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Al Qaeda remains in Afghanistan despite drawdown plans



Eli Lake's report at The Daily Beast, titled "As Obama Draws Down, Al Qaeda Grows in Afghanistan," is today's must read article. A quick excerpt:

As President Obama outlines what he promises to be the end of the war in Afghanistan, new U.S. intelligence assessments are warning that al Qaeda is beginning to re-establish itself there.

Specifically, the concern for now is that al Qaeda has created a haven in the northeast regions of Kunar and Nuristan and is able to freely operate along Afghanistan's only major highway--Route One, which connects the airports of Kandahar and Kabul.

"There is no doubt they have a significant presence in northeast Afghanistan," Mac Thornberry, the Republican vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told The Daily Beast. "It's a lot of speculation about exact numbers, but again part of the question is what are their numbers going to be and what are there activities going to be when the pressure lets up."

If Thornberry's warnings prove correct, then Obama is faced with two bad choices. He either breaks his promise to end America's longest war or he ends up losing that war by withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan too soon, allowing al Qaeda to re-establish a base of operations in the country from which it launched 9/11.

For years, the official intelligence community estimate was that a little more than 100 al Qaeda fighters remained in Kunar Province, a foreboding territory of imposing mountains and a local population in the mountains at least that largely agrees with al Qaeda's ascetic Salafist philosophy.

But recent estimates from the military and the U.S. intelligence community have determined that al Qaeda's presence has expanded to nearby Nuristan and that the group coordinates its operations and activities with allies like the Pakistan-based Taliban and Haqqani Network.

Read the whole thing. Long War Journal readers will know that for years we have reported on al Qaeda's extensive presence in Afghanistan; al Qaeda's collusion with the Taliban, Haqqani Network, the Pakistani Taliban, and other groups; and US and Coalition efforts to dismantle the network using targeted raids.

And we've repeatedly criticized the often-repeated meme that al Qaeda has just 50-100 fighters in Afghanistan. Using press reports, press releases from the International Security Assistance Force, and al Qaeda's own statements, we have detected the presence of al Qaeda and allied groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Jihad Group, and Lashkar-e-Taiba in 17 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. Sadly, in June 2013 ISAF stopped issuing press releases on its raids that targeted al Qaeda, cutting off one important source of information that detailed al Qaeda's presence.

Now, I'd argue that al Qaeda isn't expanding into Kunar and Nuristan, but has merely capitalized on the US pullback from Kunar that took place beginning in 2009 [see this report from 2011 for some background on the withdrawal]. Keep in mind that the US began this withdrawal even as special operations forces were actively targeting what ISAF identified as al Qaeda "camps" in the province. For more on this, see LWJ report, ISAF captures al Qaeda's top Kunar commander, from April 2011.

It seems that some US officials are finally starting to come around to the analysis of al Qaeda's presence that has long been provided by The Long War Journal. Unfortunately, that may be too little and too late, as President Obama has set the stage for the US to exit Afghanistan and significantly reduce, if not end, its capacity to target al Qaeda and allied groups in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.



READER COMMENTS: "Al Qaeda remains in Afghanistan despite drawdown plans"

Posted by Matt at May 29, 2014 7:06 PM ET:

You could set up an al-qaida cell in your shed and planes can go missing. So are we going to occupy everyone's sheds. I am sure if those that have this intelligence hand it over there will be targeted killings. All communications out of Afghanistan are sucked up by the NSA.

Posted by Eric at May 30, 2014 5:11 PM ET:

Good article. There has been an embarrassing lack of will to engage with the facts on the ground, when they don't suit the White House's agenda to draw the war to a close. I think the consistent reporting from TLWJ has helped keep the White House and the Pentagon honest on these issues. Your continued work is appreciated. I don't know if we stay in Afghanistan with 200,000 troops for another 10 or even 20 years, can we completely eradicate islamic extremists there. Somewhere along the slope of changes there has to be a cutoff point where we declare an end to US and NATO combat operations and pull our troops out. Where-ever we choose that cutoff point, there will be a lingering component of the Taliban and of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. We will still have continuing commitments to support the Afghans in their fight against extremists. Not as a pessimist, but rather as a pragmatist, I continue to hold the view that we will benefit from a closure of war-time policies that are out of line with our constitutional limits. That will be good for the people at home. It will be good for foreign policy. But post-peace-declaration, it should not be very long before a resurgent Al Qaeda pulls off another spectacular attack that compels western action. If that action is limited to Drones and special teams, and does not involve a full-scale invasion, we may be better off in the long run. If, on the other hand, Afghanistan's government is brought down or nearing failure, we may indeed be going back there in force to finish later what we have clearly not finished to date. Only time will tell. Surely there is some sympathy for the complaint that Afghanistan is so kleptocratic, that the nation-building venture was going so badly that it was proving impossible to build Afghan forces and government institutions up to a point where defeating the Taliban was ever going to come to be sustainable. Somewhere amidst the push to get the country going, I think we realized we were fooling ourselves. From that awkward moment onward, our thoughts were fixed firmly on our exit strategy.

Posted by Demetreus M at June 3, 2014 11:09 AM ET:

@Matt, "All communications out of Afghanistan are sucked up by the NSA." Really? You are joking correct? All sucked up just like in 2001...

Posted by Moose at June 4, 2014 1:42 AM ET:

Here's a dissenting voice from the article:

"Those concerns are not universally held by Washington’s national security community, however. Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence Committee, acknowledged the risk of al Qaeda’s re-emergence in Afghanistan, but he said today the threat from al Qaeda was far more worrisome in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq.

“I think there has always been a concern that when we leave Afghanistan that al Qaeda may be able to re-assert itself. While there is some al Qaeda presence remaining in Afghanistan that we should be worried about, there is far more to worry about in Syria, Iraq and Yemen,” he told The Daily Beast.

Schiff said he thinks al Qaeda in Afghanistan has been “significantly degraded and repressed,” but he added that he did not believe the group’s presence has been “eliminated.” “That’s the reason why the president wants to keep 9,800 troops there,” he said."

The group's presence can't be eliminated b/c it's an ideology, not the centralized organization it used to be. The nature of the threat has changed and we must change our strategy with it. Unsustainable nation-building campaigns won't work.