November 27, 2021

The mother of all terrorist groups isn’t the Islamic State

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The Trump administration is taking its eyes off the ball in Afghanistan. The real threat is still al Qaeda.

On April 13, the U.S. military dropped a huge bomb on caves and tunnels used by Islamic State fighters in eastern Afghanistan. The resulting blast reverberated several miles away, reportedly killed dozens of terrorists, and exposed the poverty of U.S. policy in Afghanistan.

The “mother of all bombs” was devastating — but it was used against the wrong target, for the wrong reasons. Analysts and Trump administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, have suggested that the bomb was targeted more at intimidating North Korea and Syria than battlefield objectives in Afghanistan.

It’s true that Islamic State-affiliated militants in Afghanistan have claimed a series of attacks over the last few years — including, most recently, a hit on a NATO convoy in Kabul on May 2 that killed eight civilians. Still, they’ve struggled to carve out a major presence in the country. They’ve alienated locals with their savagery and made the Taliban look gentle in comparison. Punishing and sustained U.S. strikes, often undertaken jointly with Afghan forces, have already killed their leaders and badly degraded their ranks.

But the Islamic State’s savagery has drawn eyes away from the true danger: the Taliban and al Qaeda, which continue to sit pretty after nearly 16 years of unsuccessful efforts at elimination.But the Islamic State’s savagery has drawn eyes away from the true danger: the Taliban and al Qaeda, which continue to sit pretty after nearly 16 years of unsuccessful efforts at elimination. Although dethroned by U.S. military action in 2001, the Taliban has remained a tenacious opponent.
Now, according to top U.S. officials, that threat is backed by another old foe, Russia. On April 24, Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said during a visit to Kabul by Secretary of Defense James Mattis that he was “not refuting” multiple reports that Moscow is funneling arms to the Taliban. In congressional testimony back in February, Gen. Nicholson had already said that Russia is “overtly lending legitimacy to the Taliban.” But his allegations of direct material aid this time went much further.

The Taliban threat, now perhaps backed by Russian arms, is rising as rapidly as that of the Islamic State is declining. The Taliban controls more territory than at any time since 2001, civilian casualties are the highest they’ve been since these figures were first tracked in 2009, and fatality rates of beleaguered Afghan security forces are soaring. An April 21 assault on an Afghan military base in the province of Balkh, which killed nearly 150 Afghan troops in a region far from the Taliban’s traditional bastion in the south, underscores the serious nature of the threat.

Alongside (and not to be confused with) the Taliban is another persistent foe, al Qaeda. It’s been six years since the death of Osama bin Laden, but the group remains a powerful threat. Back in 2012, Gen. John Allen, then head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said that al Qaeda had reemerged in Afghanistan. Media reports stated that the group was fighting U.S. troops, spreading propaganda, fundraising, and recruiting young Afghans. That was confirmed in 2015, when the U.S. military discovered an al Qaeda training camp in southern Afghanistan stretching a whopping 30 square miles.

The extent of al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan today can be gleaned from Gen. Nicholson’s recent congressional testimony. He reported that in 2016, U.S. forces killed the al Qaeda leader in eastern Afghanistan, his deputy, and more than 200 al Qaeda and affiliated fighters.

He also said that about 50 al Qaeda and affiliated “leaders, facilitators, or key associates” were killed, captured, or transferred to the Afghan government. The pattern has continued into this year. The Pentagon confirmed that a March 19 drone strike had killed Qari Yasin, who was implicated in a 2008 attack on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, that killed more than 50 people, including two Americans. And on April 19, Afghan officials announced that airstrikes had killed three al Qaeda members.

Some might seize on these figures to argue that the al Qaeda threat in Afghanistan is being robustly tackled, or at least being kept under control. While that may be true on a short-term, tactical level, it misses a broader, more troubling point: Battlefield successes against al Qaeda won’t make the group go away any more than it did in 2001. In other words, killing off al Qaeda fighters and leaders won’t kill off the organization.

IMAGE: Afghan National Army commandos take position during an ongoing battle between Taliban militants and Afghan security forces in Helmand province on October 10, 2016. At least 14 people, mostly Afghan security forces were killed in southern Afghan city of Lashkar Gah on October 10, after the Taliban insurgents launched a coordinated attack involving a car bomb, to breach the city defences, Afghan officials said. / AFP / NOOR MOHAMMAD (Photo credit should read NOOR MOHAMMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

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