KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghanistan's defense ministry accused Pakistan on Sunday of harboring wanted Taliban leaders and Al Qaeda fighters in its border regions where government control is weak and tribal traditions hold sway.
"When the Taliban fell, 95 percent of this movement went from Afghanistan to Pakistan," ministry spokesman Saranwal Mir Jan said in an interview with The Associated Press in the Afghan capital.
He said the ministry, part of the interim government established in December, is "urgently" setting up border patrols to try to stop Al Qaeda and Taliban members from traveling back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf abandoned his country's longtime support for the Taliban after Sept. 11 and threw his backing behind the U.S.-led coalition whose military campaign ousted the Islamic militia from power and sent its members fleeing in December.
However, senior Taliban leaders maintained close ties with Pakistani clerics, tribal leaders in border regions and intelligence officers. Jan said that those links have not been broken by a change of policy in Islamabad.
"Pakistan is the one who gave birth to the (Taliban) movement and when they were defeated, they went back to their masters," he said.
As Operation Anaconda, the largest U.S.-led ground assault in the war on terror, wound down last week, several senior Afghan commanders said many of the Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters fled the Shah-e-Kot valley of eastern Afghanistan for safe havens across the nearby border in Pakistan.
"We know that Pakistan is helping the Taliban. That is why we need to protect our borders to stop their interference," he said.
Before Musharraf's shift, Pakistan was one of only three countries that recognized the Taliban as Afghanistan's government. During the five years of Taliban rule there were widespread allegations that Pakistan was giving money, weapons and fighters to the hard-line Islamic movement.
Even after the official break, thousands of Pakistanis heeded the call of hard-line Pakistani clerics and went to Afghanistan to fight the Americans and their allies in the opposition northern alliance, a collection of groups mostly representing ethnic and religious minorities.
The defense minister in the interim government, Gen. Mohammed Fahim, is a former northern alliance leader and an ethnic Tajik, while the Taliban was made of largely of Pashtuns.
As Taliban rule collapsed last fall under U.S. airstrikes and ground attacks by the northern alliance, Jan said, many Afghan members of the Taliban and foreigners in Al Qaeda found refuge in Pakistan.
To prevent them from returning across the 1,180-mile border, the Defense Ministry is moving to set up border patrols, Jan said. "We are urgently organizing the new army with special border units to patrol the eastern and southern borders with Pakistan," he said.
Pakistan says it has sent troops to its border to intercept Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters who try to cross and that the government will not tolerate known fugitives on its soil.
However, Pakistani officials acknowledge privately that it is difficult to find fugitives who receive shelter from tribes in border regions who share religious, ethnic and cultural bonds with Afghans — and in particular with Pashtuns.
Jan said he believed the number of Al Qaeda members still in Afghanistan was relatively small and that Afghan soldiers can root them out from their mountain hide-outs.
Jan also rejected U.S. concerns that Iran, which borders this country to the west, may also be harboring Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives and using ties with some Afghan warlords to destabilize the interim government — charges Iran denies.
"The United States has its own reasons for saying these things, but I don't think it's true," he said. "Iran has no interest in destabilizing this government."