A diminished but resilient al-Qaida, whose September 11, 2001, 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-Qaida cells in recent months.
It also undercuts an Obama administration narrative portraying al-Qaida 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-Qaida, and deny it a chance to rebuild is within reach," he said.
As things stand, however, an unquestionably weakened al-Qaida 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 December 31, 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, Gen. Dawlat Khan Zadran, said through a translator in an interview in October in the governor's compound.
He mentioned no numbers, but said al-Qaida 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-Qaida before the US invasion 11 years ago.
But the strategic goal is to prevent al-Qaida from again finding haven in Afghanistan from which to launch attacks on the US
Al-Qaida's leadership fled in late 2001 to neighboring 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 Gen. John Allen, the top commander of international forces in Afghanistan, has said al-Qaida 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-Qaida inside Afghanistan.