For the last few years, Iraq was the magnet for jihadis around the world. No longer. Afghanistan, which was the center of extremist pilgrimage when it was ruled by the Taliban, has retaken that position, according to European intelligence sources. "The degree to which Islamist extremists around the world have dropped their previous obsession with Iraq and now focus on the Afghan-Pakistan area has been astounding," says one French counter-terrorism official. "No one recruiting for or seeking to join jihadist fighting in Europe are trying to get to Iraq: it's all Afghanistan now," he reports "No one raising money for jihad is directing funds to Iraq, either. The Afghan-Pakistan region has regained the power of attraction it had prior to September 11."
Funding and potential fighters appear to be searching for newer ways into Afghanistan particularly via Turkey "where they suddenly vanish," says the counter-terror official, who was recently involved in busting an Afghan-supporting finance network spanning France, the Netherlands, and Germany. Uzbekistan whose radical groups also receive funding collected in Europe may also be becoming a new transit point for Afghan-bound radicals. And with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf stepping down, "there's real concern the already wild and lawless border region will become a virtual Taliban-al Qaeda colony".
Though the number of European radicals who have actually tried to make it to Afghanistan via Pakistan have been minimal less than a dozen, at most the country's reinvigorated jihadist allure is unmistakable. "It was the original jihad against occupying infidels, and it was long al Qaeda's terror sanctuary bin Laden still lurks there somewhere!" notes a French intelligence official, explaining the thinking of European radicals. "Afghanistan isn't just about killing Americans, but fighting the assembled forces of the world they accuse of attacking Islam."
That was painfully clear to the French this week as they gave heroes' burials to 10 paratroopers killed during an ambush of Taliban fighters. France has 2,600 troops as part of the so-called International Security Assistance Force, a U.S-led contingent of 52,000 NATO soldiers, that continues to police Afghanistan in the war on terror. "Beyond the immediate human reaction to this loss of life, this attack is most instructive in telling us about the rapidly rising strength and capacity of the people we're up against," says Francois Heisbourg, special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Studies in Paris. "The Taliban have been allowed to reconstitute and re-arm themselves to levels nearing those prior to the invasion."
The deadly force that the Taliban now pack as a result is evident in the escalating number of attacks and casualties inflicted on NATO-led forces in Afghanistan. Indeed even as the French paratroopers were being cut down by Taliban snipers in a valley east of Kabul Monday, two separate suicide bombing attacks struck US bases elsewhere in Afghanistan. The growing frequency and audacity of Taliban offensives are producing a spiraling death count among international forces 183 of whom have been killed thus far this year, compared to 232 fatalities for all of 2007. Significantly, an Afghanistan scenario once considered under allied control has since April produced more deaths among international forces (149) than the Iraq war has (145).
Many military and security strategist argue for a major, muscular effort to beat the Taliban back and force their allies to scramble for cover. In France at least, there is likely to be popular support for political leaders to do just that. As the nation laid its fallen forces to rest, public sentiment was growing that the only way to give their deaths meaning was through victory.