Al Qaeda Disrupted in Pakistani Tribal Areas, General SaysKABUL, Afghanistan, April 19 - The commander of American-led forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Barno, said Monday that Pakistan had successfully disrupted the Qaeda network in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and had significantly affected its ability to support a suspected Taliban insurgency across the border in Afghanistan.
In an interview in Kabul, the Afghan capital, General Barno commended the Pakistani military for its "bold moves" against foreign fighters in the Pakistani tribal area of South Waziristan in March. He said it had so far prevented an anticipated offensive this spring in Afghanistan by the remnants of Taliban fighters who are suspected to have taken refuge across the Pakistani border in tribal areas.
"There have been some tough fights, so I give them great credit for making some bold moves over there," he said. The Pakistani operation since January has been larger and more intense than the previous level of enforcement in the border area, he said. He added that it appears to have disrupted what had been a very stable area for Al Qaeda's foreign fighters and senior leadership, where they are believed to have lived and operated for two years.
"That has had a significant unsettling effect on their organization over there and to some degree on their ability to support the Taliban as well," he said of Al Qaeda. "But clearly they are concerned about what is going on over there."
The general would not discuss the suspected whereabouts of Qaeda's top leaders, Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. But he said he thought reports that a senior Qaeda leader had been surrounded in fighting in South Waziristan in March were not accurate.
The Pakistani authorities estimate that 500 to 600 foreign Qaeda fighters are in the tribal areas, including top Qaeda leaders. In fighting in March, Pakistan said it killed about 60 people and captured 160 more, including Uzbeks and other foreigners. Nevertheless, there was no sign that any Qaeda members had escaped into Afghanistan, he said.
American forces positioned on the Pakistan-Afghan border to catch any fighters escaping the Pakistani operation, in what the general has described as a "hammer and anvil" tactic, had seen little movement across the border into Afghanistan, he said. "Our sense is that anyone who is there, is still there," he said.
There was every sign that the Qaeda fighters would stay in the Pakistani tribal areas and fight, partly because they knew it was "extraordinarily dangerous" for them to operate in Afghanistan because of the presence of American troops, he said. He described the Qaeda fighters as trained and experienced men who had deep roots in Pakistan.
"This isn't just a transient force; these folks are there for the long haul," he said. "I think, ultimately, they'll be destroyed regardless of which choice they make. But so far we have not seen them make any choice to come into Afghanistan. And if they do, we are certainly going to deal with them."
Pakistan was showing a new determination, especially after suffering casualties in the fighting in March, he said. "They are pushing forward and they are looking to finish this fight in the tribal area,'' he said. "Are they having setbacks? Absolutely. Are they continuing to press forward? Yes. Are they genuine in this? I think absolutely, yes."
The hunt for Mr. bin Laden and his inner circle will remain focused in Pakistan, while American forces in Afghanistan turn part of their attention to securing the countryside for elections in September. Improving regional security in Afghanistan by preventing the Taliban's "pinprick" attacks on softer targets like government officials and United Nations and aid workers is essential to preparations for the voting.
A contingent of 2,000 American marines, who arrived recently and increased the American-led military presence in Afghanistan to 13,500, is to be sent to the most remote and lawless regions of Afghanistan, General Barno said. They will not just be chasing terrorists, but also helping local Afghan leaders establish a presence in previously ungovernable areas.