U.S. officials warned that al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan leader is laying the groundwork to re-launch his war-shattered organization once the United States and international forces withdraw from the country, the Associated Press reported.
The officials described a counterterrorism campaign - a key reason the Obama administration agreed to keep any troops in Afghanistan after 2014 - could be jeopardized by the possibility of a total pullout.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said the number of al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan has risen but is not much higher than the several hundred or so the U.S. has identified in the past.
“I think most are waiting for the U.S. to fully pull out by 2014,” the Associated Press quoted him as saying.
The Obama administration covets to leave up to 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after combat operations end on Dec. 31, to continue training Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism missions.
But a security agreement from the Afghan government is needed.
Without the agreement that would authorize international forces to stay in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama has threatened to pull all troops out, and NATO forces would follow suit.
After talking to Afghan President Hamid Karzai this week, Obama ordered the Pentagon to begin planning for the so-called zero option.
“If we do go to zero, and there is no special operations component left in Afghanistan, it will certainly make it more difficult to be able to deal with the threat, ...and the potential resurgence of al-Qaeda in the area,” Agence France-Presse quoted a top U.S. commander as saying on Thursday.
The warning came from the head of special operations command, Admiral William McRaven, known for overseeing the 2011 raid by Navy SEAL commandos that killed al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in his Pakistani compound.
He said the danger posed by al-Qaeda is “inherent within the federally administered tribal areas (in Pakistan), and in the northern part of Afghanistan, in Kunar and Nuristan (provinces).”
The wanted leader
Al-Qaeda’s leader Farouq al-Qahtani al-Qatari has been cementing local ties and bringing in small numbers of experienced militants to train a new generation of fighters.
U.S. military and intelligence officials said they have increased drone and jet missile strikes against him and his followers in the mountainous eastern provinces of Kunar and Nuristan.
The objective was to keep him from restarting the large training camps that once drew hundreds of followers before the U.S.-led war began.
The officials said unless they can continue to fly drones and jets from at least one air base in Afghanistan - either Bagram in the north or Jalalabad in the east - al-Qahtani and his followers could eventually plan new attacks against U.S. targets, although experts do not consider him one of the most dangerous al-Qaeda leaders.
Officials downplaying al-Qahtani
Two U.S. intelligence officials told the Associated Press that his group has been so cut off that it has been forced to rely on the Taliban for funding and weapons at times, where it used to be the other way around.
Those officials are far more concerned about al-Qaeda’s new offshoots fighting in the Syrian civil war.
“It’s really hard to get to New York City from northern Kunar or southern Nuristan” where al-Qahtani is based, said Douglas Ollivant, a former senior U.S. military adviser in eastern Afghanistan, now with the New American Foundation.
“We do want to keep them bottled up there,” but he said that’s something Afghan forces can do on their own.
“The Afghan forces are not capable of going up there and hunting them, but they are capable of containing them,” the former U.S. military officer said.
Other experts see al-Qahtani and his kind as the main reason to push for at least a minimal security force in Afghanistan.
Those tracking al-Qahtani said he has survived by following some of the same rules that helped Osama bin Laden avoid capture for so many years: He stays off cellphones and radios to hide from spy satellites and airborne radars, instead using couriers or face-to-face meetings, and he stays on the move.
When he travels to populated areas, he stays among women and children, which he knows the U.S. will avoid striking.
The local tribesmen do not aid the U.S. effort, nor does the barren, mountainous terrain where incoming raiders are visible for miles.
“When helicopters went in, you can hear the whistles go up,” from the villages, echoing across the valleys and sending militants fleeing for cover, one of the U.S. military officials said.
U.S. operators gave up
The officials said U.S. special operators have all but given up capturing al-Qahtani and have traded fruitless and dangerous helicopter-borne raids for air strikes by drone and jet, averaging three to five a week.
To their knowledge, they have never come close to striking him.
The reports give added ammunition to a comprehensive intelligence analysis on Afghanistan completed in December. The report predicted the country will largely disintegrate along ethnic lines after the U.S. departs, with the central government controlling Kabul and a few other key cities.
Meanwhile, assessing the threat posed by al-Qaeda, McRaven told the House Armed Services Committee that the group’s core “has gotten markedly weaker” while affiliate groups are surging in Yemen, North Africa, Iraq and Syria.
“So the threat is metastasizing. It is much more broad,” he said.
But he said the danger presented by al-Qaeda to the U.S. “homeland” was less than it was five or ten years ago, with “one or two exceptions.”
(With Associated Press and AFP)