By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
July 13, 2007 – Al Qaeda has become a "franchised" organization that has emerged most recently in North Africa, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today. In the Maghreb region of North Africa there has been merger of "several groups under the rubric of al Qaeda, and that's probably the newest area where it has emerged as a reasonably coherent organization," Gates told reporters at the Pentagon.
Subsequent to the ouster of the Taliban in 2002, he said, the kind of centralized control al Qaeda had prior to 9/11 became almost impossible. The terrorist group has since evolved "into a much broader organization, but one in which there are a number of autonomous or semi-autonomous organizations that are under this overall umbrella led by Osama bin Laden," Gates said.
The secretary said that many terrorist organizations now fall under the umbrella of Osama bin Laden's cell in Pakistan, but operate somewhat autonomously in their respective regions.
"We have pretty good evidence that, for example, al Qaeda in Iraq takes strategic guidance and inspiration from the al Qaeda in the western part of Pakistan. They get advice, they clearly are connected, but they also have ... substantial autonomy," Gates said.
Al Qaeda in Iraq, he said, is responsible for the majority of car bombings in the region aimed at creating mayhem and generating a lack of confidence in the local government.
"The large scale attacks that have killed significant number of Iraqis are essentially, intended to create as much mayhem as possible in a general neighborhood or area," he said.
This is different from the sectarian violence that pits one specific group against another, he said.
Speaking alongside the secretary, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the decrease in independent Iraqi army battalions reported in the recently released benchmark report was not cause for alarm. The decrease from 10 battalions in March to six now is due to combat losses.
"As units operate in the field, they have casualties," Pace said. "They consume vehicles and equipment, and need to come out of the line and be resupplied, just like our own units. So the fact that a number may be changing within a very narrow band shouldn't be of overly concern."
Yet, defense officials hope to see "more Iraqi units being able to operate on their own and more units that work operating side by side with us, moving into the lead," he said.
About 6,000 U.S. troops are now training Iraqi security forces. Whether that number will increase will be determined by the top commander there, Pace said.
"We have an opportunity to assess whether or not the size of the teams we currently have with the Iraqis is adequate, and do we have enough teams with enough units in the field," he said.
More training with the Iraqis is needed, Pace said. "We do need to have more opportunities to have embedded units with them," he said.
The two top defense leaders also discussed the length of time it would take to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq.
Currently the system for moving troops in or out of Iraq is set for about one brigade a month, Pace said. That can be increased, or surged, but as troops leave, commanders have to be aware of covering the same area with a smaller number of troops as well as maintaining command consistency.
"So you want to have a good feel for what your end state is going to be so that when you start arranging your forces on the battlefield, you're not causing additional strain and misunderstandings amongst boundaries," Pace said.
Gates said the timeline for a withdrawal of troops would be determined by the current situation on the ground and whether the U.S. has a long-term security agreement that would leave a contingent of soldiers there.