The US military’s top commander in Afghanistan said yesterday that American forces are hunting al Qaeda leaders and members in at least seven Afghan provinces. General John W. Nicholson Jr., who leads NATO’s Resolute Support and US Forces Afghanistan, listed the provinces in response to a question about how many senior al Qaeda leaders remain in eastern Afghanistan. He specifically mentioned the provinces of Kandahar, Zabul, Paktika, Ghazni, Kunar, Nuristan and Nangarhar.
In October 2015, Gen. Nicholson reminded reporters, “there was an operation conducted down in the Shorabak District of Kandahar where…Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda [in the] Indian subcontinent were present” in a “training base that was destroyed.” After the Shorabak raid, General John Campbell, then the commander of Resolute Support, said the al Qaeda base was “probably the largest training camp-type facility that we have seen in 14 years of war.” At approximately 30 square miles in size, it is easy to see why this is true.
“We…see them [al Qaeda] in the east, stretching from you know, to Zabul, Paktika, Ghazni area in the Southeast and then up in the areas to the Northeast which you are familiar with, Kunar, Nuristan, Nangarhar, there’s some very mountainous area which — which lends itself to a sanctuary,” Gen. Nicholson explained. Al Qaeda and affiliated groups, including jihadist organizations that draw members from neighboring countries in Central Asia, are operating in other provinces as well.
US and Afghan forces have conducted multiple raids against al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan over the past year. In addition to the operation against the al Qaeda camp in Shorabak, Gen. Nicholson mentioned another raid that took place in Paktika province. “The raid in which we rescued Haider Gilani, the son of the former Pakistani prime minister, that was…against an Al Qaeda target, and so Al Qaeda was holding that individual hostage,” Nicholson said.
After he was freed, Gilani told the press that al Qaeda was attempting to trade him for Ayman al Zawahiri’s daughters, another al Qaeda widow, and their children. Al Qaeda claims the women were freed in early August under murky circumstances.
The US military and Afghan forces also targeted al Qaeda bases in two other operations over the past year. In the summer of 2015, US forces targeted an al Qaeda encampment in Paktika. Abu Khalil al Sudani, a top al Qaeda’s leader, is thought to have been killed during that raid. Earlier this month, Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security struck an al Qaeda “base” in Zabul.
Gen. Nicholson didn’t give an estimate for the total number of al Qaeda leaders being targeted, saying he wouldn’t “get into matters that would affect future operations.” Regardless, along with the Islamic State’s Khorasan branch, al Qaeda “remains at the top” of the US military’s “list” of targets and the Americans “continue to hunt them every day.”
Of the “98 US or UN-designated terrorist organizations around the globe,” Nicholson pointed out, “20 of them are in the Af-Pak region,” which “is the highest concentration of the numbers [sic] of different groups in any area in the world.” As The Long War Journal has reported on numerous occasions throughout the years, many of these same groups are closely allied with al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda’s participation in the fighting throughout Afghanistan is not a recent development. For example, a memo recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound summarized al Qaeda’s presence in eight different Afghan provinces as of June 2010. The file specifically mentioned Farouq al Qahtani, a veteran jihadist.
In February, the Treasury Department added Qahtani to the US government’s list of designated terrorists. Qahtani serves as the head of al Qaeda’s eastern zone in Afghanistan. He has been a key al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan since 2009, directing “the delivery of funds and weapons to Taliban associates.” Qahtani has also contributed to al Qaeda’s external operations, meaning its anti-Western plotting.
The US government and the military have downplayed al Qaeda’s presence for more than six years, despite evidence that al Qaeda remains entrenched in Afghanistan some 15 years after the 9/11 attacks. From 2010 up until the spring of 2016, US officials claimed that al Qaeda had been “decimated” in Afghanistan and maintained a consistent, minimal presence of 50 to 100 operatives. This was in direct conflict with the US military’s own reporting on operations that targeted al Qaeda in the country between 2007 and 2013.
In April 2016, Resolute Support admitted that the previous long-held estimates of al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan were wrong. Brigadier General Charles Cleveland, the top spokesman for Resolute Support, said that the Shorabak raid forced the military to revise the often-repeated estimate of 50 to 100 operatives in country to upwards of 300. That figure is likely too low as well. [See LWJ report, US military admits al Qaeda is stronger in Afghanistan than previously estimated.]