Al-Qaeda plans comeback

2012-10-21 12:04

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Kabul - A diminished but resilient al-Qaeda, whose terrorist attacks drew America into its longest war, is attempting a comeback in Afghanistan's mountainous east even as US and allied forces wind down their combat mission and concede a small but steady toehold to the terrorist group.

That concerns US 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 US 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-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 US influence in the country wanes. The last US combat troops are scheduled to be gone by 31 December 2014, with 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, General 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 US-led forces has been the Taliban, rulers of Afghanistan and protectors of al-Qaeda before the US invasion 11 years ago. But the strategic goal is to prevent al-Qaeda from again finding haven in Afghanistan from which to launch attacks on the US.

Fled to Pakistan

Al-Qaeda's leadership fled in late 2001 to neighbouring Pakistan, where it remains.

The group remains active inside Afghanistan, fighting US troops, spreading extremist messages, raising money, recruiting young Afghans and providing military expertise to the Taliban and other radical groups.

US General 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.

US 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 operations forces at the ready to keep a long-term lid on al-Qaeda inside Afghanistan.

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

US 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, India, that killed 166 people, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is present in the north.

Nuristan

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.

US 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.

Jones, a former adviser to the commander of US special operations forces in Afghanistan, recently returned from a trip to eastern Afghanistan where 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.

Richard Barrett, head of a UN group that monitors the threat posed by al-Qaeda and the Taliban, said al-Qaeda fears the Taliban will strike a deal with the Afghan government that would make the group all but irrelevant.

"So they will be doing whatever they can to assert their influence, to assert their presence" in Afghanistan, he said.

- SAPA
Read more on:    al-qaeda  |  afghanistan  |  us  |  security  |  us terror threat  |  war
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