ISAF raids against al Qaeda and allies in Afghanistan 2007-2013


One of the arguments used by the Obama administration for a rapid drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan by the end of 2016 is that the US and the Coalition have reduced al Qaeda there to "remnants." To the contrary, however, a study by The Long War Journal of International Security Force press releases detailing raids against al Qaeda and its allies in Afghanistan shows that, since ISAF began reporting on these raids, jihadist groups have maintained a persistent presence in the country. ISAF's data is generally backed up by independent press reports, as well as al Qaeda and allied groups' own propaganda on their operations throughout Afghanistan.

These ISAF raids have targeted al Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Jihad Union (or Islamic Jihad Group), Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, Hizb-i Islami Khalis, and generic "foreign fighters," a term often used by ISAF to describe al Qaeda and other foreign groups. While all of these groups are not official al Qaeda branches, they cooperate closely with al Qaeda, enable al Qaeda to operate in multiple provinces, and have stated they are part of the international jihad. Additionally, al Qaeda often recruits leaders from these groups to fill leadership positions in al Qaeda. ISAF has occasionally reported that Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and IMU leaders and operatives were also members of al Qaeda.

The maps below plot the special operations raids targeting al Qaeda and its allies in Afghanistan that were reported by ISAF in official press releases from early 2007 until ISAF stopped issuing these press releases in the beginning of June 2013. [Click on the colored pins for reports on individual raids.]

The data used in the maps below do not include groups such as the Haqqani Network, an official branch of the Taliban that works closely with al Qaeda, as the number of raids against the Haqqanis alone is too large to plot; US government terrorist designations of Haqqani leaders show just how closely these two groups cooperate. Keep in mind also that ISAF did not report on every single raid; the press releases are merely a sampling, or a window into some of the raids against al Qaeda. Over the years, US military and intelligence officials have told The Long War Journal that there were far more raids against al Qaeda and its allies that have gone unreported.

The press releases indicate that between early 2007 and June 2013, al Qaeda and its allies were targeted 338 different times, in 25 of 34 of Afghanistan's provinces. Those raids have taken place in 110 of Afghanistan's nearly 400 districts.

In those 338 raids, al Qaeda was targeted 114 times, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan 139 times, generic "foreign fighters" 85 times, the Islamic Jihad Group 19 times, Lashkar-e-Taiba 5 times, the Hizb-e-Khalis 2 times, and the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan 1 time.

The data below should put to rest the idea that al Qaeda maintains an estimated 50 to 100 fighters in Afghanistan. Obama administration and senior US military officials have been making this claim since 2010, and have not deviated from the estimate, despite heavy targeting, especially in 2010 (76 raids), 2011 (90 raids), and 2012 (67 raids). The high level of targeting from 2010 to 2012 coincides with the US "surge" in forces, which ended at the end of 2011. However, with 42 raids against al Qaeda and allies between January and June in 2013, there is no indication that ISAF was letting up pressure on the terror group.

Additionally, the data indicates that al Qaeda has not had a "resurgence" in Kunar and Nuristan over the past few years, as is often reported. Rather, al Qaeda has in fact maintained a persistent presence in these two provinces. Al Qaeda has also maintained a foothold in Ghazni, Nangarhar, Khost, Paktia, and Paktika over the years. ISAF has targeted al Qaeda's network in these provinces consistently since 2007 up until the time when ISAF press reports stopped.

Map Key

Red - al Qaeda
Blue - Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan
Green - foreign fighters
Teal - Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan)
Yellow - Lashkar-e-Taiba
Pink - Hizb-i Islami Khalis
Purple - Islamic Jihad Union

Dot - Killed/Captured
No Dot - Targeted


2013

Special operations forces launched 42 raids in 2013 between Jan. 1 and the beginning of June, when ISAF ended its operational reporting. Raids against al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba alone took place in Ghazni, Nangarhar, Kunar, and Nuristan.


View Al Qaeda in Afghanistan - 2013 in a larger map

2012

There were 67 raids against al Qaeda and its allies in 2012. Raids against al Qaeda alone took place in Paktia, Paktika, Ghazni, Kunar, Nuristan, and Takhar.


