Afghan minister says al-Qaida regroups
Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network is regrouping and preparing to bring Iraq-style bloodshed to Afghanistan, the defense minister said Friday, warning his country may face intense violence ahead of key legislative elections this fall.
Recent intelligence indicates the terror organization slipped about half a dozen Arab agents into Afghanistan over the past three weeks, including two who detonated themselves in suicide bombings against a packed mosque and a convoy of U.S. troops, Defense Minister Rahim Wardak told The Associated Press.
"It looks like there has been a regrouping of al-Qaida and they may have changed their tactics not only to concentrate on Iraq but also on Afghanistan," Wardak said in an interview over tea at his wood-paneled office next to the heavily guarded presidential compound.
"We do believe that we will have three months of very tough times," Wardak said. "The enemies of this nation will do everything they can to disrupt the (Sept. 18 parliamentary) elections."
Wardak's comments came a day after the outgoing U.S. ambassador warned at a Kabul news conference that militants were likely to try to subvert the legislative balloting.
"As we get closer to the elections, they are likely to intensify their efforts to ... derail the elections," said Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been tapped by President Bush to be the top U.S. diplomat in Iraq.
Referring to the infiltration of Arab fighters for al-Qaida, Wardak said: "We have gotten reports here and there that they have entered ¡ª at least half a dozen of them. The last report is that they came in just close to the time of the mosque attack."
That June 1 blast killed 20 mourners in Kandahar at the funeral of a moderate cleric who had been assassinated days earlier. The same day, a shoulder-launched, surface-to-air missile was fired at an American aircraft, but missed. On Monday, a suicide bomber drove up to a U.S. military vehicle in Kandahar and detonated himself, wounding four American soldiers.
Authorities recovered the head of the mosque attacker and said he appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent. Wardak said initial indications are that the second suicide attacker also was Arab.
U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Jerry O'Hara said Friday it would not be appropriate to comment on the attacks, which are still under investigation.
Wardak would not say where the al-Qaida fighters entered from, but other Afghan intelligence sources told AP that the men are believed to have crossed the border from Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province, and that more were on the way. Pakistan vehemently denies it is a sanctuary for al-Qaida or the Taliban.
The bombings represented a sea change in the tactics of the insurgency, now in its fourth year. Afghan Taliban fighters have rarely resorted to suicide attacks, a practice that is considered more common among Arab militants.
The defense minister said al-Qaida and the Taliban were receiving support from "regional powers" who were rattled by Afghanistan's request for a long-term U.S. and NATO presence, but he declined to single out any country in particular.
"There is no doubt that there are countries in this region that have their own designs, and have had from long ago, and they are always trying to exploit the vacuums that have been created here," he said.
Afghan officials often point the finger at Pakistan, where many Taliban and al-Qaida forces are still believed to take refuge, but Wardak said more than one country was involved, including some that did not border Afghanistan directly.
The defense minister said he did not know whether bin Laden had ordered the shift in tactics, but he doubted the terror mastermind was capable of day-to-day control of his forces.
"Al-Qaida, at the moment, based on our intelligence, has a more decentralized command and control," Wardak said. "There might have been a general instruction (from bin Laden), but I really doubt he is in daily command and control of events."
Bin Laden is believed to be hiding in the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan, though there has been no definitive report on his whereabouts in more than three years.
A purported Taliban commander, Mullah Akhtar Usmani, said earlier this week that bin Laden and Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar were alive and well but gave no details about their location. The speaker's identity couldn't be verified.
Wardak acknowledged that Afghan and U.S.-led coalition forces have suffered a setback in recent months in their efforts to end the insurgency.
At least 29 U.S. troops have died here since March ¡ª about half in a helicopter crash whose cause has not yet been determined ¡ª a significant upsurge in what was once a relatively painless conflict for Washington.
About 240 suspected rebels and three dozen Afghan soldiers and police were killed in that same period ¡ª undercutting U.S. and Afghan claims that the insurgency is all but finished.
"Logically, the (security) situation ought to be better than it is," Wardak said, adding that it may get even worse as the parliamentary vote nears.
While less high-profile than last year's presidential vote that won U.S.-backed Hamid Karzai a five-year term, the legislative election will be far harder to organize, with thousands of candidates and election workers spread out across the country.