U.S. general: Al-Qaida numbers have risen ‘slightly’ in recent years

In a new Newsweek cover story, U.S. Gen. John Nicholson, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, said that al-Qaida numbers have risen “slightly” in recent years, but insisted they represent a “marginal problem.”

“The issue in Pakistan has become their al-Qaida presence in Afghanistan,” said Nicholson, speaking in an interview with Newsweek in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.

“We’ve done so much to degrade the Afghan insurgency. It’s not going to suddenly fall into another decade-long war overnight. But it’s going to be a fight,” he said.

In May, Afghan officials said that a “few dozen” al-Qaida fighters remained in the country.

Asked what he was referring to by “slightly” more, Nicholson responded: “What do you call it?”

During the interview, he revealed that when the Taliban overran district centers in Nangarhar province last spring, he advised the Afghans in the area “to charge the place,” because their argument against doing so was that they lacked a strong resistance.

Nicholson said it was the “best advice I got” on the subject. “They didn’t have weapons to fight. They didn’t have enough to fight.”

He was also asked about an incident at a checkpoint in Nangarhar last week, in which the U.S. accidentally killed at least 36 men and boys at a checkpoint in Khogyani district, on the Afghan-Pakistan border.

“Some of the local folks became disgruntled when they didn’t get bulletproof vests,” Nicholson said, according to Newsweek.

He also addressed questions about whether the Taliban were actually joining al-Qaida, and whether it was the former Taliban that was actually calling the shots.

“As I understand it, they have a major role in the reconciliation process,” he said. “If reconciliation works, they could be part of that reconciliation, but we will have to work it through them. But there is an intent on their part.”

Nicholson told Newsweek the American-led military coalition is working to protect Afghanistan against suicide attacks. “It’s a constant battle. We don’t have a lot of options, we just have to figure out a way to get it done and get it done right,” he said.

SIGAR, the independent Afghanistan Analysts Network, confirmed Thursday that only one suicide attack, at a mosque in the eastern province of Paktika in August, had been carried out by the Taliban since June.

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