October 22, 2012 9:45:04 AM
KABUL, Afghanistan -- A diminished but resilient al-Qaida, whose 9/11 attacks drew America into its longest war, is attempting a comeback in Afghanistan's mountainous east even as U.S. and allied forces wind down their combat mission and concede a small but steady toehold to the terrorist group.
That concerns U.S. commanders, who have intensified strikes against al-Qaida cells in recent months. It also undercuts an Obama administration narrative portraying al-Qaida as battered to the point of being a nonissue in Afghanistan as Western troops start leaving.
When he visited Afghanistan in May to mark the one-year anniversary of the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, President Barack Obama said his administration had turned the tide of war. "The goal that I set -- to defeat al-Qaida, and deny it a chance to rebuild -- is within reach," he said.
As things stand, however, an unquestionably weakened al-Qaida appears to have preserved at least limited means of regenerating inside Afghanistan as U.S. influence in the country wanes. The last U.S. combat troops are scheduled to be gone by Dec. 31, 2014, and security matters turned over to the Afghan government.
"They are trying to increase their numbers and take advantage of the Americans leaving," the police chief of Paktika province, Gen. Dawlat Khan Zadran, said through a translator in an interview this month in the governor's compound. He mentioned no numbers, but said al-Qaida has moved more weapons across the border from Pakistan.
For years the main target of U.S.-led forces has been the Taliban, rulers of Afghanistan and protectors of al-Qaida before the U.S. invasion 11 years ago. But the strategic goal is to prevent al-Qaida from again finding haven in Afghanistan from which to launch attacks on the U.S.
Al-Qaida's leadership fled in late 2001 to neighboring Pakistan, where it remains.
The group remains active inside Afghanistan, fighting U.S. troops, spreading extremist messages, raising money, recruiting young Afghans and providing military expertise to the Taliban and other radical groups.
U.S. Gen. John Allen, the top commander of international forces in Afghanistan, has said al-Qaida has re-emerged, and although its numbers are small, he says the group doesn't need a large presence to be influential.
U.S. officials say they are committed, even after the combat mission ends in 2014, to doing whatever it takes to prevent a major resurgence. The Americans intend, for example, to have special operation forces at the ready to keep a long-term lid on al-Qaida inside Afghanistan.
"Al-Qaida could try to reconstitute itself, but they would do so at their own peril given the intense pressure they and other terrorist groups are facing in Afghanistan," Pentagon press secretary George Little said Saturday.
A more immediate worry is the threat posed by the growing presence of al-Qaida and affiliated groups in Yemen, Somalia and across a broad swath of North Africa, where it is believed al-Qaida-linked militants may have been responsible for the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.