Al Qaeda massing for new fight

Afghan spies say the group has two new bases in Pakistan and is acquiring missiles.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Three separate clashes with Al Qaeda fighters this week, including Wednesday's foiled attack inside the city of Kabul, point to the terrorist organization's resurgence in Afghanistan.

But there may be much more to come.

According to exclusive interviews with Afghan military intelligence chiefs in the eastern Afghan province of Kunar, Al Qaeda has established two main bases inside Pakistan – hundreds of miles north of where US and Pakistani troops are now hunting – and is preparing for a massive strike against the Afghan government. To blunt US air superiority, Al Qaeda forces are attempting to acquire surface-to-air missiles in China.

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"Al Qaeda has regrouped, together with the Taliban, Kashmiri militants, and other radical Islamic parties, and they are just waiting for the command to start operations," says Brig. Rahmatullah Rawand, chief of military intelligence for the Afghan Ministry of Defense in Kunar Province. "Right now they are trying to find anti-aircraft missiles that are capable of hitting Amer– ica's B-52 bombers. When they find those, they will bring them here."

Spokesmen for the American military operations in Afghanistan say they are able to confirm parts of the Afghan intelligence reports, and add that they are prepared for any possible Al Qaeda military offensive in the next few weeks or months.

"I can't say I have never heard these reports before about the areas you are mentioning," says Lt. Col. Roger King, spokesman for the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom at Bagram Air Base outside of Kabul. "Some parts of the intelligence reports and the locations you've described are similar to what we are hearing ourselves, and other parts are different." He declined to say which parts were similar and which parts were different.

The US is currently making sure it has enough troop strength in areas where Al Qaeda is deemed to be most active, he says.

"If you look back over time, you find there are two fighting seasons in this country," says Colonel King. "We're at the beginning of one, and the other ended in May."

A US soldier on patrol near the Pakistan border in Paktika Province was wounded by a sniper Wednesday night, and airlifted to a medical facility in Germany yesterday.

In Kunar Province, Afghan intelligence sources say that their reports were compiled this week, after Afghan spies, pretending to be Islamic radicals, infiltrated the two Al Qaeda camps in Pakistan. The report concludes that China itself may be involved in supporting the camps, either by tacitly allowing Islamic radicals of the ethnic Uighur minority in China's western Xinjiang Province to cross into Pakistan to join Al Qaeda, or overtly offering to provide Al Qaeda with antiaircraft missiles.

"That area, even though it is in Pakistan, is basically under the government of China," says Afghan Brigadier Rawand. "There is a possibility that the Chinese are also involved in this, and they may give Al Qaeda the missiles."

Military experts agree that the ability of Al Qaeda to shoot down American B-52 bombers would alter tactics and undermine US efforts in the Afghan war. It was the B-52s, together with precision-guided bombs and munitions, rather than troops on the ground, that destroyed the Taliban's defenses outside of Kabul and other strongholds and forced the Taliban and Al Qaeda to give up control of Afghanistan.

"The Americans are proud of their control of the air, but they don't take care of the ground," says Brig. Ghulam Haider Chatak, chief of military intelligence for the eastern zone of Afghanistan, which includes Kunar, Laghman, and Nangarhar provinces. "Now they could lose both."

Here in Kunar Province, a lush green region of fertile well watered valleys and tall forested mountains, US special forces carry out joint operations with local Afghan forces mainly along the major roads to Asadabad and within the capital itself.

Local military commanders, who report to the Ministry of Defense, complain that the Americans are working only with one warlord, Commander Zarin, and not with the official military units of President Hamid Karzai's government.

"Unfortunately, in the last six months, the international coalition forces haven't taken any bold steps against Al Qaeda," says Commander Mohammad Zaman, military chief of Kunar Province, under the command of the Afghan Ministry of Defense. "That's why Al Qaeda and the terrorists are all present here. They have only changed their outfits, from turbans to pukhols," floppy woolen hats favored by Afghan fighters in the Northern Alliance.

