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Foreign Fighters Come to Afghanistan

There are signs that more foreign fighters are coming to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban. Experts say they are bolstering the ranks of the Taliban insurgency and are largely responsible for the suicide attacks that are causing NATO and civilian casualties. While the U.S. military says it has no evidence of a significant influx of foreign militants into Afghanistan, some experts warn otherwise.

The Taliban always had foreign militants in its ranks, but some experts say a new influx of foreign fighters is bolstering the insurgency. As in the past, most are from Pakistan -- either Pakistani Taliban or tribal fighters allied with the Afghan Taliban. But Seth Jones, a specialist on Afghanistan at the RAND Corporation, says other nationalities are coming to fight in Afghanistan as well -- though in smaller numbers.

"A much smaller percentage are foreigners outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan -- that is, small numbers are Arabs, especially Saudis, Libyans, Egyptians. [There is] a small number also of Uzbeks, Chechens and some other Central Asians. But the bulk of these actually are Pakistanis, including Pakistani Pashtuns," says Jones.

Some come from even further away. Recently, The New York Times newspaper featured a suspected militant from Siberia, who was detained at a highway checkpoint in Afghanistan dressed as a woman. Inside the pickup truck he was riding in was 450 kilograms of explosives. The 27-year old Russian denies accusations he is a foreign fighter, telling the newspaper he is a religious convert to Islam who studied at a mosque in Pakistan's North Waziristan -- a region known as a stronghold for the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Alam Payind, an expert on Afghanistan at Ohio State University, says most of the foreign fighters are recruited by al-Qaida. "The recruiters are mostly al-Qaida. I don't think that the Pakistani Taliban or the Afghan Taliban are capable of recruiting these people from other places. Al-Qaida used to do that and still al-Qaida operatives are behind these [efforts]," says Payind.

What's Old is New

Foreigners fighting in Afghanistan are not a new phenomenon. During the 1980s, Muslims from throughout the Middle East joined the Afghan Mujahedeen to fight Soviet forces occupying the country. Seth Jones of the RAND Corporation says that as in the past, the motivation for this new generation of foreign militants is holy war. "This is a fight, like Iraq in many ways. This is a fight against what these individuals consider to be a major jihad against an unwelcome Western foreign presence in Afghanistan. These are crusaders who are trying to destroy Islam, in their view. So this is about fighting a jihad against an unwelcome visitor," says Jones.

It is unknown how many foreigners may have joined the Taliban. Western officials cited anonymously by The New York Times estimate the Taliban can field up to ten-thousand fighters, but only some three-thousand are full-time insurgents. Of that number, about five-to-ten percent, or up to 300 combatants, are believed to be foreigners. Their presence in Taliban ranks has been picked up by NATO troops fighting the insurgency.

However, U.S. military officers say they do not believe there has been a sudden increase of foreign fighters. U.S. Army Brigadier General Rodney Anderson briefed reporters at the Pentagon recently. "We have, through communications monitoring, we have heard dialects that appear to be coming from outside the region. We have not gotten any specific information that would lead us to believe there is a large influx, or a significant influx, of foreign fighters," says Anderson.

More Foreign Fighters?

But the rise in the number of suicide attacks may be one indication that more foreigners have joined the Taliban, since foreign militants are believed to be the ones carrying out these attacks. Alam Payind and other experts note that suicide bombings, beheadings and the placing of roadside bombs, or IEDs, were not tactics traditionally used by the Taliban. The impact and casualties caused by these attacks outweigh the relatively small number of foreign fighters believed to be in Afghanistan.

According to the RAND Corporation's Seth Jones, "The Arabs, the Russians, the Chechens, the Central Asians that have been involved in the fighting, they bring, what I call, a force multiplier capability to the insurgency. And that is, as we've seen over the last few decades, the Mujahedeen and the local Afghan and Pakistani fighters do actually most of the combat, do most of the fighting on the front lines. What you see with these foreigners today is they provide increased ability to kill Afghan and NATO forces through suicide attacks. There are much more sophisticated improvised explosive device attacks, use of the Internet and other media activities. These foreigners increase the ability of local Taliban to fight and then conduct an information campaign."

And because of that, the Taliban insurgency is a more effective fighting force, according to Afghan expert Alam Payind. "I don't think that the Afghani Taliban are capable of sustaining this kind of surge as they are doing right now without the backing of al-Qaida and this foreign insurgent group. So without them, I don't think the Taliban are sustainable," says Payind.

The U.S. military says the Taliban insurgency is limited, able only to stage hit-and-run harassing attacks and not hold territory. Yet the impact on civilians of deadly suicide bombings, experts say, is demoralizing for the population and has the effect of undermining support for the Afghan government.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.