BAGRAM, Afghanistan -- The U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Friday that as many as 1,000 al-Qaida fighters could still be active in Afghanistan and predicted that it will take 18 months to two years to eliminate them and build a national army strong enough to deny terrorists a haven.
"We haven't won this war yet, but we're winning," Lt. Gen. Dan McNeill, the coalition task force commander, said in an interview with Knight Ridder Newspapers.
The base of support for al-Qaida, the Taliban and other extremists remains small, and the coalition forces have whittled away at that support by denying them sanctuary and the ability to move and operate freely, he said.
McNeill, who took over at the end of May, said he thought the peace process could go faster if the international community would make good on the $4.5 billion that donor nations promised last year to help rebuild Afghanistan.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai made an impassioned appeal at the United Nations last week for the promised aid. Of the $1.2 billion allocated this year, $890 million already has been spent and more is needed, U.N. officials in Kabul said recently. President Bush announced last week that the United States, Japan and Saudi Arabia would contribute $180 million in a joint venture to rebuild Afghanistan's destroyed roads.
Defeated, not destroyed
Despite a spate of bombings and a failed assassination attempt on Karzai two weeks ago, McNeill said members of the al-Qaida terrorist network no longer were capable of mounting large operations against U.S. and coalition forces or destabilizing the Afghan government. But he acknowledged that they would remain capable of harassing U.S. and coalition forces until their base of support is eliminated.
"Where we're at today is that we have an enemy who is largely defeated, but not destroyed," he said.
He said he had no compelling evidence that Osama bin Laden, whom U.S. officials blame for last year's Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, was either alive or dead. The war on terrorism in Afghanistan is about more than "one person, or one personality," he said.
Earlier Friday, a U.S. military spokesman said several rockets had been fired at a U.S. patrol in the Lwana area of eastern Afghanistan, but that no one was injured. Two Army Special Forces soldiers were injured Sunday when their vehicle hit a remote-controlled mine during an operation in Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan.
Afghans historically have fought foreigners fiercely. They defeated the British in the 1840s and the Soviet Union in the 1980s in a guerrilla war. But McNeill said the situation for U.S. and allied troops now was different. Most Afghans recognize that coalition troops came to Afghanistan with the sole mission of fighting terrorism.