Analysis: Al Qaeda is the tip of the jihadist spear

Osama bin Laden in 1998. Click to view.

Today, in Washington, there is a debate over how to proceed with the war in Afghanistan. One school of thought that has reportedly gained prominence is based on the belief that America should focus its resources on counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan, and especially Pakistan, instead of a counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign in Afghanistan. According to this line of thinking, the US should expand its campaign of airstrikes in northern and western Pakistan, while downgrading the contest for Afghanistan’s future.

This approach is driven in part by an assumption that al Qaeda is a narrow problem that can be neatly disentangled from all of the other geopolitical issues, including especially the rise of Islamic extremism, that plague Central and South Asia. If we focus our efforts on Osama bin Laden and his not-so-merry band of men, proponents of this approach argue, then we can adequately protect America’s interests while avoiding getting further enmeshed in a potentially disastrous Afghan conflict. The Taliban and their fellow insurgents, then, the argument goes, are not our principal concern and we should not be overly concerned if they regain power in their one-time Islamic Emirate.

General Stanley McChrystal and other top military officials do not believe the strategy outlined above is adequate. The McChrystal plan for Afghanistan calls for America to wage a counterinsurgency campaign similar to that which evolved in Iraq. Underlying the McChrystal plan is the belief that if the US and its coalition partners prevent the Taliban and its allies from returning to power in Afghanistan, then this will necessarily weaken al Qaeda’s allies and, in turn, al Qaeda itself. In the military’s view, al Qaeda is not a standalone problem but instead one head of several on a jihadist hydra.

In the piece below, we take a look at the insurgency in Afghanistan more closely – from al Qaeda’s perspective. We do not think that a shift to a predominately counterterrorism campaign utilizing airstrikes and the like is sufficient to beat back the threat to America’s interests. In fact, we argue that such thinking is rooted in a dangerous ignorance of al Qaeda and our terrorist enemies. Al Qaeda was never a self-contained problem that could be defeated by neutralizing select individuals – even though capturing or killing senior al Qaeda members surely does substantially weaken the network.

Instead, Osama bin Laden and his cohorts deliberately fashioned their organization to be the tip of a much longer jihadist spear.

This was true during the years of the Soviet Jihad, when al Qaeda established a vast rolodex of like-minded jihadist leaders who, despite what were sometimes deep differences of opinion over tactical issues, could nonetheless be called upon as allies. It was true in the pre-9/11 world, from the early 1990s through September 10, when al Qaeda forged relationships with allied terrorist organizations first in the Sudan, al Qaeda’s base from roughly 1991 until 1996, and then in Afghanistan.

And it is true in the post-9/11 world, where al Qaeda continues to leverage its decades-long relationships with jihadist allies around the globe and especially in the heart of Central and South Asia. Thus, we find that each of the three primary Afghan insurgent groups discussed in General McChrystal’s analysis – the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST), the Haqqani Network (HQN), and the Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) – is a core ally of al Qaeda with long-established personal ties between these groups’ senior leaders and al Qaeda’s senior leaders. Moreover, al Qaeda cooperates with each of these organizations in substantive ways in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. If anything, General McChrystal’s analysis actually downplayed the interconnectivity between these organizations and al Qaeda.

Taking a broader view, General McChrystal’s team identified two foreign states that are especially problematic in Afghanistan: Pakistan and Iran. Al Qaeda’s relationships with these states, or core parts of them, give it strategic depth in the region.

Mullah Omar.

In Pakistan, the current civilian government has no interest in seeing al Qaeda live on. And General Musharraf’s regime provided vital assistance in tracking down senior al Qaeda members. But there is a hardened core within Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment – in particular, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Agency – that is dedicated to jihad and sponsors al Qaeda’s allies, including each of the primary three insurgent groups in Afghanistan today. We should never forget that Mullah Omar, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – the commanders of the Afghan insurgency – were all originally ISI proxies and, to some degree, remain so today. Parts of the ISI have also worked with al Qaeda proper for years as well.

Then, there is Iran, which has its own longstanding ties to al Qaeda’s senior leadership. In the pre-9/11 world, the Iranian regime cooperated with al Qaeda in a variety of ways. In the post-9/11 world, Iran has harbored senior al Qaeda terrorists and even armed and trained the Taliban – Iran’s one-time enemy.

What is the significance of all this? Simply put, a strategic defeat of the West in Afghanistan today is a victory for all of these forces. Even though they are not all equal partners in the Afghan insurgency, they all hold deeply anti-American, anti-Western views and are heavily invested in a Coalition defeat. Should the insurgency permanently capture large swaths of Afghanistan, then these views will be vindicated. America will be seen as the “weak horse,” in Osama bin Laden’s words, once again. That al Qaeda is not the prime mover in the Afghan insurgency does not mean that its interests in the outcome are small. A victory for any of the three chief insurgency groups, or all of them together, including their sponsors, is a victory for al Qaeda and will surely strengthen its hand. And, contrary to widespread reporting, al Qaeda does play a noteworthy role in the Afghan insurgency.

