US and Afghan forces have killed three al Qaeda operatives who served as embedded trainers for the Taliban in western Afghanistan.
The three al Qaeda operatives were killed along with with three Taliban fighters during a clash in the Gazara district in the western province of Herat, which up until two years ago was a relatively peaceful area.
“A joint operation of Afghan and NATO forces was kicked off in Gazara district since Monday to clean up the area from rebels and so far six militants including three Arabs have been eliminated,” Abdul Basir Ghori, a spokesman for the Afghan military told Xinhua.
The three al Qaeda operatives “provided military training to Taliban insurgents in the area,” Xinhua reported, based on Ghori’s statement.
Al Qaeda operatives serving as embedded trainers to Taliban forces are occasionally killed during fighting in Afghanistan, even in the far-flung regions of western Afghanistan. In August 2008, al Qaeda leader Abu Gharib al Makki was killed during a clash with US and Afghan forces in Farah province. US intelligence officials later told The Long War Journal that Makki was one of several al Qaeda trainers detached to Taliban units in order to impart knowledge on explosives and military tactics to local Taliban forces.
The embedded al Qaeda fighters are members of al Qaeda’s paramilitary Shadow Army, or the Lashkar al Zil. The Shadow Army is the successor to al Qaeda’s notorious Brigade 055, the military formation that fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan.
During the reign of the Taliban in Afghanistan prior to the US invasion in 2001, the 055 Brigade served as “the shock troops of the Taliban and functioned as an integral part of the latter’s military apparatus,” al Qaeda expert Rohan Gunaratna wrote in Inside al Qaeda. At its peak in 2001, the 055 Brigade had an estimated 2,000 soldiers and officers in the ranks. The brigade was comprised of Arabs, Central Asians, and South Asians, as well as Chechens, Bosnians, and Uighurs from Western China.
The Shadow Army has been expanded to six brigades, and has an estimated 8,000 to 12,000 fighters. In addition to dispatching small teams of embedded trainers to Taliban units, the Shadow Army fights in military formations along the Afghan and Pakistani border region.
The Shadow Army occasional fights alongside the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, Hezb-i-Islami, and the Haqqani Network, in formations ranging from squad to company level. Evidence of this was seen recently in Swat and Bajaur in Pakistan, where the Pakistani Army met stiff resistance in some battles, as well as in North and South Waziristan in 2007 and 2008.
The Shadow Army also played a role in last weekend’s assault on joint US and Afghan outposts in Nuristan province, as well as in a series of attacks last year on outposts in the Afghan provinces of Paktika, Paktia, Khost, Kunar, and Nuristan. The most publicized attack took place in July 2008 in Wanat in Nuristan, when nine US soldiers were killed and the base was nearly overrun.
The US has targeted the leaders of the Shadow Army during its air campaign in Pakistan’s northwest. The US killed Khalid Habib, the former leader of the Shadow Army, during an airstrike in South Waziristan in Pakistan last November. Habib was replaced by Abdullah Sa’id al Libi.
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