WASHINGTON - There are growing concerns the United States is vastly underestimating al-Qaida's strength and influence in Afghanistan, even as the White House continues to talk about ever more ambitious deadlines for bringing home U.S. troops still stationed in the country.
Specifically, international terrorism officials, as well as Afghan officials, point to a widening gap between U.S. assessments of a significantly diminished al-Qaida and their own, which see a terror group that is strengthening its grip despite absorbing numerous blows.
"Senior figures remain in Afghanistan, as well as hundreds of armed operatives," Edmund Fitton-Brown, coordinator of the United Nations monitoring team for Islamic State, al-Qaida and the Taliban, said Friday during a webinar on the future of Afghanistan.
"[Al-Qaida leader] Ayman al-Zawahiri remains close to the Taliban," he said, adding, "The Taliban regularly consulted with al-Qaida during the negotiations with the United States and they offered informal guarantees that would honor their historic ties with al-Qaida."
The warning of a retrenched al-Qaida is not entirely new.
A U.N. report issued this past July warned the group "is covertly active in 12 Afghan provinces," adding it likely commands 400 to 600 fighters.
U.N. member states have further warned of additional armed support from al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), an affiliate that is thought to have another 150 to 200 fighters in Afghanistan's Nimruz, Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
Afghan officials have, likewise, cast doubt on reports that the threat from the terror group has faded.
Instead, they argue their intelligence shows the Taliban have used ongoing peace talks with the United States to strengthen their ties to al-Qaida and others.
"The Taliban try to use these groups and organizations more than before in fighting inside Afghanistan," Zia Seraj, the acting head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan spy agency, said in May.
US threat assessment
While international and Afghan counterterror officials see a growing threat, a number of key U.S. officials continue to portray al-Qaida in Afghanistan as a fading power.
During a virtual talk at the Washington-based Atlantic Council in September, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said there are "fewer than 200 al-Qaida left in Afghanistan."
Days later, National Counterterrorism Center Director Christopher Miller went even further in written testimony submitted to lawmakers on the House Homeland Security Committee.
"Al-Qaida's presence in Afghanistan has been reduced to a few dozen fighters who are primarily focused on their survival," Miller asserted, adding the terror group is "probably incapable of conducting attacks outside the country under sustained CT [counterterrorism] pressure."
One international counterterrorism official, though, speaking on the condition of anonymity, called such optimistic pronouncements "hugely problematic." Others warn the U.S. is making a mistake by failing to account for substantial support from a vast majority of the 10,000 foreign fighters currently in Afghanistan.
Still other officials and experts fear the U.S. assessments of a "few dozen" al-Qaida fighters are not intended to be accurate, but rather to align with repeated calls by U.S. President Donald Trump to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan as soon as possible.
"It's just not credible to say that there are only a few dozen al-Qaida guys running around Afghanistan," said Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
"That's clearly undercounting for your own policy desires," he said, cautioning that the U.S. has long been guilty of sharing overly optimistic assessments of al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
"There are so many pronouncements made by the military on al-Qaida's strength in Afghanistan that were wrong over the years," he said, noting earlier U.S. estimates of as few as 50 operatives. "They just go from one inaccurate assessment to another."
'Relationship with al-Qaida'
But Joscelyn added even the U.N. estimates of 400 to 600 al-Qaida operatives might be too low.
"The Pakistani Taliban is known to have a very tight relationship with al-Qaida," Joscelyn said. "How many of the Pakistani Taliban guys...are dual-hatted, they're also al-Qaida guys? Nobody can tell you, but we know that some of them are."
Even within U.S. military and intelligence circles, there is some skepticism that al-Qaida is barely hanging on - thanks in part to ongoing support from the Taliban despite pledges to counter the threat.
"They have taken steps. But this is unfinished business from my point of view," U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been spearheading peace talks with the Taliban, told the U.S. Institute for Peace last month. "They need to take more."
Still, Khalilzad insisted al-Qaida fighters "are a very small number."
"They are mostly focused on survival because we are hunting for them," he said.
Mirwais Rahmani of VOA's Afghan Service contributed to this story.