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.
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.
This week, Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said he would send at least two additional brigades to Afghanistan, drawing them from Iraq. That position reflects a long-held Democratic criticism that the Bush administration has focused too many resources on Iraq while neglecting what party leaders see as the central battle with Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan border areas.
In a speech he planned to deliver Tuesday, Senator Obama was to say, "The Taliban controls parts of Afghanistan, [and] Al Qaeda has an expanding base in Pakistan that is probably no farther from their old Afghan sanctuary than a train ride from Washington to Philadelphia.... And yet today, we have five times more troops in Iraq than Afghanistan."
The presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, is expected to offer his prescription for Afghanistan on Thursday. Senator McCain has held that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror and should not be allowed to slip back into an Al Qaeda haven. But his staff released talking points from a town-hall meeting he planned to hold Tuesday that suggest he would be open to boosting troop levels in Afghanistan.
"I think we need to do whatever is necessary (in Afghanistan) and that could entail more troops," McCain said in the advance release.
In the talking points, McCain notes that Obama was scheduled to deliver his plan for Afghanistan "before he has seen the progress in Iraq, and before he has set foot in Afghanistan for the first time." Obama is expected to visit both countries later this month.
"In my experience," McCain adds, "fact-finding missions usually work best the other way around: First you assess the facts on the ground, then you present a new strategy."
The domestic attention to Afghanistan, which rose as fast as a summer thunderstorm, follows Admiral Mullen's comment in Kabul last Thursday, "There are clearly more foreign fighters in the FATA than have been there in the past." He said "safe havens" in Pakistan are drawing the fighters – reflecting recent US intelligence that finds fighters from central Asia, the Gulf and other Middle Eastern countries, and North Africa are going to the remote tribal areas to join forces with the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Mullen's words were taken by some experts as a kind of wake-up call to US policymakers back home that there are urgent reasons within the objectives of the war on terror to pay more attention to Afghanistan.
"No doubt, the number of foreigners the two conflicts [in Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal areas] are importing into the area has been increasing, but Mullen's calling attention to that at this moment is significant," says Thomas Gouttiere, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. "He's saying we need to take a look at what's going on in Afghanistan with as much urgency as we have given" to Iraq.
The recent rise in attacks on US and other NATO forces and the Afghan forces they work with reflects in part the fact that topography and climate dictate that the Taliban act now before the onset of winter, Mr. Gouttiere says. Another factor is the arriving foreign fighters with their expertise in some cases.
Yet while some Afghanistan experts have speculated that Sunday's attack on the US outpost may have been aided by the local population, Gouttiere says there is also evidence that the Taliban and foreign fighters with them are carrying out their attacks because local populations are increasingly resisting their influence.
"We're at a point where Afghanistan policy is going to be set by the next administration now," Gouttiere says. That reevaluation, he says, "must take into account the local resistance we've seen to outside influences and the success of a community-based reconstruction approach."