- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 10, 2002

ASADABAD, Afghanistan Three separate clashes with al Qaeda fighters this week, including a foiled attack inside the city of Kabul, point to the terrorist organization's resurgence as a force inside Afghanistan.

There may be much more to come.

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

"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," said 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 America'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 are prepared for any 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," said Lt. Col. Roger King, spokesman for the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom at Bagram Air Base outside 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 were which.

The U.S. force is making sure it has enough troop strength in areas where al Qaeda is deemed to be most active, he said.

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

A U.S. 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 Thursday.

In Kunar, Afghan intelligence sources said their reports were compiled this week, after Afghan spies, pretending to be Islamic radicals, infiltrated the two al Qaeda camps in Pakistan. The report concluded that China might 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 anti-aircraft missiles.

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

Military analysts agree that the ability of al Qaeda to shoot down American B-52 bombers would alter tactics and undermine U.S. 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 fundamentalist Taliban regime's defenses outside 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," said 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."

In the province of Kunar, a lush region of green valleys and tall, forested mountains, U.S. 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, Cmdr. 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," said Cmdr. Mohammad Zaman, military chief of Kunar, under the command of the Afghan Ministry of Defense. "That's why al Qaeda and the terrorists are all present here."

Arab radicals and Taliban supporters walk the streets 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 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. 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, the sources said.

Bin Laden's top lieutenant, Ayman Zawahiri, is 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 with Kunar. 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 reportedly is broadening its base of support to include like-minded allies, including the Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Pashtun-dominated radical Islamist Hizb-I-Islami party.

With its renewed mission, al Qaeda operatives have taken on a new name, Fateh Islam, or Islamic Victory. Their battle plan, Afghan intelligence sources say, is to mount a massive attack on eastern Afghanistan by crossing along the poorly defended mountainous border of Kunar, 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, it is clear that al Qaeda has established a network of informers and preachers. In mosques and religious schools, al Qaeda members have begun whipping up local anger against the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and the house-to-house searches in Kunar.

One Arab man, dressed in traditional Afghan clothes but wearing the characteristic 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, said in an interview that Kunar has plenty of al Qaeda supporters.

"I'm proud to be al Qaeda," said 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 [unbelievers], but we cannot fight against their planes," he added.

Speaking of American Special Forces based in Asadabad, he said, "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, 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."

Even some border security officials say it would be easy for al Qaeda to enter Kunar.

"This is a long border, and we don't have enough forces to patrol it," said Wazir Mohammed 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."

Cmdr. Mohammed Zaman, the military chief, says his men are preparing for a long war against al Qaeda, even if they have to continue fighting without any salaries or coordination with U.S. 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 said. "If that works, that's great. But if not, then we already have our enemy and their guns here among 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.

What was certain was that when the vehicle encountered a checkpoint manned by U.S. Special Forces soldiers Tuesday night, a gunbattle broke out. U.S. forces said one of the Afghans aimed his Kalashnikov rifle at an American soldier and pulled the trigger. The Afghan's gun jammed, but U.S. 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 never should have been told by U.S. soldiers to disarm, said 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.

For the past two weeks, U.S. Special Forces have been conducting house-to-house searches in this dusty frontier capital of Kunar near the Pakistan border, looking for heavy weapons and al Qaeda supporters. Top Afghan leaders say the invasive procedures violate strong Pashtun traditions, which forbid outsiders to enter their homes and see their women.

Public anger over the house searches has grown so much that Gov. 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 U.S. forces. This idea was squelched quickly when the Afghan military chief of the province, Cmdr. Zaman, pointed out that his troops including the four men killed Tuesday night hadn't even been asked to conduct joint operations with U.S. forces in anti-al Qaeda operations.

"This is a common statement that you hear from local military chiefs, 'Why aren't you working with us?'" said Col. King, spokesman for the U.S. 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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