The U.S. military continues to underestimate Al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan and overestimate the threat posed by the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province.
The newly released Department of Defense Inspector General report on Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (OFS, the now-defunct mission in Afghanistan) and Operation Enduring Sentinel (OES, the current mission to address threats emanating from Afghanistan) puts the number of Al Qaeda operatives in the low hundreds.
Additionally, the report somehow elevated the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province as the primary threat in Afghanistan, over the Taliban, which controls the country and shelters numerous regional and global terror groups, including Al Qaeda.
Stale U.S. military estimates of Al Qaeda’s strength
The Defense Intelligence Agency, or DIA, “reported no significant change from its assessment last quarter that al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent probably has about 200 members and al-Qaeda core has far fewer. During this quarter,” according to the report.
“During this quarter, the U.S. Government did not take any actions to disrupt or degrade al-Qaeda’s activities in Afghanistan, including its media operations, which have increased since August 2021, according to USCENTCOM.”
The U.S. military and intelligence services have a more than decade-long history of underestimating Al Qaeda’s manpower in Afghanistan, and recycling the old estimates year after year. FDD’s Long War Journal reported on these flawed estimates since the military and intelligence services released them.
For a summary of the analytical problems with these estimates, see LWJ report, Analysis: Don’t trust estimates of Al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan.
Between July 2010 and late 2015, the U.S. military and CIA consistently claimed that Al Qaeda had only 50 to 100 operatives in Afghanistan. The 50 to 100 estimate remained static for over five yearS, despite reporting, including from the U.S. military’s own press releases, showed that scores of Al Qaeda fighters were being killed in dozens of provinces in Afghanistan yearly.
The 50 to 100 Al Qaeda in Afghanistan estimate was blown out of the water in the fall of Oct. 2015, when U.S. and Afghan forces raided two Al Qaeda camps in the Shorabak district in Kandahar province. One of the two camps was situated over 30 square miles and was described as the largest Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion in late 2001.
More than 150 Al Qaeda operatives were killed or captured during that raid alone.
Only after the Shorabak raids did the U.S. military revise its estimate from 50 to 100 Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan – this time from to 100 to 300. That revised estimate, given seven years ago, is essentially the same as the estimate provided today.
Today, the DIA is claiming there are 200-plus Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. This is clearly an unrevised estimate from years ago. In 2018, the Department of Defense estimated Al Qaeda’s manpower in Afghanistan at 200 members.
How can the Defense Intelligence Agency estimate Al Qaeda’s strength?
The U.S. military’s poor performance on estimating Al Qaeda’s manpower in Afghanistan is well-documented here at LWJ. But if we suspend disbelief and accept the Defense Intelligence Agency’s stale estimate as accurate, how exactly does the DIA make this estimate?
The report provided no details on the methods and means. But the report is clear about one thing: the U.S. military and intelligence services have near-zero visibility on the situation in Afghanistan. The report noted that there are no on-the-ground intelligence assets, and the ability to fly intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions are severely limited due to the long flight-time from drone bases in Doha and limit loiter time.
Keep in mind, the U.S. military had difficulty tracking Al Qaeda in Afghanistan while it had a presence there. The U.S. military missed the fact that Al Qaeda was running two camps at Shorabak while in country; it only found out about their location by capitalizing on intelligence from a raid of a different Al Qaeda base far from Kandahar.
Given the lack of intelligence and inability to monitor the situation on the ground, and the history of these failed estimates, it is highly likely that the DIA recycled a tired estimate of Al Qaeda’s manpower.
The Taliban-Al Qaeda alliance is the real threat
The U.S. military continued to display a lack of awareness of the true threat that emanates from Afghanistan. According to the report, “ISIS-K Remains Top Terrorist Threat in Afghanistan.” ISIS-K is the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province, or ISKP.
According to the DIA, ISKP has 2,000 fighters in country (again, how the DIA knows this nearly nine months after leaving the country is unclear). The report noteD that ISKP controls no territory, and is only able to carry out limited terror attacks within the country. The Taliban and its allies are enemies of the Islamic State, and the Taliban routinely hunts ISKP operatives.
Meanwhile, the Taliban controls all 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces and all levers of government, took possession of $7.1 billion of U.S. military hardware, maintains support from Pakistan and to a lesser extent Iran, and shelters a host of global and regional terror groups, including Al Qaeda, the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, the Turkistan Islamic Party, Jamait Ansarullah, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and others.
These terror groups now have safe haven, with the ability to regroup, train its fighters, shelter its leaders, and plot and execute attacks against Western interests. The terror groups, at the behest of the Taliban, are limiting their external operations at the moment to give the Taliban time to consolidate its grip on Afghanistan.
But even the U.S. military concedes that it is only a matter of time before the restraints are loosened.
The U.S. military prioritized the ISKP threat after it emerged in Afghanistan in 2015, and focused an inordinate amount of energy to hunt down and destroy the group, often while cooperating with the Taliban. The U.S. military began to view the Taliban as a partner in peace, and backed State Department negotiations with the Taliban, and even claimed it could be an effective counterterrorism partner.
All with dissasterous consequences.
The U.S. military has continually grossly misjudged the threat in Afghanistan before the withdrawal, and to the surprise of no one, that did not change today.
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