Washington: Al-Qaida's Afghanistan leader is laying the groundwork to re-launch his war-shattered organisation 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, US 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 US military and intelligence officials say they have increased 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 US-led war began. The officials say the counter terrorism campaign is a key reason the Obama administration agreed to keep any troops in Afghanistan after 2014 could be jeopardised by the possibility of a total pullout.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said the number of al-Qaida members in Afghanistan has risen but is not much higher than the several hundred or so the US has identified in the past. "I think most are waiting for the US 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 December 31, to continue training Afghan forces and conduct counter terrorism missions. But without the agreement that would authorise 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. US 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 US targets, although experts do not consider him one of the most dangerous al-Qaida leaders.