Al Qaeda continues to be a “big threat” to Afghanistan, where it is regrouping and preparing for major attacks, a top Afghan official has said.
The recent destruction of an al Qaeda training camp in Kandahar province – where there were about 150 fighters – has forced US military officials to revise estimates of the group’s strength in the country.
Acting defence minister Masoom Stanikzai told CNN al Qaeda is keeping a low profile but expanding.
“They are really very active. They are working in quiet and reorganising themselves and preparing themselves for bigger attacks,” he said.
“They are working behind other networks, giving them support and the experience they had in different places. And double their resources and recruitment and other things. That is how – they are not talking too much. They are not making press statements. It is a big threat.”
Stanikzai’s comments came against the backdrop of the Taliban announcing the start of their annual spring offensive on Tuesday. The group has named the campaign “Operation Omari” after late Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar.
Afghanistan faces the most significant summer fighting season in decades, with the Taliban gaining ground and building links to al Qaeda, and the Islamic State increasing its presence in the country.
Maj Gen Jeff Buchanan, deputy chief of staff for the US military force in Afghanistan, said the recent destruction of the al Qaeda training camp in Kandahar meant previous estimates of the group’s strength are being revised.
“If you go back to last year, there were a lot of intel estimates that said within Afghanistan, al Qaeda probably has 50 to 100 members, but in this one camp we found more than 150,” he said.
US officials said the number of core al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan could be as high as 300, though the number includes facilitators and sympathisers.
An unnamed senior US official admitted there was a gap in US knowledge of the problem, and warned al Qaeda’s core focus was still attacking the West.
“There’s not thousands of them, but clearly in remote parts of Afghanistan there are al Qaeda leaders we’re concerned about and what they’re capable of doing,” he said.
The destroyed training camp – attacked in a lengthy operation by US special forces and Afghan commandos in October – showed a high degree of sophistication “with ties back to al Qaeda and a subset called al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent”, Buchanan said.
Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent had not previously been associated much with Afghanistan. The discovery of its presence in the country raised concerns that Afghanistan is again becoming a safe haven for international terrorist networks whose main focus is attacks outside the country, including the West.
Stanikzai expressed concern over growing ties between al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Since Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour became leader in mid-2015, the Taliban has grown closer to al Qaeda. The Taliban’s current deputy commander, Siraj Haqqani, is head of the Haqqani Network and al Qaeda’s top facilitator in Afghanistan, according to US officials.
“The big cover is the Taliban,” said Stanikzai. “They need the fighters, they need the support and they need recruitment from other places, and this is why (the Taliban) embrace them.”
US Gen John Campbell, former commander in Afghanistan, has referred to a “renewed partnership” between the two groups. Buchanan said the relationship has “grown stronger”.
This burgeoning partnership poses a problem for any attempt by the US and Afghan governments to negotiate a political settlement with the Taliban, CNN reported.
The Taliban have said they are not currently interested in peace talks, though U.S. and Afghan officials insist some moderates want to talk.
“Many leaders in the Taliban are willing to enter into constructive peace talks,” Stanikzai said. “From a military point of view, we have to have the flexibility to target them. When it comes to negotiation, you cannot just burn everything.”