KABUL, Afghanistan — A diminished but resilient al Qaeda, 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 firm toehold to the terrorist group.
That concerns U.S. commanders, who have intensified strikes against al Qaeda cells in recent months. It also undercuts an Obama administration narrative portraying al Qaeda 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 Obama said his administration had turned the tide of war.
“The goal that I set – to defeat al Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild – is within reach,” he said.
The last U.S. combat troops are scheduled to leave by Dec. 31, 2014, and security matters are to be 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 Qaeda has moved more weapons across the border from Pakistan.
Al Qaeda’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.
Marine Gen. John Allen, the top commander of international forces in Afghanistan, has said al Qaeda 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.