KABUL, Afghanistan – The top commander of U.S. and NATO forces said Saturday that while some al-Qaida fighters have been searching for hide-outs in rugged areas of eastern Afghanistan, he does not think they are making a comeback inside the country.
"There is no question that al-Qaida has had a presence in Afghanistan and continues to have a presence — generally assessed at less than 100 or so," Gen. David Petraeus told reporters at the coalition's headquarters in the Afghan capital.
But he added: "There certainly has been some exploration for potential safe havens or sanctuaries in very mountainous areas of Nuristan and parts of Kunar provinces. Our intention, with our Afghan partners, is to maintain pressure on those who are seeking to establish safe havens."
Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal reported that during the past six to eight months, al-Qaida fighters have been setting up training camps, hideouts and bases along Afghanistan's northeastern border with Pakistan. The newspaper cited U.S., Afghan and Taliban officials and quoted an unnamed senior U.S. military officer as saying "al-Qaida is coming back."
Speaking with reporters after a farewell ceremony for NATO's top civilian representative, Mark Sedwill, Petraeus said the recent deaths of seven U.N. workers in Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan would not affect plans for Afghan security forces to start taking the lead for security in the provincial capital this summer. Petraeus also confirmed that he's in discussions that will determine his next job, but doesn't know what it will be.
"I honestly don't know," he said. "I've obviously watched the trial balloons floated this past week — if that's what they are."
Reporters asked him directly if he wanted to become CIA director — one of several positions being rumored in Washington. Petraeus dodged the question, saying he didn't think it was appropriate to comment on jobs he might be asked to take.
He said, however, that suggestions that he is physically worn out were wrong. Petraeus then challenged reporters to join him for a run in Kabul, which is situated at about 6,000 feet (1,830 meters) above sea level.
"I am certainly not tired," he said. "If any of you would like evidence or proof of that, I welcome you tomorrow morning with your running shoes on and we'll see how you do over a five-mile course at 6,000 feet."
He said he has committed himself to lead the war through the current fighting season. There is fighting year-round in Afghanistan, but insurgent activity typically slows when the weather gets cold.
In his farewell speech to NATO and Afghan dignitaries, Sedwill said that when he arrived in Afghanistan more than two years ago, insurgents had the momentum.
"We couldn't keep up," he said. "The Afghan people and people across the (NATO) alliance were weary and looking for a political shortcut to the exit."
He said that since then, the coalition had regained the initiative but warned that the fight was not over.
"The road to peace, like all roads here, will be long and hard," he said. "There will be obstacles along the way. We will have to fight hard and we will face hard choices. There will be missteps and setbacks."
As the weather has warmed, there has been an increase in violence. Anti-American sentiment has also risen over the burning of a Muslim holy book last month at a Florida church. At least 21 people have been killed in the protests that started April 1 when a mob of angry Afghans attacked a U.N. compound in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Three U.N. staff members and four Nepalese guards were killed in the attack.
Petraeus said it appeared that those who turned the protest violent were from outside the Mazar-e-Sharif area and that transition to Afghan-led security was still slated to begin there in July. "Their accent was different," he said, and they took advantage of an opportunity to incite and already emotionally charged crowd.
About 300 students, who burned U.S. flags and shouted "Death to America," held a peaceful demonstration Saturday in Khost in the east.
In the capital on Saturday, a suicide bomber fired a weapon at a busload of Afghan army officers and soldiers and then blew himself up near the vehicle, according to Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi. He said nine people — six soldiers and three civilians — were wounded in the attack, which occurred in the southeastern part of Kabul. Initial reports were that 12 people were injured.
"An armed man was standing in front of a bakery," said Mohammad Shafiq, a witness. "When the Afghan National Army bus was passing, first the attacker fired on the bus and then he detonated himself."
Also Saturday, President Hamid Karzai said an investigation into allegations of civilian casualties in an April 4 operation by NATO and Afghan forces concluded five civilians were killed.
That differs with NATO's account of the operation in northern Sari Pul province. The day after the operation, NATO reported that Afghan and coalition forces killed several Taliban insurgents and detained several suspected militants in Sayyad district.