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Facing Afghan mistrust, al-Qaeda fighters take limited role in insurgency

The war in Afghanistan began on Oct. 7, 2001, as the U.S. military launched an operation in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. The war continues today.

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"The numbers aren't large, but their ability to help local forces punch above their weight acts as a multiplier," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and Georgetown University professor. "They've learned from their previous experiences, when their foreign fighters were front and center."

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In Iraq, he noted, al-Qaeda figures from elsewhere alienated the locals by trying to hijack that insurgency.

U.S. military officials say al-Qaeda recognizes the same risk in Afghanistan. Taliban leaders often see al-Qaeda, their erstwhile ally, as "a handicap," according to an unclassified briefing presented in December by Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, the top U.S. military intelligence officer in Afghanistan.

Although Taliban commanders want support from al-Qaeda and jihadists around the world, according to Flynn, they are sensitive to the idea that ordinary Afghans might view it as foreign interference.

That balancing act has resulted in a limited, if steady, flow of foreign fighters. Most are Uzbeks and Chechens who join networks affiliated with, but not formally part of, al-Qaeda, U.S. military officials said. Less common are Arabs and European Muslims who answer al-Qaeda's direct call to join the jihad in Afghanistan.

One indicator of the presence of foreign fighters can be found at the U.S. military's new Parwan prison at Bagram air base.

Vice Admiral Robert S. Harward, commander of U.S. detention operations in Afghanistan, said fewer than 50 of the 950 prisoners come from outside the country. Of those, about three-quarters are Pakistanis. He said fighters from outside Central Asia are rare: "This is a very local fight."

Concentrated in the east

A review of the leaked U.S. military reports suggests that Arab fighters -- those most likely to be affiliated with al-Qaeda -- generally confine their activities to a handful of Afghan provinces along the Pakistan border. When they cross the line, the Arabs usually do so in small numbers and as part of larger Taliban units.

In June 2007, for example, a U.S. Army brigade combat team reported receiving information about a band of 60 Taliban insurgents, including six Arabs and two Iranians, massing on a mountaintop in Khost province. Also that month, in Paktika province, one Arab and two Pakistan fighters were killed after a larger Taliban group attacked a U.S. outpost in the Bermal district.

In November 2009, a patrol of Afghan soldiers and police led by U.S. forces reported an early evening ambush in Kunar province. A small group of insurgents planted a roadside bomb and attacked the patrol with small-arms fire. The patrol did not suffer casualties in the firefight, but they killed one of the enemy and recovered his cellphone. The patrol's report highlighted how their interpreter turned on the phone and found that "everything was in Arabic."

Analysts said other evidence confirms that al-Qaeda's presence in Afghanistan is concentrated in the east, just across the border from where the network's leadership is based in Pakistan's tribal areas.

Between 2005 and 2009, al-Qaeda's online propaganda arm produced a series called "Pyre for the Americans in the Land of Khurasan." (Khurasan is an ancient term referring to Afghanistan and other territory in Central Asia.) Of the 90 videos in the series, which contained purported scenes of Afghan battles and ambushes, 56 were filmed in three eastern provinces -- Kunar, Paktika and Khost -- that border the Pakistani tribal areas, according to Anne Stenersen, a researcher on Islamic radicalism for the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment.

The database of 76,000 reports posted by WikiLeaks covers the period from January 2004 to December 2009. Although extensive in number, they consist mostly of low-level military field reports, many of them unconfirmable, and are not a complete account of U.S. efforts to combat al-Qaeda. For example, the reports do not shed light on longstanding efforts to track or kill al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan.

Some reports, however, provide secondary glimpses of the secretive campaign by U.S. Special Operations forces and the CIA to hunt insurgent leaders in Afghanistan. The records reveal the existence of one such unit, Task Force 373, which searches for targets on the U.S. military's "kill or capture" list, known as the Joint Prioritized Effects List.

Based on its numbering system, more than 2,000 targets have been added to the list, the reports suggest. There are many accounts of attempts to capture Taliban commanders on the list, but only one is clearly identified as a leader of al-Qaeda: Abu Laith al-Libi, who evaded the botched June 2007 raid in Paktika province.

The Libyan al-Qaeda military commander did meet his end in another U.S. operation seven months later -- in next-door Pakistan.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.


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