KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – A top Taliban commander said more than 200 rebel fighters were willing to become suicide attackers against U.S. forces and their allies — a claim dismissed as propaganda Monday by Afghanistan's government, which said the hard-line militia was weakening.
In an interview late Sunday with The Associated Press, the commander, Mullah Dadullah, ruled out any reconciliation with the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai and claimed the country's new parliament — its first in more than 30 years, inaugurated last week — was "obedient to America."
Dadullah spoke to the AP via satellite phone from an undisclosed location. He said he was inside Afghanistan.
"More than 200 Taliban have registered themselves for suicide attacks with us which shows that a Muslim can even sacrifice his life for the well-being of his faith. Our suicide attackers will continue jihad (holy war) until Americans and all of their Muslim and non-Muslim allies are pulled out of the country," he said.
Gen. Mohammed Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Defense Ministry, dismissed Dadullah's claims of rebel strength as "propaganda" and said Afghanistan had enough security forces to deal with the rebels.
"The Taliban are isolated. The Taliban have no power. They are using land mines and terror activities ... or suicide attacks. These kind of operations show they are not strong and that they are weak," Azimi told the AP.
The hard-line Taliban regime was toppled by U.S.-led forces in late 2001 when it refused to turn over Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden and stop offering a haven to the group following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States.
Dadullah, who lost a leg fighting for the Taliban during its rise to power in the mid-1990s, is one of the hard-line militia's top commanders, responsible for operations in eastern and southeastern Afghanistan — and as such, a man wanted by the U.S.-led coalition hunting Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.
The past year has seen an upsurge of violence in the volatile southern and eastern regions. More than 1,500 people have died nationwide, many of them rebels — the heaviest toll in the past four years.
In recent months there has been a spate of suicide attacks in Afghanistan, including one in Kabul in September outside an Afghan army training center that killed nine people. The attacks have fueled fears that the rebels could be adopting tactics used in Iraq.
In November, Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said intelligence indicated that a number of Arab Al Qaeda members and other foreigners had entered Afghanistan to launch suicide attacks, and a senior government official said 22 would-be suicide bombers were believed to be in the country waiting for orders to attack.
Dadullah implied that the Taliban and Al Qaeda were working together, and said mujahedeen from various parts of the world, including Arabs, were fighting in Afghanistan. He said the foreigners made up about 10 percent of the fighters.
"Both Taliban and Al Qaeda have the same objectives," he said, warning that anyone supporting the Americans and the government "will be dealt with."
U.S. military officials in Afghanistan could not immediately be reached for comment Monday on Dadullah's remarks.
In another sign that links between the Taliban and Al Qaeda have continued, a tape of AQaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri surfaced this month in which he praised the Taliban chief Mullah Omar. In the tape, al-Zawahri claimed the rebel leader had won back control of extensive areas of western and eastern Afghanistan, though government and U.S. officials say the Taliban's influence is in fact waning.
The United States has 19,000 troops in Afghanistan, but last week announced plans to withdraw 3,000 by next summer, as NATO, which heads of separate multinational security force, boosts its troop levels and expands its operations.
In the latest violence, a roadside bombing Monday in northern Baghlan province injured one Dutch and one British peacekeeper from the NATO force and two Afghan civilians. Local officials blamed the attack on an Islamic faction led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a renegade warlord allied with the Taliban.
A statement from the International Security Assistance Force said the attack "demonstrates that the enemies of Afghanistan harm innocent civilians, in their attempts to target those who operate in support of the legitimate government and national security forces."
In addition to the foreign troops, the Afghan national army has about 26,800 soldiers and there are about 55,000 national police.
Dadullah ruled out reconciliation and talks with Karzai's government, saying it "owed its existence" to non-Muslims, and to do so would amount to "joining Christianity and working for Christians."
"My talks with them will only be for their destruction and nothing else," he said.
Karzai has encouraged Taliban members to leave the extremist group, renounce terrorism and go through a formal reconciliation program. So far, several hundred rank-and-file members and some 50 senior officials have done so, including some who ran in September's parliamentary elections.