Al Qaeda’s Kandahar training camp ‘probably the largest’ in Afghan War

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The Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe provides new reporting on the two large al Qaeda training facilities raided by US and Afghan forces in the Shorabak District of Kandahar earlier this month. Lamothe interviewed Gen. John F. Campbell, who oversees the war effort in Afghanistan. And Campbell confirmed that the camps were run by al Qaeda, with one of them being extraordinarily big.

“It’s a place where you would probably think you wouldn’t have AQ. I would agree with that,” Campbell said, according to the Post. “This was really AQIS, and probably the largest training camp-type facility that we have seen in 14 years of war.”

AQIS stands for Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, the newest regional branch of al Qaeda’s international organization. Ayman al Zawahiri, the emir of al Qaeda, announced the establishment of AQIS in September 2014. AQIS has attempted some pretty daring plots against the Pakistani military, but like al Qaeda arms elsewhere appears to be devoting most of its resources to the jihadists’ insurgencies in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries.

As we reported on Oct. 13, US military officials said that one of the two al Qaeda camps was nearly 30 square miles in size – an astonishing figure. More than 200 US troops and Afghan commandos, supported by 63 airstrikes, were required to assault the facilities. Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner, a US military spokesman, was quoted in a press release as saying that the raids included “one of the largest joint ground-assault operations we have ever conducted in Afghanistan.” Shoffner added, “We struck a major al Qaeda sanctuary in the center of the Taliban’s historic heartland.”

Taking out an al Qaeda camp of this size, over several days, likely required extensive planning. And Campbell said as much in his interview with Lamothe. “We looked at it for a while to make sure we reduced the risk to the forces that go in on a target like that,” Campbell said. “It was a very complex target set over several days.”

Campbell explained to the Post that the Shorabak camps “were discovered after a raid this summer on another al Qaeda facility in the Barmal district of eastern Afghanistan’s Paktika province.” Interestingly, that is where Abu Khalil al Sudani, one of al Qaeda’s most senior figures, was killed in July.

Indeed, intelligence recovered from the facility associated with Sudani may have been used to locate the Shorabak camps. The timing is consistent with reporting by CNN’s Barbara Starr, who cited an email from “coalition forces.” On Oct. 21, Starr reported that the massive camp in Shorabak “had been operating since last November — and the US didn’t learn the full details about the site until July.” That is the same month as the strike against Sudani. According to Starr, the “coalition” explained that “several hundred hours of surveillance” were carried out between July, when the camps were discovered, and Oct. 7, when the joint American-Afghan raids were first launched.

The “coalition sources” cited by CNN provided these details on the larger of the two camps:

Bottom line is that this camp was built to be a high end training facility to prepare enemy personnel. This camp is unique in its level of technical training. The training camp was broken down by basic and advance training areas. Training ranged from physical fitness, weapons training (small arms to advanced explosive training, indirect fire), chemistry to produce advanced explosives, and higher level sniper training.

All of this raises troubling questions. Why weren’t the facilities in Shorabak discovered before July 2015, especially given that one of them was almost 30 square miles in size? US officials have long maintained that al Qaeda has a negligible presence in Afghanistan and was confined to the country’s east. Why didn’t the US know that al Qaeda had major operations ongoing in southern Afghanistan?

“What I think you have to do is challenge your assumptions here,” Campbell explained in his interview with Lamothe. “Things change, and what was good here in 2010 or 2011 may not necessarily be good today as far as the enemy.”

It is true that al Qaeda fighters have streamed into Afghanistan from northern Pakistan. And al Qaeda has relocated its operations not just into Kandahar, but also into Helmand. As we reported on Oct. 24:

Since the beginning of the year, Pakistani authorities have carried out multiple raids against [AQIS]. However, according to Pakistani officials, AQIS has relocated a significant portion of its operations into Helmand. The move by AQIS was made in anticipation of the Pakistani military’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb, an offensive that began in June 2014. The offensive has targeted al Qaeda and affiliated jihadist groups, including several from Central Asia. Some of these same organizations have helped fuel the Taliban’s advances in Afghanistan this year.

Thus, al Qaeda’s relocation from northern Pakistan to Afghanistan has undoubtedly increased its footprint in the latter country since early 2014. But the reality is that the US intelligence community and military underestimated al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan even prior to that time.

An analysis of press releases issued by the now defunct International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from 2007 to 2013 demonstrates that al Qaeda and allied groups maintained significant cadres of jihadists in the country during that span. Declassified files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound show that al Qaeda operated in multiple Afghan provinces in the months leading up to the May 2011 Abbottabad raid.

So, the US should “challenge” its assumptions as “[t]hings change,” especially because those assumptions were wrong all along.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for The Long War Journal.

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8 Comments

  • Arjuna says:

    So to paraphrase, decades after AQ was founded in AfPak, they are stronger than ever in…. AfPak. Yay. What a nice return on a trillion dollars of American taxpayer money. We are being lied to by the USG about enemy defeats (and the lack thereof), lied to about the strength and readiness of friendly forces (or the lack thereof), lied to about the missions of SOF (eg Abbottabad and others), in short, lied to again and again and again. All these lies might be permissible if they were a part of a grander deception enabling us to more effectively defeat the enemy; however, they are mainly lies told to disguise how badly our wars are going and to give us some kind of “peace with honor” fig leaf while we skulk away in defeat. Shame on the USA. Win your wars for once!

