The Taliban's Own Surge

All night, every night, an endless caravan of old cars and pickup trucks rolls through the dusty Pakistani town of Datta Khel in North Waziristan's lawless tribal area. The vehicles, headed for Afghanistan, are filled with jihadist recruits going to join the fight against U.S. forces; the insurgents come mostly from the numerous mud-walled compounds that serve as training-and-rest camps in the surrounding countryside, which locals say is controlled largely by Afghan and Pakistani militants. "I think at least one male from every family around here is going to Afghanistan," says a villager who asked to remain anonymous for his safety. "They seem to be going in the thousands and will set Afghanistan on fire."

The influx appears to be a conscious militant "surge" that's bigger than any similar seasonal movement in the past. The new fighters are intended to bolster Afghanistan's insurgent forces in the south, which will soon face the additional 30,000 combat troops that President Obama is dispatching to the contested region. This movement through North Waziristan is only part of the Taliban's buildup for the heavy combat that's expected in the months ahead. Thousands of veteran Afghan Taliban fighters and new Afghan recruits who have spent the winter in refugee camps in northwestern Pakistan or western Baluchistan province—or who have been undergoing religious and ideological training in madrassas scattered across Pakistan—are also making their way to the conflict zone. The Taliban may be increasing its forces to avoid a repeat of its February defeat in Marja, when Coalition troops drove out the jihadists.

According to the Pakistani military, there are 100,000 regular and paramilitary troops stationed along the border to stop the flow. These security forces man more than 900 small mud-and-rock outposts and roadside checkpoints along the frontier. Yet their efforts don't appear to be paying off. In the near-border towns of Miran Shah and Mir Ali, armed insurgents seem to be in charge. They hang out in the fly-blown restaurants and crude Internet cafés, drive around in green Ford Ranger pickup trucks stolen from the Afghan police, and openly carry weapons—all in the shadow of large Pakistani military encampments.

Signing up new recruits for the Afghan jihad isn't hard, says a senior Taliban operative, who agreed to talk to NEWSWEEK on condition of anonymity. Uneducated, unemployed tribal youths, angry at the American presence in the region and at the increase in U.S. drone-missile attacks on suspected terrorists, are easy marks for Taliban propaganda. "You can find many youths who will be ready to go in 20 minutes," says the operative. A Helmand district commander named Abdul Malik says the new recruits have bolstered the morale of local fighters: "Their presence gives us a big psychological boost."