Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan are plotting a comeback, forging strong ties with the Afghan Taliban and other indigenous terrorist groups in an attempt to reassert its presence as the Islamic State continues to gain ground in the eastern part of the country.
Roughly 100 to 300 al Qaeda members are active in Afghanistan, concentrated in the eastern provinces of Kunar and Ghazni and in Kandahar province in the south, Army Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, deputy chief of staff for communications for Operation Resolute Support, the name of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, said Thursday.
The terrorist group’s members in Afghanistan are mostly “core al Qaeda” coming in from Pakistan, but others are members entering Afghanistan from the group’s new cell in India, known as al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, or AQIS, Gen. Cleveland said in a teleconference from Kabul.
“Bottom line is, there is still an al Qaeda presence here in Afghanistan,” he told reporters at the Pentagon.
As a result, U.S. counterterrorism operations have begun to focus on al Qaeda targets, as well as those associated with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
American drones and warplanes have conducted 19 airstrikes against the Islamic State and al Qaeda targets in April, Gen. Cleveland said.
While most of those strikes have been against Islamic State targets in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangahar province, the group’s provisional base in the country, “there have been still a few al Qaeda targets” among those strikes, he said.
While al Qaeda fighters have kept a somewhat low profile on the battlefield, they have been actively coordinating operations and support with several terrorist groups in the country, including the Taliban, according to Gen. Cleveland.
Cooperation between al Qaeda operatives and the Taliban began to spike last spring, shortly after Taliban leaders announced the death of the group’s founder, Mullah Mohammed Omar, and named Mullah Akhtar Mansoor as his successor.
Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri publicly endorsed Mansoor as the Taliban’s new chieftain, pledging the group’s allegiance to him.
“Since that time, we have seen more interaction” between al Qaeda and the Taliban, Gen. Cleveland said. Those growing ties between the two groups has drawn the attention and concern of the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
Army Gen. John Nicholson, head of the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan, told Reuters in April that a renewed alliance between the Taliban and resurgent al Qaeda terrorist cells in Afghanistan could delay the Obama administration’s plan for drawing down the remaining U.S. forces in the nation.
Gen. Nicholson is expected to deliver his assessment and recommendations for the continued U.S. mission in Afghanistan to the White House by the end of this month, Gen. Cleveland said Thursday.
The White House wants to cut the roughly 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan down to some 5,000 by the time President Obama leaves office in January.
Gen. Cleveland declined to speculate on how al Qaeda’s increased presence in could affect the White House’s plans, but did note the web of allegiances among the various extremist groups in Afghanistan has made assessing the true threat al Qaeda poses to U.S., NATO and Afghan forces difficult.
“The challenge is these organizations just don’t neatly divide into specific geographic locations or specific operations,” Gen. Cleveland said. “That’s one of the things that makes this situation somewhat opaque.”
But the group’s growing profile in Afghanistan could act as an “accelerant” for the Taliban, spurring them on to carry out more attacks, as well as create an opening for al Qaeda to re-emerge in force throughout Afghanistan.
“I think as we’ve all seen before, although they have been significantly diminished, [al Qaeda] does have the ability to regenerate very quickly, and they still do have the ability to pose a threat,” Gen. Cleveland said.