The situation in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan where al Qaeda has established a safe haven presents a "clear and present danger" to the West, the CIA director said Sunday.
Michael Hayden cited the belief by intelligence agencies that Osama bin Laden is hiding there in arguing that the U.S. has an interest in targeting the border region. If there were another terrorist attack against Americans, Hayden said, it would most certainly originate from that region.
"It's very clear to us that al Qaeda has been able for the past 18 months or so to establish a safe haven along the Afghan-Pakistan border area that they have not enjoyed before, and that they're bringing in operatives into the region for training," he said.
Hayden added that those operatives "wouldn't attract your attention if they were going through the customs line at Dulles (airport, outside Washington) with you when you're coming back to the United States - who look Western."
Adding weight to Hayden's remarks were claims made Sunday by a Taliban subcommander, who told CBS News that his organization and al Qaeda are now operating more militant training camps in Pakistan's border tribal region than ever before.
The subcommander, who spoke to CBS News on the condition that he not be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said some 4,000 Taliban fighters were about to be moved from the camps in Pakistan across the border into Afghanistan.
He also said that al Qaeda is running a number of "special camps" for extremists who are destined to be sent to Western countries to wage attacks there.
The subcommander would not say where the militants were from, or which countries they were training to target, but recent videos posted on jihadist Internet forums show trainees speaking European languages. Five French nationals are currently on.
Included in the 4,000 Taliban militants destined to try and cross the border to wage attacks in Afghanistan, according to the subcommander, are "about three-dozen (suicide) vest makers and explosive device experts will start making it into different Afghan regions this year."
He said al Qaeda "played a great part" in increasing the technical and combat skill levels of the thousands of jihadists who traveled to the Pakistan camps. Though many are from Pakistan themselves, others came from country's across the Muslim world to join the fight, the subcommander said.
Speaking recently to CBS News, Taliban subcommander Mullah Anas vowed that 2008 would be the bloodiest yet in Afghanistan. Anas, who has often spoken to the media by phone, said the Taliban would strike with new technology, new techniques and a higher number of suicide attacks than ever before. He said the group hoped to carry out 250-280 suicide attacks this year.
According to Anas, the new technology includes more sophisticated roadside bombs, RPGs and attack techniques. He said the Taliban was going to focus on isolating Kabul, along with rest of the south and southeast of the country - and cutting off U.S. and Afghan government supply lines from inside Pakistan. Some parts of Afghanistan are too difficult to reach by road from inside the country.
A statement attributed to Taliban senior commander Mullah Bradar early last week also threatened more attacks this spring using new techniques. Bradar also warned that Afghans working with the government would be targeted.
Washington has sought reassurance that Pakistan's new coalition government will keep the pressure on extremist groups using the country's lawless northwest frontier as a springboard for attacks in Afghanistan and beyond.
Over the weekend, Pakistan's new prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, pledged to make the fight against terrorism his top priority. But he said peace talks and aid programs could be more effective than weapons in fighting militancy in tribal areas along the Afghan border. It was the new government's latest rebuke of President Pervez Musharraf's military tactics, which many Pakistanis believe have led to a spike in domestic attacks.
On Sunday, Hayden declined to comment on reports that the U.S. might be escalating unilateral strikes against al Qaeda members and fighters operating in Pakistan's tribal areas out of concern that the pro-Western Musharraf's influence might be waning. Hayden only would say that Pakistan's cooperation in the past has been crucial to U.S. efforts to stem terrorism there.
"The situation on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border presents clear and present danger to Afghanistan, Pakistan, the West in general and United States in particular," he said. "Operationally, we are turning every effort to capture or kill that leadership from the top to the bottom."
On Iraq, Hayden said it could be "years" before the central government might be able to function on its own without the aid of U.S. combat forces. Hayden said he would defer to the specific assessments of Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, top U.S. diplomat in Baghdad, who return to Washington next month to report to Congress.
Hayden spoke on NBC television's "Meet the Press."