan and allied forces on one side of the border, and by the Pakistani military and U.S. drone strikes on the other.

U.S. commanders recently have been seeking even more latitude to operate freely along the porous border, including inside Pakistan, and have consistently warned that whatever gains they have made in the past few months are fragile. One official said it was “a wake-up call” to find evidence, after the attack on the forward operating base, that the fighters were partisans from three factions with histories of feuding: the Quetta Shura Taliban of Mullah Muhammad Omar; the network commanded by the Haqqani family; and fighters loyal to the Hekmatyar clan.

These extremist groups have begun granting one another safe passage through their areas of control in Afghanistan and Pakistan, sharing new recruits and coordinating their propaganda responses to U.S. and allied actions on the ground, officials said.

U.S. military officials sought to cast these recent developments as a reaction to changes in the U.S. and allied strategies in the past year, including aggressive military offensives against the insurgents coupled with attempts to provide visible and reliable protection to the local Afghan population.

“They have been forced to cooperate due to the effect our collective efforts have had on them,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick R. Seiber, a spokesman for U.S. and coalition forces in eastern Afghanistan.

Lieutenant-Colonel Seiber said insurgent commanders recognized that as the number of U.S. forces increased this year in Afghanistan, “they would need to surge as well”. Veteran militant leaders, many with a long history of open warfare against one another, have “put aside differences when they see a common threat,” Lieutenant-Colonel Seiber said.

During the past 90 days, signs of this new and advanced syndication among insurgent groups have been especially evident in two provinces of eastern Afghanistan, Kunar and Paktika.

Increased cooperation among insurgent factions also is being reported inside Pakistan, where many of the extremist organisations are based or where their leaders have found a haven.

U.S. and NATO officials said they had seen evidence of loose cooperation among other insurgent groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba and Tehrik-i-Taliban.

Lashkar is a Punjabi group and is considered one of the most serious long-term threats inside Pakistan. The Punjabi groups, many of which were created by Pakistani intelligence to fight against India's interests in Kashmir, now appear to be teaming with Pashtun groups like the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban to fight their creators, the Pakistani intelligence and security services.

Pentagon and military officials who routinely engage with their Pakistani counterparts said officials in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, agreed with the new U.S. and NATO assessments.

The role of senior leaders of Al-Qaeda, who are believed to be hiding in the tribal areas of Pakistan, remains important as well, officials said.

“They are part of this very complex collusion that occurs between all of these extremist groups,” one U.S. official said. “Each group provides certain value to the syndicate. Al-Qaeda senior leadership provides ideological inspiration and a brand name which is not all that tangible, frankly, but it's still pretty important.”

Social network

Officials said the loose federation was not managed by a traditional military command-and-control system but was more akin to a social network of relationships that rose and faded as the groups decided on ways to attack Afghan, Pakistani, U.S. and NATO interests.

While these expanding relationships among insurgent groups are foremost a response to increased U.S. and allied attacks, another motivation is eliminating the need for each group to guard its physical territory and money-generating interests from the other extremist organisations.

“They do not want to have to defend that against each other,” one NATO officer said. — New York Times News Service

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