GHAZNI, Afghanistan — Intercepted phone calls show Taliban commanders have been orchestrating deadly attacks here and in other parts of Afghanistan from a safe haven across the border in Pakistan, a senior Afghan intelligence official told the Associated Press.
The resurgent Taliban forces — who were chased from Afghanistan two years ago by the U.S.-led war — are getting protection from Islamic hardline politicians and rogue elements of Pakistani security, Afghan and Western officials charge.
President Hamid Karzai, in a speech Tuesday to the United Nations, said that from "cross-border militant infiltrations to hateful teachings at places disguised as madrassas (Islamic religious schools), terrorism continues to make inroads into the space of peace and prosperity."
Ghazni province, southwest of Kabul, has been on the front lines of the recent violence, and many residents say the local government and security officials have been unable or unwilling to end the insurgency.
Former Taliban walk the streets of this hardscrabble town, hiding only behind a change of clothes. They boldly tried to assassinate the police chief last week and have turned the back roads into a gantlet of fear for aid workers.
It was here in Ghazni province that four workers for a Danish charity were executed by Taliban rebels on Sept. 8; here where three Red Crescent workers met a similar fate in August. In Zabul province, 135 miles to the southwest, rebels battled for weeks through the deep gorges and craggy mountain peaks against an onslaught of American air power and more than 1,000 Afghan soldiers.
A Sept. 8 order for Taliban fighters in Zabul to retreat during U.S. bombing came in a satellite phone call from a commander in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province, the senior Afghan official privy to sensitive intelligence told AP on condition of anonymity.
A similar phone call was placed to Quetta in March by Taliban fighters who had stopped a Red Cross vehicle on a dusty road in Afghanistan's Helmand province. The voice on the other end of the phone was a senior Taliban fugitive commander, Mullah Dadullah, who gave the order to execute an El Salvadoran national, a survivor of the attack, the intelligence official said in a weekend interview.
The brother of Baluchistan's health minister was arrested this month for alleged Taliban ties and accused of plotting to kill a relative of the governor of Afghanistan's southern Kandahar province, which borders Baluchistan.
"We have this impression that Quetta and surrounding areas are being used by hardcore Taliban forces," Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said in an interview in his Kabul office.
Zalmai Rassoul, Afghanistan's national security adviser, told AP the insurgency is being directed almost entirely from abroad — with Pakistani religious schools teaching jihad, and officials failing to crack down.
"When the Taliban was first defeated, they were on the run, but they have had time in Pakistan to get a rest and reorganize themselves," he said. "And now they are being incited and encouraged to come back."
Pakistani officials strongly deny that the Taliban are receiving sanctuary in their territory.
"There is no truth to the allegations that Taliban have bases in Quetta to harm the interests of President Hamid Karzai's government," Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema said Tuesday. As head of the Interior Ministry's crisis unit, Cheema is in charge of cooperating with the United States in the war on terrorism.
Pakistan was a strong supporter of the Taliban regime, but switched sides following the Sept. 11 attacks and has become a key ally of the United States. Still, rogue elements of the military and intelligence services are believed to have maintained old allegiances.
The sharp rise in attacks comes as the West scrambles to increase its commitment in the country, a change of heart that analysts complain may be too-little-too-late after two years of foot-dragging.
President Bush earlier this month asked Congress for an additional $800 million for Afghan reconstruction, and NATO last week began assessing whether to expand a 5,000-strong peacekeeping mission beyond the capital, Kabul.
In Ghazni, Mohammed Chaos Aolya, the director of the Red Crescent Society here, said police were slow to react when he received an urgent phone call on Aug. 13 from a frantic worker injured in the Taliban attack.
"They are all afraid to do anything," Aolya said. "The police didn't want to come with us to the area, so I myself went and brought the dead bodies back and tended to the wounded."
Aolya said anybody familiar with the province knows that "Taliban and al-Qaida walk around freely during the day." He said Taliban supporters no longer wear the black turbans favored by the religious militia during its rule, but don't otherwise do much to hide.
He also blamed the United States for not doing enough to eradicate the group.
"They have cut down the Taliban but they have left the roots remaining, and now this plague is growing back," he said, adding that nearly all shipments of blankets and food to the region have been halted since the attack on his workers. "Ghazni is a poor province. This is hurting every man, woman and child."
Officials' fears of taking on the Taliban may be justified.
On Sept. 17, a remote-control bomb went off as the provincial police chief, Mohammed Ismail Aziz, was returning home from work. The bomb killed four people and shattered Aziz's car, but he escaped with minor shrapnel injuries.
Over the weekend, the bearlike police chief was interviewed by AP as he convalesced in a long room, receiving good wishes from about 100 supporters seated on colorful pillows and Afghan blankets.
"We have arrested several Taliban and we knew that they have a big plan to assassinate high officials in the province," Aziz said. "They have delivered letters at night threatening people not to send their children to school, they burned down a school and have burned down health clinics. They want to show that the security situation is not good. They want to stop the reconstruction."
Afghan officials have called on the United States to pressure Islamabad to crack down on the Taliban, much as it has on al-Qaida fugitives on its territory.
"If you leave Afghanistan the way it was it will slip back into chaos and again become a place of terrorism," said Jalali, the interior minister. "The cost of security in Afghanistan is far less than the cost of insecurity, not only for Afghanistan, but for America and for the world at large."