April 27, 2017 | House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade

Afghanistan’s Terrorist Resurgence: Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Beyond

Download the full testimony here. 

More than 15 years after the U.S. military invaded Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda, the group maintains a persistent and significant presence in the country. Despite the Obama administration’s surge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2012, the Taliban, which has maintained its close alliance with al-Qaeda, is resurgent and today holds more ground in the country since the U.S. ousted the jihadists in early 2002.

And the threat posed by jihadist groups in Afghanistan has expanded. The Islamic State has established a small, but significant, foothold in the country. Pakistani jihadist groups that are hostile to the U.S. – such as the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Harakat-ul-Muhajideen – operate bases inside Afghanistan as well.

U.S. Estimates on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan Were Incorrect

For nearly seven years, the Obama administration wrote off al-Qaeda as a spent force. The group has been described as “decimated.”[1] After Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, President Obama said the “core of al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan is on a path to defeat.”[2] The Obama administration pushed this narrative hard, with many counterterrorism analysts adopting the line that al-Qaeda was either defeated or close to it.[3]

Between 2010 and 2016, Obama administration officials, including CIA Director Leon Panetta, as well as other U.S. military and intelligence officials, characterized al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan as minimal and consistently told the American public that the group has a presence of just 50 to 100 fighters. “I think at most, we’re looking at maybe 50 to 100, maybe less. It’s in that vicinity. There’s no question that the main location of al-Qaeda is in tribal areas of Pakistan,” Panetta said on ABC News This Week.[4]

This assessment, which contradicted the U.S. military’s own press releases announcing raids against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan,[5] was consistently repeated by U.S. intelligence and military officials. In June 2015, the U.S. military claimed in its biannual Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan report that al-Qaeda “has a sustained presence in Afghanistan of probably fewer than 100 operatives concentrated largely in Kunar and Nuristan Provinces, where they remain year-round.”[6] The December 2015 report claimed that al-Qaeda is “primarily concentrated in the east and northeast.”[7]

This estimate of al-Qaeda’s strength, which consistently downplayed al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan, came crashing down in mid-October 2015, when the U.S. military and Afghan forces orchestrated a large-scale operation against two al-Qaeda camps in the Shorabak district in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar.[8]

The scale of al-Qaeda’s presence at the two camps in Shorabak quickly disproved the longstanding 50 to 100 estimate. A U.S. military statement, quoting spokesman Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner, described the raid as “one of the largest joint ground-assault operations we have ever conducted in Afghanistan.”[9] It took U.S. and Afghan forces more than four days to clear the two camps, with the aid of 63 airstrikes.

Shoffner’s description of the al-Qaeda facilities indicated that they had been built long ago. “The first site, a well-established training camp, spanned approximately one square mile. The second site covered nearly 30 square miles,” Shoffner said. “We struck a major al-Qaeda sanctuary in the center of the Taliban’s historic heartland,” he added.[10]

Weeks later, General John F. Campbell, then the commander of U.S. Forces – Afghanistan and NATO’s Resolute Support mission, described one of the camps, which was run by al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), al-Qaeda’s branch in South Asia, as “probably the largest training camp-type facility that we have seen in 14 years of war.”[11]

It has been estimated that at least 150 al-Qaeda fighters were killed during the raids on the two camps in Shorabak. This is 50 more al-Qaeda fighters than the upper end of the Obama administration’s estimate of al-Qaeda’s strength throughout all of Afghanistan. And the al-Qaeda members were killed in southern Afghanistan, not in the northeastern provinces of Kunar and Nuristan, where we have been told they were concentrated.[12]

The U.S. military was ultimately forced to concede its estimate of al-Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan was wrong. In mid-December 2016, General Nicholson admitted that the U.S. military killed or captured 50 al-Qaeda leaders and an additional 200 operatives during calendar year 2016 in Afghanistan.[13]

