The Magazine

The al Qaeda- Taliban Connection

Obama takes his eye off the ball.

Jul 4, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 40 • By BILL ROGGIO and THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Joe Biden finally won an argument. President Obama’s decision to draw down U.S. forces in Afghanistan seems to move American policy toward Biden’s long-held view that the U.S. military should narrow its approach to a selective, counter-terrorism-focused mission. In this view, targeted raids, like the one that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, are enough to secure America. It’s a politically convenient theory. Too bad it’s wrong.


President Obama did not, strictly speaking, endorse Biden’s approach. The tens of thousands of American troops stationed in Afghanistan after the summer of 2012 will be more than the number needed to wage the type of war advocated by Biden. But the Biden “counterterrorism” strategy clearly influenced Obama’s decision.

Biden’s thinking, which has many proponents both inside and out of government, hinges on the idea that the al Qaeda threat is distinct from the Taliban’s war in Afghanistan. During a press briefing last week, anonymous administration officials explicitly made this argument. 

“On the threat side, we haven’t seen a terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan for the past seven or eight years,” one senior administration official claimed. “There has been clearly fighting and threats inside of Afghanistan, but the assessment of anywhere between 50, 75, or so al Qaeda types that are .  .  . focused inside Afghanistan. .  .  . [There is] no indication at all that there is any effort within Afghanistan to use Afghanistan as a launching pad to carry out attacks outside of Afghan borders.”

This is wishful thinking. The administration has drastically underestimated the footprint of “al Qaeda types” in Afghanistan. What’s more, an al Qaeda operative captured in Afghanistan just last year was planning to attack multiple targets in Europe.

Al Qaeda’s reach in Af-ghanistan can be seen in the press releases issued by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), NATO’s command in Afghanistan. Press releases from March 2007 forward show the presence of al Qaeda and affiliated groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), in 94 different districts and in 25 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

Since mid-April of this year alone, ISAF and Afghan forces have killed or captured dozens of al Qaeda commanders and fighters. On May 3, the day after bin Laden was killed, Afghan troops killed or wounded more than 25 Arabs, Chechens, and Pakistanis in the Barg-e-Matal district of Nuristan. The 25 were sent across the border to retaliate for bin Laden’s demise. According to the Obama administration’s estimates, this would mean that half of al Qaeda’s presence inside Afghanistan was wiped out on that one day. A week later, on May 10, a dozen more al Qaeda fighters were killed or captured by ISAF and Afghan forces. At this pace, there should not be any al Qaeda operatives left in Afghanistan.

The administration’s low estimate is further belied by al Qaeda’s martyrdom statements for leaders and fighters killed in Afghanistan. Consider the statement “Winds of Paradise—Part 5, Eulogizing 5 ‘Martyrs,’ ” which was released last fall by As Sahab, al Qaeda’s propaganda arm. It detailed the service of five senior commanders, who led al Qaeda forces in seven of the country’s 34 provinces: in Kandahar, Helmand, Farah, and Zabul in the south; and in Paktia, Paktika, and Khost in the east.

Simply put, there is no way that “al Qaeda types” could manage such widespread operations with the trivial footprint imagined by the Obama administration.

The idea that al Qaeda is not using Afghanistan to launch plots elsewhere is similarly myopic. In July 2010, a German citizen and member of the IMU named Ahmed Siddiqui was captured in Kabul. Once in custody, Siddiqui spoke “extensively about attack scenarios in Germany and neighboring European countries,” according to Der Spiegel. These attacks were to mimic the 2008 assault on Mumbai carried out by Pakistan-based terrorists. Siddiqui’s planned assault was reportedly ordered by Osama bin Laden himself. 

There is a deeper problem with the Obama administration’s theory of the terrorist threat. Counting al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan is not a science. It is not clear where, say, al Qaeda ends and the Taliban and other terrorist groups begin. This is by design. Bin Laden envisioned al Qaeda as the vanguard of a broader jihadist coalition. Al Qaeda was always a joint venture, drawing from the manpower of sympathetic organizations in Pakistan and Afghanistan and throughout the Arab diaspora to replenish its ranks.

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