The presidential candidates should listen to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta when he reminds us that there is still a war being fought in Afghanistan. And we should remember what Panetta’s predecessor, Robert Gates, had to say about Afghanistan in 2010, too.

After a speech at Duke University in September 2010, Gates explained to students that eastern Afghanistan “is increasingly an unholy syndicate of terrorist groups working together: al Qaeda, the Haqqani network, the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban and groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba.”

 “A success for one is a success for all,” Gates warned.

Simply put, al Qaeda still has a presence in Afghanistan and works closely with other jihadist groups that do as well. The role of al Qaeda in the Taliban’s former stronghold has been largely ignored in recent years as some pretend that al Qaeda’s core in Pakistan lacks a network inside Afghanistan. But Gates’s warning has only become truer since he spoke those words at Duke.

“Al Qaeda is still present in Afghanistan,” Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who has since retired from his post, told the Daily Telegraph (UK) in an interview earlier this year. Crocker continued, “If the West decides that 10 years in Afghanistan is too long then they will be back, and the next time it will not be New York or Washington, it will be another big Western city.”

There is evidence that al Qaeda is already using Afghanistan (once again) to plot attacks against the West.  

Earlier this month, for example, Spanish authorities announced that they had broken up a three-man al Qaeda cell that was plotting terrorist attacks on one or more targets. The cell had been trained in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Investigators added that the men had ties to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which is headquartered in Pakistan, and had attended the LeT’s training camps inside Afghanistan as well.

This is a good example of the “unholy syndicate” Gates talked about. The LeT continues to dispatch fighters into Afghanistan alongside members of other terrorist organizations. The LeT and al Qaeda have cooperated with one another since the 1990s.

A few days after the Spanish announcement, the U.S. State Department added a Saudi al Qaeda member based in Afghanistan to the government’s list of designated terrorists. The terrorist, known as Mansur al Harbi, has long been wanted by Saudi authorities for his ties to senior al Qaeda members inside the kingdom and Pakistan. Al Harbi “is responsible for training militants and for the coordination of foreign fighters who travel to Afghanistan to fight against coalition forces,” according to State. Al Harbi first joined al Qaeda in Afghanistan more than a decade ago. “As a result of his key training position, al Harbi is closely connected to many senior al Qaeda leaders,” State added.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) continues to regularly target al Qaeda and affiliated groups, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), inside Afghanistan. As my colleague Bill Roggio has documented, ISAF’s press releases over the past several years indicate that al Qaeda and its allies have operated in 114 districts and in 25 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

Not much has been said about al Qaeda during the presidential campaign thus far. President Obama and his advisers have argued that al Qaeda is “on the path to defeat.” But the group remains alive, in Afghanistan and numerous other countries.

The next president will likely have to deal with al Qaeda’s footprint inside Afghanistan in late January 2013 and beyond.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.