( Reuters ) - Al Qaeda appears to be increasing its influence among Islamist militant groups along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, with offers of money, training and other assistance, U.S. experts say.
Osama bin Laden's group, which has been rebuilding in safe havens in Pakistan for over a year, has taken a prominent role in a new effort by Taliban and other radical organizations to coordinate their operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"We are seeing an increase in cooperation between the (Afghan) insurgents as well as the terrorists led by al Qaeda. They are increasing in their coordination," U.S. Army Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez, top commander of NATO forces in eastern Afghanistan, said on Tuesday.
"They're cross-fertilizing their tactics, techniques and procedures and also again getting resourcing mainly from al Qaeda, who is the central player in the terrorism equation," he told Pentagon reporters in a videolink from Afghanistan.
U.S.-led forces toppled Afghanistan's former Taliban regime and expelled al Qaeda's leadership after the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001. But insurgent violence in Afghanistan has increased steadily over the past two years.
Last year also saw rising violence across the border in nuclear-armed Pakistan, where suicide bombings killed hundreds of people including former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Some analysts say the violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan constitutes a single struggle against a cross-border militant threat in the Pashtun region.
"It really always has been. The fact is that we drove the Taliban into Pakistan, along with the other Islamist elements (after the 2001 invasion)," said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
Among militant groups U.S. officials say are battling NATO forces in eastern Afghanistan are three strongly linked to Pakistan:
- Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, the armed movement of Pakistan's radical Islamist cleric Maulana Fazlullah;
- Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, an umbrella group linked to Pakistani militant chief Baitullah Mehsud;
- Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed for attacks in Indian Kashmir.
Al Qaeda has long played a role in militant activity along the border region by providing training and information operations for groups in both countries. "They're a force multiplier," said RAND Corp analyst Seth Jones.
But some analysts believe al Qaeda may now be trying to compensate for weakened Taliban influence in eastern Afghanistan that resulted from NATO's capturing or killing a number of Taliban leaders last year.
"What al Qaeda has done is establish a very clever structure providing money, training, technical help and ideological efforts which reach deep into the Taliban, into the refugee camps and into the Afghan movements," Cordesman said.
"They've established ties to Pakistani groups. They've been able to do a much better job of working with tribal elements in Pakistan than the Pakistani government has."
Cordesman said coordination among militants in Pakistan was also aimed at expanding Islamist influence beyond the tribal region and reaching out to Islamist groups involved in Pakistan's dispute with India over Kashmir.