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Foreign fighters bolster Taliban

Afghans warn they are more violent

Afghan boys stood at the site of a suicide bombing in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan, yesterday. Three civilians and a policeman were killed, the Interior Ministry said. Afghan boys stood at the site of a suicide bombing in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan, yesterday. Three civilians and a policeman were killed, the Interior Ministry said. (Abdul Qodus/Reuters)

GARDEZ, Afghanistan - Afghan police officers working a highway checkpoint near here noticed something odd recently about a passenger in a red pickup truck. Though covered head to toe in a burqa, the traditional veil worn by Afghan women, she was unusually tall. When the police asked her questions, she refused to answer.

When the veil was eventually removed, the police found not a woman, but Andre Vladimirovich Bataloff, a 27-year-old man from Siberia with a flowing red beard, pasty skin, and piercing blue eyes. Inside the truck was 1,000 pounds of explosives.

Afghan and American officials say Bataloff intended to be a suicide bomber, one of several hundred foreign militants who have gravitated to the region to fight alongside the Taliban this year - the largest influx since 2001.

The foreign fighters are not only bolstering the ranks of the insurgency.

They are more violent, uncontrollable and extreme than their locally bred allies, officials on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border warn.

They are also helping change the face of the Taliban from a movement of hardline Afghan religious students into a loose network that now includes a growing number of foreign militants as well as disgruntled Afghans and drug traffickers.

Foreign fighters are coming from Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, various Arab countries, and perhaps also Turkey and western China, Afghan and American officials say.

Their growing numbers point to the worsening problem of lawlessness in Pakistan's tribal areas, which they use as a base to train alongside Al Qaeda militants who have carried out terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Europe, according to Western diplomats.

"We've seen an unprecedented level of reports of foreign-fighter involvement," said Major General Bernard S. Champoux, deputy commander for security of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. "They'll threaten people if they don't provide meals and support."

In interviews in southern and eastern Afghanistan, local officials and village elders also reported seeing more foreigners fighting alongside the Taliban than in any year since the American-led invasion in 2001.

In Afghanistan, the foreigners serve as midlevel commanders, and train and finance local fighters, according to Western analysts.

In Pakistan's tribal areas, they train suicide bombers, create roadside-bomb factories and have doubled the number of high-quality Taliban fund-raising and recruiting videos posted online.

Gauging the exact number of Taliban and foreign fighters in Afghanistan is difficult, Western officials and analysts say.

At any given time, the Taliban can field up to 10,000 fighters, they said, but only 2,000 to 3,000 are highly motivated, full-time insurgents.

The rest are part-time fighters, young Afghan men who have been alienated by government corruption, are angry at civilian deaths caused by American bombing raids, or are simply in search of cash, they said.

Five percent to 10 percent of full-time insurgents - roughly 100 to 300 combatants - are believed to be foreigners.

Western diplomats say recent offers from the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, to negotiate with the Taliban are an effort to split local Taliban moderates and Afghans who might be brought back into the fold from the foreign extremists.

But that effort may face an increasing challenge as foreigners replace dozens of midlevel and senior Taliban who, according to Western officials, have been killed by NATO and American forces.

At the same time, Western officials said that the reliance on foreigners showed that the Taliban is running out of midlevel Afghan commanders.

"That's a sure-fire sign of desperation," Champoux said.

Seth Jones, an analyst with the Rand Corp., was less sanguine, however, calling the arrival of more foreigners a dangerous development.

The tactics the foreigners have introduced, he said, are increasing Afghan and Western casualty rates.

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