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.
On Friday, the New York Times reported that the cellphone used by Osama bin Laden’s most trusted courier was captured during the raid on bin Laden’s compound. The courier had been in touch with members of Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen (HUM), a terrorist group backed by Pakistan’s spy agency. HUM leaders have endorsed al Qaeda’s terror since the 1990s.
Bin Laden invested heavily in al Qaeda’s ties to the Taliban in particular, an alliance that is not likely to fray any time soon. Years before the September 11 attacks, al Qaeda fighters joined their Taliban brethren in combat in Afghanistan. Bin Laden established al Qaeda’s 55th Arab Brigade specifically for this purpose. Recently leaked memos authored by Joint Task Force Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO) describe the brigade as bin Laden’s “primary battle formation supporting Taliban objectives,” with bin Laden “participating closely in the command and control of the brigade.”
In late 2001, the 55th Arab Brigade was smashed by coalition forces, with dozens of its surviving members transferred to Gitmo. Bin Laden and al Qaeda then rebuilt the brigade as the Lashkar al Zil, or the Shadow Army.
The Shadow Army enlisted support from a range of jihadist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including senior jihadists bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders had befriended in the 1980s. The Shadow Army also received support from powerful state backers, including elements of Pakistani and Iranian intelligence.
The untold story of the Shadow Army can be found in the threat assessments of JTF-GTMO, which were published online in late April by WikiLeaks. Consider just three striking examples.
An Afghan named Haji Hamidullah has been detained at Guantánamo since 2003. JTF-GTMO found that Hamidullah was an “agent of the Iranian Savama [Ministry of Intelligence and Security]” and “closely associated” with the Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), and al Qaeda. One especially intriguing intelligence report contained in his file reads:
December 2002 reporting linked [Hamidullah] to a Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISID) initiative to create an office in Peshawar combining elements of the Taliban, HIG, and al Qaeda. The goal of the initiative was to plan and execute various terrorist attacks in Afghanistan. Members were to attack the foreign headquarters in Kabul in late January 2003.
Afghan officials linked Hamidullah to numerous attacks, resulting in the deaths of 71 people. Such is the nature of the jihadist coalition in Afghanistan that a suspected terrorist like Hamidullah can cooperate not just with terrorist groups but also with Pakistani and Iranian intelligence.
Another detainee, Abdul Razak, was identified as “a high-level military commander in a newly-conceived ‘unification’ of Al Qaeda, HIG and Taliban forces within Afghanistan.” Osama bin Laden, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (the leader of the HIG and longtime ally of bin Laden), and Mullah Omar “envisioned this new coalition of HIG, Al Qaeda, and Taliban during a meeting in Pakistan in early spring 2003.” (Razak was repatriated to Afghanistan from Gitmo by the Bush administration.)
Still another file contains intelligence on Haroon al Afghani, who is still held at Guantánamo. Al Afghani admitted to U.S. authorities that he studied at a school set up by 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and then joined the HIG. He also served as a courier under Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, bin Laden’s chief lieutenant in the 55th Arab Brigade, who is also currently detained at Guantánamo. Afghani’s file contains this startling intelligence report:
[Afghani] is assessed to have attended a joint operations meeting among extremist elements in mid-2006. A letter describing an 11 August 2006 meeting between commanders of the Taliban, al Qaeda, [Lashkar e Taiba], Pakistani military and intelligence officials, and the Islamic Party (probably a reference to the HIG), disclosed that the groups decided to increase terrorist operations in the Kapisa, Kunar, Laghman, and Nangarhar provinces, including suicide bombings, mines, and assassinations.
These are just a few reports, chosen from many in the leaked Guantánamo threat files, that demonstrate a high degree of collusion between al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Their common goal is to drive the U.S.-led coalition out of Afghanistan.
The Obama administration is right that al Qaeda is headquartered in Pakistan. But that does not mean al Qaeda has removed itself from the coalition attempting to wrest control of Afghanistan. The jihadist hydra in Pakistan has its sights firmly set on Afghanistan. The withdrawal of American troops will only make the defeat of al Qaeda more difficult.
Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio are senior fellows at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editors of The Long War Journal.