Arab radicals and Taliban supporters walk the street of the capital here, apparently without fear of capture, preaching their harsh version of Islam and calling for an uprising against American and other foreign troops supporting the Karzai government.

Bin Laden alive?

Meanwhile, intelligence sources say that just over the border in Pakistan, most of the top Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership, including Osama bin Laden himself, have been seen moving into northern Pakistan from the tribal belt south of the Afghan town of Tora Bora. Mr. bin Laden, the top Al Qaeda leader, was last seen three weeks ago in the Pakistani tribal city of Dir, about 45 miles east-northeast of Asadabad.

Osama's top lieutenant, Ayman Zawahiri, is now thought to be directing operations from Al Qaeda's newly built base in the village of Shah Salim, about 30 miles west of the Pakistani city of Chitral, near the border of Afghanistan's Kunar Province. The other base is in the Pakistani village of Murkushi on the Chinese border, about 90 miles north of the Pakistani city of Gilgit.

To fight a new war against American forces, Al Qaeda is reportedly broadening its base of support to include new like-minded members, including the Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Pashtun-dominated radical Islamist Hizb-I-Islami party.

Mr. Hekmatyar's party, which received substantial Saudi funding, CIA training, and Pakistani military support during the war against the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, still enjoys support in Kunar and other Pashtun-dominated provinces and is also the closest in ideological terms to the Taliban.

From exile in Iran last fall, Mr. Hekmatyar called on all Muslims to fight alongside the Taliban against any invasion of American forces.

With its renewed mission, Al Qaeda has taken on a new name, Fateh Islam, or Islamic Victory. Their battle plan, Afghan intelligence sources say, is to launch a massive attack on eastern Afghanistan, by crossing along the poorly defended mountainous border of Kunar Province, where opium and timber smugglers take their products out of Afghanistan either undetected or with the compliance of corrupt Afghan border officials.

On the streets of Asadabad itself, it's clear that Al Qaeda already has established a network of informers and preachers. In mosques and religious schools, Al Qaeda members have begun whipping up local anger against the US presence in Afghanistan, and the house-to-house searches in Kunar.

One Arab man, dressed in Afghan salwar kameez, but wearing the traditional white headdress of a Saudi preacher, was seen this week standing in the center of the main square of Asadabad, before being led away by two young religious students toward a local mosque.

Another man, who teaches primary school in Asadabad, told the Monitor there are plenty of Al Qaeda supporters in Kunar.

"I'm proud to be Al Qaeda," says Abdur Rahim, a soft-voiced man who studied Islam for 16 years at a hard-line Islamic seminary in Peshawar, Pakistan. "I'm 100 percent sure they will come back here. It will be very soon, and the Taliban were 100 times better than these warlords who rob us on the streets."

"The jihad is compulsory against the kaffirs [unbelievers], but we cannot fight against their planes," he adds. Speaking of American special forces based in Asadabad, he says, "These are infidels and they have destroyed our religion. Jews and Christians, all of them, we want Muslim forces, we don't want infidels."

As a crowd gathers, cautioning the Al Qaeda member to be quiet, Mr. Rahim becomes even more outspoken. "Everyone here feels like me, but some people have big hearts and others have little faith. These people are quiet because they have little faith."

Other Afghans seem more pragmatic. Mohammad Malang, a timber merchant in Asadabad's massive lumber market, says hundreds of Arabs came through Kunar late last year, after the bombing campaign began on the mountain hideout of Tora Bora, south of Jalalabad. Now, when he carries wood to the border of Pakistan on his logging truck, he sees plenty of Al Qaeda fighters coming and going through the Afghan checkposts.

"The Americans pay us money and we give them Al Qaeda," he says with a smile. "The Al Qaeda give us money and we give them shelter. Nowadays we are not giving them shelter because of the US troops here, but up there on the border, they are there right now up in the forests. They come and go and nobody stops them."

