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

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 23, 2010; A01

On Aug. 14, a U.S. airstrike in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz killed a Taliban commander known as Abu Baqir. In a country where insurgents are killed daily, this attack was notable for one unusual detail:

Abu Baqir, the military said afterward, was also a member of al-Qaeda.

Although U.S. officials have often said that al-Qaeda is a marginal player on the Afghan battlefield, an analysis of 76,000 classified U.S. military reports posted by the Web site WikiLeaks underscores the extent to which Osama bin Laden and his network have become an afterthought in the war.

The reports, which cover the escalation of the insurgency between 2004 and the end of 2009, mention al-Qaeda only a few dozen times and even then just in passing. Most are vague references to people with unspecified al-Qaeda contacts or sympathies, or as shorthand for an amorphous ideological enemy.

Bin Laden, thought to be hiding across the border in Pakistan, is scarcely mentioned in the reports. One recounts how his picture was found on the walls of a couple of houses near Khost, in eastern Afghanistan, in 2004.

A year later, U.S. forces also saw his likeness on a jihadist propaganda poster near the Pakistan border. In 2007, a district subgovernor in Nangarhar province informed U.S. officials that a local newspaper would print "names of personnel working for bin Laden."

Other al-Qaeda leaders are similarly invisible figures. One report describes a botched June 2007 attempt to capture or kill Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior al-Qaeda military commander. U.S. Special Forces missed their target, instead accidentally killing seven children in a religious school in Paktika province.

There are also fleeting references to Abu Ikhlas al-Misri, the nom de guerre of an Egyptian who serves as an al-Qaeda commander in Kunar province. In 2008, an Afghan district official confirmed to U.S. officers that he had heard a rumor that Abu Ikhlas was suffering from a "sprained ankle." But otherwise, at least in the WikiLeaks reports, the Egyptian remains in the shadows.

Change in strategy

In June, CIA Director Leon Panetta estimated that, "at most," only 50 to 100 al-Qaeda operatives were present in Afghanistan. His assessment echoed those given by other senior U.S. officials. In October, national security adviser James L. Jones said the U.S. government's "maximum estimate" was that al-Qaeda had fewer than 100 members in Afghanistan, with no bases and "no ability to launch attacks on either us or our allies."

Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, al-Qaeda's leadership and fighters have largely sought refuge across the border in Pakistan. There they have been targeted by U.S. drone attacks from the skies as they try to remain beyond the reach of U.S. forces.

The evasion marks a departure from al-Qaeda's approach in previous conflicts. Bin Laden and other jihadist leaders recruited thousands of Arabs and other foreign fighters to combat the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Al-Qaeda also persuaded hundreds, if not thousands, of followers to travel to Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion, where they played a significant role in fueling the insurgency and sectarian violence.

This time, U.S. military officials and analysts say, al-Qaeda has changed its strategy, mostly limiting its role in the Taliban-led insurgency to assisting with training, intelligence and propaganda. Although the terrorist network still considers the "liberation" of Afghanistan its primary strategic objective, it is biding its time until the infidels lose patience and leave.

"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."

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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