Nicholson claims the closer relationship has developed since the death of the former Taliban leader Mohammad Omar, who was replaced by Mullah Akhtar Mansour. Nicholson says that Mansour cultivated the closer relationship as a means of winning support in a leadership battle. This development could influence plans to cut US troops in Afghanistan. The presence of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan has all along been the reason for U.S. and NATO forces to go into Afghanistan in the first place even though for some while the numbers of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan were not large. A perceived resurgence of the group could be a justification for the U.S. not cutting their forces or even increasing them even though the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan is supposedly ended.
"You see a more overt cooperation between the Taliban and these designated terrorist organizations. Our concern is that if the Taliban were to return, that because of their close relationships with these groups, that they would offer sanctuary to these groups."
Nicholson is reviewing a plan that would see U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan cut in half to 5,500 by 2017. Some U.S. politicians and Afghan commanders are requesting that Washington reconsider its plans. Nicholson would not comment on the review which is to be presented this June. The warning about Al Qaeda is rather suspicious given that U.S. officials
estimates that there are just 100 to 300 Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan although some claim the estimate is low.
It is the Taliban who are still the main threat to the US-supported Afghan government. It numbers its fighters in the thousands and has retaken swaths of territory in the southern province of Helmand, and even took over the northern city of Kunduz for a short period. A recent attack
on Kunduz has been repulsed with more than 50 Taliban reported killed but the Taliban remain on the outskirts where they took over some military outposts. The Taliban just announced their spring offensive.
U.S. operations in Afghanistan have already picked up since the Islamic State in Khorasan has been designated as a terrorist group this January. In just the first 3 months of this year the U.S. has carried out nearly 100 strikes against the group mainly in the province of Nangarhar in eastern Afghanistan. The Islamic State and the Taliban are enemies with the IS attacking the Taliban as well as the government. Another source
gives slightly different figures about the number of attacks:
In the three months since the Obama Administration gave forces in Afghanistan authority to strike ISIS even when they don’t pose a direct threat, the Pentagon says some 70-80 such airstrikes have been launched, with 70% to 80% of them in Nangarhar Province.
General Charles Cleveland said that airstrikes had been quite effective in that at one point the Islamic State controlled six to eight districts but now controls only two to three. Before this announcement, the U.S. had not officially confirmed that the IS controlled any territory in Afghanistan. Cleveland estimates that there are around 1,000 Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan, considerably more than Al Qaeda.