Al Qaeda is taking a greater role in coordinating the Taliban and other Islamist militant groups operating in Afghanistan's volatile border region with Pakistan, a top U.S. commander said yesterday.
U.S. military officials are concerned the activity is part of an ongoing effort to escalate violence in Afghanistan against U.S.-led NATO forces as attacks in Iraq subside.
Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez, top commander of NATO troops in the eastern region of Afghanistan that borders Pakistan, told Pentagon reporters in a video link that "they're cross-fertilizing their tactics, techniques and procedures and also again getting resourcing mainly from al Qaeda, who is the central player in the terrorism equation."
Gen. Rodriguez said the militant Islamic groups include Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, a Pakistani armed movement associated with Islamist cleric Maulana Fazlullah; Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, another group linked to a Pakistani militant, and Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Concerns regarding al Qaeda's expansion come at a time when top commanders are stressing the need to reduce extended deployments of troops.
Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, told a Senate panel yesterday that Army troops are under serious strain from extended deployment because of seven years of fighting in Afghanistan and five years of battle in Iraq.
"The cumulative effects of the last six-plus years at war have left our Army out of balance, consumed by the current fight and unable to do the things we know we need to do to properly sustain our all-volunteer force and restore our flexibility for an uncertain future," Gen. Casey said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, pressed the commanders asking, "When are you going to return to the 12 months deployment?"
Gen. Casey insisted it was a top priority of the Army and said, "If Gen. Petraeus is able to execute the announced plan of getting to 15 brigades by July, it would be our goal at that point to return to 12 months versus 15 months."
Army Secretary Pete Geren, who testified alongside Gen. Casey, told the Senate that the current "stop loss" policy, which keeps soldiers beyond their extended deployment, is at 8,000 troops.
Mr. Geren said troops under the stop-loss policy will go as "low as 7,000, but we don't expect it to go much lower than that over the course of this fiscal year," depending on brigade reductions.
Gen. Casey also emphasized that the future war against terror is expected to be decades "of persistent conflict ... of protracted confrontation among state, non-state and individual actors who are increasingly willing to use violence to achieve their political and ideological objectives."