Militants affiliated with al-Qaida have started to creep back into Afghanistan after being largely driven out of the country in the early stages of the war, the top U.S. commander there said Monday.
The general reported a slight uptick in al-Qaida recruiting and activity in the country, saying it reflected efforts by the group’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to “gauge the reaction to international military operations in Afghanistan.”
Gen. John F. Campbell, the commander of NATO’s Resolute Support forces in Afghanistan, said that during a recent trip to a small Afghan village west of Kabul, he found evidence of recruiting. He said there were also signs of activity, such as angry demonstrations, about the U.S. commando raid in a remote region of neighboring Pakistan this month in which Navy SEALs killed the notorious extremist leader, Osama bin Laden’s successor.
Campbell cautioned that much more is still needed to determine how many militants have returned to Afghanistan, but he cited testimony he had received at a Senate hearing last week from Robert B. Whitman, the former deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. In that testimony, Whitman said he believes there may be 20,000 al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan, based on some estimates he obtained and a review of documents seized from bin Laden.
Whitman told the committee last week that he never found a “complete and accurate” log of the al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan, in part because the CIA used different rules for counting the militants. With the al-Qaida leader never fully deposed and recuperating after a daring 2011 raid that killed him at his compound in Pakistan, there were different accounting methods and methods of counting whether he was present.
Campbell also said some al-Qaida fighters who had not committed significant acts of violence in the past – such as those the U.S. targeted in the search for bin Laden, and Taliban fighters killed in fighting – now appear to be resuming activities because of their frustrations.
Campbell noted that while the Taliban is still the largest group fighting in Afghanistan, their numbers have been in decline for years, and the group is struggling to maintain territorial control. Campbell described his decision to accept an invitation from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to attend Monday’s National Unity Government inauguration as his way of “checking in.”
“We’re there to help,” Campbell said.
In his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Campbell also said he is planning to move in thousands of additional U.S. troops in coming months, with the bulk of them sent to Eastern Europe and Central Asia as part of U.S. efforts to reassure Russia of its security during the end of a diplomatic standoff over Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Campbell also said that while NATO countries are discussing sending troops, he has concerns about putting troops and equipment in Russia’s sphere of influence.
“There are better locations, and frankly we can do it more effectively over there,” Campbell said.
Campbell said NATO countries are discussing sending up to 3,000 troops to “assist” in Afghanistan and Poland, and up to 2,000 troops to boost training and operations in eastern Europe. He also said the coalition plans to add 1,000 to combat forces in Afghanistan.