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Taliban Prepares For U.S. Troops

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

In Pakistan - new developments that could increase the danger for American forces over the border in Afghanistan. According to Pakistani analysts, three top Taliban leaders plan to join forces and suspend operations against the Pakistani army. Their goal is to concentrate attacks on Americans in Afghanistan.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES: Say the word Taliban and most of us think of one organization. In the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan it's more complicated than that. The militants have guns, and beards and religion in common, but their views differ and so do the tribes to which they belong - Pakistan's tribal belts - divided into seven areas.

In each, the Taliban has separate leaders. Some want to fight the Americans in Afghanistan and the Pakistan army. Some oppose attacking Pakistani soldiers. Now, three top Taliban leaders with a long history of rivalry have set aside their disagreements in the name of fighting Americans.

Professor KADEEM HUSSEIN (Pakistan Analyst): They have shunned their differences now and have come together and joined hands. For the last one month, actually, they had been preparing for this.

REEVES: Professor Kadeem Hussein, who studies Pakistan's tribal belt, says those three leaders have decided temporarily to call off their fight against Pakistan's military. He says when the spring melts the mountain snows, they want to concentrate on attacking Americans in Afghanistan, including the 17,000 new troops that President Obama is sending there.

They formed an organization called the Council for the Alliance of Mujahedeen Factions, citing as their leaders Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, head of the Afghan Taliban. Hussein thinks unifying will strengthen them.

Prof. HUSSEIN: It will put all their strengths or forces together. They'll become more organized strategically and operationally. And that would definitely give them a very strong position.

REEVES: Hussein says one of the three is Baitullah Mehsud. He's the militant leader in South Waziristan, the man Pakistani officials accuse of assassinating their former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Mehsud has a history of conflict with the two other tribal militant leaders he's hooking up with.

Some analysts, including Hussein, have a theory about why he's done it. They say until recently, U.S. forces left Mehsud alone, as he wasn't attacking Americans and was seen as Pakistan's problem. But Pakistan's government's been pushing the U.S. to go after him. And this month, several devastating missile strikes hit Mehsud's bases. Therefore, the theory goes, Mehsud's turning his sights on the Americans in Afghanistan.

Khalid Aziz spent 20 years as a senior Pakistani government official in the tribal areas. He says the Taliban in Pakistan have been morphing into a more unified political organization for some time and reaping the benefits.

Mr. KHALID AZIZ (Senior Pakistani Government Official): It gives them an added advantage and in the future they could be doing joint operations, behaving more like a military, shifting people from one end to another front, or another theater. So, that is possible and it is happening.

REEVES: But Aziz says leaders in the tribal belt also have a long history of feuding, so, they may not stay together for long. Brigadier Asad Munir, a retired military officer who served in the tribal belt for years, also doubts that the decision by the three Taliban leaders will make much lasting impact.

Brigadier ASAD MUNIR (Retired Military Officer): They were already fighting. They were going across. So, I don't think that it is a very, very big development, very significant.

REEVES: However, Khalid Aziz thinks the new alliance of Taliban leaders in the tribal belt will probably mean that Pakistani military changes tactics.

Mr. AZIZ: They may shift from the total military operations towards intelligence operations now. Because if there is no confrontation from the other side and no resistance, it's very difficult to launch military operations.

REEVES: U.S. officials are watching developments closely for any sign that Pakistan is flagging in the battle against the spread of Islamic militancy.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.