View Al Qaeda in Afghanistan - 2012 in a larger map

2011

There were 90 raids against al Qaeda and its allies in 2011, the largest number of raids tracked in a single year. Raids against al Qaeda alone took place in Ghazni, Nangarhar, Wardak, Laghman, Khost, Kunar, Balkh, Takhar, Kandahar, and Zabul, and also likely in Paktika, Baghlan, Kunduz, and Farah ("foreign fighters" along with groups such as the IMU were targeted in several raids).


View Al Qaeda in Afghanistan - 2011 in a larger map

2010

In 2010, special operations forces targeted al Qaeda and allied groups 76 times. Al Qaeda and foreign fighters alone were targeted in Ghazni, Nangarhar, Wardak, Logar, Khost, Paktia, Paktika, Kunar, Kunduz, Badakhshan, Kandahar, Zabul, and Farah.


View Al Qaeda in Afghanistan - 2010 in a larger map

2009

In 2009, special operations forces targeted al Qaeda and allied groups 30 times. Al Qaeda alone was targeted in Ghazni, Nangarhar, Khost, Paktika, Kunar, Helmand, and Kandahar.


View Al Qaeda in Afghanistan - 2009 in a larger map

2008

Special operations forces targeted al Qaeda and its allies 28 times in 2008. Al Qaeda itself was targeted in Ghazni, Nangarhar, Khost, Paktia, and Kunar.


View Al Qaeda in Afghanistan - 2008 in a larger map

2007

ISAF reported on three raids against al Qaeda starting in April 2007. Al Qaeda was targeted in Khost and Nangarhar.


View Al Qaeda in Afghanistan - 2007 in a larger map



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READER COMMENTS: "ISAF raids against al Qaeda and allies in Afghanistan 2007-2013"

Posted by Scott at May 31, 2014 4:05 AM ET:

Excellent analysis of coalition strikes against AQ and affiliated entities. But what is your point? Should we maintain combat operations in AF/PAC indefinitely? Do we broadcast to both the Afghan and PAC gov's and power brokers that, hey no worries, you don't need to straighten your houses out, because we will be here forever to pick up where you have failed.

I remind you we live in a democracy in which civilian government rules. All major indicators say a majority of Americans are done with US offensive forces in Afghanistan. The threshold is direct threats on the homeland, US interests, and core allies.

Posted by Bill Roggio at May 31, 2014 2:42 PM ET:

Scott, the point is al Qaeda is far from defeated. I am not making policy recommendations. I am pointing out that ISAF's own data doesn't match what US officials have said about al Qaeda in Afghanistan over the years.

If the administration wants to leave Afghanistan because the American public is tired of war, and the public supports that, then that is what will happen. It is happening. But no on should be surprised if the Taliban is back in control of large swath of Afghanistan and al Qaeda sets up bases there.

What we are being told is that the Afghan government is ready to take over, and al Qaeda is a "remnant" of its former self. Do you believe that? If so, then you'd say we should leave. If not, you have to realize that a zero option by the end of 2016 will very likely put us right back to where we were pre-9/11 in Afghanistan.

Posted by Ghost Soldier at May 31, 2014 11:40 PM ET:

Bill, I am finding it difficult to take your comments seriously beyond political polemics. You state (almost unequivocally) that the Obama administration is wrong in saying that there are 100 AQ in Afghanistan. Yet you fail to operationalize the term 'Al Qaeda'. How do you define affiliation? Is it financing? Is it a pledge of fealty? If a pledge, how do you determine that?

Frankly, I don't know how you arrive at the assessment that more than 100 AQ remain in Afghanistan. It may be true but it most likely is not. Most AQ hardcore are in Pakistan now and are of Pakistani ethnicity.

Explain further why you believe more than 100 AQ exist in Afghanistan. In doing this, please characterize how you arrived at this assessment and how you define 'AQ'. Further, do more to substantiate your claims of groups such as LeT, TTP, and others being in certain places. Frankly, you're often way off the mark in placing them inside their areas of operation.

As an aside, I wonder if the source of your information has the same political affiliation as you and Mr. Joscelyn. You're often a proponent of further intervention, converging with most thought over at FDD. Many of us who have spent quite a bit of time in Afghanistan wonder where you're getting these assessments. The commentator above apparently has the same concerns as I.

