R E G I O N: Al Qaeda pushing foreign fighters back into Afghanistan
* Officials say terror network is providing training and support for Taliban comeback
ORGUN-E: Al Qaeda is pushing foreign fighters back into Afghanistan, in a bid to retake the battlefield from which it launched its seminal September 11 attacks against the United States four years ago, western and local sources say.
The nebulous terror network is providing training and support for a blood-soaked comeback by the Taliban, the Islamic regime deposed by US forces in the aftermath of 9/11 for harboring Al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden, they say.
“We really thought we had won, but we are seeing more and more fighters coming over the border from Pakistan and this presents a long-term security problem for us,” said a top Afghan official who declined to be identified.
Islamabad strenuously denies the charge, pointing out that it recently moved 9,500 extra troops along the border and has captured a string of key Al Qaeda operatives.
Regardless of where they come from, experts say the presence of foreign fighters amongst Taliban remnants in undeniable.
“We do feel that there is a foreign fighter presence in Afghanistan,” US military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jerry O’Hara said.
In 2005 the war-weary country has suffered a wave of violence unprecedented since the Taliban fell. More than 1,100 people have been killed in bomb blasts and shootings so far this year, compared with 850 for the whole of 2004.
Most of the dead are militants. But the US has lost 76 troops in operations linked with Afghanistan since January - around 50 of those by hostile fire - while Afghan officials, clerics and tribal elders have also been targeted.
US and Afghan officials were not long ago predicting the Taliban and Al Qaeda were a spent force here, after last October’s Afghan presidential elections passed with little bloodshed.
But with US forces already battling an Al Qaeda-linked insurgency in Iraq, analysts and officials suspect the organisation may be trying to open a “second front” in Afghanistan.
It is already proving a thorn in the side of international efforts to rebuild the country after a quarter century of war, and to prepare for landmark parliamentary elections which are due to take place next week.
While the carnage is far less intense than that in Iraq, there are many similarities in the way Afghanistan’s new crop of insurgents operate, officials say.
The Taliban, who enforced medieval Islamic laws across Afghanistan from 1996-2001, have sometimes in the past presented a shambolic and disorganised force.
But there has been a rise in suicide bombings, a tactic notoriously favoured by Iraqi insurgents and previously rarely seen in Afghanistan, while the militants’ roadside bombings are increasingly accurate.
“Fighters are coming in with better skills and we are seeing a transfer of skills from Iraq,” a Western security source in southern Afghanistan said on condition of anonymity. “The insurgency is much worse this year.”
Last month, Al-Arabiya television aired a video purportedly depicting foreign militants in Afghanistan, including Europeans, Arabs and others, preparing to attack US troops and Afghan officials.
“These foreign guys are pretty well-armed,” said a US paratrooper on patrol in Orgun-E, an area in southeastern Paktika province, where six US soldiers have died in the bloodiest year yet for the American military in Afghanistan.
“They have expensive weapons you can’t get in this country.”
The video went on to claim Al Qaeda’s responsibility for the worst blow ever suffered by the US military in Afghanistan, the shooting down of a giant Chinook helicopter in June that killed all 16 people on board.
While Afghanistan’s fledgling 30,000-strong army is using embedded trainers from the United States to hone their skills, experienced Islamic fighters from Iraq and elsewhere are doing the same for Afghan insurgents.
The militants “do have foreign nationals operating with them, but they are instructors. The operational leaders remain Afghan,” said Christian Willach, security coordinator for the Afghan Non-governmental Organisation Security Network.
Al Qaeda training camps which moved into Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan after the US invasion may now have crossed back after a crackdown on militants by Islamabad, he added.
The Western security source said there had been “an increase in foreign fighters: Chechens, Arabs, Middle Easterners”.
“We can see this from the dead bodies but also from the radio traffic we pick up in different languages,” he added. afp