Lost amid all of the media focus on the Islamic State (IS) has been the focus on the threat al-Qaeda continues to present to the United States and the country’s security interests around the world. As the Afghanistan withdrawal policy was implemented in earnest last year, al-Qaeda largely slipped from the U.S. media radar, the faces of al-Qaeda leaders replaced by images of the dramatic surge of ISIS into Iraq and the overrunning of Mosul.
The Islamic State’s tactic of filming their shocking brutality—beheadings, mass executives, stonings, and other forms of execution—have replaced the more methodical but no less important news of al-Qaeda operational leadership structures and the U.S. intelligence community’s work to undermine potential attack plans.
Al-Qaeda’s diffusion from the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan in the weeks following the U.S. invasion of the country in 2001 represented, in many ways, an evolution of the threat that the group presented to the United States and other countries around the world. As al-Qaeda fighters fled the battlefield, were killed by U.S. forces, or were dragged from hideouts in Pakistan, the Middle East, and Africa, the structure of their leadership and the way in which they communicated with subordinate components of the composite structure changed. The pressure of U.S. military and intelligence focused squarely on the fleeing cells and individuals resulted in successful raids on important leaders in the network.
As those leaders were taken off of the battlefield, their replacements, less capable and not sustaining the same associations and relationships that characterized the international logistical and financial lines that supported operations, made fundamental mistakes. In turn, these mistakes left them susceptible to more U.S. strikes and raids. As the network’s leaders were continually killed or captured, the overall effectiveness of the al-Qaeda network was diluted. The capability of the terrorist group to conduct attacks waned—but unfortunately, it did not abate. This is especially true for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and, to a lesser degree, those in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan.
As the war in Afghanistan changed in its character from an invasion to countering a resurgence of the Taliban and battling to roll back an insurgency comprised of a number of disparate insurgent groups, the mission to build a sustainable government and security apparatus by which to ensure denial of essential terrain to al-Qaeda changed as well. Following the invasion of 2001, the establishment of the Karzai regime in Kabul was key to ensuring that eventually the central government’s authority would stretch to reach even the most remote areas of the provinces.
Accordingly for their purpose, al-Qaeda began to adjust with the changing security environment in Afghanistan. The group focused on establishing new havens, rebuilding network, and crafting long-term local relationships that would sustain them through the onslaught of an ISAF surge from 2009-2011. Al-Qaeda strategists anticipated that these adjustments would assist in ensuring that the group could remain a viable threat after the U.S. withdrawal.
Given recent information on al-Qaeda’s outlook beyond the U.S. withdrawal, the group appears to have persevered through the war. Further, al-Qaeda’s re-calibration in ensuring the group’s long term presence in Afghanistan has begun reflecting in recent news. On February 27th, Bill Roggio published a piece at the Long War Journal that outlined and examined documentation taken off of the Abottabad compound objective where Osama Bin Laden was killed by U.S. military forces on May 2, 2011 in Abottabad, Pakistan. While most of the information has been public knowledge for quite some time, the references to al-Qaeda senior leadership guidance for subordinate commanders to relocate fighting forces to specific provinces remain interesting. With the benefit of hindsight, we are now able to draw conclusions from that openly available information and assess the likelihood that al-Qaeda’s presence in the aforementioned provinces has had a deleterious effect on Afghan government and security legitimization, improved insurgent capabilities, and resulted in a stronger al-Qaeda presence in the country. Roggio’s article states:
The Long War Journal has obtained the bin Laden files introduced as government exhibits. One of the documents is a memorandum dated June 19, 2010 written by “Mahmoud,” the alias used by Atiyah Abd al Rahman, to Sheikh Abu Abdallah, a nom de guerre used by Osama bin Laden.
Rahman, who served as al Qaeda’s general manager, was subsequently killed in a U.S. drone strike in August 2011.
One section of Rahman’s memo details al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan at the time.
“Our groups inside Afghanistan are the same for every season for many years now,” Rahman wrote. “We have groups in Bactria, Bactica, Khost, Zabul, Ghazni and [Wardak] in addition to the battalion in Nuristan and Kunz,” the US government’s translation reads. Bactria and Bactica are probably poor translations of Paktia and Paktika, two provinces where al Qaeda’s allies are known to have a strong presence. Also, Kunz is likely Kunar. (Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, The Long War Journal, February 27)
In October, SOFREP published my article Ghazni Province: Not Yet Defeated. In my piece, I noted the intensified presence of insurgent forces, specifically ISIS. As noted in the Long War Journal’s piece on the documents exploited from the Abottabad compound, Ghazni is among the locations in which the former al-Qaeda leader directed his subordinates to reestablish the group’s presence. In my article on Ghazni, I warn:
A likely assessment of significant danger to Kabul pouring in from Waziristan on the other side of the Durand Line in Pakistan will follow a logical line of progression. Insurgent groups within the network, supported by infrastructural improvements such as highways and other roads, will effectively wage deadlier and deadlier attacks on both provincial capitals and the national government in Kabul as lines of communication (ostensibly guarded by Afghan National Security Forces but often left to linger) remain open to their use with little impediment or obstruction. (Jones, SOFREP, October 22, 2014)
On February 6th, I examined the first few months of the presidential term of new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. In the article I noted several signs for optimism, including Ghani’s relationship with the U.S. government and military, and his apparent willingness to revisit decisions to adjust for new factors. I noted the likelihood that the withdrawal timeline would be revisited with the possibility that U.S. troops will be given greater capacity to affect insurgent-dominated areas of the country than they were under the previous president, Hamid Karzai. On February 27th, the U.S. Army announced the deployment of 2300 additional troops to Afghanistan. While the units in the article reflect a regular rotation of U.S. troops to Afghanistan, previously planned for the coming summer, the piece also notes a change in the approach of President Ghani:
Current plans call for that number to drop to about 5,000 in 2016, but the top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell, testified on Capitol Hill earlier this month that he wants “greater flexibility” to potentially keep more troops in-country.
Campbell said his views are influenced in part by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s request for more U.S. support for Afghan forces in areas such as logistics, intelligence and air support. (Michelle Tan, The Army Times, February 27)
The timeline for withdrawal of U.S. military forces, scheduled for 2016, appears to be under reconsideration by both Afghan and American policymakers. As the threat on the ground has increased with the withdrawal of U.S. military from locations in the more remote regions of al-Qaeda havens such as the provinces of Kunar, Nuristan, Ghazni, Paktia, and Khost, Ghani’s request for specific units is reflective of a changing mission for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The latest change in mission reflects a willingness to continue battling al-Qaeda, a bookend to the purpose of the initial push in October 2001.
(Featured Image Courtesy: The Daily Beast)