Gulbuddin Hekmatyar announced that his Hezb-i-Islami militia forces have allied with al Qaeda and the remnants of the Taliban in a jihad to expel foreigners from Afghanistan, according to a statement forwarded by the Afghan Islamic Press news agency in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Dec. 26. All three groups have shown little compunction in harassing U.S. and allied forces on their own, but if they are able to coordinate action, they could make efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and rid it of militant extremists much more difficult. To make matters worse, The Associated Press reported in November that Pakistan's InterServices Intelligence agency (ISI) helped broker the deal that united these groups. The allegation has been repeated since then, in Afghanistan and abroad: The London Sunday Telegraph reported that as long ago as April, the ISI held a meeting in Quetta, Pakistan, with Hekmatyar, al Qaeda representatives and Taliban ministers. According to the Telegraph, this meeting occurred with the full knowledge of Western intelligence services, which could do nothing about it. The United States relies heavily on Islamabad in its efforts to round up al Qaeda members in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Western press recently has been flooded with complaints by U.S. intelligence officials that Islamabad has been duplicitous and weak in its cooperation. If the ISI is succeeding in brokering deals of this sort, it appears cooperation is in effect nil — and the United States is flying blind in Afghanistan. Or, worse, al Qaeda now has a line into U.S. intelligence activities via Hekmatyar and the ISI. On one level, nothing has changed significantly in the constellation of hostilities in Afghanistan. The ISI worked closely with Hekmatyar from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan until it abandoned him in favor of the ascendant Taliban. The United States worked closely with him against the Soviets as well, as did the "Afghan Arab" volunteers sent to the region by Osama bin Laden and others. Hekmatyar has been a spoiler since the Soviet withdrawal — attacking the various iterations of Afghan government, including the Taliban, who drove him into exile in Iran. Now he's back, attacking U.S. forces and the U.S.-backed government in Kabul — no surprise. He reportedly receives aid from Iran and now has linked back up with his old friends the ISI, his old compatriots in al Qaeda and his erstwhile competitors, the Taliban. The enemies of his enemy are his friends. Again, no surprise. There are two questions, though. First, on a macro level, is a question of timing. The United States apparently is pushing forward with plans for an attack on Iraq. A new Iraq campaign would provide an optimum time for an escalation in attacks by al Qaeda. At best, from al Qaeda's perspective, they could divert U.S. forces and delay a war. At worst, they could score public relations points as being among the few Muslims to stand up to U.S. aggression against fellow Muslims in Iraq. It is unclear if this new alliance with Hezb-i-Islami is part of al Qaeda preparations for such a counterstrike, or just how much additional capacity it lends to bin Laden's group. Hezb-i-Islami is by no means the largest Afghan faction, but with support centered around Jalalabad, it occupies strategic territory. If the militia forces can coordinate their activities with al Qaeda and the Taliban, they could multiply their effectiveness. On another level, the reported merger and ISI's role in it may not be quite the disaster it at first appears. Hekmatyar is familiar: Washington knows and understands Hezb-i-Islami and its members much better than it does either the Taliban or al Qaeda. The United States worked closely with Hezb-i-Islami, and so did Pakistan. Even Iran knows a bit about Hekmatyar and might be enticed to share that knowledge. Also, Hezb-i-Islami reportedly is fragmenting, with elements of the group seeking a role in the new pro-Western Afghan government and potentially willing to provide information on their former allies. And for all the teeth-gnashing about U.S. impotence in the face of ISI duplicity — and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's reluctance and compromise as he struggles in a sea of radical Islamists — Washington is still cooperating with the ISI, and Musharraf is still president. U.S. intelligence officials might be desperate, but they're not idiots, so the ISI can't be completely hostile. In one take, the United States knew of a meeting between senior Taliban and al Qaeda members, Hekmatyar and hostile ISI elements and could do nothing to stop it. In another, the United States had a range of options, from Special Forces to B-52s, and chose not to use them. Is Washington perhaps protesting too much? Al Qaeda and the Taliban are now allied with Hezb-i-Islami. Where much was unknown, U.S. intelligence now has people to follow — threads to pull. Hezb-i-Islami is marked, and whether it or the ISI intends to assist Washington, the militia provides a potential window into the more opaque groups. Things still could go wrong. Hekmatyar is anything but predictable. Al Qaeda is anything but stupid. And the window opens both ways. But an opportunity exists: Provided U.S. forces can weather the combined effectiveness of al Qaeda, the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami, they just might be able to profit from their enemies' alliance.