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Taliban Pouring Into Afghanistan

Taliban fighters, paid and trained by al Qaeda, are pouring into Afghanistan from Pakistan, the top American commander in Afghanistan said Sunday.

Lt. Gen. John Vines said the Taliban were trying to regroup and regain control of the country they ruled until ousted by the United States in late 2001. His comments to reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld were the first confirmation from a top U.S. military official of reports of a Taliban resurgence out of Pakistan into Afghanistan.

American, Afghan and coalition forces have responded with military operations against the radical Islamic fighters. As many as 200 Taliban have been killed this week alone, Vines said.

"They have been attempting to (regroup) for nine months," Vines said. "Every time, we've disrupted them, we've interdicted them, we've denied them sanctuary, and we've killed them."

The most intense fighting in Afghanistan in a year has come during what the U.S. military calls Operation Mountain Viper. Starting in late August, teams of American troops and local Afghan militia have pounded Taliban fighters in the mountains of Zabol province south of the capital, Kabul.

Vines said perhaps as many as 1,000 Taliban were in and around the area. They are among Taliban fighters who have either hidden out in Afghanistan or crossed into Afghanistan from Pakistan, Vines said.

"They're attempting to regain power," Vines said. "They've been attempting to do that for a year and a half."

American military officials have indications the recent Taliban resurgence is spurred in part by operatives of the al Qaeda network, who have been giving the Taliban training and funding, Vines said. Apparently frustrated with the Taliban's lack of success, their al Qaeda sponsors have urged the Taliban on or risk losing al Qaeda's support.

Vines called it a "use it or lose it" ultimatum from Osama bin Laden's network.

Three American soldiers have died in Afghanistan in the past month, two in a gunbattle with Taliban militants near the border with Pakistan. The other died in a fall from a helicopter during a Mountain Viper operation.

Rumsfeld and Vines said the Taliban are not a serious threat. The defense secretary said this week the Taliban's regrouping gave the U.S. an advantage, since larger groups of Taliban fighters are easier to find and attack.

Vines said he sees no reason to dispatch more soldiers into Afghanistan. About 8,500 Americans are among the 11,500 international troops in Afghanistan. Separately, 5,000 troops under NATO command act as peacekeepers in Kabul.

Still, an administration official, speaking Sunday on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the Taliban and al Qaeda pose the most serious threats to the government of interim Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Rumsfeld met with Karzai Sunday and told him the United States plans to increase significantly its spending to reconstruct the country. U.S. officials have said President George W. Bush is considering an additional US$1 billion in spending on rebuilding Afghanistan, roughly double the current level.

Karzai, in a news conference with Rumsfeld outside the presidential palace, spoke of the Taliban threat with a defiant tone.

"We will be working together to fight terrorism to the very end," Karzai said. "This is not something we are going to be soft on, even for a fraction of a second."

Karzai said he speaks frequently with Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, about the problem of Taliban and other terrorists crossing into Afghanistan.

"He promised everything would be done to stop it," Karzai said. "We hope this cooperation will increase." Vines said he, too, was in frequent contact with his counterparts in Pakistan.

Border security is a touchy subject between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Though Pakistan joined the anti-terrorism coalition shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, it previously had been a longtime backer of the Taliban.

Some Afghans have said Pakistani officials still sympathetic to the Taliban have allowed the group to operate in the remote and largely lawless area along the border with Afghanistan.

Rumsfeld touted the progress Afghanistan has made since the Taliban's ouster. He visited a U.S. "provincial reconstruction team" in Gardez, in a mountain valley south of the capital.