KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban fighters wearing suicide bomb vests hidden under police uniforms attacked a government building Sunday in eastern Afghanistan, triggering an hours-long gunbattle and killing six people, officials said.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack in Khost province in a text message to The Associated Press. The attack came a day after a Taliban suicide bomber slipped inside the capital’s main military hospital and killed at least six Afghan medical students — worrying reminders of militants’ ability to infiltrate locations thought to be secure.
Meanwhile, in the Pakistani village of Guli Badral, which is surrounded by forests and glacial streams just 35 miles from where Osama bin Laden was killed, people become uneasy when asked what goes on up the mountain. When pressed, they say it’s a secret training complex for Islamic militants and that the Pakistani army is aware of it — even though the army denies that it exists.
Accounts gathered by The Associated Press in the Ughi area of Mansehra district add to suspicion that Pakistan is playing a “double game” — that is, accepting U.S. aid to fight militants on the one hand but tolerating and in some cases even encouraging and harnessing the power of extremism on the other.
Three men who identified themselves as mujahedeen — militants — told the AP that the training complex is one of at least three in the region that between them house hundreds of recruits.
The mission, the three say, is aimed at taking recruits to Kashmir to fight Pakistan’s archenemy, India. But Kashmiri veterans have been known to join forces with al-Qaida and other terror groups, including those fighting the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The charges of Pakistani duplicity have gathered strength in the aftermath of the May 2 U.S. raid against bin Laden, who was hiding in the army town of Abbottabad and a short walk from a military academy. Pakistani officials have denied any collusion, but the country is now coming under renewed pressure to abandon its links to all Islamist militant networks.
When contacted by the AP last week, the army denied there are any training camps or any facilities hidden away in the Mansehra area. “The allegations are baseless,” said spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas.
But in Guli Badral, locals say both extremists and men they presume to be soldiers are a familiar sight in the village square, where they shop for meat, flour and beans before getting back into pickup trucks for the two-hour trip along a rough track to the training camp.
The three militants who spoke to the AP about the camps did not give their names and asked that the names of their organizations not be published. They said there’s an army checkpoint on the road leading to one of the larger camps, near the village of Khatai. Militants and villagers alike gave the same advice to an AP team: Do not attempt to get any closer. It’s too dangerous.
At least one of the militants appeared motivated to speak out because of anger at the army, which he said was no longer so supportive as it once was. Before 2001, Kashmiri-focused militant groups had offices across the country where they could openly recruit and allegedly received considerable state funds.
The man said the army was “putting up hurdles” to the group’s work, including briefly arresting some of its members. He gave no details.
But it’s widely believed that the army has been unwilling to go a step further and dismantle militant training camps and crackdown on the groups using them.
The reason: Pakistan’s obsession with neighboring India as an existential threat. The two countries have fought three wars since 1947 — two over Kashmir — and remain in a state of semi-hostility.
India has a larger army, so Pakistan views militants as a cheap and motivated force when needed.
Pakistan’s alleged harboring of Afghan Taliban factions is also related to its hostility toward India. Pakistan fears being encircled by India, and wants an Afghan regime hostile to New Delhi when U.S. troops eventually withdraw.
But this policy comes with a price.
Many of Pakistan’s former jihadi proxies have already turned against their former patrons in disgust at their collaboration with Washington after 9/11. Allied with al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban, they have carried out scores of suicide attacks within Pakistan.
The three militants who spoke to the AP said all the bases in Mansehra were training recruits for jihad in Kashmir, not Afghanistan. An essential part of that process is religious indoctrination, especially a willingness to kill — and die — for Islam, said Jamal, who visited Mansehra camps about a decade ago.
The camp near the village of Khatai houses a mosque big enough for 2,500 worshippers as well as dormitories and classrooms, according to one militant, who said his job is to deliver supplies like boots and jackets to the facility. He said firing exercises take place deeper inside the forest, where the recruits stay in tents.
In Sunday’s attack, four men armed with assault rifles and wearing explosives drove shortly before dawn into a compound that houses the provincial traffic department on the edge of Khost city, provincial Police Chief Gen. Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai said. Security forces stopped the men, who were wearing uniforms of the Afghan border police, only after becoming suspicious of the civilian station wagon they drove, he said.
Guards opened fire on the attackers, but the men were able to occupy the upper floor of the building, Ishaqzai said. The attackers shot at Afghan security forces from their vantage point as a fire raged through the structure. AP Television News video showed U.S. soldiers surrounding an outer wall and shouting orders as Afghan troops rushed toward the building, which was engulfed in smoke.
Two of the attackers detonated their bomb vests during the fighting, with one bomber killing two Afghan soldiers, said Gen. Raz Mohammad Oryakhail, the army commander for Khost province. Security forces shot and killed the other two attackers.
Three police officers and a gardener working at the site were also killed, Ishaqzai said. Five police officers, one soldier and one civilian were wounded.
Soldiers defused more explosives found inside the attackers’ station wagon.
The police chief said the Taliban attackers could have been stopped before taking the building had a guard’s assault rifle not jammed. The U.S. provided Afghan police with some of the Hungarian-made AMD-65 rifles, which have been criticized for their poor performance.
Meanwhile, U.S. forces in southern Afghanistan shot a governor’s spokesman in the foot Sunday as he arrived at work.
Spokesman Zalmai Ayubi said U.S. forces shot him as he arrived at the gate of the Kandahar governor’s office for no reason. Ayubi leaned on a cane as he spoke with reporters, his left foot bandaged.
In a statement to the AP, NATO forces confirmed the shooting, saying Ayubi had struggled with a guard as he “attempted to physically bypass security” at the office.
“In the ensuing altercation, the U.S. soldier’s rifle was discharged, hitting the spokesman in the foot,” NATO said.
Elsewhere in the east, a NATO service member was killed Sunday in a bomb attack, the alliance said. NATO did not provide details or the service member’s nationality.
A roadside bomb exploded Sunday in the southern province of Zabul, killing two people and wounding five others, the Afghan Interior Ministry said. Another roadside bomb exploded overnight in Kandahar city, killing one police officer and wounding three others, police said.
Taliban fighters remain able to get into fortified areas despite an expansion of checkpoints and security cordons by Afghan and NATO forces. It is not hard for them to get hold of security agency uniforms to use as disguises; they are available at shops across the country.
President Hamid Karzai’s office said security agencies had “arrested a number of people” on suspicion of taking part in Saturday’s hospital bombing in Kabul. It gave no details.
The effectiveness of the Taliban’s campaign will in part determine the size of President Barack Obama’s planned drawdown of American troops in July.
NATO has committed itself to handing over control of security to Afghans by 2014.
Also Sunday, the Afghan government submitted its proposal for a strategic partnership agreement to U.S. officials, the president’s office said. The compact, which has been in negotiations for months, aims to create a formal framework for the massive U.S. presence in the country. There currently is no bilateral agreement governing the U.S. military and civilian campaigns in Afghanistan.
Karzai has previously pledged to put strict conditions on the U.S. going forward, including rules for the conduct of soldiers, minimum funding levels and development priorities.
Waheed Omar, a spokesman for Karzai, declined to provide specifics on the draft.
“Our position is that whatever comes out of this strategic partnership agreement, it has to be binding,” Omar said.
The U.S. Embassy received the draft and was reviewing it, said Kerri Hannan, a spokeswoman for the embassy. She declined to comment further.
Associated Press writers Heidi Vogt in Kabul and Mirwais Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.