Al Qaeda never left Kunar, and other problems with US intel

Today’s article at The Wall Street Journal on the resurgence of al Qaeda in the Afghan east has provided a great service in shining light on al Qaeda’s presence in region. This is a subject that longtime readers of The Long War Journal will easily recognize, as we’ve devoted a significant portion of our coverage to al Qaeda’s presence and networks in the area, as well as to the impact of the US military withdrawal from combat outposts in Kunar and Nuristan provinces.

But the WSJ article also highlights, both intentionally and unintentionally, some very significant failures in the US military and intelligence communities’ analysis of the nature of al Qaeda and the scope of the threat in the Afghan northeast. At the very end of the WSJ article, a senior US military official is quoted making the following claim:

“We do not have an intelligence problem. We have a capacity problem. We generally know the places they are, how they are operating,” said the senior U.S. military official, speaking of al Qaeda. The problem “is our ability to get there and do something.”

I’m here to tell you that that viewpoint is wrong. And here’s why:

Al Qaeda never left Kunar province

Military and intelligence officials would have you believe that al Qaeda had abandoned the Afghan east and returned only after US forces pulled back from combat outposts over the last two years (the title of the WSJ article, “Al Qaeda Makes Afghan Comeback,” reinforces that message). This quote nicely summarizes that view:

Now, the U.S. pullback from northeastern Afghanistan appears to have given al Qaeda the opening it needed to re-establish itself as a force in the Afghan fight, say some U.S. and Afghan officials.

But the reality is that al Qaeda has always maintained a network and bases in Kunar. This is easily demonstrated by the numerous US military press releases issued over the past several years. For instance, the US attacked two al Qaeda bases in Kunar, one in October 2009 and another in December 2009. But the US did not begin drawing down from the Korengal Valley until early 2010, and from the Pech River Valley until early 2011.

Also, al Qaeda, by means of its Lashkar al Zil, or Shadow Army, participated in the two attacks on US combat outposts in the Korengal in Kunar in 2008 and Kamdish in Nuristan in 2009 that nearly resulted in the entire bases being overrun. These have constituted two of the most deadly assaults on US outposts in the entire war. The reason al Qaeda, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and other groups were able to participate in these operations is because they have an established presence and networks in the area.

Take Abu Ikhlas al Masri, the al Qaeda military commander for Kunar who was captured in December 2010. He has been in Kunar for the better part of a decade. His predecessor, Abu Ubaidah al Masri, ran Kunar up until his death in 2008. And another al Qaeda commander, Qari Masiullah, the al Qaeda chief of security for Kunar province, was killed Dec. 1, 2009. These facts indicate that al Qaeda has maintained an established network in the region for some time.

It would be accurate to say that al Qaeda appears to be reinforcing its existing network in Kunar, but to state that al Qaeda is only now returning after US forces abandoned combat outposts in the province is incorrect.

Kunar and Nuristan never settled down after the drawdown

The WSJ article does a fine job of pointing out the error of the earlier claim that Kunar and Nuristan would settle down after the US pulled out from its bases. This theory was one that had been pushed by many analysts in Washington, and was accepted by the top levels of the US military in Afghanistan and ISAF. The July 2009 report at the Institute for the Study of War is a good example of the thinking in military and intelligence circles back in 2009. From the ISW executive summary [emphasis is mine]:

The presence of U.S. forces in the Korengal generates violence and undermines U.S. efforts to bring stability and security.

  • The current U.S. force disposition in the inhospitable valleys, like the Korengal, relies too heavily on isolated outposts that require massive amounts of artillery and airpower to defend
  • U.S. forces are not denying the enemy the high ground, allowing insurgents to attack and terrorize the population.
  • Artillery and airpower are counterproductive in dealing with the insurgency in this part of the country because their use alienates the very population the U.S. is trying to secure.
  • Committing additional forces in order to hold this remote terrain would be tactically and operationally imprudent. The resistance in this area is confined to locals in the valley. It does not accelerate the insurgency beyond the valley.

As we now know, the drawdown did not cause a reduction in the insurgency. In fact, it did just the opposite, as the Taliban and al Qaeda quickly began using their new safe havens to launch attacks at remaining bases. Back in early 2010, when news broke that US forces were withdrawing from the Korengal, I predicted this would happen. But only now are military and intelligence officials coming around to the idea that the pullout was a bad idea. The solution? Special operations raids, clearing operations, and air and artillery strikes (incidentally, the exact things the Institute for the Study of War recommended against doing).