In April 2016, Major General Jeff Buchanan, Resolute Support’s deputy chief of staff, told CNN that the 50 to 100 estimate was incorrect based on the results of the Shorabak raid. “If you go back to last year, there were a lot of intel estimates that said within Afghanistan al-Qaeda probably has 50 to 100 members, but in this one camp we found more than 150,” he said. The estimate of al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan was revised upwards to about 300.[14]

However, well before the Shorabak raids, it was evident to those of us closely watching the war in Afghanistan that al-Qaeda was stronger in Afghanistan than the official estimates, and was not confined to small areas in the northeast. Al-Qaeda consistently reported on its operations throughout Afghanistan, and the U.S. military, up until the summer of 2013, reported on raids against al-Qaeda cells in multiple provinces.

Surely, there was something seriously wrong with the CIA and the U.S. military’s ability to properly report on al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda’s footprint inside Afghanistan remains a direct threat to U.S. national security and, with the resurgence of the Taliban, it is a threat that is only growing stronger.

[1] Joseph Straw, “Most of Al Qaeda's big names have been either captured or killed, but some remain,” NY Daily News, July 21, 2013. (http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/al-qaeda-decimated-not-obliterated-article-1.1405185)

[2] Susan Crabtree, “FLASHBACK: Obama: Al Qaeda is on ‘a path to defeat’; calls for resetting terror policy,” The Washington Times, May 23, 2013. (http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/may/23/obama-al-qaeda-is-on-a-path-to-defeat/)

[3] For example: Peter Bergen, “Time to declare victory: al Qaeda is defeated,” CNN’s Security Clearance, June 27, 2012. (http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2012/06/27/time-to-declare-victory-al-qaeda-is-defeated-opinion/)

[4] Felicia Sonmez and Matt DeLong, “Panetta: 50-100 al-Qaeda remain in Afghanistan,” The Washington Post, June 27, 2010. (http://voices.washingtonpost.com/44/2010/06/panetta-50-100-al-qaeda-remain.html?wprss=44)

[5] Bill Roggio and Patrick Megahan, “ISAF raids against al Qaeda and allies in Afghanistan 2007-2013,” FDD’s Long War Journal, May 30, 2014. (http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/05/al_qaeda_and_allies.php)

[6] Department of Defense, “Report on Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan,” June 2015. (https://news.usni.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/June_1225_Report_Final1.pdf)

[7] Department of Defense, “Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan,” December 2015. (https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/1225_Report_Dec_2015_-_Final_20151210.pdf)

[8] Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, “US military strikes large al Qaeda training camps in southern Afghanistan,” FDD’s Long War Journal, October 13, 2015. (http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/10/us-military-strikes-large-al-qaeda-training-camps-in-southern-afghanistan.php)

[9] Ibid.

[10] Nick Paton Walsh, Jason Hanna, and Mark Morgenstein, “Al Qaeda sites in Afghanistan dismantled in joint operation, U.S. military says,” CNN, October 13, 2015. (http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/13/asia/afghanistan-al-qaeda-us/index.html)

[11] Dan Lamothe, “‘Probably the largest’ al-Qaeda training camp ever destroyed in Afghanistan,” The Washington Post, October 30, 2015. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2015/10/30/probably-the-largest-al-qaeda-training-camp-ever-destroyed-in-afghanistan/?utm_term=.ad1c23e34fd1)

[12] Bill Roggio, “US military insists al Qaeda is ‘concentrated’ in Afghan east and northeast,” FDD’s Long War Journal, December 16, 2015. (http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/12/us-military-insists-al-qaeda-is-concentrated-in-afghan-east-and-northeast.php)

[13] Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, “US military: 250 al Qaeda operatives killed or captured in Afghanistan this year,” FDD’s Long War Journal, December 14, 2016. (http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2016/12/us-military-250-al-qaeda-operatives-killed-or-captured-in-afghanistan-this-year.php)

[14] Nick Patton Walsh, “Al Qaeda ‘very active’ in Afghanistan: U.S. Commander,” CNN, April 13, 2016. (http://www.cnn.com/2016/04/13/middleeast/afghanistan-al-qaeda/