U.S. Says Al Qaeda Still a Threat

Despite battlefield losses suffered against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, the Al Qaeda network of Usama bin Laden remains capable of carrying out terrorist acts, a U.S. military spokesman said Sunday.

Navy Cmdr. Frank Merriman, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, said the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan has scored significant victories against Al Qaeda but that the global terrorist organization is far from being wiped out. Pockets of enemy fighters are believed to be hiding in Afghanistan and Pakistan, waiting for the right moment to strike.

``Central Command would never say Al Qaeda and the Taliban have lost their effectiveness,'' Merriman said. ``They are a worldwide organization. There very well may be other terrorist acts in the planning process, and our goal is to try to disturb and eliminate as many of those as we can.''

An indication the terrorist threat still exists was underscored Friday, when the State Department ordered families and nonessential diplomatic workers at the U.S. Embassy and consulates in Pakistan to leave the country.

The departure order came less than a week after two Americans were killed in a grenade attack at a church in Islamabad, the capital, and just as 11 people were charged in a Pakistani court in the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

U.S. military officials have dismissed claims that many Al Qaeda fighters managed to escape during Operation Anaconda, the biggest ground offensive in the five-month war that ended this month.

However, Taliban leaders and others familiar with the Islamic movement say as many as 1,000 Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters who escaped from Afghanistan are hiding in lawless regions of Pakistan and are planning a comeback in Afghanistan. Others are believed still inside Afghanistan.

U.S. military and intelligence officials say Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, near the Afghan border, are expected to step up activity in the spring as weather improves.

Taliban officials have recently told The Associated Press that bands of Al Qaeda and Taliban are on the move, traveling secretly through the mountains linking the southern and central Afghan provinces of Uruzgan, Ghor, Bamiyan, Ghanzi and Zabul.

Merriman said Operation Anaconda dealt a serious blow to the ability of enemy fighters in eastern Afghanistan to plan and carry out operations.

``But they remain a dangerous foe,'' he said. ``That is why we are committed to remaining in the country until we can identify and eradicate as many pockets as we can find.''