U.S.: Al Qaeda Still a Threat

Taliban and Al Qaeda forces are trying to plan more attacks against American troops in Afghanistan, U.S. intelligence information indicates.

"There are still Al Qaeda scattered around Afghanistan," Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday.

"There are, I'm sure, going to be efforts by them to try to organize themselves enough so that they can launch an attack at least on our forces in Afghanistan. We see intelligence to that effect."

But, he said, Operation Anaconda — the largest ground initiative launched in recent months — has put a dent in Al Qaeda, the terrorist network led by suspected Sept. 11 mastermind Usama bin Laden.

"We saw ... a coalescing of a group in the area where we launched Operation Anaconda a couple of weeks ago, and very successfully eliminated a big chunk of the Al Qaeda," said the vice president.

Meanwhile, a U.S. military official said Sunday that though the war has crippled Al Qaeda, it is still powerful and widespread enough to execute other terror attacks.

"Central Command would never say Al Qaeda and the Taliban have lost their effectiveness," said Navy Cmdr. Frank Merriman, a Central Command spokesman.

Merriman said that the American-led war in Afghanistan has wiped out a significant number of Al Qaeda and Taliban members and facilities, but he warned that its global presence remains strong and is a long way from being eradicated.

"They are a worldwide organization," Merriman said. "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."

Pockets of enemy fighters are believed to be hiding in Afghanistan and Pakistan, waiting for the right moment to strike.

The reality of a terrorism threat was underscored late last week with a number of incidents. On Saturday, U.S. officials said that an Al Qaeda-operated bomb factory and a crude biological weapons research site were discovered by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Gen. Tommy Franks, head of Central Command, said that American forces recently found evidence in Afghanistan that bin Laden was trying to "get his hands on" anthrax or other biological weapons. The troops found nothing showing that Al Qaeda had succeeded in obtaining anthrax or making germ weapons.

Franks made the comments to NBC during the taping of Meet the Press, which airs Sunday.

Franks said U.S. forces recently discovered a site near the southern Afghan city of Kandahar that appeared to be an Al Qaeda biological weapons lab under construction.

Another indication of possible future attacks came 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.

The vice president warned that the war effort will continue "for some considerable period of time."

"There’s a temptation, I think, because there's not an active bombing campaign under way on any particular day, for people who want to run out and say, well, it’s over with. It’s not. This is a long-term commitment," he said.

Though bin Laden has eluded capture, Cheney said he thinks the leader of the Al Qaeda network is either in Afghanistan or across the border in Pakistan -- if he is alive.

"But we don’t know," Cheney acknowledged.

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."

The vice president said the U.S. wanted to ensure that Afghanistan didn’t again become another "sanctuary for terrorists," though some parts of the country have again been carved up by warlords, as was the case before the Taliban took control.

Cheney said that President Bush made it clear from the start of the war Oct. 7 that American forces would stay in the war-torn country for as long as it took to complete the mission "of eliminating Al Qaeda and making certain that we’ve dealt with the terrorist threat that emerged in Afghanistan."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.