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 different 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 worrisome new trend in which extremist commanders and their insurgent organizations 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. American and NATOofficials say these decisions by insurgent leaders are the result of operations by American, Afghan and allied forces on one side of the border, and by the Pakistani military — and American drone strikes — on the other.
American 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 long 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 American and allied actions on the ground, officials said.
American military officials sought to cast these recent developments as a reaction to changes in the American 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 Lt. Col. Patrick R. Seiber, a spokesman for American and coalition forces in eastern Afghanistan.
Colonel Seiber said insurgent commanders recognized that as the number of American 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,” Colonel Seiber said.
Over 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. Pentagon and military officials said they had no specific count of these combined attacks, but said the syndicated nature of cooperative action went beyond just the raids.
Increased cooperation among insurgent factions also is being reported inside Pakistan, where many of the extremist organizations are based or where their leaders have found a haven.
American 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 up 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 American and NATO assessments.
“This is actually a syndicate of related and associated militant groups and networks,” said one American officer, summarizing the emerging view of Pakistani officials. “Trying to parse them, as if they have firewalls in between them, is really kind of silly. They cooperate with each other. They franchise work with each other.”
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 American 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.”
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, American and NATO interests.
While these expanding relationships among insurgent groups are foremost a response to increased American 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 organizations.
“They do not want to have to defend that against each other,” one NATO officer said.
The officer cited information gathered on the ground confirming that insurgent groups now allowed rivals free passage through their areas of control in exchange for that right across the other group’s turf. There also is intelligence pointing to threads of financing that run from senior Qaeda leaders and then pass among several of the insurgent organizations.
Commanders also warn of another response to the increase of American troop levels in Afghanistan: larger numbers of insurgent foot soldiers are expected to be ordered to remain in Afghanistan this winter to fight on, rather than retreat to havens in Pakistan to await the spring thaw and a return to combat.
“What our intelligence is telling us, we’re probably going to see about a 15 to 20 percent increase in the amount of attacks compared to the same time frame of 2009,” said Maj. Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of American and allied forces in eastern Afghanistan. “We think many are going to stay and try to fight.”