  • m3fd2002 says:

    Don’t shed any tears for the Pakistanis. There were numerous opportunities to plan/conduct joint operations of scale against AQIS over the last 10 years! The Pakistanis balked at any real cooperation. The Pakistanis are/where no friend of ISAF. In fact, they were directly involved in supporting and protecting many elements that were attacking those forces. As for knowledge of AQ footprint in Afghanistan, “US officials” had a narrative that they had to maintain to support the Administrations withdrawal plans. I’ve stated before, this intervention was doomed one second after Obama’s Surge/Withdrawal speech in 2009. It gave hope to the Taliban/AQ and gave the realization to government supporters we would not be there to protect them. Everyone in theater began hedging their bets.

    • Arjuna says:

      Agree. Bush’s friend Mushie said this week that AQ and the Taliban were their heroes. And their def min said they knew OBL was in Pakistan.
      Announcing a withdrawal date in warfare is like saying you will fly to a certain height and shut off your plane’s engine. Just insane.
      We don’t deserve to win our wars. Look at how much bang for the buck the Russians and jihadis get versus US. It’s so lopsided as to be laughable. The enemy is so much craftier and more cunning, and patient.

  • John Barr says:

    I was a mentor/advisor with the British Army attached to the Afghan Army Officer’s Academy in Kabul in 2104. I remember having a heated discussion with a distinguished Dr of International Relations who was being deployed there as a civilian advisor, about Al Qaeda and whether the organisation was a spent force or not. His views reflected the rest of the military/political establishment at the time and he was adamant the organisation was over and the cause had died with it. I argued otherwise, citing events in Syria which were responsible for the resurgence of political Islamist groups in that region as as well as the West’s dismissal of the plight of innocent Syrians which just galvanised support for Jihadist groups world wide and reignited the cause. This discussion took place in January 2014. Six months later huge swathes of Iraq and Syria fell to ISIL. It was also inevitable that Taliban/Al Qaeda would fill the vacuum once US/UK military withdrew from Afghanistan also. My point is that it seems that the Western ‘intelligentsias’ can’t seem to comprehend that political Islamist terror groups are all part of the same beast but with different heads. Often ideologically opposed and some working to different agendas at a micro scale. From my perspective, as a security contractor in Kabul, political expediency and denial in Washington and Downing Street has got a lot to answer for. As for Western ‘intelligentsia’, well, they should spend less time in books and more time in Helmand on the receiving end of the Taliban, then they might be able to come up with better strategic forecasting to best advise governments with.
    JWB from Kabul, Afghanistan.

    • Arjuna says:

      Completely agree; and the Americans were utterly foolish to leave Iraq to the Iraqis when ISI was still capable of mounting multi-VBIED attacks. We left lambs to a slaughter and the ISIS romp and massive weapons acquisition by them were eminently foreseeable. Collateral murder, I think was the term Assange used.
      We are letting an enemy lie with billions in assets and apocalyptic intent when the world is awash in surplus nukes. Degrade is a joke with these fellows, it’s kill or be killed. Good point on “global jihad” that’s how the agency and Mossad see it too. Got to get the pols on board and stop enabling “good” jihadis and their sponsors.

      • kimball says:

        Well, the mess wouldn’t had hit the fan if the secular dictator/murderer Saddam Hussein had been left alone and contained. Seems the house of Saud is shaking now so the urge to start a war through proxy with Iran is maybe greater than ever and maybe Israel/US will stay away and a new asian order will appear with Iran as a stabilising factor?The Sunnis seem hopping mad everywhere and total war with has been a masterplan since early days after Saddams fall.

  • Brian L. says:

    To the extent that the article and commenters are questioning President Obama’s repeated statements that AQ (sorry, “core AQ”) is a spent force, on the run, no longer active in Afghanistan, you simply reveal that you are all racists and can’t abide the idea of a black man in the White House. You need to stop revealing your white privilege and allow the rest of us to retreat to safe zones where we can be free of your micro-aggressions.

    • Michael K says:

      Brian,
      Get a clue, stop playing the race card. Say that to a man of color in the marines and see what response you get from him. All due respect, Obama came in with good intentions until he realised he was out of his element. White privilege, dude I am a struggling AMERICAN trying to make ends meet, just like everyone else in this country. Only difference is I don’t blame everyone else for my failures. Obama has allowed the middle east to spiral out of control due to his inexperience as a leader. This is undeniable fact and has nothing to do with race. Tell me, how much better off are you since Obama took office? Stop believing the liberal media’s lies. Base your opinions on fact and truth not media talking points or dare I say, the black man who spews hate and happily takes your money. We are all AMERICANS, including you. Be a part of society and make your contribution to advance our society instead of creating division. For white people race went out the door in the 80’s. It is the angry black man who fans the flames of hate. I care for every AMERICAN, no matter race, religion, creed, or color. Can you honestly say the same my friend? If so then prove it, stop contributing to spreading divisive lies. Get out and organize a movement that brings all peoples together.

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