A top Pakistani Taliban commander told The Associated Press he has sent thousands of fighters to neighboring Afghanistan to counter the influx of new American troops.
The U.S. military on Wednesday dismissed the claim as mere rhetoric _ although there's no denying that militants from various jihadi groups are crossing the border. Analysts also expressed skepticism, saying the Pakistani Taliban remained focused on fighting at home, where they are under siege from the Pakistan army.
The claim from Pakistani Taliban deputy chief Waliur Rehman's could be an attempt to exacerbate tension between the U.S. and Pakistan, as President Barack Obama presses a reluctant Islamabad to prevent militants from staging cross-border attacks against coalition troops in Afghanistan.
"Since Obama is also sending additional forces to Afghanistan, we sent thousands of our men there to fight NATO and American forces," Rehman told AP in a face-to-face interview Monday night in Shaktoi, South Waziristan, part of Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal area near the Afghan border.
The Afghan "Taliban needed our help at this stage, and we are helping them," said Rehman, deputy to Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud.
Pakistan's army invaded the Taliban's stronghold of South Waziristan in October. It claims to have killed hundreds of militants and pushed thousands more out of that lawless region. Most are believed to have moved to neighboring tribal regions in Pakistan's northwest.
The bearded Rehman, sitting on a carpet in a large mud-brick compound and surrounded by seven rifle-toting guards, said the Pakistani Taliban remained committed to battling the army in South Waziristan but was essentially waging a guerrilla war and didn't need that many fighters.
Yet the U.S. military said there was no evidence on the ground to support Rehman's claim that thousands of his fighters had gone to Afghanistan.
"We have not noticed any significant movement of insurgents in the border area," said Col. Wayne Shanks, a U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan.
The conflicting claims are nearly impossible to independently verify, and Pakistani army spokesmen could not be reached for comment.
Access to Pakistan's tribal area is severely restricted. To meet Rehman, the AP reporter traveled first to neighboring North Waziristan _ also a major militant hub _ and then was escorted by Taliban militants on a six-hour ride in a vehicle with tinted windows.
Turning its focus toward Afghanistan would be a major shift for the Pakistani Taliban, which has concentrated on battling the Pakistani government with scores of suicide bombings that have killed more than 500 people since the military launched its South Waziristan operation two months ago.
Ishtiaq Ahmad, a professor of international relations at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, expressed doubt that such a shift had occurred and instead speculated Rehman was trying 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.
Obama announced earlier this month that the U.S. will send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan by fall of next year. The White House has also made a renewed push to get Pakistan to expand its military offensive beyond the Pakistani Taliban to target militants launching attacks on troops in Afghanistan, including fighters linked to longtime resistance fighter Jalaluddin Haqqani.
The Pakistani government has resisted, saying the military already has its hands full battling the Pakistani Taliban and can't afford to open up a second front.
Many analysts believe the Pakistani government's reluctance to target the Afghan Taliban is also driven by a view that the group, with which it has historical ties, could serve as a useful proxy if the U.S. and NATO fail in Afghanistan and eventually withdraw.
Mohammed Amir Rana, an expert on militant groups at the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, said Rehman's comments could also be an attempt to improve the image of the Pakistani Taliban at home, where many people have supported the military's operations because of growing violence in the country.
"The benefit he may hope to get is to transform public opinion ... by showing that we are not fighting here, we are fighting against NATO and the U.S," said Rana.
Although Rehman appeared relaxed, his militant movement is under unprecedented pressure.
The Pakistan army push into South Waziristan has involved some 30,000 troops, fighter planes and heavy weaponry.
Earlier this week, fliers signed by Mehsud appeared in North Waziristan, where some of his fighters have sought sanctuary, warning them 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.
Associated Press writers Jim Heintz in Kabul and Nahal Toosi and Sebastian Abbot in Islamabad contributed to this report.