This past week Afghan and Coalition special operations forces conducted five raids targeting the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in northern Afghanistan. The five raids reflect a significant increase in raids targeting the terror group, with 18 such operations reported so far this year. And while the Coalition is willing to discuss operations against the IMU, it refuses to discuss al Qaeda and its presence in the country.
Thursday, ISAF reported operations on April 9 and April 10 that targeted senior insurgent leaders with ties to both the Taliban and the IMU.
On April 9, Afghan and Coalition forces killed “a number” of insurgents while searching for an insurgent commander in the Burkah district of Baghlan province. ISAF could not confirm if the targeted senior leader was among the dead insurgents but did tell The Long War Journal he was an Afghan national of Uzbek ethnicity and that there were “indications of Uzbek involvement.” ISAF said the target was the “second-highest ranking insurgent” in the district and was responsible for “recruiting and training Afghans in insurgency operations.” He also targeted Afghan officials for kidnappings and assassinations and “played a significant role in linking Taliban and IMU fighters in Baghlan.” Demonstrating the closeness of the IMU and Taliban, the targeted commander worked as a mediator and operation coordinator between the two terror groups. The April 9 raid was the fifth operation against the IMU in Baghlan province this year.
On April 10, special operations forces conducted another raid targeting a senior commander with ties to both the IMU and the Taliban; this operation was conducted in Balkh province, to the south of Mazari-Sharif in the Sholgarah district. The target was “the highest ranking Taliban official in Sholgarah district,” according to the ISAF press release. He has ties to other local Taliban commanders who are responsible for attacks against Afghan and Coalition forces in the province. The commander also “manages the weapons distribution chain” for local insurgent cells, and is known to collect taxes to fund Taliban operations. Two insurgents were detained, but it is unclear if the targeted leader was among them. The Sholgarah operation is the first conducted against the IMU in Balkh province this year.
And yesterday, ISAF reported that it captured “a senior Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan leader” who “is believed to be in charge of a cell of insurgents responsible for improvised explosive device operations against Afghan and Coalition forces throughout Balkh province.” The raid took place on April 11 in the Burkah district in Baghlan.
Last week began with the captures of two IMU facilitators during two separate raids in Ishkamish district, Takhar province, a hotspot for IMU activity in the north.
The IMU continues to launch successful suicide attacks in the north this year, including the assassinations of the Afghan parliamentary speaker’s father and brother on March 13. Al Jazeera reported on April 10 that the IMU is increasing its support in Takhar province. In the report, an Afghan general comments that “for the past three years, the IMU has become stronger in the north.” The report also specifically mentions al Qaeda’s presence in the region, something ISAF has been unwilling to discuss.
ISAF comments on operations against the IMU, but not al Qaeda
Following the fourth raid last week, The Long War Journal inquired with ISAF about the reasons for the increased targeting of the IMU this year. ISAF responded by saying that intelligence operations, as well as “the start of the “fighting season,” have led to the recent spate of raids against the IMU.
“[T]he start of the spring fighting season has created opportunities to target insurgent networks throughout the country,” an ISAF official told The Long War Journal. “Afghan and Coalition forces have comprehensive intelligence operations that allows us to continually apply pressure to insurgent networks and disrupt operations up through their leadership. Every successful operation creates new opportunities to have a positive effect against insurgent networks known to target innocent Afghans.”
But when asked about the presence of al Qaeda and its operations in eastern Afghanistan, a senior ISAF public affairs official declined to provide information.
“ISAF Joint Command won’t be able to support your request regarding the presence of AQ,” Lieutenant Colonel Richard Spiegel, the Chief of Public Affairs for ISAF Joint Command, told The Long War Journal on April 7.
An inquiry as to why ISAF was unable to answer questions about al Qaeda’s operations in eastern Afghanistan went unanswered.
ISAF has announced only two raids against al Qaeda in Afghanistan so far this year, compared to 18 such operations against the IMU. The raids that targeted al Qaeda this year took place on Jan. 23 and Jan. 24 in Kunar province. Al Qaeda is known to maintain a strong presence in Kunar province, despite numerous special operations forces raids that have targeted the group’s network over the years.
US intelligence officials told The Long War Journal that although ISAF may not be reporting on the raids against al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the group remains entrenched in the country, specifically in the north and east.
“Al Qaeda is entrenched in Nuristan and Kunar,” one official said. “We’ve failed to dislodge them. And in the east, in P2K (Paktia, Paktika, and Khost), Ghazni, Wardak, and Logar, al Qaeda continues to operate alongside the Haqqani Network. In Nangarhar, al Qaeda operates with the Hizb-i-Islami Khalis and the Tora Bora Military Front.”
Another official despaired that the withdrawal of Coalition forces in 2014 will herald a resurgence of al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
“Al Qaeda won’t be returning to Afghanistan, it is already there. The question is: How much resources will al Qaeda devote to the country? With new theaters for al Qaeda opening in places like Syria, Mali, and North Africa, the demand for resources will be spread. But Afghanistan remains a key theater for al Qaeda, which can draw on resources in Pakistan and Central Asia. This is why groups like the IMU are important to al Qaeda.”