The Surge was too small

What the US military official said in the last paragraph of the WSJ article is correct, ISAF still has a “capacity issue.” There simply are not enough foreign troops in Afghanistan to take and hold territory. “Mowing the grass,” as a US general described the current operations in Kunar to the WSJ, is not sufficient to prevent al Qaeda and the Taliban from maintaining a strategic foothold in the area. The problem is that without holding terrain, the “grass” grows back. US Marines and soldiers are having success in Kandahar and Helmand because they can hold the ground they’ve taken.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban are not easy to separate

The WSJ also did a good job showing that al Qaeda and the Taliban maintain close links in the Afghan north. From the WSJ article:

Coalition commanders and civilian officials were initially bullish about the new strategy’s chances, seizing on reports from Taliban detainees that a “wedge” was developing between al Qaeda and midlevel insurgent commanders. The insurgent leaders were said to be tired of fighting and increasingly resentful of what they considered the Arab group’s meddling in their fight.

The reappearance of al Qaeda fighters operating in Afghanistan undercuts those reports from detainees. “There are still ties up and down the networks…from the senior leadership to the ground level,” said a U.S. civilian official, citing classified intelligence.

Again, the fact that al Qaeda and allied groups are intimately intertwined with the Taliban in the northeast and north should come as no surprise to readers of The Long War Journal. We’ve given an inordinate amount of space to Qari Zia Rahman’s activities in the northeast, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’s presence and integration with the Taliban in the north. These instances show that the two groups are in fact increasing their ties, and not disaggregating as military and intelligence officials predicted.

The ’50-100 al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan’ fallacy

Frankly, it never ceases to amaze me that the argument that al Qaeda maintains a small footprint of only 50 to 100 fighters in Afghanistan is still circulating in military and intelligence circles. But as the WSJ shows, this idea still won’t die:

There is debate within the U.S. military and intelligence community about the scope of the al Qaeda problem in Afghanistan. The September strike was watched carefully and “was a big deal,” said another military official.

But that official and others said the numbers remain small enough to manage and that camps are, at worst, few and far between and largely temporary. And almost all U.S. and Afghan officials caution that al Qaeda isn’t yet secure enough in northeastern Afghanistan to use the area as a staging ground for attacks overseas.

I’ve thoroughly debunked this idea last summer and fall, so I won’t rehash the argument here. See here and here for examples. Suffice to say, it would be wise for the military and intelligence analysts who push this nonsense to read the press releases issued by ISAF on al Qaeda targeting, and to read or watch al Qaeda’s own propaganda on who is being killed during operations in Afghanistan.

It’s a good thing for al Qaeda to be establishing bases in Afghanistan?

Finally, it is astounding that officials would push the argument that the establishment of al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan is actually a good thing:

Besides, the officials said, having al Qaeda on the Afghan side of the border–where American forces have far greater freedom to strike–rather than in Pakistan has its advantages. The officials said many of al Qaeda’s fighters are fearful of establishing too big or permanent a presence in Afghanistan because of the threat posed by U.S. and allied forces.

I understand the ‘honeypot’ theory: Draw them in so you can kill them. But the reality is that al Qaeda has space to operate in Kunar because we are giving it to them. This isn’t a strategy, it is a symptom of a failed strategy. It isn’t a good idea to give al Qaeda access to radicalize and recruit Afghans to fight against their own government, particularly when ISAF and Afghan resources are stretched thin as is.

Bottom line

This post merely scratches the surface of the problems US intelligence has with respect to Afghanistan. My response to that official who claims there is no problem is that you do indeed have one. The first step in fixing the problem is admitting it.

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

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  • Soccer says:

    What an awesome article. You really hit home, and you know what you’re talking about.
    Thanks for the clarification Bill.

  • TMP says:

    Bill there were many (as you are well aware) within the Military, the trigger pullers element, the shooters, who never thought it made any sense to pull out Nuristan / Korengal areas…..
    It was only those looking for a quick fix (short term) to escalate a further overall pull out that advocated such BS.

  • Soccer says:

    And it was also Obama’s flawed thinking that posited that the reason the Taliban and other extremists are in the Korengal is because we were there… and if we would pull out, they would leave too….
    Yeah, we all knew how that turned out.
    At least he’s changing around his war policy team, and there is going to be A LOT of big changes very soon. But can it make a difference? I’m very skeptical at this point. More soldiers have died under Obama’s command than Bush’s command.
    Perhaps it is definitive proof that the way him and his team have been handling and executing the war isn’t the best way for our troops.

