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Last Updated: Monday, 17 April 2006, 16:38 GMT 17:38 UK
Afghanistan's new militant alliances

By Paul Danahar
BBC South Asia bureau editor

US military convoy in Helmand, Afghanistan
US and British soldiers are the new targets
"It was just very, very exciting to be in that room with those men with their huge white teeth."

Afghan warlords have often formed unusual alliances in times of conflict, but even by their standards holding a war council in the presence of a clearly giddy beauty queen dressed in a pink jump suit and answering to the name of Snowflake was hardly standard fare.

Sitting with her was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who is now formally designated by Executive Order 13224 of the United States Government as a Global Terrorist.

But in January 1984 in the Pakistan frontier town of Peshawar Mr Hekmatyar, who became perhaps the only serving prime minister in history to have bombed his own capital, was busy charming Snowflake's boyfriend.

US Congressman Charlie Wilson was, according to his excellent and apparently authorised biography, a notorious drunken philanderer.

He was a man who represented everything that the hard-line Islamist Mr Hekmatyar despised.

If Afghans defeated the Russians, why not the Americans?
Abu Khalid Al Misir
Al-Qaeda member
But Mr Wilson, more than any other man, was determining the course of the Afghan war against the Soviet Union.

With messianic fervour he had used his position in Congress to bully a reluctant CIA to accept and spend hundreds of millions of dollars to fuel the anti-Soviet jihad (holy war).

And the Saudi government was matching what he raised from Congress almost dollar for dollar. Men like Mr Hekmatyar and his Hezb-i-Islami group were falling over themselves to get hold of the cash.

War council

A lot has happened since.

The guns and training camps Wilson's funding paid for drove out the Soviet troops but also radicalised and armed a generation of young Muslim men.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is now wanted by the US
It helped create the instability in Afghanistan that produced the Taleban and al-Qaeda.

And it eventually brought America back into an Afghan war but this time with many old friends as the enemy.

Earlier this year, the BBC has been told, there was another war council and this time Mr Hekmatyar was being represented by his son, Jamalaudin.

Now, though, they were talking about killing British and American soldiers, not the Soviets. They were no beauty queens but some of Mr Hekmatyar's new friends were equally as surprising.

Radical alliance

This year's war council met in the village of Barawal Bandey on the Pakistan border.

There is nothing the Western intelligence agencies would like more than to see Iran tarred with involvement in militancy in Afghanistan
The aim was to build a closer alliance to try and kill as many as possible of the 3,000 men who will form the British deployment to Helmand province next month.

At the meeting was a man calling himself Abu Khalid Al Misir, representing al-Qaeda.

He brought a message from Abu Musab Al Zarqawi offering support and expertise from the militants fighting in Iraq. He also urged more suicide attacks.

"We have," he said "been washing the infidels with their blood, you should do the same. If Afghans defeated the Russians why not the Americans?"

The US army has already acknowledged that the types of road-side bombs now appearing in Afghanistan resemble those used in Iraq.

Last Friday, British troops were targeted for the first time by a suicide bomber who attacked their convoy as they left their base in Lashkar Gar in southern Helmand province. But at present it seems to be only ideas and techniques that are being exchanged, rather than fighters.

Money

What was given out at this meeting though, the BBC has been told, was money.

Just like in 1984, Mr Hekmatyar and Hezb-i-Islami fighters were on the receiving end, although it was to be shared with the several factions of the Taleban attending the meeting.

Car bomb attack in southern Afghanistan
Car bombs in Afghanistan are increasingly resembling those in Iraq
A leading militant group from Pakistan, the Harkatul Mujahideen, attended and would have spoken for the other Pakistani militant groups.

Also taking part were two Iranian men but it is unclear who they represented.

The war council agreed to co-operate and increase attacks in southern, south-east and south-west Afghanistan.

This is an approach that has already been tried in Kunar province where the American army has suffered some of its worst casualties.

The truth is that there is nothing the Western intelligence agencies would like more than to see Iran tarred with involvement in militancy in Afghanistan. And Afghan intelligence officials feel the same way about Pakistan.

This is a country where rumour and propaganda are as important a currency as the dollar bill. All intelligence services are paid to lie and disseminate false information to damage and discredit their enemies.

But the BBC's source for the information about the war council has proven to be extremely reliable in the past.

Iran's role

However, even without this report there are other signs of outside involvement in Afghan affairs that are beginning to frustrate President Hamid Karzai and his Western supporters.

British soldier in Helmand, Afghanistan
An estimated 3,000 British troops are to be deployed in the south
A senior member of the Afghan government told me there was growing suspicion in Kabul about what Iran was up to.

At present, he believed,Tehran was simply keeping its options and its lines of communication open with all sides.

It didn't mean, he said, that Iran was actively involved now in supporting militancy in Afghanistan in the way the US has accused them in Iraq.

Another Afghan official pointed out that Iran might be more interested in preparing for options against America if there were a military attack over the nuclear row.

The best way of hitting back for Tehran wouldn't be by conventional means but by targeting US troops in the countries next door, he said.

But the greatest suspicion of covert interfering in Afghan affairs is being directed at Pakistan.

This was starkly illustrated when President George Bush said in Islamabad last month that "part of my mission today was to determine whether or not the president is as committed as he has been in the past to bringing these terrorists to justice".

He then said President Musharraf was thus committed. But even to ask the question was an admission of serious concern.

Pakistan control

There is no doubt that Gen Musharraf has risked much, including his own life, by siding with the US post 9/11. But there is now a clear difference of perception between Kabul and the West over Pakistan's role in the militancy.

US President George W Bush with Pakistan's Gen Musharraf in Islamabad
Despite the smiles, there is growing concern over Pakistan's role
The West believes Pakistan must try harder to control cross-border militancy.

Kabul believes Islamabad already has control of the militant groups but is simply turning a blind eye to their actions. The question, though, that will be worrying both Kabul and the Western powers most is who organised the war council at Barawal Bandey?

Who is attempting to pull together the various disparate anti-Karzai and anti-Western groups to a single focused entity?

The people who will probably bear the brunt of any increased violence from this coalition of militant groups are not the Western troops, but the newly-formed Afghan National Army (ANA).

They are disciplined and dedicated and the local people trust them. But they are very badly equipped. Ironically during the Soviet war some of the ANA soldiers would have fought along side those they now seek to hunt down.

What is even worse for the Afghan soldiers is that they are still fighting and dying holding the outdated Kalashnikovs Charlie Wilson's money bought them all those years ago.

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