KABUL — A diminished but resilient Al Qaeda, whose 9/11 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 Qaeda cells in recent months. It also undercuts an Obama administration narrative portraying Al Qaeda 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 Obama said his administration had turned the tide of war. ''The goal that I set — to defeat Al Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild — is within reach,'' he said.
As things stand, however, an unquestionably weakened Al Qaeda 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 Dec. 31, 2014, and 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, General Dawlat Khan Zadran, said through a translator in an interview this month in the governor's compound. He mentioned no numbers, but said Al Qaeda 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 Qaeda before the US invasion 11 years ago. But the strategic goal is to prevent Al Qaeda from again finding a haven in Afghanistan from which to launch attacks on the United States.
Al Qaeda'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 General John Allen, the top commander of international forces in Afghanistan, has said Al Qaeda has reemerged, and although its numbers are small, he says the group does not 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 operation forces at the ready to keep a long-term lid on Al Qaeda inside Afghanistan.
A more immediate worry is the threat posed by the growing presence of Al Qaeda and affiliated groups in Yemen, Somalia, and across a broad swath of North Africa, where it is believed Al Qaeda-linked militants may have been responsible for the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya that killed US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.