A senior US general in Afghanistan recently admitted the US military and intelligence services’ long-held belief that al Qaeda has only 50 to 100 operatives based in the country is incorrect, stating that number must be revised upward. Since 2010, US officials have claimed that al Qaeda has been “decimated” in Afghanistan and has maintained a consistent minimal presence of 50 to 100 operatives.
For more than six years, The Long War Journal has warned that official estimate of al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan is erroneous, and the jihadist group remains a significant threat to this day.
The US military began walking back its low estimate of al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan at the start of April. Last week, Brigadier General Charles Cleveland, the top spokesman for Resolute Support, the NATO mission in Afghanistan, told The Washington Post that al Qaeda has forged close ties to the Taliban and is resurgent in the country.
Major General Jeff Buchanan, Resolute Support’s Deputy Chief of Staff, directly discussed al Qaeda’s footprint in the country publicly today, and warned that previous US estimates on al Qaeda’s strength were wrong.
“If you go back to last year, there were a lot of intel estimates that said within Afghanistan al Qaeda probably has 50 to 100 members, but in this one camp we found more than 150,” Buchanan told CNN.
The camp that Buchanan was referring to was located in the Shorabak district in Kandahar. In October 2015, a large US military strike force took four days to clear two al Qaeda camps in Shorabak. One camp covered over 30 square miles, and included large caches of weapons, ammunition, and other supplies. An al Qaeda media cell was also based there. [See LWJ reports, US military strikes large al Qaeda training camps in southern Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda’s Kandahar training camp ‘probably the largest’ in Afghan War.]
After the Shorabak raid, General John Campbell, then the commander of Resolute Support, noted that US military and intelligence officials were surprised that the camp even existed.
“It’s a place where you would probably think you wouldn’t have AQ [al Qaeda]. I would agree with that,” Campbell said, according to the Post. “This was really AQIS [al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent], and probably the largest training camp-type facility that we have seen in 14 years of war.”
Buchanan echoed Campbell’s surprise that al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent was operating in Afghanistan, despite the fact that the group said at its founding that Afghanistan was a primary theater of operations, and the group has sworn allegiance to the Taliban’s emir, which was accepted. From the CNN report:
The now-destroyed training camp — attacked in a lengthy operation by US special forces and Afghan commandos in October — showed a high degree of sophistication “with ties back to al Qaeda and a subset called al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent,” Buchanan said.
“To find them in Afghanistan was quite troubling.”
After Shorabak, US officials are now estimating that al Qaeda may have upwards of 300 operatives in the country, “but that number does include other facilitators and sympathizers in their network,” CNN reported.
The enduring Taliban-al Qaeda relationship
Generals Campbell and Buchanan have characterized the al Qaeda and Taliban relationship as a recent development, not one that has endured for years. According to CNN, Campbell described the Taliban-al Qaeda relationship as a “renewed partnership,” while Buchanan said it “has since ‘grown stronger.'”
But like the estimate that al Qaeda maintained a small cadre of 50 to 100 operatives in Afghanistan between 2010 and today, the idea that the Taliban and al Qaeda have a recently “renewed partnership” is incorrect. Al Qaeda would not have been able to maintain a large cadre of fighters and leaders inside Afghanistan, and conduct operations in 25 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces without the long term support of the Taliban.
Al Qaeda has remained loyal to the Taliban’s leader, which it describes as the Amir al Mumineen, or the commander of the faithful, since the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Osama bin Laden maintained his oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s founder and first emir. When bin Laden died, Ayman al Zawahiri renewed that oath. And when Mullah Omar’s death was announced last year, Zawahiri swore bayat to Mullah Mansour, the Taliban’s new leader. Mansour publicly accepted Zawahiri’s oath.
The close relationship between the two jihadist groups is also evident with the assent of the Taliban’s new deputy emir, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the powerful Taliban subgroup known as the Haqqani Network. Siraj and the Haqqani Network have maintained close ties to al Qaeda; this is evident in the US government’s designations of multiple Haqqani Network leaders. Two document seized from Osama bin Laden’s compound shows that Siraj played a key role in the jihadist network in Afghanistan and Pakistan. [See LWJ reports, Osama bin Laden’s Files: The Pakistani government wanted to negotiate, and The Taliban’s new leadership is allied with al Qaeda.]
The Long War Journal has refuted the low estimate of al Qaeda in Afghanistan since 2010
The Obama administration and US intelligence official have vastly underestimated al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan. Dating back to 2010, top US officials have stated that al Qaeda is weak in Afghanistan. In July 2010, Director Leon Panetta, who was the CIA director at the time, claimed that al Qaeda has “50 to 100” operatives based in the country.
