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Al Qaeda tries Afghan comeback; U.S. commanders worried

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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.

As things stand, however, an unquestionably weakened al Qaeda 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 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.

For years the main target of U.S.-led forces has been the Taliban, rulers of Afghanistan and protectors of al Qaeda before the U.S. invasion 11 years ago.

But the strategic goal is to prevent al Qaeda from again finding haven in Afghanistan, from where attacks could be launched on the U.S.

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.

The U.S. intends, for example, to have special operation forces at the ready to keep a long-term lid on al Qaeda inside Afghanistan.

"Al Qaeda 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," said Pentagon Press Secretary George Little.

A more immediate worry is the threat posed by the expanding presence of al Qaeda and affiliated groups in Yemen, Somalia and across a broad swath of North Africa, where it is thought that al Qaeda-linked militants may have been responsible for the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

U.S. and Afghan officials say al Qaeda also has been building ties with like-minded Islamic militant groups present in Afghanistan, including Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is blamed for the November 2008 rampage in Mumbai that killed 166 people, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is present in the north.

Ahmadullah Mowahed, a member of the Afghan parliament from the eastern province of Nuristan, along the Pakistan border, said he fears the departure of American combat forces will open the way for the Taliban and al Qaeda to overwhelm the provincial government.

"As soon as they leave, the eyes of al Qaeda will quickly focus on Nuristan," he said.

U.S. analysts say there is reason for concern that al Qaeda is down, but not out.

"They've been hit hard in a few cases, but they definitely are involved in the fight – absolutely," said Seth G. Jones, a senior political scientist at Rand Corp.

Mr. Jones, a former adviser to the commander of U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan, recently returned from a trip to eastern Afghanistan. There he learned that al Qaeda's support network has expanded and its relations with groups such as the Pakistani-based Haqqani network are strong.

"That's a very serious concern because that kind of environment would allow al Qaeda to continue to operate, at least at a small level, because it's a workable environment for them, he said.

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