Al Qaeda coming back to Afghanistan: Report

Reports say al Qaeda militants are setting up bases in eastern Afghanistan.

Last Updated: Apr 07, 2011, 08:37 AM IST

Washington: Al Qaeda militants are returning to eastern Afghanistan and setting up bases for the first time in years, exploiting a withdrawal of US troops in the area, US media reported on Wednesday.

The trend has alarmed US officials who had seen al Qaeda as a seriously weakened force in Afghanistan with only a couple of dozen fighters on the ground, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing unnamed US, Afghan and Taliban sources.

In September, the United States bombed an al Qaeda training camp in the Korengal valley, killing two senior al Qaeda figures, a Saudi and Kuwaiti, the NATO-led coalition told the Journal. One of Saudi Arabia`s most wanted militants was also reportedly killed in the strike by US fighter jets.

The bombing raid illustrated the revival of al Qaeda in Afghanistan that has occurred over the past six to eight months, just as the US military has pulled troops back from remote eastern outposts that had been deemed strategically irrelevant.

Instead, US and coalition commanders have said they want to focus their troops on populated areas in the east while handing over security duties in more rural areas to Afghan forces.

US officers expected the Taliban to move out of the areas to fight the coalition elsewhere. But the militants have stayed put, a senior US military officer told the paper, and "al Qaeda is coming back”.

The Pentagon declined to comment on the newspaper report but a US defence official said the reappearance of al Qaeda had not come as a surprise.

"It`s not like we didn`t anticipate that would happen when we pulled back," the defence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.

US forces are also in a much better position to attack al Qaeda on the Afghan side of the border, the official said, rather than having to rely on drone strikes or the Pakistani military.

"It`s not necessarily all a bad thing, in terms of our ability to get them," the official said.

The newspaper report said it was unclear how many al Qaeda fighters had moved back to Afghanistan, but that the militants were operating in Kunar province, Nuristan province and parts of Nangarhar province, home to the city of Jalabad and a key route from Pakistan.

There was a debate in the military and intelligence agencies as to the scale of the threat posed by al Qaeda in the east, with some arguing that the militants could not operate easily with US-led forces so close, the report said.

To hit back at al Qaeda, coalition forces are making regular forays to search out the militants in eastern valleys and US special operations forces also were carrying out covert manhunts, the paper reported.

The top NATO and US commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, has expanded the role of special forces as part of a bid to turn the tide in the war, with a 7,000-strong contingent targeting al Qaeda and Taliban militants.

Bureau Report