The Quetta Shura Taliban (QST) and al Qaeda

The Taliban’s leadership, including Mullah Omar, consistently refused to turn over Osama bin Laden prior to the September 11 attacks. And after al Qaeda’s most devastating attacks, Mullah Omar again refused to answer calls for bin Laden to be turned over – even under the threat of war. The 9/11 Commission detailed the repeated efforts of both the Clinton and Bush administrations to get the Taliban’s leader to give up his most notorious friend. Those efforts failed – every time.

In all likelihood, this will never change. Mullah Omar simply will not abandon his longtime ally. Mullah Omar is the “Leader of the Faithful” and al Qaeda has sworn allegiance to his Emirate. Osama bin Laden himself has sworn his personal fealty to Mullah Omar. For Omar to betray bin Laden and al Qaeda now would be a colossal blemish on the Taliban’s legitimacy in the broader jihadist community’s eyes. Indeed, al Qaeda leaders have long recognized that Mullah Omar is firmly behind them.

Abdullah Sa’id, an al Qaeda commander who leads its “Shadow Army,” has openly mocked the idea that Mullah Omar would betray al Qaeda now. “US and Western sources talk about their readiness to accept the Taliban in the Afghan future political structure should it leave the Al Qaeda,” he has said. But that is not reality, Sa’id explained:

“However, these sources close the eyes to the fact that Mullah Mohammad Omar has lost his [ruling] throne upon his refusal to hand over one person who is Osama bin Laden. Thus, will Mullah Mohammad Omar agree to a condition which he refused when he used to rule and when the United States was at the top of its might, and accept it now while he is on the threshold of a victory over his enemies?”

Sa’id’s calculation is plain. Mullah Omar would not agree to turn over bin Laden when he was faced with the prospect of imminent annihilation. Surely Omar will not part ways with the terror master now that his prospects for success are greater than they have been in years.

You have undoubtedly heard that Osama bin Laden was the Taliban’s “guest” in Afghanistan prior to September 11. That is a vast understatement. The reality is that bin Laden integrated al Qaeda’s operations with the Taliban’s in a variety of important ways. Al Qaeda and the Taliban have been fighting side-by-side for more than a decade. Long before September 11, al Qaeda successfully integrated itself into the Taliban’s infrastructure. Not only did bin Laden direct some of the financing from his Arab Gulf donors (who, by the way, would also rejoice should Afghanistan fall) into the Taliban’s pockets, providing them with much needed cash and supplies, but he also used that funding to improve Afghanistan’s infrastructure, including its roads.

That was not some benign gesture, however. Improvements to Afghanistan’s infrastructure meant improvements in al Qaeda’s and the Taliban’s ability to project power throughout war-torn Afghanistan by making it easier to move their jihadist forces to locations where they were needed. These improvements also made it easier for al Qaeda and the Taliban to deliver recruits from foreign lands, especially the heart of Arabia, to their jointly-run training camps.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban set up large-scale training facilities in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. One of the most important of these facilities was named al Farouq, where both Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists were trained, including some of the 9/11 hijackers. Recruits who were deemed suitable to fight on the frontlines were often sent to joint Taliban-al Qaeda brigades. One such brigade was called the Arab 055 Brigade, which was under the command of senior al Qaeda terrorist Abdul Hadi al Iraqi, who has been captured. Abdul Hadi, who is a former major in Saddam Hussein’s army, oversaw both al Qaeda and Taliban fighters during their war against first the Northern Alliance and later the American-led coalition in 2001. There are countless similar examples of such pre-9/11 cooperation from which to choose.

Although the Arab 055 Brigade was disbanded after the initial routing of Taliban and al Qaeda forces in late 2001, it has since been reformed. It currently operates in southern and eastern Afghanistan and its members are often detached to Taliban units to serve as “embedded trainers,” just as US troops are tasked to train indigenous forces in Afghanistan. These trainers and commanders are occasionally killed on the battlefield.

As General McChrystal noted in his analysis of Afghanistan, the insurgency is primarily conducted by Afghans (that is, the Taliban and its “native” allies). However, al Qaeda does play a significant role. In addition to conducting some joint operations with the Taliban, al Qaeda also acts as a force multiplier by delivering suicide bombers and other tactical assistance for some of the Taliban’s most significant operations.

Al Qaeda’s paramilitary “Shadow Army” also operates freely along the Afghan-Pakistani border. The reconstituted Arab 055 Brigade is just one of six formations in al Qaeda’s army. This unit, organized along military lines, detaches smaller sub-units to conduct operations alongside the Taliban in both countries. Taliban leaders, in turn, provide the unit with recruits and host training camps.

On occasion, Taliban commanders have been blunt about their cooperation with al Qaeda, as well as their common ideology and goals. For example, as Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah explained in 2006:

“We like the Al-Qaeda organization. We consider it a friendly and brotherly organization, which shares our ideology and concepts. We have close ties and constant contacts with it. Yes, when we need them, we ask for their help. For example, the bombings the operations we carry out – we learned it from them. We learn other types of operations from them as well. We cooperate and help each other. Operations are carried out throughout Afghanistan but the reason they escalated in three or four states is that commanders like myself are here. In other regions there are fewer commanders. One of our plans is to escalate operations there as well.”

