Fearsome Uzbeks Deploy in Konduz Unnoticed by NATO

While Washington fights bitterly over whether to send more reinforcements to Afghanistan, thousands of al Qaeda fighters have for the first time since the US 2001 invasion crept back into the North to fight NATO forces, DEBKA-NetWeekly's counter-terror sources report.

Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint US Chiefs of Staff, is leading the armed forces' case for extra American boots on the ground – up to 40,000: He said this week they are needed to push the Taliban back and win the war in Afghanistan.

The White House is sitting on the fence.

President Barack Obama said Wednesday, Sept. 16: “No immediate decision is pending on additional resources for Afghanistan.” At a news conference with visiting Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, the President said this decision must await a reassessment of strategy for Afghanistan.

The need for more American troops seven months after Barack Obama's early authorization of an increment reflects the rapid expansion of the Taliban insurgency.

They are now heavily boosted by the arrival in the northern city of Konduz of 2,500 fighters of al Qaeda's affiliate, the fearsome Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Their deployment was ordered by their leader Tahir Yuldashev..

DEBKA-Net-Weekly counter-terrorism sources note that the 4,200 US and German intelligence agents present in the Konduz region of northern Afghanistan were unaware of the IMU fighters' infiltration and their numbers. The Islamists were certainly there on Sept. 3 taking part in the hijack of two fuel tankers from German units. This incident ended in a US aerial bombardment which left more than a hundred dead, half of them civilians.

A breach in al Qaeda's collective leadership?

On Sept. 12, Afghan government troops joined by US and German forces launched an offensive against new IMU arrivals.

It began with a raid on a compound near the village of Torbah Kash, north-east of Konduz city in search of “Taliban facilitators and commanders responsible for attacks on Afghan citizens and for aiding the flow of money, foreign fighters and suicide bombers into the region.”

But, according to our sources, those targets were not Taliban troops but al Qaeda's jihadi confederates.

In a statement issued September 14, the Afghan National Security Directorate said:

“Two militants – including one identified as Khalid Ahmadov, a former resident of Uzbekistan’s Ferghana Region – were recently captured. The two detainees admitted they were ordered to move to Konduz Province by Tahir Yuldashevev.” It was later claimed that an Uzbek commander was also killed.

Habibullah Khan Khattak, an administrator from Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, told the Pakistani parliament on September 12 that North and South Waziristan are havens for “no less than 5,000” Uzbek fighters, but many of them are moving to Afghanistan.

This transition would represent the biggest movement of al Qaeda fighting forces between Pakistan and Afghanistan in the three years, since their relocation from Iraq back to Afghanistan in 2006 and early 2007, our military and counter-terrorism sources note.

The Uzbek force is al Qaeda's second largest affiliate, second in numbers to the various Arab elements which make up Osama bin Laden's jihadist legion.

It is not yet clear whether bin Laden or his lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri ordered the Uzbek relocation to Konduz, or whether Yuldashev took the decision upon himself.

This point is most significant: If the Uzbek leader acted without consultation, it would signify a deepening rift in the overall al Qaeda collective leadership, which has already produced discord among the units sheltering in Pakistan's tribal lands of Waziristan.

Islamabad as a transition hub for al-Qaeda

According to another intelligence theory, Yuldashev and his commanders decided to turn their backs on Waziristan and its debilitating infighting and remove themselves to the Konduz and Mazrat al-Sharif districts of northern Afghanistan, closer to their homeland of Uzbekistan. Whether or not this group retains its loyalty to Bin Laden and accepts orders from his headquarters is moot.

But this issue aside, NATO badly needs to find out how US undercover agencies on the spot, which monitor the slightest enemy movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, did not wake up to the influx of Uzbek fighters into the Konduz area until they surfaced in combat.

According to one estimate, many entered through Islamabad airport in Pakistan. Later, the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) was tipped off from North Waziristan that the Uzbeks did indeed land at Islamabad airport and took taxis to the suburb of Mirali, where they went to ground in the strong Uzbek community living there.

But here too a dangerous security gap yawns in the apparent ability of the Uzbek fighters to make free of Pakistan's high-security airport in the capital as a connecting-point to destinations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and such Central Asian countries as Kirgizstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and their own Uzbekistan.

That German troops, as well as Americans and Afghans, are now up against al Qaeda, and not just the Talban, spurred German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and her foreign minister and election rival Frank-Walter Steinmeier into candidly calling on NATO for the first time to prepare to pull its forces out of Afghanistan, Germans contingents included.

Mullen tries to man the breach

The chancellor joined French and British leaders in demanding a new international conference before the end of the year to lay out a time table for transitioning security from NATO to Afghan forces and accelerating their training.

In a pre-election television debate with Merkel, Steinmeier said: “We want to create the conditions … by 2013 so that the withdrawal can begin,” he said. “I can't say now … let's get out without using our heads. …”

Echoes of this thinking bounced through the US Senate Tuesday, on September 15, when Democratic senators lined up to argue against more troop deployments for Afghanistan.

Senator Russ Feingold warned that he and “a growing chorus” of Democrats would refuse to back this measure and demanded a flexible timetable for NATO's withdrawal from the country. “Continuing to

build up troops in Afghanistan is the exact formula for increasing support for the Taleban,” he maintained.

In London, the International Institute for Strategic Studies warned Tuesday that the continued presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan could be more destabilizing than withdrawal.

Armed forces chief Adm. Mullen stood alone against the rising tide: “I support a properly resourced, classically pursued counter-insurgency strategy,” he told senators firmly. “You can’t do that from offshore and you can’t do that just by killing the bad guys. You have to be there.”

The problem is that al Qaeda is back there too, a further complication in an uphill conflict and a hazard to the successful outcome of the Afghanistan war, eight years after it was launched to combat… al Qaeda.

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