At Afghan base, al Qaeda memories fresh 18 years after September 11 attacks
By Phil Stewart
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (Reuters) - It's shortly before sunrise, and Maryanna Swanson, a Navy nurse from Long Island, thinks she may run out of T-shirts for all of the runners showing up for a Sept. 11 memorial race that she's helping organise at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan.
News of the race spread by word of mouth and soon maybe more than 200 people - from bearded commandos to medics and base firefighters - were running hard around this dusty base, just miles from what was once a major al Qaeda training camp.
Swanson's family saw al Qaeda's devastation first-hand 18 years ago, the day when al Qaeda hijackers slammed airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon, killing almost 3,000 people.
"My uncle was a fireman in New York City on 9/11 ... He was at Ground Zero," said Swanson, a Navy Lieutenant junior grade, who was only 8 when the attacks took place.
Even after 18 years, memories of the attacks that triggered the war in Afghanistan are still fresh for U.S. troops here, many of whom were only in elementary school at the time.
Those service members who spoke to Reuters in the past several days at bases throughout the country say Sept. 11 inspired them to enlist in the U.S. military.
The attacks are also front-and-centre in the minds of policymakers in President Donald Trump's administration, who are weighing the risks of narrowing or even ending America's longest war, which is locked in a grinding stalemate with the Taliban.
The U.S.-led coalition launched by President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks ousted the Taliban from power for harbouring al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and drove al Qaeda's leaders, including Osama bin Laden, to Pakistan.
Al Qaeda has been decimated over the years. But U.S. officials estimate there are still small numbers of al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, some with deep ties to the Taliban insurgency. More are across the border in Pakistan.
Many U.S. officials doubt the Taliban could be relied upon to prevent al Qaeda from again plotting attacks against the United States from Afghan soil. That was one of the U.S. demands during peace negotiations with the Taliban that Trump declared "dead" this week.
"If there's some type of deal for Afghanistan, etc, we do assess that al Qaeda would try to move back into Afghanistan to set up operations," one U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said it was folly to think Washington could ever rely on assurances from the Taliban about al Qaeda.
"The Taliban gave up the country rather than give up al Qaeda in 2001," Crocker told Reuters. "They will say anything we want to hear, knowing that once we go, we won't be coming back."
AL QAEDA VS ISLAMIC STATE
For the United States, al Qaeda is not the top near-term threat in Afghanistan, where the U.S. military is mainly occupied with a Taliban insurgency that now controls more territory that at any time since the war began.
Second-ranking for U.S. analysts is Islamic State, which has thousands of fighters and facilitators in Afghanistan, and appears able to recruit educated Afghans from universities.
Al Qaeda ranks third. U.S. officials told Reuters they estimate al Qaeda's core group has only dozens of fighters in Afghanistan. But there are more in the group's regional branch, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. Those number a couple of hundred, U.S. officials say.
Whenever al Qaeda operatives appear, however, they become a priority for U.S. counter-terrorism forces.
Roya Rahmani, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States, said the Taliban's links to al Qaeda are not just ideological.
"There are deep ties between the groups ... starting with intermarriages," Rahmani said in an interview.
Trump, a longtime critic of the Afghan war and the billions of dollars it costs, has said he would like to reduce the number of U.S. forces to about 8,600 from around 14,000 currently. That is down from a peak of more than 100,000 U.S. troops in 2011.
One of the main concerns for the United States in any drawdown would be preserving enough troops to ensure the United States can strike militants that could otherwise threaten the U.S. homeland, including Islamic State and al Qaeda.
Both groups could benefit from an eventual peace agreement with the Taliban. The first U.S. official estimated that as many as 4% of Taliban insurgents could try to join Islamic State.
U.S. Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command that is in charge of the region that includes Afghanistan, declined to speculate on what an 8,600-strong counter-terrorism-focused force might look like.
But he has stressed the importance of keeping pressure on militant groups like Islamic State and al Qaeda.
Speaking to Marines in Afghanistan's Helmand province, McKenzie said U.S. forces had been successful in preventing another Sept. 11-style attack emanating from Afghanistan.
"The cost has been high. There's nobody here who hasn't lost a friend or somebody that you know as a result of operations," he said at Forward Operating Base Shorab in Helmand Province.
Critics say the war has failed to sufficiently pressure the Taliban to end the conflict on America's terms.
McKenzie was working at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, when the plane hit the building. He later served two tours in Afghanistan, as did his son, who is also a Marine.
"We are here because of that day. That's what brought all of us here," he said.
A PRAYER FOR THOSE LOST
Just before the race began at Kandahar Airfield, an Army chaplain, Major Jason Webster, led a prayer that honoured the sacrifices of American forces over the past 18 years. About 2,400 U.S. service members have been killed in the course of the Afghan conflict and many thousands more wounded.
Webster's own brigade lost one of its soldiers, Sergeant 1st Class Elis A. Barreto Ortiz, 34, in a suicide bombing last week - a case cited by Trump when he called off plans to meet Taliban leaders at Camp David.
"I acknowledge the pain and suffering of so many over the past 18 years. With the loss of life on 9/11, to the subsequent sacrifice of those who gave their lives in defence of liberty and our freedom," Webster said.
"Hurting children without (a) father or mother ... An empty chair among teammates. A picture hanging on a wall."
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Frances Kerry)