KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates landed in Afghanistan on Monday to gauge military commanders’ needs as they face a strengthened Taliban and signs that al Qaeda is regrouping in the country.
More than six years after a U.S.-led invasion drove the Taliban from power, Gates said he was concerned about the rising violence but he did not think Afghanistan was moving backward.
“I’m not worried about a back slide as much as I am how we continue the momentum going forward,” the Pentagon chief told reporters. “I think that one of the clear concerns that we all have is that the last two or three years there has been a continuing increase in the overall level of violence.”
The Pentagon also is worried about signs that al Qaeda is resurfacing in Afghanistan after defeats in parts of Iraq.
“We’re seeing real early indicators that there may be some stepped-up activity by al Qaeda,” said a senior U.S. defense official traveling with Gates. “Certainly that’s something that we’re concerned with.”
American military officers in Iraq have speculated that al Qaeda would try to return to Afghanistan after losing ground in Iraq, where violence has declined following a security crackdown that added thousands of U.S. troops to the streets.
But the senior official’s comments marked the first time the Pentagon has acknowledged seeing evidence that al Qaeda fighters were moving back into Afghanistan. The official stressed, however, that the evidence was still not conclusive.
“The tell-tale signs would be stepped up activities by foreign fighters, finding foreign fighters inside Afghanistan as a result of battle casualties and things like that. We’re not seeing enough yet to draw conclusions,” said the U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Gates’ visit to Afghanistan, follows a sharp increase in attacks on U.S. and NATO troops, which have more than doubled in some areas. Suicide bombings have climbed 30 percent, according to U.S. defense and military officials.
Gates has a meeting planned this month in Scotland with defense ministers of countries that have troops in Afghanistan’s south, the most violent area of the country.
To prepare for that, he will talk to U.S. and NATO commanders in Afghanistan about the long-standing shortfall in combat troops, equipment and trainers for the Afghan army and national police, according to another U.S. defense official.
Gates also will discuss the possibility of arming local tribes in the Afghan south to fight the Taliban, exporting a strategy used by the U.S. military in Iraq of arming local Sunni groups to fight al Qaeda.
That effort in Iraq has been credited with making Anbar and other former insurgent strongholds hostile to al Qaeda.
“There are some recent new proposals coming through now that have not as yet been adopted but are looking promising,” said one of the officials traveling with Gates. “There are proposals to both equip and arm some forces.”
Gates also will meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and discuss Iran’s role in Afghanistan. U.S. officials say Iranian weapons are flowing into Afghanistan, headed for the Taliban, but Karzai regularly refers to Tehran as an ally.
Editing by Chris Wilson