GARDEZ, Afghanistan Al-Qaida and Taliban fighters are regrouping in the mountains of eastern Paktia province and just over the border in Pakistan, urging the faithful to wage holy war against U.S. forces, Afghan officials say.
U.S. officials and Afghan sources estimate 4,000 to 5,000 foreigners who fought for the Taliban and al-Qaida remain inside Afghanistan. Many of them are believed to be in Paktia and other provinces along the Pakistan border.
They are receiving support from a variety of groups, including Kashmiri separatists, Islamic militants in Pakistan and some former officials of Pakistan's intelligence service, according to Afghan sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"We have Chechens, Arabs, Pakistanis in the mountains," Ziarat Gul Mangal, deputy intelligence chief of Paktia province, told The Associated Press as he gestured toward the sun-drenched mountains to the east.
He said at least one pocket of fighters, including Chechens, Arabs and Afghans, were recently discovered in the mountains near Gardez.
"They had just started to reorganize there," Mangal said without giving any numbers. But he added: "We found weapons, a lot of weapons."
U.S. officials in Afghanistan consistently refuse to discuss details of American operations against remnants of al-Qaida and the Taliban, three months after the hard-line militia's nationwide rule collapsed.
However, U.S. special forces and other covert troops are known to be operating in Paktia province, a rugged area south of the capital, Kabul.
U.S. officials have noted a significant regrouping of fighters believed to be Taliban or al-Qaida in Paktia province, and Air Force Brig. Gen. John W. Rosa Jr. of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Friday the regrouping consists of "hundreds" of fighters.
Jalaluddin Haqqani, the former Taliban minister of frontier affairs and a top Taliban figure sought by U.S. authorities, is believed to be a key organizer of the regrouping, said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. It doesn't appear he is commanding the group in the field, however, the official said.
Even before the Taliban collapsed under the relentless U.S. air bombardment and attacks by the U.S.-backed northern alliance, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar had threatened to withdraw to the mountains, regroup and launch a guerrilla war.
"What can you do to us? We are not a national army," Omar said during the bombing campaign. "We are guerrillas. We will go to the mountains. We will fight you from there."
Afghan sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Omar is on the move between Maruf in southeastern Afghanistan, Ghazni southwest of Kabul and in the Sharan region of Paktika province, which borders Paktia to the south.
As they regroup, Taliban and al-Qaida remnants are trying to encourage Afghans to join in a new jihad, or "holy war," against the Americans and their allies, residents say.
"Our society is illiterate and most people don't understand," Mangal said. "They are telling people that first Russia attacked Islam and once again Western countries are attacking Islam and Islam is at risk."
Several Afghans told of pamphlets being distributed in various provinces of the east and south urging holy war, although local officials said they had none when asked.
Such pamphlets, called "shabnama" or "night letters" because they circulate covertly, were used by U.S.-backed rebels during the war against Soviet occupiers in the 1980s.
"The Taliban ... say 'All mujahedeen, northern alliance and everyone, should unite together against America,"' said Dr. Najib, a physician at Gardez General Hospital. Like many Afghans, he uses one name.
Najib said the provinces of Paktia and adjacent Paktika were "the worst place for all these people, Taliban and al-Qaida, because all of them escaped this way" after the fall of Kabul and other cities last year.
"In the mountains along the border, there are many of them," he said.
One Afghan source, who asked not to be identified, said former Taliban leaders have made contact with anti-Taliban commanders urging them to turn their weapons on U.S. forces and international peacekeepers.
Mangal claimed the renegades were still receiving help from Pakistan's intelligence service. Pakistan has repeatedly denied the claim.
Pakistan was the principal supporter of the Taliban until President Pervez Musharraf abandoned them following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and threw his support to the United States.
Mangal and others said the Taliban and al-Qaida were also receiving help from Pakistani-based Islamic militants of Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Sipah-e-Sahaba all currently outlawed in Pakistan.
A former Taliban official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said former senior officials of Pakistan's intelligence service met recently with Haqqani in northwestern Pakistan where he has taken refuge.
Haqqani, who was backed by the United States during the war against the Soviets, was close to al-Qaida. U.S. bombers pounded his cave complexes in the Zawar area of Paktia province in January.
Both Mangal and anti-Taliban commander Ismail Khan, whose soldiers are working with U.S Special Forces, also reported the meeting between Haqqani and the Pakistanis.
"There are many big Taliban in Pakistan, just on the border," Khan said. They send money and equipment to Taliban and al-Qaida fighters, he said.
Khan claimed that the Taliban's former deputy prime minister, Mullah Abdul Qabir, recently sent radios to his loyal followers inside Afghanistan.