ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The U.S. concern with Afghanistan has a lot to do with the situation across the border in Pakistan.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates testified on Capitol Hill today and he said, new terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe could be launched from al-Qaida sanctuaries in the mountains of Pakistan along the Afghanistan border. One of the key figures in that area is a tribal leader named Baitullah Mehsud.
As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, Mehsud has recently emerged from obscurity to become a major Taliban commander and an al-Qaida ally.
TOM GJELTEN: Until recently, Baitullah Mehsud was an unfamiliar figure even to those U.S. officials whose duty it is to know about people like him.
Robert Grenier was the CIA's chief of station in Pakistan until 2002 and then the director of the agency's counterterrorism center until 2006 - a job that regularly took him back to Pakistan. But Mehsud didn't merit much attention.
Mr. ROBERT GRENIER (Managing Director, Kroll, Inc.): He was somebody who's a local extremist leader of no great consequence and never had a particularly high profile.
GJELTEN: He's high profile now: the CIA's prime suspect in the assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto and believed to be working closely with al-Qaida.
The story of how Mehsud rose from his tribal base to that position of importance reveals much about the danger that the Taliban-al-Qaida alliance now represents.
First came Mehsud's transition from immediate tribal concerns to the religious extremism of the Taliban. Tom Gouttierre of the University of Nebraska has followed Taliban developments for more than 20 years. The key change in their outlook, he says, came when they came into contact with foreign Islamic fighters who came to the region first to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Mr. TOM GOUTTIERRE (Dean, International Studies & Programs; Director, Afghanistan Studies, University of Nebraska, Omaha): These were people who had more interest in being Islam than either Pakistani or Saudi or Egyptian or Afghan. And that was the whole thing. They were talking about no state allegiance. They were talking about, you know, allegiance to religion.
GJELTEN: The mountainous areas of Pakistan along the Afghan border have traditionally been largely self-governed, with tribal leaders in that area having most of the authority. Their concerns had mostly been local. But Baitullah Mehsud, believed to be in middle to late 30s, is of a new generation aligned with the religious extremism of the Taliban movement.
Robert Grenier says that in Mehsud's case, he's taken that evolution one step further. He's now allied with Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network based in Pakistan.
Mr. GRENIER: He sees himself as part of a worldwide movement and he concerns himself with what bin Laden is doing. He talks openly about the need to strike the Americans and the British not just in the region, but back in their home turf. This is not something that you would have expected from local militants in Pakistan five years ago.
GJELTEN: In December, Mehsud is named commander in chief of the whole Taliban movement in Pakistan. Under his influence, the Taliban forces there are now becoming much more closely allied with Islamist elsewhere.
Tom Johnson, a South Asia expert at the Naval Postgraduate School, has for several years been studying what he calls night letters - written notices that Taliban commanders post in the villages under their control. Something like instructions to the local population.
Professor TOM JOHNSON (South and Central Asia, National Security Affairs Department, Naval Postgraduate School): Within the last six months to a year, I've noticed a lot of traditional Jihadist terminologies. They started to talk about the international support with the Ummah, the Islamic community and the struggles in Palestine and the struggles in others parts of the Middle East and Iraq which you would never would have seen a number of years before.
GJELTEN: Baitullah Mehsud is believed to have 20,000 to 30,000 Taliban fighters, giving him effective control over his own territory in what is known as South Waziristan. He's therefore been able to offer a place for al-Qaida to establish training bases. In return, U.S. official say, al-Qaida provides him with money and military training. Again, Tom Johnson.
Prof. JOHNSON: Al-Qaida desperately needs an area to be able to train their operatives from; if it's in Iraq or this border area. Many of the major terrorist actions over the last year and a half, they've originated in Pakistan - from the London subway bombings to others. They need an area that they have some control over and I think that's what this ungoverned area of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border represents to them.
GJELTEN: For the United States and its allies, the challenge now is what to do about Baitullah Mehsud and his alliance with al-Qaida. The Pentagon has proposed that the U.S. military provide training and other forms of assistance to Pakistani troops to prepare them better to go after Mehsud. But the Pakistanis have been reluctant to go along. To complicate matters, the Taliban coalition under Mehsud's command today declared an indefinite ceasefire with the Pakistani military and the Pakistani government said it's preparing for peace talks. U.S. officials made clear they were not pleased by that development.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.