The bottom line is that al Qaeda and the Taliban fight side-by-side today, just as they have for more than a decade.

It is remarkable that anyone would argue that a Taliban safe haven in Afghanistan would not necessarily lead to an al Qaeda safe haven there given that the two currently enjoy the same safe havens in Northern Pakistan. After the two jointly established the Islamic Emirate of Waziristan in 2006, for example, it should have become painfully obvious that they had not given up on their combined territorial ambitions.

Just as in pre-9/11 Afghanistan, these safe havens are home to broad cooperation between the Taliban and al Qaeda. The Taliban hosts camps for al Qaeda’s paramilitary army, as well as al Qaeda’s external network – that is, those terrorists responsible for striking the West. By some estimates there are more than 150 training camps, of various sizes and configurations, in the tribal areas in Northwestern Pakistan.

Senior al Qaeda leaders are routinely killed at Taliban safe houses, training camps, and compounds during US airstrikes. Numerous Taliban leaders, including the Haqqanis (a father and son team who are based both in eastern Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s tribal areas, as discussed below), Hakeemullah Mehsud, Mullah Nazir, Hafiz Gul Bahadar, Omar Khalid, Mullah Fazlullah, and Faqir Mohammed host al Qaeda’s leaders and foot soldiers. These Taliban commanders conduct cross-border operations in Afghanistan, and aid al Qaeda in doing so as well.

Al Qaeda’s loyalty to these Taliban commanders, and gratitude for their enduring support even in the face of international opposition (e.g., Predator strikes), is transparent. For example, al Qaeda’s top terrorist in Afghanistan, Mustafa Abu Yazid, recently released a taped eulogy to commemorate fallen Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud. Yazid explained:

“Amir Baitullah (may God have mercy on him) was a generous, strong, courageous, and noble person when it came to making decisions, especially the decision to host, aid, and shelter his migrating mujahidin brothers. It was he and the sons of his tribe (the generous heroes) who did that. Despite all the attacks, destruction, and killings by the hands of the apostate Pakistani Army in the Wazir tribe in the Wana and Shikay areas, who were first to host their migrating and mujahidin brothers (may God reward them), he did not stop hosting, aiding, and sheltering his migrating brothers.”

In other words, despite having significant incentives to betray his al Qaeda brethren, Baitullah Mehsud never did so.

And the Taliban’s other senior leaders won’t either. Al Qaeda and the Taliban share the same immediate goal with respect to Afghanistan – expelling Western forces so they can acquire more geographical territory. If this is accomplished, they will undoubtedly rebuild their fallen Islamic Emirate. In fact, the Taliban has already established a “shadow government” for the explicit purpose of having the infrastructure in place to run Afghanistan should they establish permanent control of territory.

Al Qaeda is slated to play a significant role in the Taliban’s resurrected Caliphate. Incredibly, they have already jointly set up a new central bank. During one session of the Taliban’s and al Qaeda’s shura majlis (executive council) in northern Pakistan, the terror masters established the Bayt al Mahl, or “House of Wealth.” This bank was set up in a region called Jani Khel, within the Northern Pakistani district of Bannu. The Bayt al Mahl, according to a former senior US intelligence official, is the official treasury of the Caliphate. As the Leader of the Faithful, Mullah Omar is entitled to 20 percent of the wealth. Osama bin Laden is authorized to approve withdrawals, and has Mustafa Abu Yazid, al Qaeda’s emir in Afghanistan, complete the transactions.

It says much about al Qaeda’s and the Taliban’s joint territorial aspirations that the two have already a central bank to fund their venture. The idea that al Qaeda can be treated as a separate enemy that can be carved off the insurgency is therefore a fallacy.


Click to view slide show of the Haqqani Network. Pictured is a composite image of Siraj Haqqani.

The Haqqani Network and al Qaeda

The Haqqani Network, a Taliban group in eastern Afghanistan, operates closely with al Qaeda. Jalaluddin Haqqani, a former senior Taliban government official and troop commander, has been an ally of Osama bin Laden since the Soviet Jihad. As Ahmed Rashid writes in Descent Into Chaos, Haqqani is a “firm believer in al Qaeda.” Together with his son, Siraj, the Haqqani network recruits foreign fighters and trains them to be suicide bombers – an effort that is undoubtedly aided by al Qaeda. After 9/11, the Haqqanis were instrumental in shuttling al Qaeda terrorists and Taliban members out of Afghanistan into their new refuge in Northern Pakistan.

Leaders within the Haqqani Network are not bashful about their close relations with al Qaeda. In fact, they trumpet the relationship. In a recent interview, for example, Mullah Sangeen Zadran, a senior commander in the Haqqani Network, explains that the Taliban and al Qaeda work together nearly seamlessly toward the same goals – defeating the US and her allies and re-installing the Mullah Omar-led Taliban government. Here is how Mullah Sangeen Zadran describes this cooperation:


Image of Haqqani Network military commander Mullah Sangeen Zadran. Obtained by The Long War Journal from a Taliban propaganda tape.

