Afghanistan's al-Qaida leader is moving to shore up his support and retrain militants, as the United States and President Hamid Karzai's government remain at an impasse over a post-2014 security agreement.
Defense and intelligence officials told the Associated Press that a counterterrorism campaign, including drone and missile strikes, is underway to keep Farouq al-Qahtani al-Qatari from restarting the large militant training camps that he oversaw before the war began.
Al-Qatari is in the Kunar and Nuristan provinces, near the Pakistani border, where officials would like to keep him. They added that without the continued ability to fly drones and jets from at least one air base — which could be blocked if a bilateral security agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan isn't reached — the al-Qaida leader and his followers could plan attacks against the United States.
President Obama on Tuesday asked for the Pentagon to create a contingency plan for withdrawing all U.S. troops by the end of the year, referred to as the "zero option." If all U.S. troops leave the country, NATO will also pull its forces.
Obama's request followed a public campaign by U.S. and NATO officials to get the Afghan president to sign the security agreement. Karzai pushed the signing of the pact until after the country's elections this spring.
Military and administration officials, members of Congress, and outside experts have repeatedly warned that if the United States pulls out all of its troops, the Taliban and al-Qaida would likely see a resurgence in the country.
That line of thought was echoed by Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff, earlier this month. He said that Afghanistan's institutions, including security forces, have made "quite a bit" of progress, but aren't strong enough to maintain those advances over the long term.
The Defense Department has recommended leaving 10,000 troops in the country through 2017.