Taliban denial of presence of foreign fighters in Afghanistan is absurd

Screen shot of the Taliban’s denial of foreign fighters in Afghanistan. Click for PDF.

Shortly after NBC News published an article that reported a Taliban leader admitting that there are upwards of 3,000 foreign fighters battling alongside the group in Afghanistan, the Taliban issued a formal denial, and claimed that “no foreigners exist in Afghanistan,” as they left the country after the US invasion. This is, of course, a baldfaced lie that is easily refuted.

At Voice of Jihad, the Taliban described the NBC News report (which was reproduced by TOLONews) as part of a “series of devilish conspiracies.”

“We categorically reject this report as well as any such unfounded allegation against any leader of Islamic Emirate,” the statement, which was attributed to Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, said.

“Islamic Emirate assures all sides that no foreigners exist in Afghanistan,” it continued. “After the American invasion, citizens of all countries who came to Afghanistan for jihad against Soviet Union returned to their countries due to war and other problems. After that no one came to our country and no one is allowed to misuse our soil.”

The Taliban’s claim that there are no foreigners waging jihad is so absurd that it seems a waste of time to refute it. Yet, the Taliban clearly is compelled to issue these denials, as it wishes to lull Westerners who are eager to deny the enduring Taliban-al Qaeda relationship in order to further so-called peace talks. Therefore, it is important to rebut the Taliban’s denial.

First and foremost, the Taliban’s denial of foreign fighters on its soil falls apart when looking at Osama bin Laden and his cadre in Afghanistan after 9/11. The Taliban refused to turn over bin Laden, Zawahiri, and other senior al Qaeda leaders to the US, and instead fought to defend them. This cost the Taliban its precious Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The al Qaeda cadre didn’t leave Afghanistan immediately, it fought pitched battles in places such a Shahi Kot in Paktika, and Tora Bora in Nangarhar.

While many al Qaeda leaders, commanders, fighters, and their families fled the country and sheltered in Pakistan and Iran, al Qaeda’s operations did not cease. In fact, al Qaeda reconstituted its network and embedded its fighters within the Taliban to serve as trainers, advisers, and force multipliers. We know this because of designations that details al Qaeda’s role as trainers and advisers. And files seized from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan back this up.

Second, al Qaeda has openly advertised its role in Afghanistan. Abdullah Sa’id al Libi, who served as the leader of al Qaeda’s Shadow Army (Lashkar al Zil), detailed al Qaeda’s mission in Afghanistan, its support for the Taliban and its insurgency, and how most terror attacks are plotted in Afghanistan. Additionally, al Libi recommended that the jihad be expanded to neighboring countries. Al Libi’s strategy document, which was obtained by FDD’s Long War Journal in 2009, is a stinging indictment of the Taliban’s denial. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda’s Shadow Army commander outlines Afghan strategy]

Al Qaeda has prioritized Afghanistan as one of its key theaters, and has appointed some of its most valued and effective leaders to direct its operations there, including Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, Abut Laith al Libi, Mustafa Abu Yazid, and Sufyan al Maghrebi (see the list below). Over the past 17 years, the US has relentlessly targeted al Qaeda’s leaders for the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, or what al Qaeda calls the Khorasan, in its drone campaign. Serving as al Qaeda’s leader for Afghanistan is a sure ticket to death. Those who hold this position usually serve for less than one or two years before being killed.

Third, the Taliban has openly called for foreign fighters to join its ranks. Before he was killed in a US drone strike, Mullah Sangeen Zadran, who was a senior commander in the Haqqani Network as well as the Taliban’s shadow governor for Paktika province, openly called for Turks and Kurds to come to Afghanistan to wage jihad. Sangeen did so in a series of videos released by the Taliban. [See LWJ report, Senior Haqqani Network leader again calls on Turks, Kurds to wage jihad in Afghanistan.’]

Finally, we know that al Qaeda operates in Afghanistan to this day. On Nov. 24, a US soldier was killed while battling al Qaeda in the southwestern province of Nimruz. Foreign fighters were said to be present during the fighting. As recently as Oct. 2015, the US raided two al Qaeda training camps in Kandahar province and killed 150 al Qaeda fighters.