“All praise is for Allah, Al-Qaeda and Taliban all are Muslims and we are united by the brotherhood of Islam. We do not see any difference between Taliban and Al- Qaeda, for we all belong to the religion of Islam. Sheikh Usama has pledged allegiance to Amir Al-Mumineen (Mulla Muhammad Umar) and has reassured his leadership again and again. There is no difference between us, for we are united by Islam and the Sharia governs us.”

Thus, just as with what General McChrystal calls the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST), the Haqqani Network (HN) – which is, in reality, another Taliban branch – is also closely allied with al Qaeda. Recent accounts have suggested that the Haqqanis and Mullah Omar may have disagreements over the future of the Taliban movement and just who will ascend to the throne of their resurrected Islamic Emirate. But this rivalry for power does not mean that they are not in the same trench when it comes to ejecting Western forces from the region. Such rivalries have been common for decades. More importantly, both Mullah Omar and the Haqqanis remain key al Qaeda allies.

The HIG and al Qaeda


The Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin has been closely allied with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda for decades. The HIG’s leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has been bin Laden’s friend and ally since the Soviet Jihad – just like Jalaluddin Haqqani. When bin Laden was forced to leave Sudan in the mid-1990s, Hekmatyar offered to take him and al Qaeda in. The war for Afghanistan did not go Hekmatyar’s way, however. The HIG lost the contest for power to the Taliban. Hekmatyar moved to Iran as a result, only to be “asked to leave” at some point after the September 11 attacks.

Even though the HIG and the Taliban were rivals for power in the mid-1990s, the two have had no trouble cooperating in attacks against American forces in Afghanistan today. Having a common ally in al Qaeda has surely made this cooperation easier. According to US intelligence authorities, cooperation between the HIG, the Taliban, and al Qaeda dates to at least 2003 if not earlier. For example, an evidentiary memo produced at Guantanamo reads: “In the spring of 2003, Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, Hizb-e-Islami Gulbuddin leader Gubuddin Hekmatyar, and Osama bin Laden agreed to unite their forces.”

Pakistani intelligence, extremism, and al Qaeda

Pakistan is home to an alphabet soup of extremist and terrorist organizations that broadly share al Qaeda’s ideology. Since the days of the Soviet Jihad, al Qaeda’s top leaders have consorted and collaborated with the heads of these organizations. The best-known example is Lashkar e Taiba (LeT), which despite being formally banned by the Pakistani government has continued to operate under a new name. Osama bin Laden himself reportedly played a role in the LeT’s founding, and al Qaeda has routinely shared training camps and guest houses with the LeT.

Rashid Rauf. Click to view.

Another example is Jaish e Mohammed (JeM). JeM has also developed international aspirations. Large numbers of JeM forces have relocated to the Taliban’s and al Qaeda’s safe haven in Northern Pakistan, where they have merged forces. The most notorious of these JeM terrorists is Rashid Rauf, who became one of al Qaeda’s chief planners for external operations – that is, attacks against the West. Rauf was reportedly instrumental in planning the July 7, 2005, bombings in London, a follow-on plot that was foiled a few weeks later, and the Heathrow airliners plot, which was broken up in the summer of 2006. Rauf has reported directly to al Qaeda’s external operations chief.

Al Qaeda’s relationship with JeM and Rashid Rauf, who is a relative of JeM’s founder, demonstrates just how deep al Qaeda’s bench is. Rauf and his ilk have replaced senior al Qaeda leaders who have been captured or killed. It is telling that al Qaeda has been able to turn to Pakistani groups to regenerate the tip of the spear.

Both the LeT and JeM are long-time ISI proxies. Both, in fact, are Pakistani proxies built to confront Indian forces in Jammu and Kashmir. Here, we encounter a core reality about Pakistan. Undoubtedly, America has received vital assistance from Pakistan’s government in the post-9/11 world. Numerous high-level al Qaeda terrorists, such as Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and Ramzi Binalshibh, have been captured with Pakistani assistance. And parts of the Pakistani military fight Taliban forces today.

But Pakistan’s government is both divided and duplicitous. In particular, key figures within Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment have continued to play a double-game. The name “Quetta Shura Taliban” should tell you all that you need to know about the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment’s loyalties. The Taliban would not be able to prosper in Quetta, Pakistan, if it were not for the intelligence service’s hospitality.

The Taliban and its allies continue to receive assistance from Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex. Some in the West say this assistance is attributable to the Pakistani military’s desire to keep them alive to fight proxy wars against Pakistan’s enemies (India) in the various conflicts throughout Central and South Asia. There is undoubtedly much truth in this. This is probably an apt explanation for why military leaders like General Musharraf, who is no jihadist, supported the Taliban in the first place.

However, Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment has a disturbingly large number of “true believers” in its ranks as well. The origins of their influence date back to General Zia ul Haq’s years as president. Haq – a dedicated Islamist who wanted to mold Pakistan in a truly radical fashion – set a precedent for Pakistan’s uniformed servicemen.