Posted by Bill Roggio at June 1, 2014 8:47 AM ET:

Ghost Soldier,

The source of the information on the maps is ISAF's own press releases. If you took the time to look at them, you'd see that.

I am also clear we are discussing al Qaeda and allied groups. Please re-read the article. Look at the maps; do you see the color-coded pins? I couldn't have been clearer how we define the threat. You do realize that these groups work together as part of a broader jihadist network, don't you? When the IMU plots to conduct attacks in Europe as part of a great al Qaeda plot, what do you call that? Does it make you comfortable/allow you to sleep well at night to compartmentalize "al Qaeda" from the IMU knowing this is how they operate? When Lashkar-e-Taiba works with al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and al Qaeda gives it orders and directions on operations like Mumbai '08, what do you call that?

As far as the 100 AQ in Afghanistan goes... So is al Qaeda so efficient that it consistently maintains 50 to 100 operatives in Afghanistan for five years running (the length of time US officials have made this claim)? The common narrative is AQ is confined to Kunar-Nuristan. I've just shown, using ISAF's own raid data, which is merely what has been made public and is not all of it, that AQ operates well beyond Kunar and Nuristan, and has done so since 2007. So that 50-100 estimate, which is a "best case estimate" since it is used as a rationale for withdrawal, is just for Kunar-Nuristan. The "AQ is confined to Kunar-Nuristan canard," which is often repeated by the military and intelligence, clearly is wrong (as an aside, does disagreeing with the military/intel conventional wisdom make me political?).

Al Qaeda's operational reports, which are often in Vanguards of Khorasan, pretty much matches ISAF's own reports on the locations of where AQ fights in Afghanistan. You can see an example of this here:

http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2011/06/special_operations_f_5.php#

Now you want to brand me as a neocon or whatever political tag you think fits because I happen to disagree with the commonly held assessment of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. You do know that other commonly repeated assessments of al Qaeda are:

1) circa 2002-2004: AQ is dead, 75% of leaders has been killed or captured
2) Elections would mean the end of al Qaeda (Iraq, Lebanon, Palestinian Territories, mid-2000s)
3) the Arab Spring is death knell of al Qaeda
4) Osama bin Laden was hiding in a cave in the tribal areas and isolated
5) Bin Laden's death would be the end of al Qaeda
6) Al Qaeda is fragmented/disjointed
7) Withdrawing from Kunar and Nuristan would deny the local insurgency a reason to fight, and al Qaeda would be marginalized there.

I could go on...

All of these assessments have been proven wrong. I have disagreed with them all. I hope you recognize that the first two items were Bush administration assessments. And the last one was given by the Institute for Study of War. So, given I disagreed with those assessments, does that make me political as well?

I am not "often a proponent of further intervention." Where do you get that? In fact, on Syria, I've said it is a mistake for the US to arm the "moderate rebels" and get in deeper bed with them. In case you are not aware, that puts me at odds with others at FDD. I also thought the US was mistaken to intervene in Libya. So please don't make statements like that without knowing what you are talking about.

What I do is attempt to educate on the nature of the threats we face. My assessments are often are at odds with the common assessments on both sides of the aisle. The minority report, if you will. That means LWJ is political?

By the way, I am quite aware of the military establishment's attempts to squash dissenting assessments of al Qaeda inside military circles. And I'll leave that at that.

I do take it personally that you accuse me of taking political sides on this and other issues. I work hard to keep this site impartial and remain apolitical. Frankly, I despise politics. That is a game for others to play.

Posted by Eric at June 3, 2014 12:29 AM ET:

All the information I have reviewed over the years is generally in agreement with the information presented here by TLWJ. Al Qaeda has a persistent network of operatives throughout large areas of Afghanistan. They number in the hundreds in Afghanistan, and in the thousands in Pakistan. Taken together with allied groups such as the IMU, the Haqqani Network, LeT, and more than a dozen others, they represent a total force nearly as numerous as the Taliban itself, both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.

