The Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe provides new reporting on the two large al Qaeda training facilities raided by US and Afghan forces in the Shorabak District of Kandahar earlier this month. Lamothe interviewed Gen. John F. Campbell, who oversees the war effort in Afghanistan. And Campbell confirmed that the camps were run by al Qaeda, with one of them being extraordinarily big.
“It’s a place where you would probably think you wouldn’t have AQ. I would agree with that,” Campbell said, according to the Post. “This was really AQIS, and probably the largest training camp-type facility that we have seen in 14 years of war.”
AQIS stands for Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, the newest regional branch of al Qaeda’s international organization. Ayman al Zawahiri, the emir of al Qaeda, announced the establishment of AQIS in September 2014. AQIS has attempted some pretty daring plots against the Pakistani military, but like al Qaeda arms elsewhere appears to be devoting most of its resources to the jihadists’ insurgencies in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries.
As we reported on Oct. 13, US military officials said that one of the two al Qaeda camps was nearly 30 square miles in size – an astonishing figure. More than 200 US troops and Afghan commandos, supported by 63 airstrikes, were required to assault the facilities. Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner, a US military spokesman, was quoted in a press release as saying that the raids included “one of the largest joint ground-assault operations we have ever conducted in Afghanistan.” Shoffner added, “We struck a major al Qaeda sanctuary in the center of the Taliban’s historic heartland.”
Taking out an al Qaeda camp of this size, over several days, likely required extensive planning. And Campbell said as much in his interview with Lamothe. “We looked at it for a while to make sure we reduced the risk to the forces that go in on a target like that,” Campbell said. “It was a very complex target set over several days.”
Campbell explained to the Post that the Shorabak camps “were discovered after a raid this summer on another al Qaeda facility in the Barmal district of eastern Afghanistan’s Paktika province.” Interestingly, that is where Abu Khalil al Sudani, one of al Qaeda’s most senior figures, was killed in July.
Indeed, intelligence recovered from the facility associated with Sudani may have been used to locate the Shorabak camps. The timing is consistent with reporting by CNN’s Barbara Starr, who cited an email from “coalition forces.” On Oct. 21, Starr reported that the massive camp in Shorabak “had been operating since last November — and the US didn’t learn the full details about the site until July.” That is the same month as the strike against Sudani. According to Starr, the “coalition” explained that “several hundred hours of surveillance” were carried out between July, when the camps were discovered, and Oct. 7, when the joint American-Afghan raids were first launched.
The “coalition sources” cited by CNN provided these details on the larger of the two camps:
Bottom line is that this camp was built to be a high end training facility to prepare enemy personnel. This camp is unique in its level of technical training. The training camp was broken down by basic and advance training areas. Training ranged from physical fitness, weapons training (small arms to advanced explosive training, indirect fire), chemistry to produce advanced explosives, and higher level sniper training.
All of this raises troubling questions. Why weren’t the facilities in Shorabak discovered before July 2015, especially given that one of them was almost 30 square miles in size? US officials have long maintained that al Qaeda has a negligible presence in Afghanistan and was confined to the country’s east. Why didn’t the US know that al Qaeda had major operations ongoing in southern Afghanistan?
“What I think you have to do is challenge your assumptions here,” Campbell explained in his interview with Lamothe. “Things change, and what was good here in 2010 or 2011 may not necessarily be good today as far as the enemy.”
It is true that al Qaeda fighters have streamed into Afghanistan from northern Pakistan. And al Qaeda has relocated its operations not just into Kandahar, but also into Helmand. As we reported on Oct. 24:
Since the beginning of the year, Pakistani authorities have carried out multiple raids against [AQIS]. However, according to Pakistani officials, AQIS has relocated a significant portion of its operations into Helmand. The move by AQIS was made in anticipation of the Pakistani military’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb, an offensive that began in June 2014. The offensive has targeted al Qaeda and affiliated jihadist groups, including several from Central Asia. Some of these same organizations have helped fuel the Taliban’s advances in Afghanistan this year.
Thus, al Qaeda’s relocation from northern Pakistan to Afghanistan has undoubtedly increased its footprint in the latter country since early 2014. But the reality is that the US intelligence community and military underestimated al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan even prior to that time.
An analysis of press releases issued by the now defunct International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from 2007 to 2013 demonstrates that al Qaeda and allied groups maintained significant cadres of jihadists in the country during that span. Declassified files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound show that al Qaeda operated in multiple Afghan provinces in the months leading up to the May 2011 Abbottabad raid.
So, the US should “challenge” its assumptions as “[t]hings change,” especially because those assumptions were wrong all along.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.