We could go on. This doesn’t even include groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Jihad Union, the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, and a plethora of other foreign groups operating on Afghan soil, with the express permission of the Taliban. Or the Islamic State, which is opposed to the Taliban and has numerous foreign fighters within its ranks.

The Taliban deems it critical to deny any reports of foreigners operating in the country. Doing so allows it to claim that it is merely waging a local war to regain control of the country. This, in turn, allows the US and other countries, which are eager to disengage from Afghanistan, to negotiate with the Taliban.

The Taliban could easily put this issue to rest by simply denouncing al Qaeda and other foreign terrorist groups, as they have been asked to do for well over a decade. The fact that the Taliban has refused to issue a denunciation should speak volumes about its relationship with al Qaeda and others.

List of al Qaeda’s leaders for Afghanistan:

Abd al Hadi al Iraq: Commanded al Qaeda’s military in Afghanistan. Captured by the US in 2007 and currently in detention at Guantanamo Bay.

Abu Laith al Libi: Commanded al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. Killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan in Jan. 2008. 

Abu Ubaidah al Masri: Commanded al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. Died of natural causes in 2008.

Khalid Habib: Commander of al Qaeda’s Shadow Army or Lashkar al Zil, al Qaeda’s elite paramilitary army that operates in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Killed in a US drone strike in Oct. 2008.

Abdullah Said al Libi: Head of the Shadow Army In a statement, al Qaeda described him as the as the leader of the Qaidat al-Jihad fi Khorasan, or the Base of the Jihad in the Khorasan (Afghanistan-Pakistan region). However, he would have served under Mustafa Abu Yazid. He is thought to have been killed in a US airstrike in Dec. 2009.

Mustafa Abu Yazid: Al Qaeda’s leader in Afghanistan, member of al Qaeda’s top shura, and the organization’s “chief financial manager.” Killed in a US drone strike in May 2010.

Sheikh Fateh al Masri: Al Qaeda’s leader in Afghanistan. Killed in a US drone strike in Sept. 2010.

Badr Mansoor: The commander of al Qaeda’s Shadow Army. Killed in a US drone strike in Feb. 2012. 

Farman Shinwari: The commander of al Qaeda’s Shadow Army. Shinwari is thought to have been killed sometime in 2013.

Sufyan al Maghrebi: The commander of al Qaeda’s Shadow Army. Killed in a US air strike in September 2014. 

Qari ‘Imran: Al Qaeda’s military commander for Afghanistan and the deputy emir of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. Killed in a US drone strike in North Waziristan, Pakistan in January 2015.

Mansur al Harbi: Al Qaeda’s military commander for Afghanistan. Killed in a US airstrike in Afghanistan June 2015.

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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  • Hekmatullah Sial says:

    Very authentic and well elaborated article indeed. The recent joint military operation in Shultan district of Kunar province in the east of the country also prove the presence of foreign fighters. In the said operation as many as 30 insurgents got killed of which over 10% were foreigners affiliated to Al-Qaida
    Peace, love & equality,

  • Dennis says:

    The Taliban are now in a better position, militarily and politically. How it has come to pass, is tragic. Not what anyone had in mind 17 years ago. Sad.

  • Baz says:

    Maybe Tally’s Emirate government granted them Afghan citizenship that’s why they’re technically not foreigners ?!

  • James says:

    Bill, when we hear of the grossly underestimated ‘official’ counts of Taliban strength, I’ve always wondered if they are deliberately excluding the non-Afghan members. If we were to factor that in, I’m just wondering if their counts might be at least more reasonably discernible.

    When they are tallying those estimates, are they factoring in the number of Taliban participants that are NOT of Afghan origin? Could this be a cover up of sorts, to deliberately mislead those of US questioning those numbers to make it appear the situation ‘on the ground’ in Afghanistan is more rosy than it really is?

    What this may tell US is that they’ve known at least the approximate number of foreign-sourced participants in the Taliban the whole time, but they’ve kept it secret from US.

    It wouldn’t surprise me at all if it turns out that anywhere from 20-40% of their cadre are in fact foreign-sourced.


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