US military insists al Qaeda is “concentrated” in Afghan east and northeast

The US military continues to claim that al Qaeda is “primarily concentrated in the east and northeast” of Afghanistan, despite a major operation two months ago that targeted the jihadist group at two established training facilities in the southeast.

The Department of Defense asserts in its biannual Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan report, which was released today, that al Qaeda is largely confined to the east and northeast. The military also claims that Pakistani military operations in North Waziristan over the past year, and not orders from Osama bin Laden that date back to 2010, caused al Qaeda leaders to be “displaced into Afghanistan.”

“Following Pakistani military operations in North Waziristan, many foreign fighters, including some al Qaeda leaders, were displaced into Afghanistan,” the report states in a section that assesses threats from insurgent and terrorist groups. “Al Qaeda activities remain focused on survival, regeneration, and planning and facilitating future attacks; they remain a threat to the United States and its interests. The organization has a sustained presence in Afghanistan primarily concentrated in the east and northeast.”

The military’s claim that al Qaeda is “primarily concentrated in the east and northeast” is directly contradicted by its own reporting on an operation that targeted two al Qaeda camps in Shorabak district in Kandahar province that began on Oct. 7 and took four days to complete. The two camps, including one that was nearly 30 square miles in size, were “well-established,” Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner, a US military spokesman said two days after the operation ended.

An al Qaeda media cell, likely part of As Sahab, was dismantled, and large stockpiles of weapons, ammunition, IEDs, and other supplies were seized and destroyed. The US launched 63 airstrikes in the two al Qaeda camps over the course of four days. [See Long War Journal report, US military strikes large al Qaeda training camps in southern Afghanistan.]

The operation was “one of the largest joint ground-assault operations we have ever conducted in Afghanistan,” Shoffner said at the time. “We struck a major al Qaeda sanctuary in the center of the Taliban’s historic heartland” in southern Afghanistan.

General John Campbell, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, backed up Shoffner’s statements on the Shorabak operation, and indicated that the location of the two al Qaeda camps was something of a shock to US commanders. [See Threat Matrix report, Al Qaeda’s Kandahar training camp ‘probably the largest’ in Afghan War.]

“It’s [Shorabak] a place where you would probably think you wouldn’t have AQ [al Qaeda]. I would agree with that,” Campbell said in an interview with The Washington Post. “This was really AQIS [Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent], and probably the largest training camp-type facility that we have seen in 14 years of war.”

The Department of Defense’s latest Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan report does mention the operation that destroyed the al Qaeda camps, but wrongly says it targeted a single camp. Also, there is no mention of the camps being “well-established” or the military commander’s surprise at their existence in southeastern Afghanistan.

“The U.S. and Afghan partnered operation against an al Qaeda training camp in Kandahar in October 2015 demonstrates the importance of continued counterterrorism efforts against al Qaeda as they seek to reconstitute their strike capabilities against Western targets,” the report states in the only mention of the Shorabak raid.

The US military has insisted for years that al Qaeda remains confined to eastern and northeastern Afghanistan, despite its own reporting on raids against the terrorist group and its allies from 2007 to 2013 (note, the US military ceased reporting on raids against al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan in June 2013). In the June 2015 Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan report, the US military claimed that al Qaeda “has a sustained presence in Afghanistan of probably fewer than 100 operatives concentrated largely in Kunar and Nuristan Provinces, where they remain year-round.”

Yet scores of al Qaeda fighters are said to have been killed during the US military attack on the camps in Shorabak, which was an established facility at the time the US military released its June 2015 assessment on Afghanistan.

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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  • Nuthaus says:

    Note to self: in our next war in this region, don’t tell the enemy we’re going to fight “really” hard for a few years then pull out…not a winning strategy.

  • Paddy Singh says:

    The US will always continue to believe what it believe’s even after having got their backsides kicked.

  • irebukeu says:

    Since there are only 50 al qaeda (Panetta) in Afghanistan let us just say there are 25 in the east and 25 in the northeast. Case closed.

  • Jason says:

    Reminds me of a 5 year old denying the obvious to avoid embarrassment and punishment.

  • jean says:

    There is an article or published story that alleges that the majority of raids and strikes (Post 2009) conducted in Eastern Afghanistan targeted low level, or marginally aligned al Qaeda targets. very frustrating article to read.

  • Cass says:

    Are they speaking strictly of al Qaeda in the Afghanistan theater, and ignoring those cells in Syria, Yemen, Mali, and Algeria for now? Or are they saying that al Qaeda does not exist in those other countries any more?


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