SHAKTOI, Pakistan - A top Pakistani Taliban commander said that he had sent thousands of fighters to neighboring Afghanistan to counter the influx of new U.S. troops.
The U.S. military yesterday dismissed the claim as mere rhetoric - although there is no denying that militants from various jihadi groups are crossing the border. Analysts also expressed skepticism, saying the Pakistani Taliban remained focused on fighting at home, where they are under siege from the Pakistan army.
The claim from Pakistani Taliban deputy chief Waliur Rehman could be an attempt to exacerbate tension between the United States and Pakistan, as President Obama presses a reluctant Islamabad to prevent militants from staging cross-border attacks against coalition troops in Afghanistan.
"Since Obama is also sending additional forces to Afghanistan, we sent thousands of our men there to fight NATO and American forces," Rehman told the Associated Press in a face-to-face interview Monday night in Shaktoi, South Waziristan, part of Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal area near the Afghan border.
The Afghan "Taliban needed our help at this stage, and we are helping them," said Rehman, deputy to Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud.
Pakistan's army invaded the Taliban's stronghold of South Waziristan in October. It claims to have killed hundreds of militants and pushed thousands more out of that lawless region. Most are believed to have moved to neighboring tribal regions in Pakistan's northwest.
The bearded Rehman, sitting on a carpet in a large mud-brick compound and surrounded by seven rifle-toting guards, said the Pakistani Taliban remained committed to battling the army in South Waziristan but was essentially waging a guerrilla war and did not need that many fighters.
Yet the U.S. military said there was no evidence on the ground to support Rehman's claim that thousands of his fighters had gone to Afghanistan.
"We have not noticed any significant movement of insurgents in the border area," said Col. Wayne Shanks, a U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan.
The conflicting claims are nearly impossible to independently verify, and Pakistani army spokesmen could not be reached for comment.
Access to Pakistan's tribal area is severely restricted. To meet Rehman, the Associated Press reporter traveled first to neighboring North Waziristan - also a major militant hub - and then was escorted by Taliban militants on a six-hour ride in a vehicle with tinted windows.
Turning its focus toward Afghanistan would be a major shift for the Pakistani Taliban, which has concentrated on battling the Pakistani government with scores of suicide bombings that have killed more than 500 people since the military launched its South Waziristan operation two months ago.
Ishtiaq Ahmad, a professor of international relations at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, expressed doubt that such a shift had occurred and instead speculated Rehman was trying to worsen the already tense relationship between the United States and Pakistan.
"When the United States expects Pakistan to synchronize its own counterterrorism policy with the troop surge . . . the militants issue these statements in an attempt to create problems in this relationship," Ahmad said.
Obama announced this month that the United States would send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan by fall.