“I think at most, we’re looking at maybe 50 to 100, maybe less. It’s in that vicinity. There’s no question that the main location of al-Qaeda is in tribal areas of Pakistan,” Panetta said on ABC News This Week.
The 50 to 100 estimate was repeated by numerous US military and intelligence officials over the years. As recently as June 2015, the US military claimed in its biannual Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan report that al Qaeda “has a sustained presence in Afghanistan of probably fewer than 100 operatives concentrated largely in Kunar and Nuristan Provinces, where they remain year-round.” The December 2015 report claimed that al Qaeda is “primarily concentrated in the east and northeast,” despite the Shorabak raid. The US military and intelligence community has also wrongly claimed for years that al Qaeda is confined to northeastern Afghanistan. [See LWJ report, US military insists al Qaeda is “concentrated” in Afghan east and northeast]
In addition, Obama administration officials have repeatedly described al Qaeda in Afghanistan as being defeated and “decimated.”
No effort was made in the US government to publicly revise the 50 to 100 estimate or address al Qaeda’s persistent presence in the country. For instance, when the US military claimed that 40 al Qaeda fighters were killed between January and September of 2011, the 50 to 100 estimate remained constant.
From the beginning, The Long War Journal refuted US estimates of al Qaeda’s footprint in Afghanistan. A sampling of these reports can be seen below.
Numerous data points that are in the public sphere raise questions about the official US estimate of al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan.
For instance, the International Security Assistance Force, the predecessor of Resolute Support, occasionally issued detailed press releases on raids against al Qaeda’s network in Afghanistan. The Long War Journal compiled these reports and mapped the locations of the raids over time. The data shows that between early 2007 and June 2013, al Qaeda and its network of allies were targeted 338 different times, in 25 of 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces. This indicates that al Qaeda has an extensive presence across Afghanistan, one that cannot be maintained with a mere 50 to 100 operatives.
Al Qaeda’s own martyrdom statements that detail its fighters killed in Afghanistan, as well as its propaganda on operations in the country, matches ISAF’s raid data. Al Qaeda has said it operates in the same provinces where ISAF has targeted the group.
Additionally, documents seized from Osama bin Laden’s compound reveal that al Qaeda was increasing its presence in Afghanistan even as US officials were quick to announce the group’s demise. In one document, dated June 19, 2010, Atiyah Abd al Rahman, bin Laden’s general manager named eight provinces where al Qaeda is active.
“We have very strong military activity in Afghanistan, many special operations, and the Americans and NATO are being hit hard,” Rahman wrote.
In another letter from bin Laden to Atiyah, dated Oct. 21, 2010, the al Qaeda leader tells his general manager that he should relocate as many “brothers” as possible to the eastern Afghan provinces of Nuristan, Kunar, Ghazni and Zabul to avoid the US drone campaign in North and South Waziristan. It is unclear to what extent bin Laden’s directive was followed, however ISAF targeted multiple al Qaeda operatives and leaders in those provinces and others since it was issued.
The Long War Journal has warned the US government that al Qaeda’s network in Afghanistan remains a threat to the US, and that it was being vastly underestimated. Senior Editor Thomas Joscelyn testified on this subject to the US Congress in July 2013 and May 2014.
Additionally, Joscelyn and Senior Editor Bill Roggio published an opinion article in The New York Times warning of the danger of underestimating al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
A sampling of reports from LWJ‘s editors refuting the US government’s estimate of al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan
- Al Qaeda hasn’t been neutralized (The Weekly Standard, Nov. 20, 2015)
- Are we losing Afghanistan again (New York Times op-ed, Oct. 21, 2015)
- Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan: An enduring threat (Congressional testimony, May 20, 2014)
- Global al Qaeda: Affiliates, objectives, and future challenges (Congressional testimony, July 18, 2013)
- Al Qaeda-linked insurgent targeted in Ghazni raid (Aug. 12, 2012)
- How many al Qaeda fighters are in Afghanistan again? (Sept. 4, 2011)
- How many al Qaeda operatives are now left in Afghanistan? (April 26, 2011)
- Al Qaeda never left Kunar, and other problems with US intel (April 7, 2011)
- Analysis: Al Qaeda maintains an extensive network in Afghanistan (July 29, 2010)
- Counting al Qaeda (July 10, 2010)
- The ‘only 50 to 100’ al Qaeda in Afghanistan fallacy (July 1, 2010)