Even some border security officials admit that it would be easy for Al Qaeda to enter Kunar Province. "This is a long border, and we don't have enough forces to patrol it," says Wazir Mohammad Sadiq, deputy commander of checkpoints for the Kunar Border Security Force. "We need the Americans there. They only come once a month, and they never stay long. They just have a cup of tea, chat, and leave."

Haji Said Amin Khan, commander of a checkpost on the border, says that his men used to stop every car coming from Pakistan, but was ordered to stop this practice by Commander Jandad, the former governor of Kunar.

"We were told not to stop certain people, like armed men, and even now, people can come and go without questions," says Mr. Khan.

"But the problem is that we need thousands of men to patrol the border in Kunar. There are four main roads into Kunar, and we have checkposts on those roads, but there are lots of other smaller roads. Al Qaeda is not stupid enough to come on the main roads, so they take the other roads."

Commander Zaman, the military chief, says that his men are preparing for a long war against Al Qaeda, even if they have to continue fighting without any salaries or coordination with US forces.

"You can't defeat an ideology with a gun, so the best we can do is create a new ideology, and make people feel that we are making the situation better than before," he says. "If that works, that's great. But if not, then we already have our enemy and their guns here among us."

Afghan plea to US: 'Listen to us'

The vehicle was full of armed men who could have been friends, foes, or just another group of Afghan men out for a ride.

But what is certain is that when the vehicle encountered a checkpoint manned by US special forces soldiers on Tuesday night, a gunbattle broke out. US forces say one of the Afghans aimed his Kalashnikov at a US soldier and pulled the trigger. The Afghan's gun jammed, but US soldiers opened fire, killing all four of the Afghan fighters. None of the American soldiers was injured.

But the slain Afghans were friends, not foes. They were soldiers working for the Afghan military chief, the sons of a prominent tribal leader, and should never have been told by US soldiers to disarm, say local military commanders.

Even before the gunfight, tempers in Asadabad were on edge. On Monday, soldiers killed two men who fired at them from a hilltop.

And for the past two weeks, US special forces have been conducting house-to-house searches in this dusty frontier capital of Kunar Province near the Pakistan border, looking for heavy weapons and Al Qaeda supporters. According to top Afghan leaders here, the invasive procedures violate strong Pashtun traditions, which forbid outsiders to enter their homes and see their women.

Afghan merchants, political leaders, and military commanders say that local sentiments are turning sharply against the US forces here.

"So far the relationship with US forces here is just neutral, neither positive nor negative, but it's going in the negative direction," says Acting Gov. Haji Ali Rahman. "We hope the US forces will use their cleverness and change their tactics. But if they continue to search houses, even my own commanders will not work for me."

He smiles through his long grey beard. "The first revolt of the villagers will be against us, because we are the ones who brought the US forces here."

Public anger over the house searches has grown so much that Governor Rahman called an emergency meeting of tribal elders this week in Asadabad, where dozens of Pashtun leaders vented their anger at the Americans. Some leaders called for Afghan forces to stop cooperating with the US forces. This idea was quickly squelched, when the Afghan military chief of the province, Brig. Mohammad Zaman, pointed out that his troops – including the four men killed on Tuesday night – haven't even been asked to conduct joint operations with US forces in anti-Al Qaeda operations.

"Right now they are working with just one warlord, and they aren't getting any results except angering the people," says Brigadier Zaman. "They don't have to pay us, we will fight with our own guns, our own rations. But at least they should listen to us."

Instead, the US forces are working with Commander Zarin, a local warlord who was the first Afghan leader to help the US forces in Kunar Province in the buildup to the fall of the Taliban last November. US military spokesmen at Bagram airfield in Kabul say it is up to local US commanders to decide who to work with, and in many cases the US special forces continue to work with a local warlord they know rather than with leaders deployed by the Kabul government.

"This is a common statement that you hear from local military chiefs, 'Why aren't you working with us?'" says Lt. Col. Roger King, spokesman for the US military at Bagram. "In some cases, our forces have been working with local commanders, or warlords, long before the Ministry of Defense in Kabul was formed. We're in a transitional phase, and you may see some of that coordination shifting over to more official channels."

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