Former ISI chief Hamid Gul.

As a result of Haq’s policies, Islamists infiltrated the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment’s ranks repeatedly, and still other existing servicemen have adopted their radical views. One prominent example is Hamid Gul, the former chief of the ISI, who still has significant power within Pakistan. Gul and his compatriots are not just cunning tacticians when it comes to Pakistan’s jihadist proxies. They long ago committed themselves to the most radical brand of Islam and believe that Pakistan should wage jihad against her enemies to expand her power.

The bottom line with respect to Pakistan is this: Should the Taliban and its allies – all of which were originally ISI proxies – gain power in Afghanistan, then it will be a major victory for the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment’s long-term sponsorship of these groups. If you think earning Pakistan’s cooperation against these groups and al Qaeda is difficult now, imagine what would happen if they are triumphant in Afghanistan once again. It would totally justify the Pakistani decision to continue sponsoring these groups despite receiving billions of dollars in aid from the US and being America’s nominal ally.

The Iranian regime, al Qaeda and the Taliban

Despite the widely held belief that Shiite Iran cannot cooperate with Sunni al Qaeda because of theological differences, the two have found common cause against their mutual enemies since the early 1990s. This cooperation has been documented by the 9/11 Commission, the Clinton administration’s Justice Department, the US Treasury Department, the testimony of al Qaeda terrorists themselves, US intelligence officials, foreign governments and intelligence services, eyewitnesses, and a variety of other sources. The record of cooperation both prior to and after September 11 is extensive.


Sa’ad bin Laden.

After September 11, the Iranian regime did turn over a relatively small number of low-level Sunni jihadists, including some al Qaeda members. But, like a corrupt cop working for the mob, the Iranians protected the big fish. Iran gave safe haven to senior al Qaeda terrorists. Thus, Osama bin Laden’s son and possible heir, Saad bin Laden, as well as other key al Qaeda terrorists including Abu Ghaith (Osama bin Laden’s spokesman), Saif al Adel (a top al Qaeda military planner wanted for his role in the August 1998 embassy bombings), Abdel al Aziz al Masri (who Khalid Sheikh Mohammed told authorities was al Qaeda’s nuclear weapons chief), Abu Musab al Zarqawi (the fallen leader of al Qaeda in Iraq), and Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (aka Abu Musab al Suri, an al Qaeda strategist who also reportedly played a role in al Qaeda’s international attacks, who has been captured) all received refuge in Iran at one point or another. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has hosted all of these al Qaeda terrorists, and more.

Al Qaeda was relatively free to move about Iranian soil prior to the May 2003 bombings in Riyadh. The Saudi Kingdom and the US then reportedly complained to the Iranians about the al Qaeda presence after intelligence officials traced the attack’s planners to Iran. At that point, the Iranians placed a number of high-level al Qaeda terrorists under some form of loose “house arrest.” This detention is hardly cumbersome, however, as al Qaeda has continued to hold high-level planning meetings. Saad bin Laden was also able to leave Iran and rejoin his father in Northern Pakistan late last year – a move that would not have been possible had he been under some form of strict detention.

The Iranians have been coy about their guests. According to former Bush administration officials and the State Department, the Iranians played dumb when asked about the al Qaeda terrorists living inside their country. As the State Department reported in its 2008 Country Reports on Terrorism:

Iran remained unwilling to bring to justice senior al Qaeda members it has detained, and has refused to publicly identify those senior members in its custody. Iran has repeatedly resisted numerous calls to transfer custody of its al Qaeda detainees to their countries of origin or third countries for trial. Iran also continued to fail to control the activities of some al Qaeda members who fled to Iran following the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

The Iranians’ unwillingness to turn over senior al Qaeda members led to their designation by the US Treasury Department earlier this year. The Treasury Department’s designation makes it clear that the Iranians and al Qaeda have been working together for a long time.

Al Qaeda operatives inside Iran have been tied to acts of terrorism inside other Gulf nations. For example, the Saudis continually complain about al Qaeda plotting and assisting acts of terrorism inside their Kingdom from Iranian soil. Such claims cannot be summarily dismissed as a byproduct of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. The Saudis have named names, pointing the finger at Saudi citizens living inside Iran. This includes dozens of terrorists on the Kingdom’s 85 Most Wanted List who were “rehabilitated” in the Saudis’ reeducation program. The fact that Saudis have been reticent in the past to blame the Kingdom’s own citizens for terrorism and have defended their rehabilitation program against public criticism makes such disclosures highly significant.

Ayman al Zawahiri.

There are other examples as well. Kurdish authorities inside Iraq have repeatedly complained about Iran’s role in sponsoring and sheltering al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. And al Qaeda terrorists operating inside Iran have been tied to al Qaeda cells in Bahrain and other Middle Eastern nations. (It should be noted that this pattern of complicity has taken place despite public criticisms of Iran by al Qaeda number two Ayman al Zawahiri. Some may read Zawahiri’s comments as proof that Iran and al Qaeda cannot cooperate. But that is not an accurate assessment. After all, according to the Treasury Department, Zawahiri himself sent his beloved daughters to Iran for protection after September 11.)

