SHAKTOI, Pakistan – A top Pakistani Taliban commander says he has sent thousands of fighters to neighboring Afghanistan to rebuff incoming U.S. troops, a claim that comes as a Pakistani army offensive is believed to have pushed many of his men to flee their main redoubt.
Waliur Rehman told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Monday night that the Pakistani Taliban remain committed to battling the army in South Waziristan tribal region, but that they are essentially waging a guerrilla war.
Rehman is a deputy to Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud, and the man in charge of the group's operations in South Waziristan.
"Since (President Barack) Obama is also sending additional forces to Afghanistan, we sent thousands of our men there to fight NATO and American forces," Rehman said. The Afghan "Taliban needed our help at this stage, and we are helping them."
Col. Wayne Shanks, a U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, called Rehman's comments "rhetoric" that were not to be believed.
"We have not noticed any significant movement of insurgents in the border area," he said.
Ishtiaq Ahmad, a professor of international relations at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, speculated the comments were just an attempt to worsen the already tense relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan.
"When the United States expects Pakistan to synchronize its own counterterrorism policy with the troop surge ... the militants issue these statements in an attempt to create problems in this relationship," said Ahmad.
Either stance is nearly impossible to independently verify. Access to the tribal belt, especially conflict zones, is severely restricted. Pakistani army spokesmen could not immediately be reached for comment.
Rehman spoke in a large mud-brick compound in the Shaktoi area of South Waziristan.
He looked relaxed as a he sat on a carpet surrounded by seven rifle-toting guards and Azam Tariq, a Taliban spokesman. It was apparently the first time either he or Hakimullah Mehsud had given an in-person interview to a journalist since the Pakistani military launched the ground offensive on Oct. 17.
To meet Rehman, the AP reporter traveled to North Waziristan's town of Mir Ali and from there was taken by Taliban militants on a six-hour ride to South Waziristan in a vehicle with tinted windows.
The army sent some 30,000 troops to battle as many as 10,000 militants in South Waziristan, including hundreds of Uzbek fighters. The military estimates it has killed around 600 Taliban fighters. Rehman claimed he'd lost fewer than 20 fighters.
But many of the Pakistani Taliban militants are believed to have fled to other parts of the tribal belt, a semiautonomous stretch of rugged territory that runs along the Afghan border. Most were believed to have gone to North Waziristan, Orakzai and Kurram tribal areas.
The military has launched airstrikes in the latter two regions in recent weeks, and a full offensive might be in the works there.
Rehman, considered to be the strategic brains behind the Pakistani Taliban, said most of his fighters had reached Afghanistan and that he didn't need that many insurgents to take on the military in South Waziristan.
He said Hakimullah Mehsud was "not far away" and safe. Hakimullah Mehsud took over the extremist network in August after a U.S. missile strike killed former commander Baitullah Mehsud.
Earlier this week, fliers signed by Mehsud appeared in North Waziristan warning Taliban fighters taking refuge there not to cause problems. It appeared to be an attempt to keep peace with other militants in that region — some of whom have truces with the government.
"The claims of sending thousands of warriors into Afghanistan and the circulation of such leaflets to appease the warriors in North Waziristan are basically a reflection of increasing desperation of the Pakistani Taliban as it comes under increasing pressure from our security forces," said Ahmad, the international relations professor.
Rehman also said his group would stop attacking Pakistani forces if the country would sever its ties with the United States, a somewhat more moderate stance compared with his proclamation in a video he recorded before the South Waziristan operation that the group would fight until it set up an Islamic state in Pakistan.
Since October, militants have launched numerous attacks throughout Pakistan in a wave of violence that has killed more than 500 people, many of them civilians.
"We would again become Pakistan's brother if Pakistan ends its support for America," he said. He claimed that the Taliban only attacked security forces and disavowed any strikes on civilian targets.
Rehman urged President Barack Obama to focus on shoring up the beleaguered U.S. economy. "He should know that Americans don't want war," Rehman said. "He should use this money for the welfare of his own people."
He further claimed that Usama bin Laden was safe and alive, but that he had never met the al-Qaida chief in person. Pakistani officials have long cast doubt on suggestions that bin Laden is hiding in the tribal belt.
"I know he is in touch with his people and he is communicating with them to convey his instructions," Rehman said.