One of the arguments used by the Obama administration for a rapid drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan by the end of 2016 is that the US and the Coalition have reduced al Qaeda there to “remnants.” To the contrary, however, a study by The Long War Journal of International Security Force press releases detailing raids against al Qaeda and its allies in Afghanistan shows that, since ISAF began reporting on these raids, jihadist groups have maintained a persistent presence in the country. ISAF’s data is generally backed up by independent press reports, as well as al Qaeda and allied groups’ own propaganda on their operations throughout Afghanistan.
These ISAF raids have targeted al Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Jihad Union (or Islamic Jihad Group), Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, Hizb-i Islami Khalis, and generic “foreign fighters,” a term often used by ISAF to describe al Qaeda and other foreign groups. While all of these groups are not official al Qaeda branches, they cooperate closely with al Qaeda, enable al Qaeda to operate in multiple provinces, and have stated they are part of the international jihad. Additionally, al Qaeda often recruits leaders from these groups to fill leadership positions in al Qaeda. ISAF has occasionally reported that Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and IMU leaders and operatives were also members of al Qaeda.
The maps below plot the special operations raids targeting al Qaeda and its allies in Afghanistan that were reported by ISAF in official press releases from early 2007 until ISAF stopped issuing them in the beginning of June 2013. [Click on the colored pins for reports on individual raids.]
The data used in the maps below do not include groups such as the Haqqani Network, an official branch of the Taliban that works closely with al Qaeda, as the number of raids against the Haqqanis alone is too large to plot; US government terrorist designations of Haqqani leaders show just how closely these two groups cooperate. Keep in mind also that ISAF did not report on every single raid; the press releases are merely a sampling, or a window into some of the raids against al Qaeda. Over the years, US military and intelligence officials have told The Long War Journal that there were far more raids against al Qaeda and its allies that have gone unreported.
The press releases indicate that between early 2007 and June 2013, al Qaeda and its allies were targeted 338 different times, in 25 of 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces. Those raids have taken place in 110 of Afghanistan’s nearly 400 districts.
In those 338 raids, al Qaeda was targeted 114 times, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan 139 times, generic “foreign fighters” 85 times, the Islamic Jihad Group 19 times, Lashkar-e-Taiba 5 times, the Hizb-e-Khalis 2 times, and the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan 1 time.
The data below should put to rest the idea that al Qaeda maintains an estimated 50 to 100 fighters in Afghanistan. Obama administration and senior US military officials have been making this claim since 2010, and have not deviated from the estimate, despite heavy targeting, especially in 2010 (76 raids), 2011 (90 raids), and 2012 (67 raids). The high level of targeting from 2010 to 2012 coincides with the US “surge” in forces, which ended at the end of 2011. However, with 42 raids against al Qaeda and allies between January and June in 2013, there is no indication that ISAF was letting up pressure on the terror group.
Additionally, the data indicates that al Qaeda has not had a “resurgence” in Kunar and Nuristan over the past few years, as is often reported. Rather, al Qaeda has in fact maintained a persistent presence in these two provinces. Al Qaeda has also maintained a foothold in Ghazni, Nangarhar, Khost, Paktia, and Paktika over the years. ISAF has targeted al Qaeda’s network in these provinces consistently since 2007 up until the time when ISAF press reports stopped.
Red – al Qaeda
Blue – Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan
Green – foreign fighters
Teal – Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan)
Yellow – Lashkar-e-Taiba
Pink – Hizb-i Islami Khalis
Purple – Islamic Jihad Union
Dot – Killed/Captured
No Dot – Targeted
Special operations forces launched 42 raids in 2013 between Jan. 1 and the beginning of June, when ISAF ended its operational reporting. Raids against al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba alone took place in Ghazni, Nangarhar, Kunar, and Nuristan.
View Al Qaeda in Afghanistan – 2013 in a larger map
There were 67 raids against al Qaeda and its allies in 2012. Raids against al Qaeda alone took place in Paktia, Paktika, Ghazni, Kunar, Nuristan, and Takhar.
View Al Qaeda in Afghanistan – 2012 in a larger map
There were 90 raids against al Qaeda and its allies in 2011, the largest number of raids tracked in a single year. Raids against al Qaeda alone took place in Ghazni, Nangarhar, Wardak, Laghman, Khost, Kunar, Balkh, Takhar, Kandahar, and Zabul, and also likely in Paktika, Baghlan, Kunduz, and Farah (“foreign fighters” along with groups such as the IMU were targeted in several raids).
View Al Qaeda in Afghanistan – 2011 in a larger map
In 2010, special operations forces targeted al Qaeda and allied groups 76 times. Al Qaeda and foreign fighters alone were targeted in Ghazni, Nangarhar, Wardak, Logar, Khost, Paktia, Paktika, Kunar, Kunduz, Badakhshan, Kandahar, Zabul, and Farah.
View Al Qaeda in Afghanistan – 2010 in a larger map
In 2009, special operations forces targeted al Qaeda and allied groups 30 times. Al Qaeda alone was targeted in Ghazni, Nangarhar, Khost, Paktika, Kunar, Helmand, and Kandahar.
View Al Qaeda in Afghanistan – 2009 in a larger map
Special operations forces targeted al Qaeda and its allies 28 times in 2008. Al Qaeda itself was targeted in Ghazni, Nangarhar, Khost, Paktia, and Kunar.
View Al Qaeda in Afghanistan – 2008 in a larger map
ISAF reported on three raids against al Qaeda starting in April 2007. Al Qaeda was targeted in Khost and Nangarhar.
View Al Qaeda in Afghanistan – 2007 in a larger map