Iran cooperates not only with al Qaeda, but also the Taliban. US military and intelligence officials have repeatedly accused the Iranian regime of training and arming the Taliban. This cooperation was actually set up in clandestine meetings long ago. And recent reports note that this cooperation is only getting more pronounced.

Iran’s interests in Afghanistan are not fully appreciated. As long as Western forces are stationed there, Iran will undoubtedly take advantage of the opportunity to kill Americans. And, Iran has no problem sponsoring Sunni terrorist organizations as long as they oppose the real “Satan” : America.


In conclusion, the war in Afghanistan is part of a multi-dimensional contest for power between, on the one hand, al Qaeda and its allies and, on the other, America and her allies. The idea that al Qaeda is a discrete organization that can be neatly separated from the Afghan insurgency is a fantasy. All three of the major branches of the insurgency, as well as their sponsors, are closely allied with al Qaeda and have been for years.

Air strikes using drones are a valuable tool for disrupting al Qaeda’s external network, thereby hampering the terror network’s capacity to strike the West. But such strikes are a tactic, not a strategy. And, it should be noted, these strikes have frequently killed senior Taliban commanders as well. This only emphasizes the degree of cooperation between the Taliban and al Qaeda.

A more robust game plan for Afghanistan, and the region, is required. We understand that there is no immediate discussion of entirely drawing down America’s or NATO’s forces. But a more comprehensive commitment than that which is presently being employed is needed.

Should the insurgents conquer Afghanistan once again, there is no doubt that al Qaeda would return to its former safe haven. But that is, in some ways, the least of our concerns. Their return to power would be a victory for all of those forces that spawned al Qaeda in the first place.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal. Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • What I find disgusting is that some people today are falling all over themselves denouncing McChrystal because he says we need more troops to win in the war in Afghanistan. Yet when General Eric K. Shinseki said the same thing about inadequate troop levels in Iraq, those same people hailed him as a courageous voice that should be listened to or else we would face defeat. My my, how times have changed. I guess Obama is finding out that it really is tough having to make decisions for a living, instead of only criticizing and second-guessing people who were faced with those same decisions in the past. Obama always said during the campaign that Afghanistan was “the right war, the war we should have been focusing on instead of Iraq.”

  • ArneFufkin says:

    I think Obama is favorably inclined to follow the advice of his domestic political advisers like Emmanuel and Axelrod, who fear the rising casualties attendant with a further surge would jeopardize his ambitious domestic agenda. I think he’s calculated that there is enough opposition to OEF amongst the American public that he can go through the motions, mitigate the political damage of American causalties, cut a deal to run from AfPak and employ the useful fools/tools in the corrupt media to blame any defeat or resultant homeland attacks on the under resourcing of the mission under the previous Bush Administration.
    It’s duplicitous, it’s feckless i.e. it’s this CIC’s political style. Winning the war for domestic socialist programs trumps winning the war against Salafist encroachment around the world to this crew IMO. Everything good that happens going forward is Obama, everything bad going forward will be spun as Bush. Business as usual, and it makes me ill.

  • Meremortal says:

    Obama said his rule would be transparent, and now we see this is true. This disaster of a “strategy” is a transparent attempt to avoid doing the hard work of actually defeating the forces aligned against the modern world in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Obama has noticed that asymetric war does not have clear winners and losers in short time frames, so what’s to win? His base accepts death from above by drone, but boots on the ground are a different matter. Obama is betting the chickens will come home to roost too late to affect his time in office. And if he gets lucky and whacks Osama, he hits the war-credit jackpot and can ride that for the rest of his time in office.

  • Nissonic says:

    Is Al Queada a recognized organisation in the US?
    Are you willing to have peace talks with them?
    Can they be trusted in that case?
    What they want is to get rid of the american presence in Saudi Arabia and other arab countries.
    What will there be in return for pulling out of there?
    No more in muslims in Europe or USA?

  • Daniel says:

    This is a very good article. I could only hope that the current administration could grasp the situation as well.

  • Mad Monica says:

    This is an OUTSTANDING piece that should be required reading for everyone in this administration. If find our president and his advisers refusal to look upon the Taliban as no longer being our enemy absolutely absurd.
    It is exactly this mindset that left us open and defenseless in 2001. It is this mindset that is going to result in another attack.
    While many in this country have spent the past eight years convincing themselves that our enemies would be nicer were we to cave in a little more, our enemies have been gone underground to work on ways to stab us in the heart again. This is not a game to them and it shouldn’t be of secondary concern to our president. But it’s beginning to look as if this president never has considered the threat of Islamic terrorism to be of much concern.
    Instead, it appears to me that this president considers terrorism to be another one of those things his predecessor got right, therefore it must have been handled wrong. What a dangerous little game to play with the lives of the American people.
    Keep up the good work. Without writers such as yourself, this information would never get to the people. Thank you.