  • Graham says:

    Bill, if these foreign fighters are so prevalent, how come we haven’t seen any Arabs, Uzbeks, or Chechens on camera in ISAF custody?

  • Bill Roggio says:

    That’s easy, because ISAF doesn’t release info on identity of captured fighters, Taliban or otherwise. They won’t name them due to human rights concerns, and certainly won’t parade them on TV.
    Absolutely. My reports have quoted some of them. In this post, I am talking about the decision makers and those driving the intel to the top. The guys on the ground, in the fight, get it.

  • Nic says:

    This article and the related WSJ article are worthy of multiple readings. An absolute truth is in the WSJ: “”Al Qaeda tends to navigate to areas where they sense a vacuum,” said Seth G. Jones, a senior political scientist at Rand Corp. in Washington who has spent much of the past two years in Afghanistan advising the U.S. military. “There are serious concerns about al Qaeda moving back into some areas of Afghanistan, the places that we’ve pulled back from.” Perception is important. If we leave an area then that action is perceived as a victory for the Talib. As for being able to hurt the enemy the most, I am reminded of Admiral John S. McCain’s evaluation of Guadalcanal: “With substantially the reinforcements requested , Cactus (Guadalcanal) can become a sinkhole for enemy air power and consolidated, expanded and exploited to the enemy’s mortal hurt. The reverse is true if we lose Cactus.” With improvements in UAVs, new GPS guided, 120mm mortar shell (RCGM), plus, to drop a few names, M-25 or M-307, maybe going back into the Korengal Valley or similar situations would not only be desirable but possible and obtain a very different result than was possible in 2008. As for reinforcements from our allies, I saw that the acronym ISAF now means “I See Americans Fighting”.

  • blert says:

    Most NATO ‘allies’ were only ever willing to ‘optically’ assist us in the war against fanatics.
    German and French ‘troops’ are not permitted to even load their weapons! So the result is rather like the scene from “Aliens.”
    The result is that our logistical burden is ramped-up to sustain blank guns.
    It is essential that all such ‘players’ be removed from the theater.
    Next, logistics through Pakistan needs to be fixed/ supplemented/ replaced by northern routes.
    Raymond Davis was the last straw.

  • TimSln says:

    Outstanding piece on the WSJ article Bill. Clearly, al-Qaeda never left Kunar and abandoning the bases has only made matters worse. Hopefully, the just completed ISAF operation is a sign of more to come in efforts to disrupt the enemy as much as possible, including getting Qari Zia Rahman, whether in Afghanistan or a drone strike in Pakistan.

  • IanJ says:

    Excellent article Bill, with all the buzz about the release of the film Restrepo last year there was a equalizing report from al Jazeera with Taliban fighters inspecting the remnants of the outpost after the pull out a year after the film was made in line with the new population center approach-
    In the film there is mention of foreign fighters there to help so it all runs contrary to what reports have been saying as they were there to provide assistance to inhabitants of the Korengal in a military capacity. Also given that Korengal is a gateway from the tribal regions in Pakistan and with Uzbek fighters also travelling between the border areas of North Afghanistan and Pakistan it was ever likely that without a military presence the growth of groups in these sorts of areas would be an obvious come about. It’s a shame that the intelligence community missed this and the slow adoption of theories surrounding the persistent presence of al-Qaeda in the areas has resulted in slow policy and tactical adjustment.

  • Soccer says:

    I remember reading that QZR is in Kunar, At least, that’s his suspected location. He has been the target of multiple raids in Kunar/Nuristan, even recently.
    But somehow I have a gut feeling that he will meet his demise on the end of a hellfire missile in Pakistan, not by a special forces raid in Kunar. Judging by the fact that he has been captured before, and from his statements during interviews, he seems to prefer staying deep underground and letting his foot soldiers and mid level commanders deal with the problems.
    He is a very dangerous and sinister man and I’m sure Bill personally knows people involved in hunting QZR down. I hope they are successful, and soon.

  • The dark lord says:

    AQ likely exaggerates losses in Afghanistan. Even if someone died in Pakistan they claims they died as a martyr fighting the infidels in Afghanistan. That inflates the numbers if you count dead guys in eulogy videos and press statements. They try to portray guys as dying bravely as heros.

  • Charu says:

    Great article! AQ never left Kunar…. we did. And the consequences (psychological and otherwise) are obvious.


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