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World (as of 2/3/2008 1:36 PM)
Taliban, al Qaeda in the shadows in eastern Afghanistan
SHARAN, Afghanistan - Using tactics from executions to threatening late-night visits, the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies may work largely in hiding but there is no doubting their distinctive message.
They exert "strong pressure" on locals to cooperate with them rather than with Afghan authorities and their international partners, says Nawab Waziri, head of the provincial council of Paktika on the border with Pakistan.
Most crudely, "they chop off heads or hands," Waziri told AFP. Scores have been killed by the insurgents like that, sometimes on allegations of "spying" for the government or foreign military forces.
But they also operate more clandestinely. "They come secretly to people in the middle of the night, masked, to tell them what to do," he said.
"There are men who are Taliban in secret in the villages... They cover their faces and talk to people in other villages."
Sometimes there are "night letters" -- written threats thrown into schools or near homes under the cover of darkness.
Relatives of these secret operators never talk about them; even if one is killed, they keep quiet, said Waziri. "The Taliban who die are not identified by their families."
Waziri, in his 40s, joined some 700 other influential men from Paktika at a shura, or traditional council, in the provincial capital Sharan last week to debate the insurgent threat.
"I ask you all to not support al Qaeda and to help the government," national communications minister Amirzai Sangin told the impressive gathering of tribal chiefs, clerics and others.
Paktika and another border province, Khost, are "gateways" into Afghanistan for "al Qaeda and of terrorism because their camps are just on the other side of the border," said the official, who had come from Kabul.
After being driven from government in late 2001 by a US-led international coalition, some Taliban and al Qaeda took refuge in Pakistan's tribal zones.
There they regrouped in extremist sanctuaries and training camps from which US and Afghan officials say they launch attacks into Afghanistan.
A leading al Qaeda commander who led the terror network in Afghanistan was believed to have been killed just across from Paktika last week when a missile fired by a US drone hit his hideout in Pakistan's North Waziristan area.
Libyan Abu Laith al-Libi, reputed to be one of Osama bin Laden's top five lieutenants, was one of 13 al Qaeda militants killed in the raid.
Pakistan has seen a spike in insurgent violence this year; such attacks have been rising steadily in Afghanistan over the past two years, peaking in 2007 with around 140 suicide bombings and scores of attacks that left hundreds dead.
Afghans living along the border see much of the violence, which many of them claim has a strong foreign element.
"The terrorists are trained by Pakistanis who later help them come here," said Ahmadzai Wazir, a tribal chief from the frontier district of Barmal, who wore an imposing black silk turban.
"These Uzbeks, Arabs, Turkmens launch missiles and bombs on Afghan villages," he says.
But, said the governor of Paktika, 34-year-old Akram Khepelwak, last year was "much more calm than the others with the reinforced presence of the Afghan army alongside the international soldiers."
"We are trying to convince the communities to help us block the routes of the terrorists. And there is more cooperation," he said on the margins of the shura.
Waziri, the provincial council chief, insisted there was no real support among the villagers for the insurgents. The main reason for any collaboration is just "because they are scared," he said.