  • Stu says:

    Thanks LWJ for writing this article. Your reports are openly available on the web, yet major news outlets figure they can ignore LWJ analysis and prepare their own. Problem is, they’re not plugged into anything but their paychecks.
    With so much at stake, I challenge the major news outlets to make clear, definitive reference to LWJ. I’m coming to think these people are either just stupid or traitors–or both! The incredible blindness continues. But thank you LWJ for telling it like it is!

  • Spooky says:

    One should take into consideration that he might truely just want to deliberate on the decision a bit longer. Sure, there is a danger in doing that with the one year timetable given by the General and maybe he should be a bit faster with his decisions, but that doesn’t mean he should write a blank check to the demands of the military either.
    If the strategy being proposed is truely what is needed, then Obama should go for it, but he should do so soberly, because right or wrong, a lot more American blood will be spilled in this conflict with the troop increase.
    If it is wrong, then Obama should propose an alternate strategy to the one he invisioned in April, and do so with qualified military imput.
    If its right and it just needs a tweak here and there before the extra troops can be sent, then let it be tweaked.
    Another question people should be thinking about, especially those who are quick to criticize the administration, is what if McChrystal is wrong? The consequences would be almost immediate.
    Obama SHOULD be made to make a decision as soon as he can because of the nature of the conflict, but he should also be allowed time to think it through without being henpecked, which has only become worse with this getting out to the public and thus slowed down a process for all we know might have been finished by now.
    McChrystal SHOULD be trusted enough that it doesn’t take Obama so long to make a choice and allowed a bit more flexibility with what he wants to do, but he should have also kept it within the chain of command because of the ridiculous politicization this has been given, which just makes Obama take longer.
    Both sides of the debate better hope something else overshadows this story, because its the only way things will go faster and with less interferance.

  • PatC says:

    After reviewing this wonderful work and a few others, I am forced to wonder why not carry out both McCrystals plan AND the surgical strikes against Al Queda on the border.
    Why not ask your team what they need an then give them more? It is war isn’t it? At least it was the last time I checked.
    The delay in decision making is inexcusible.

  • First of all, I want to acknowledge the authors for producing a very good analysis.
    I want to focus my attention on something that stood out in this piece.
    What stands out: “A more robust game plan for Afghanistan, and the region, is required”

  • Bill Thomas says:

    “…people should… Obama SHOULD … McChrystal SHOULD…”
    Dang spooky, you’re should’n all over the place. Its a simple equasion: The CinC tasked the Theater Commander to employ his policy objectives– the General evaluated the situ and communicated his needs to advance toward those goals. Since that unambiguous communication from the General, weeks if not months of silence have elapsed. Now the POTUS and his political cadre are tap-dancing around the problem, and in effect conducting a public WAR strategy evaluation by political consensus. What a snafu! The Chicago razzle-dazzlers, are displaying, once again, for all the world to see, that the Admin is at best, headed by an indecisive and uncommitted CinC on foreign policy. Meanwhile, morale among some warfighters begins to fray – SHOULD we be surprised? Isn’t this just another crisis that Admin will attempt to utilize for domestic political advantage? Disgusting!
    “Let’s Roll”

  • Ayamo says:

    This is an outstanding piece of work!
    Thank you very much.

  • Raj Kumar says:

    One of the best pieces that I have read on the Long War Journal.
    The point is we will loose this if we do not tame Pakistan full stop. I have been a long time supporter of ‘locking down’ Pakistan but for some reason we have not been able to do this.
    We continue to waste our hard earned tax $ or £ in my case on Pakistan is the hope that the ruling elite will do something about the problem and they haven’t.
    The failure people is not in the stars but in ourselves, unless we take concrete action against Pakistan we will loose and the loss will haunt us for a very long time.

  • Cajun says:

    Great article. What’s driving the WH nuts is trying to figure out what to do with Karzi at the end of the day if we double down and beat Taliban/AQ.
    It’s the old Vietnam problem of a weak and corrupt central government. Can there be an AF George Washington? Or do we have to stay for a decade more to construct the institutions to create one?
    One thing is clear, choosing the middle way to muddle through is the path to disaster. Our NCA needs to make a strong decision and implement with all the resources of the US.

  • AMac says:

    This morning on the mainstream media’s “NBC Today,” the Obama-supporting hosts interviewd NBC correspondent Richard Engel, who was promoting his documentary “Tip of the Spear” (website here). Engel (reluctantly?) stated that the Taliban and Al Qaeda co-operate, are often joined together, and that the US will not be able to deal with the Taliban while isolating and fighting Al Qaeda.
    I don’t know if the full Engel report will hold to this analysis.

