WASHINGTON – Al-Qaida's Afghanistan leader is laying the groundwork to relaunch his war-shattered organization once the United States and international forces withdraw from the country, as they have warned they will do without a security agreement from the Afghan government, U.S. officials say.
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, and U.S. military and intelligence officials say they have stepped up drone and jet missile strikes against him and his followers in the mountainous eastern provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. The objective is to keep him from restarting the large training camps that once drew hundreds of followers before the U.S.-led war began.
The officials say the 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, R-Mich., said the number of al-Qaida members in Afghanistan has risen but not much higher than as many as 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," he said.
The administration would like 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 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.
U.S. military and intelligence officials say 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-Qaida leaders.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss publicly the secret counterterrorism campaign or intelligence.
Administration officials have hoped that the U.S. could eventually wind down counterterrorism operations like drone strikes in the region after reducing the al-Qaida network, leaving local forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan to control the remnants.
But al-Qaida is not weakened enough yet, and U.S. officials have testified that the inexperienced Afghan forces aren't ready to take over the task unaided.
National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said this week that "as the possibility of a full withdrawal has grown in Afghanistan," the administration was "undertaking a methodical review of any U.S. capabilities that may be affected and developing strategies to mitigate impacts."
"The United States will take the steps necessary to combat terrorism and protect our interests," she added.
Some administration officials have said al-Qaida in Afghanistan is less of a threat than when the war began, estimated to be as many as several hundred forced to shelter in the remotest part of the country.
They say al-Qahtani is so far off the beaten path, he is nearly irrelevant to the larger al-Qaida movement. Two U.S. intelligence officials say 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-Qaida'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 ilk as the main reason to push for at least a skeleton security force in Afghanistan.
"There's an influx of Jihadist groups — not massive — now active in Afghanistan," said Seth Jones of the Washington-based RAND Corp., who once worked for U.S. Special Operations Command in Afghanistan. He listed the most dangerous as al-Qaida, the Pakistan Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, which has strong links to al-Qaida.
"Not having U.S. forces in Afghanistan would embolden these groups and be counterproductive for U.S. national security," he said.
Those tracking al-Qahtani say 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.
The officials say 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.