The top U.S. general in eastern Afghanistan said Friday he saw "some very interesting movement" of insurgents across the border into Pakistan this spring, possibly to join Taliban militants battling government troops.
Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser's comments come amid concern in Washington and Islamabad that the buildup of 21,000 additional U.S. forces in Afghanistan may push Taliban militants into Pakistan, further destabilizing the border region in that country.
The Obama administration has declared eliminating militant havens in Pakistan vital to its goals of defeating al-Qaida and winning the war in Afghanistan.
Fighters have historically moved back and forth across the border to back Taliban insurgencies in both countries.
But Schloesser's remarks in an interview with The Associated Press suggested a larger transfer into Pakistan than has been seen previously, as the fighting between Pakistan's troops and the Taliban has intensified.
He suggested that most of the movement in the past has been from Pakistan into Afghanistan, calling the new development "an interesting movement backward."
He did not provide details or numbers of those heading toward Pakistan.
It is unclear to what extent the Taliban is moving to help militants in Pakistan or fleeing from U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Schloesser suggested that both factors could be at play.
Crossing the border
Pakistani officials have long complained that insurgents were crossing over the porous border from Afghanistan into Pakistan.
They have also expressed worries that the surge of U.S. troops into Afghanistan could lead to more militants crossing over into their country. Pakistani military officers say that Afghan, Tajik and Uzbek fighters are taking part in the current fighting in Pakistan's Swat Valley and in other border regions, but that the vast majority are Pakistani.
Schloesser, who commands American troops in eastern Afghanistan, suggested that some of the current movement may be intended to reinforce Taliban fighters in Pakistan.
"I would suppose that ... some of that movement is fighters going back to help their insurgent groups that are involved in fighting, for example in Bajur or the fighting that is occurring in Buner or in the Dir area or potentially even in Swat," Schloesser said.
Pakistani troops launched an offensive last month in the Swat region against militants who had pushed into the adjacent Buner district within 60 miles of the capital, Islamabad.
The army claims it has killed more than 1,000 militants and won back swaths of territory in Swat. But it faces stiff resistance. Earlier this year, Pakistan launched an offensive in the Bajur tribal area.
On the retreat?
Schloesser's troops helped the Pakistani offensive by trying to prevent militants from crossing from Afghanistan into Bajur.
The area under Schloesser's command includes the provinces of Nuristan, Kunar, Khost and Paktika, all with active insurgent groups, some supported from within Pakistan. It abuts most of Pakistan's volatile tribal areas, a region of high mountains.
The current movement of fighters into Pakistan could also partly be a result of pressure from the thousands of new U.S. troops that have joined the fight in Afghanistan this year, Schloesser said.
In Washington, the top U.S. military officer said Thursday he was concerned that the U.S. troop buildup to roust insurgents from Afghanistan could further destabilize Pakistan.
However, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the military planning is under way to try to avoid that.
Mullen said he believes the upcoming increase of 21,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan "is about right" for the new strategy of trying to quell the insurgency and speed up training of Afghan security forces.