Post pullout, these groups will be resurgent. The threat to the Afghan government and the ANA will be immediate. In the current year, they are more concerned with laying the groundwork for the years to come, as they calculate their chances for overthrowing the elected government and returning to Taliban rule.

The US political leadership and military leadership have all chosen to persist in the narrative that their work is finished already, and it is time to bring the troops home.

Consistent with that message is a downplaying and under-reporting of Al Qaeda presence in the Afghan provinces.

I find nothing political in the LWJ's reporting - on the contrary, the LWJ has been the opposite of political - they have been truthful. And it has been a bitter pill for the political leadership to swallow, that there are truthful accounts out there in the free press that contradict their narrative.

TLWJ has prudently kept reporting to what was publicly disseminated by the ISAF itself, and has not cited classified sources in shaping the information on Al Qaeda's continued presence in Afghanistan. Doing otherwise would be damaging and foolhardy.

It remains to be seen how quickly the militant extremists will rise up and overthrow the Afghan people. Most assessments are on the order of a few years, and are attempting to inform on the debate over continued aid to Afghanistan.

The data assembled here would not support an assessment of years, but rather a matter of months before a serious push to overthrow the Afghan government.

Where will the US be, with the political will to return to combat operations in Afghanistan if the government is in danger of collapse in the summer of 2016? or the following year? Can we at least consider that hypothetical with an honest public discussion before we commit to the withdrawal timeline?

The US government can accomplish the withdrawal within the stated timeline. An end to war can be declared. The Patriot act can be dismantled. GTMO foreign combatant detention facilities can be closed. A new doctrine for war-fighting can be put into effect to forestall US troops invading foreign countries in another declaration of war to combat terror. And we can accept the fact that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place after we leave. - All of that is in the cards.

And then if Kabul is overrun and the Afghan government is sacked in the summer of 2016 or 2017, what is the US government going to do? For now, they do not feel they need to answer such a contention. The Afghan forces are sufficiently built up, and the Afghan government is functioning sufficiently to make such a scenario not seem plausible. With adequate foreign aid, the Afghans have a fighting chance to hold on to elected government and rule of law. For now, there is no perceived need to hold a serious discussion about what if, for 2016 or 2017.

But the facts on the ground contradict the US government's narrative. The ground truth is somewhere between the contention that Afghanistan will fall to the Taliban in a few months, and the contention that the Afghan government will stand for at least several years. And a frank discussion about what we will do if it falls much sooner than expected is not getting its due attention. It deserves at least to be addressed as a hypothetical development for the immediate future.

If this were given due attention it would put fears to rest that all options have been considered for the fate of Afghanistan, and we know what we will do if Afghanistan were in trouble right away. But the political realities seem to require us to overlook this discussion, in order to foster an orderly approach to dis-engagement and prepare the Afghans to accept responsibility for their own situation.

Interesting times we are living in.

Posted by Moose at June 4, 2014 12:06 AM ET:

Bill,
If you're going to conflate all these groups as Al Qaeda, why not add the ISI? You're defining Al Qaeda how you want and overlaying ISAF data on it. Ghost Soldier was asking for more info on the definition.

No one sleeps well at night knowing that the IMU and AQ work together, but neither do I about al-Shabaab, AQIM, AQAP, and the rest of them. I do sleep well at night knowing that AQ CENTRAL can't plan and conduct attacks like 9/11 in the forseeable future b/c they have been severely weakened. The nature of the threat has changed and we should change our definition of the threat accordingly. That way we can fight this "long war" without anymore of this nation building crap.

Posted by Stavy at June 4, 2014 2:06 PM ET:

I have been reading this site since almost the start and can vouch for the apolitical stance of the reporting herein.

The facts are presented in a way that you can verify everything stated here on your own if you take the time. The fact is that your thinly veiled requests for further definition points to your own political leanings.

The publicly available hard facts Bill uses to refute the Administration's claims may not sit well with your political leanings but they are not presented at all in any political way.

If you have evidence to refute his facts please present them. Oh and please present them in a non-political way.

Posted by Bill Roggio at June 4, 2014 4:54 PM ET:

Thanks for the kind words, Eric & Stavy.

Moose, you are defining AQ Central as dead. We clearly disagree on that score.