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Warlord Video May Signal Upsurge in Violence in Afghanistan

Security experts warn Afghan insurgents are intensifying their anti-government fight on several new fronts in the country. A powerful fugitive warlord in eastern Afghanistan released a new video this week pledging his support for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and issuing a call to arms against U.S.-led coalition forces.

The video was aired on the Al Jazeera television network on Thursday. On the tape, Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar says he is ready and willing to join al-Qaida in its fight against so-called Western "infidels."

He pledged allegiance to terrorist Osama bin Laden and called on Islamic groups to help expel a U.S.-led coalition providing security for Afghanistan's fledging democratic government.

The fugitive leader twice served as Afghanistan's prime minister in the 1990s. He still heads the powerful Hizb-e-Islami, a militant Islamic party, which helped force the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan in the late 1980s.

U.S. officials describe him as a dangerous terrorist with significant influence over Afghanistan's eastern provinces. Security experts say his latest videotaped message could signal a dangerous new partnership between Hekmatyar in the east and Taleban insurgents in the south.

Samina Ahmed, Pakistan-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, says the alliance comes as NATO peacekeepers prepare to expand their role in both regions by the end of the year.

"And so what they are trying to do is to create tensions within NATO," said Samina Ahmed. "They are hitting out selectively at high profile targets, killing Canadian soldiers, in an attempt to dissuade NATO from maintaining a presence in the south and create problems in the NATO expansion to the east."

Washington plans on downsizing U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan from 19,000 to about 16,000 soldiers by the end of the year. At the same time, the separate NATO-led peacekeeping force is scheduled to grow to around 16,000 troops.

But the peacekeepers are tasked with maintaining security and say they will not pursue terrorists or launch counterinsurgency operations like the coalition.

As a result many local Afghan officials question NATO's ability to hold the line against the militant forces.

The International Crisis Group's Samina Ahmed says Hekmatyar's video message was clearly timed to play up those concerns.

But U.S. military leaders dismissed the videotape as hollow propaganda.

Pakistani security analyst Talat Masood agrees. He says Hekmatyar's latest message and his apparent alliance with al-Qaida is a sign of desperation. He suggests that after more than four years on the run, the fugitive leader may be running out of options.

"He has no other option but to support Osama bin Laden, because no government is prepared to accept him," Masood noted. "He is a fugitive and the fugitives are all aligning themselves and closing ranks."

He says the move may create headlines but it also exposes just how isolated the various militant forces have become in Afghanistan.

Hekmatyar, bin Laden and former Taleban leader Mullah Omar are all believed to be hiding in the mountainous region bordering Pakistan.

A U.S. led military coalition ousted the Taleban in 2001 for protecting bin Laden following the September 11th attacks in New York and Washington.