AP reported this week that rival jihadist groups in Pakistan have agreed to work together to fight against NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The meeting of some 300 jihadist fighters took place in early June in Rawalpindi -- a military garrison city where the headquarters of the Pakistani army is based.
AP correspondent Kathy Gannon tells RFE/RL that most of the militants were from Islamist groups launched years ago with clandestine support from Pakistan's security services in order to fight Indian troops in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.
Rival jihadists at the meeting agreed to resolve their differences, Gannon says, and, instead, send their fighters into Afghanistan to fight NATO and U.S. forces.
Gannon says that mujahedin groups such as the Al-Badr group, as well as Al-Qaeda-linked groups like Jaish-e Mohammad and Lashkar-e Tayyaba, "both of which are banned organizations but whose fighters are still out and about. There was also Hezb-ul Mujahedin there."
The Al-Badr group allegedly was formed by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency in 1998. Its fighters previously had been part of Hezb-ul Mujahedin and had fought in Afghanistan in 1990 as part of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-e Islami. But after the Taliban seized Kabul, the ISI reportedly encouraged Al-Badr to operate independently from its previous umbrella group. Now, Gannon says, those groups are coming together again.
"The meeting had three reasons, actually. One of them was to say that they will take revenge for the deaths of their jihadis who had been killed. One was to call for more fighters to come," she says.
"But also, it was to settle differences between Lashkar-e Tayyaba and Jaish-e Mohammad -- because they had had some differences," Gannon adds. "And primarily, [the meeting] was to make the point that the fight they are waging in Indian Kashmir is still important [to them]. But the focus of their fight [now] will be in Afghanistan -- against U.S. and international soldiers -- as a united group of fighters."Increasing Violence In Afghanistan
The impact of the meeting -- reportedly the second of its kind in Pakistan this year -- is already being felt in Afghanistan, where violence in the east has spiraled.
The U.S. military says attacks in eastern Afghanistan have increased 40 percent in 2008 compared to last year. And for two straight months, the death toll of foreign troops in Afghanistan has been higher than in Iraq.
A Pentagon report released in late June describes a dual terror threat in Afghanistan. The Taliban is seen as a continuing threat in southern provinces like Kandahar and Helmand. But the Pentagon also described "a more complex, adaptive insurgency" in the east -- a fragmented insurgency made up of groups ranging from Al-Qaeda-linked Afghan warlord Hekmatyar's radical Hizb-e Islami to Pakistani militants like those in Jaish-e Mohammad.
Amid those warnings, nine U.S. soldiers were killed on July 13 in eastern Afghanistan when more than 100 militants breached the walls of a newly built outpost near the boundary between the provinces of Konar and Nuristan.
Gannon tells RFE/RL she is not surprised that U.S. military officials say the attack on the outpost was carried out by a combination of guerrilla fighters -- Taliban insurgents, Pakistani jihadists, and Al-Qaeda-linked militants like those from Hekmatyar's militia.
She says the attack on the outpost "certainly is an example of what they are capable of. Also, Konar and Nuristan, you have to understand, is a very strong base of Hizb-e Islami."
Gannon points out that Hizb-e Islami head Hekmatyar fought with the mujahedin during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. "He was very heavily supported by Pakistan, and by the United States, but has since been called a terrorist post-2001. But his people are very strong in Konar and Nuristan. They have very strong links with the jihadi groups -- Jaish-e Mohammad and Lashkar-e Tayyaba. Very strong connections there. Also, there is a very strong Wahhabi presence up in Konar -- Wahhabi being the sect of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia."Afghan-Pakistani War Of Words
The Afghan government has become increasingly vocal about the support that insurgents in Afghanistan receive from militants in Pakistan. Senior officials in Kabul have accused Pakistan's military and intelligence services of helping those militants -- or at least turning a blind eye to their cross-border movements.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai on July 14, facing a surge of suicide bombings and other militant attacks, directly accused Pakistan of orchestrating the bloody wave of violence -- including the July 7 suicide bombing at the gates of the Indian Embassy in Kabul that killed scores of people.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani denied the charges on July 16 and condemned Karzai for alleging that Islamabad's intelligence services were involved. He said statements like Karzai's will hamper the development process in the region.
U.S. President George W. Bush said Washington will work with Afghan intelligence officials to investigate Karzai's allegations against Pakistan. Bush also told journalists in Washington on July 15 that he will raise the issue with Pakistan's prime minister when the two meet next week.
Bush said that there is "no question...that some extremists are coming out of parts of Pakistan into Afghanistan. And that is troubling to us. It is troubling to Afghanistan. And it should be troubling to Pakistan."
Bush added that the three countries "share a common enemy. That would be extremists who use violence to either disrupt democracy or prevent democracy from taking hold." He said that "we have hurt Al-Qaeda hard -- hit them hard and hurt them around the world, including in Pakistan. And we will continue to keep the pressure on Al-Qaeda with our Pakistan friends. I certainly hope that the government [of Pakistan] understands the dangers of extremists moving in their country. I think they do."
Indeed, the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations said in a report this month that the relationship between the United States and Pakistan has long been characterized by cooperation and recrimination alike. The nonpartisan analytical group describes Pakistan as a "strategic friend" of the United States, but one that often appears "unable or unwilling" to address vexing security concerns -- particularly in the tribal areas near the border with Afghanistan.
The report says political disarray has further hampered Islamabad's capacity for strong and united action. As a result, it says, Washington has often been frustrated and even uncertain about what to do.
Gannon stresses that the situation on the ground along the Afghan-Pakistan border is complex and should not be oversimplified in a way that puts all of the blame on Pakistan.
Gannon notes that Afghanistan has its own problems that contribute to the disillusionment of ordinary Afghans -- ranging from little or no presence of the central government in provincial areas to weak institutions and "phenomenal" levels of corruption.
Gannon concludes that increasing numbers of civilian casualties -- like the scores of Afghans killed by a U.S. air strike that wrongly targeted a wedding party earlier this month in Nangarhar Province -- also could be causing more Afghans to support insurgents and militants.