  • ArneFufkin says:

    Spooky, I would agree with you wholeheartedly had not Obama announced, to great fanfare, his NEW strategy back on March 28 or so. From the New York Times:
    “Elements of the Obama plan to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” al-Qaeda in Pakistan and vanquish its Taliban allies in Afghanistan also struck notes from the past. More U.S. troops, civilian officials and money will be needed, he said. Allies will be asked for additional help, and local forces will be trained to eventually take over the fight. Benchmarks will be set to measure progress. ”
    General McChrystal was hand picked to assess the ground situation in Afghanistan and recommend the resources necessary to succeed in the mission strategy clearly enunciated by Obama in late March. He’s done that. Either Obama’s “strategy” in March, allegedly long considered and a radical departure from Bush’s neglectful AfPak resourcing, was a fraud or the choice of McChrystal as the guy who calculated resources needed to successfully pursue the strategy was wrong.
    What more is there to consider? Besides the fact that prospects for his ambitious and some would say popular support for what some might call (me) radical domestic agenda is lagging in October when it looked like a slam dunk to this Administration in March that is?
    The guy he handpicked to determine the resources needed to pursue his strategic directive has presented those resource requirements. Why the dithering?

  • Marty says:

    Granting everything you write, what are the entanglements and what the chance for success in a COIN strategy when the Taliban/Al Qaeda are firmly based in Pakistan and their fightrers in Afghanista can draw resources from or through several neighboring countries?
    I fear the COIN model from Iraq may not be applicable to Afghanistan, because of the dispersed population, lack of civic structures, and easy support and resupply of the insurgents.
    Again, granting what you write, I fear the issue may come down to what can we do about Pakistani and Iranian support to Taliban and AQ? Given the feckless way the Obama Admin. handled the Iranian election, what credibility can we bring to bear on Iran or Pakistan to get them to stop supporting the Taliban and AQ (not that we had any clear influence BEFORE the Iranian election riots)?
    I don’t have the answer, but I suspect we need to stop treating all this as a simple matter of rooting out the rats. We need a new George F. Kennan to understand all the dynamics of jihad and its relation to thug regimes like Kim Jong Il and Hugo Chavez, not to mention the roles of places like Pakistan, Iran, China, and Russia, and to start developing the intellectual underpinnings for a realistic worldwide strategy.

  • Bungo says:

    Great article and great comments.
    It’s hard to believe that this reality is not understood by the current US administration. They just don’t have the back-bone for what needs to be done, pure and simple.
    It’s time to ramp things up in a big way instead of dragging this out to some kind of whimpering end.

  • Spooky says:

    Bill Thomas-
    Obama only had that analysis for, at most, a month before it was released to the public. At the same time as the disasterous Afghan elections mind.
    I see your point, but I was under the impression (and I could be wrong) that the strategy’s implementation hinged on the August elections, which were a wash. If the elections had gone better, thus strengthening the civillian and socio-economic side of the overall strategy, the troop increase may have gone on as planned.
    So the way I see it is the strategy proposed in March took a (fatal?) blow when Karzai stole the election, thus negating whatever the General was going to propose anyway because Obama was going to go back to the drawing board.

  • TheBigRedOne says:

    Here’s a potential strategy, tell Karzai’s government that we’re going to let the Russians bring in troops to help out. Might scare them straight.

  • Spooky says:

    Thats an interesting idea…especially if we followed through on it…

  • Neo says:

    The “Worst of All Possible Worlds”

  • Spooky says:

    I would hope we aren’t there just yet, though I agree we may be on the cusp of falling into the trap. Then again, we may have doomed ourselves to eating our pride by attempting to nationbuild in Afghanistan in the first place.

  • Neo says:

    In my comment above, I said that there is a consensus that a cessation of hostilities be the ultimate outcome, even if that means a unilateral cessation of hostilities. I should have clarified that, because I don’t think that it is a working consensus inside this administration, but very much a consensus among this administrations backers and base of support.

  • Meremortal says:

    I think Neo has it right.
    Spooky, your concept is OK, but I maintain that Obama has already made his decision. Now he is looking for a way to implement it without causing a firestorm in the citizenry.

  • Spooky says:

    Fair enough, and I agree with Neo on te point of the backers/base as well.

  • jhstuart says:

    I would add that Saudi Arabia has had a significant role in the Af-Pak region, primarily through funding to AQ, the Taliban and other affiliated terror organizations. Further, they provide indoctrination by Wahhabist imams through the 20,000+ madrassas in Pakistan.
    BTW. SA has financed more than 80% of the mosques in the US, they provide a prison outreach program headed by Wahhabist imams and still are considered Mr. Clean. When will we wake up?

  • across the pond says:

    I’m afraid the section on AQ and the Taliban is very inaccurate. The author has taken the views of Dadullah, a noted jihadist rather than Talib – and applied it to the entire Quetta Taliban movement. The Taliban is far too diffuse an entity to be able to do that. In fact, Dallauh’s younger brother and successor was acked by Mullah Omar for appearing in AQ propaganda videos and was then arrested by the Pakistani authorities. Did they do this at Omar’s behest? We can merely speculate. The Quetta Taliban remains, I estimate, a strongly xenophobic Afghan movement with a deep scepticism where Arab ‘camels’ are concerned. International jihad is of no concern to them. At the tactical level you may find some cooperation, but I strongly doubt whether the strategic level overlap exists to the extent the author seems to believe.


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