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Afghan fight drawing foreign jihadis

They seem to be moving from Iraq to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 16, 2008

Taliban militants: They take a defensive position in Ghazni Province in the eastern part of Afghanistan.

Rahmatullah Naikzad/AP

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This week's brazen and deadly attack on a US-Afghan outpost in an area near the Pakistani border is raising new concerns that foreign fighters bent on fighting the West are retraining their sights from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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Sunday's predawn assault on the still-unfinished camp left nine US soldiers dead and was the worst single toll for US forces in Afghanistan since 2005. It came only a few days after the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, said on a visit to Kabul that more foreign fighters are arriving in Pakistan's tribal areas just across the border.

From there, he said, the foreign fighters, which intelligence has revealed includes members of Al Qaeda, can join Taliban forces in Afghanistan to launch attacks – like Sunday's – against US and Afghan forces.

US officials caution that the number of foreign fighters streaming into the border region near Afghanistan is still relatively small. But coupled with intelligence finding that fewer foreign fighters are seeking to enter Iraq, as well as with postings from jihadist websites exhorting would-be foreign fighters to take up the fight in Afghanistan, the arrivals suggest that Islamist extremists are adjusting their international fight to hit the United States and the West where they perceive them to be weakest.

Despite the apparently growing presence of imported fighters, a resurgent Taliban controlling a growing swath of Afghan territory is still the most significant factor in Afghanistan's mounting instability, some analysts say.

"Foreign fighters do make a difference, and it's important to note their increase and the role they play, particularly in correlation to Al Qaeda," says Anthony Cordesman, a prominent expert on the Iraq and Afghanistan war efforts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "On the other hand, characterizing the problem in Afghanistan as driven by foreign fighters does not track with evidence from the ground."

In fact, the influence of events and conditions across the border in Pakistan is so crucial that the war is now essentially "an Afghanistan-Pakistan conflict," Mr. Cordesman says – not just the war in Afghanistan as it is commonly called.

Attacks in eastern Afghanistan, which borders Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, are up 40 percent this year, according to US military sources. June was the deadliest month for US and NATO forces in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion that toppled the Taliban government. And US fatalities in Afghanistan in both May and June topped those in Iraq, as conditions there have quieted and Al Qaeda-affiliated forces appear to have been routed.

That combination of lower violence in Iraq and rising attacks in Afghanistan is prompting the Bush administration to consider additional troop drawdowns in Iraq to free up more forces for what some in the military have dubbed the "forgotten war." Officers in Afghanistan have warned for months that they need more than the 32,000 US troops there.

US military officials have suggested a need for three more brigades in Afghanistan – a rise of about a third, or about 10,000, over the current troop level.