WASHINGTON (AFP) — US intelligence officials say there has been an increase in foreign fighters travelling to Pakistan to join up with Al-Qaeda-linked militants in the country's tribal areas, the New York Times reported Thursday.
US intelligence and military sources told the newspaper that dozens or more Uzbeks, North Africans and Arabs from Gulf states have moved into Pakistan in recent months, shoring up the Al-Qaeda forces which are backing the Taliban insurgency in neighboring Afghanistan.
A US military spokesman in Baghdad told the Times that there has been a corresponding drop in the number of foreign fighters entering Iraq, now less than 40 a month compared to up to 110 a month one year ago.
"The flow may reflect a change that is making Pakistan, not Iraq, the preferred destination for some Sunni extremists from the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia who are seeking to take up arms against the West," the Times wrote, citing the officials.
General David McKiernan, the new NATO commander in Afghanistan, said the situation in Pakistan's northwestern border areas, where Al-Qaeda and other Islamic insurgents are based, has worsened.
"The porous border has allowed insurgent militant groups a greater freedom of movement across that border, as well as a greater freedom to resupply, to allow leadership to sustain stronger sanctuaries, and to provide fighters across that border," McKiernan told the Times.
A US defense official told the Times that the flow of foreign fighters into Pakistan has increased "from a trickle to a steady stream," especially after Pakistan's government cut back tribal area operations in March and launched talks with local leaders in hopes of halting militant activities.
While the numbers of foreign fighters in Afghanistan is still relatively small, the increase adds to US worries about the revival of Al-Qaeda and the rise in Taliban attacks on US and NATO coalition forces in Afghanistan.
The concern was heightened Monday when a suicide bomber set off a blast at the Indian embassy in Kabul killing 41. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. Taliban officials denied involvement and Pakistan rejected accusations by Afghan officials that its intelligence service was behind it.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday that he had seen no proof that foreign agents were involved.
But Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta told the UN Security Council Wednesday that a key factor behind the worsening security in his country was "the de facto truce" in neighboring Pakistan's tribal areas between the government and autonomous tribal groups.
"Terrorist sanctuaries and an elaborate system of financing, recruiting, arming and systematic training of suicide bombers are at work outside our borders, to keep the terrorist threat alive," Spanta noted.
The resurgence of militants and Al-Qaeda in the Pakistan tribal regions, and Islamabad's truce with area leaders, are posing a deep dilemma for US policy makers and the US military, US experts say.
"Seven years after 9/11, the United States is worse off in Pakistan than it was, American interests in the region were worse off than they were, and Pakistan is worse off than it was," said Robert Hathaway of the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Private US intelligence firm Stratfor predicted in a report this week that "it is only a matter of time before Washington escalates its unilateral military operations deeper into Pakistani territory" -- a move experts warned could worsen "collateral" damage and fuel anti-Americanism.
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