KABUL, Afghanistan -- Al-Qaida militants are moving back into Afghanistan to plot new attacks here, highlighting the terror group's resilience despite nearly a decade of U.S.-led efforts to prevent its return to the country.
Several dozen al-Qaida operatives have left their bases in Pakistan and taken up new positions in eastern Afghanistan's Kunar and Nuristan provinces, remote regions which lie along the porous border between the two countries, according to senior officials with the International Security Assistance Force here.
The influx of al-Qaida fighters into Afghanistan, which hasn't previously been reported, could trigger fresh attacks on coalition and Afghan targets and hamper the intensifying push to strike peace deals with moderate elements of the Taliban.
ISAF officials said that al-Qaida operatives were returning to Afghanistan because they no longer felt as secure inside Pakistan as they once did. Central Intelligence Agency drones have carried out an escalating wave of strikes on militant targets inside Pakistan, including a record 21 such attacks last month alone. The Pakistani military, meanwhile, has been conducting ongoing offensives inside several longtime insurgent strongholds.
"Al-Qaida is being squeezed by the Pakistani operations, but we're beginning to see al-Qaida in the northeastern part of Kunar," said Maj. Gen. William Mayville, the head of operations for the ISAF high command here. "Some are crossing back."
An ISAF official here estimated in an interview that up to 50 al-Qaida fighters had returned to Afghanistan and were "actively planning" fresh attacks inside the country. U.S. officials have long estimated that al-Qaida had just a few hundred operatives left inside Afghanistan, so a movement of that many fighters would represent a fairly significant boost to the armed group's depleted ranks.
"There are emerging cells of card-carrying al-Qaida members moving up into the Kunar and Nuristan areas," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of ongoing counterterrorism operations against the militants. "We're concerned that they will use the mountainous terrain out there to build new training camps for their operatives."
ISAF officials cautioned that the returning al-Qaida fighters appeared to be low- and mid-level operatives rather than 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden or other members of the group's senior leadership. The officials also said the group's members in Afghanistan were focused on carrying out attacks within the country itself, not on using Afghanistan as a base for plotting strikes outside its borders.
The terror group's re-emergence inside Afghanistan, though limited in scope, highlights the difficulty of achieving lasting military gains despite nine years of hard fighting and the loss of more than 2,000 American and ISAF troops. At least 592 coalition troops have been killed this year, making 2010 the deadliest year to date of the Afghan war, according to the icasualties.org website.
U.S.-led forces first swept into Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which had been planned there by members of al-Qaida, a transnational terror group which was being sheltered by the fundamentalist Taliban movement then in control of the country.
American and allied forces quickly toppled Afghanistan's Taliban government and killed or captured large numbers of al-Qaida operatives and commanders. The fugitive leadership of both groups, including bin Laden, fled into neighboring Pakistan and are believed to be residing in safe havens within Pakistan's lawless tribal areas and along the porous border between the two countries.
U.S. and NATO Special Operations forces have been actively targeting the al-Qaida operatives attempting to cross back into Afghanistan. It's a challenging mission because the militants are moving into areas of the country that have relatively few foreign troops stationed nearby and whose mountainous terrain makes it easier for the fighters to conceal their movements, weapons caches and outposts.
Still, the coalition has had some notable recent successes. In late September, ISAF forces tracked Abdallah Umar al-Qurayshi, a senior commander of the al-Qaida fighters in eastern Afghanistan, to a remote compound in the restive Korengal Valley. NATO aircraft destroyed the compound, killing Qurayshi and several other Arab militants, including an al-Qaida explosives expert named Abu Atta al-Kuwaiti.
The ISAF official said Qurayshi was al-Qaida's third highest-ranking figure inside Afghanistan.
"We considered him to be in the top of the leadership of the al-Qaida group that we are now tracking in Afghanistan, so it was good to get him," the official said.
Still, ISAF officials caution that it will be difficult to prevent militant groups like al-Qaida and the Taliban from carrying out fresh attacks inside Afghanistan so long as they continue to have havens inside Pakistan.
The officials credited Islamabad with sharing more intelligence about the groups' movements and with conducting ongoing military offensives into insurgent strongholds like South Waziristan and Peshawar.
But they criticized Pakistan for failing to move into North Waziristan, the militants' main staging area, and for continuing to provide at least tacit support to extremist groups like the Haqqani network.
"We've talked to our Pakistani counterparts about this problem," the senior ISAF official said. "There's a flow of bad guys coming across the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan, and there's not much of a reciprocal flow back into Pakistan."