Sending more troops to Afghanistan is a good start

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, Aug. 21, 2017:

Editors’ note: A version of this article was first published at The Weekly Standard

In a primetime speech Monday evening, President Trump is expected to announce the deployment of several thousand more American troops to Afghanistan. We doubt this will be enough to win the war, but it is better than the alternatives offered to the president. A complete withdrawal would have been disastrous.

The premature withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 paved the way for the rise of the Islamic State, which evolved into an international menace after overrunning much of Iraq and Syria. A similar scenario could have unfolded in Central and South Asia. The Taliban-led insurgency currently contests or controls more territory today than in years. And a withdrawal would have cleared the jihadists’ path to take even more ground, possibly leading to dire ramifications throughout the region.

Therefore, President Trump deserves credit for making a decision that went against his gut instinct, which told him to get out. In the process, America and its Afghan allies avoided the near-certain catastrophe that would have followed.

But if America is really going to put the Afghan government on the path to victory, then the Trump administration will have to learn from the mistakes of its predecessors. In particular, the US government needs to drastically reassess America’s jihadist enemies and avoid the policy pitfalls of the past.

With that in mind, the Trump administration has the opportunity to make the following course corrections.

Stop underestimating al Qaeda

President Trump can explain to the American people that al Qaeda is still a significant problem in South Asia—a potentially big one. President Barack Obama frequently claimed that al Qaeda was “decimated” and a “shadow of its former self” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That wasn’t true. The Obama administration’s counterterrorism campaign dealt significant blows to al Qaeda’s leadership, disrupting the organization’s chain-of-command and interrupting its communications. But al Qaeda took measures to outlast America’s drones and other tactics. The group survived the death of Osama bin Laden and, in many ways, grew.

Consider that from June 2010 until 2016—that is, most of the Obama administration—the US government repeatedly insisted that there were just 50 to 100 al Qaeda operatives in all of Afghanistan. This was clearly false at the time, and US officials were eventually forced to admit that this figure was far off.

From October 2015 until the first week of December 2016, the US and its allies killed or captured 400 al Qaeda members in Afghanistan—four times the longstanding high-end estimate. In October 2015, American and Afghan forces raided two large training camps in the Shorabak district of Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province. One of them was nearly 30 square miles in size. US officials described the camp as likely the largest al Qaeda training facility in the history of Afghanistan. Both of the Shorabak camps were supported by the Taliban.

Think about that: In October 2015—more than 14 years after the 9/11 hijackings —the US led a raid on what was probably the largest al Qaeda training camp in history. So much for being “decimated.”

Al Qaeda continues to fight under the Taliban’s banner as well. Its newest branch, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, is deeply embedded in the Taliban-led insurgency. And just days before the 2016 presidential election, the US killed a veteran al Qaeda leader in eastern Afghanistan who was both planning attacks against the American homeland and supporting the Taliban’s insurgency. Incredibly, al Qaeda is still able to plot attacks against the US from inside Afghanistan.

Some of the Americans newly deployed to Afghanistan will be called upon to perform counterterrorism missions. Similar efforts have disrupted anti-American plots in the past. But al Qaeda has used its broader role in the insurgency to regenerate its threats against the West. The American mission needs to root out al Qaeda, much more so than in the recent past. Are there other Shorabak-type training camps? How many fighters does al Qaeda really have in Afghanistan— taking into account its ethnically diverse membership? The Trump administration needs to focus on these types of questions. Otherwise, al Qaeda will keep coming back.

Forget about a grand bargain with the Taliban’s senior leadership

Many officials in the US government think the only way the Afghan war ends is by negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban. There’s just one problem: The Taliban has never shown any real interest in peace.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton oversaw negotiations with the Taliban during the Obama administration. The talks were a fiasco. The Taliban extracted various concessions and the US never got anything in return, other than Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an accused deserter. The current Taliban honcho is Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, whose son carried out a suicide bombing in July. Akhundzada is a jihadist ideologue, not a prospective peace partner. Negotiating with him would be sheer folly. The Obama administration also pursued talks with the Taliban under the theory that the group could forswear al Qaeda. See the details above—that idea was always a dangerous fantasy.

The US and the Afghan government can and should attempt to peel away mid- to low-level Taliban fighters and commanders. But the idea that a grand bargain can be had with the Taliban has never been rooted in reality.

Stop treating the Haqqani Network as a separate group

The US has long operated under the delusion that the powerful Haqqani family and its loyalists are somehow distinct from the Taliban. It was always a curious assumption given that Jalaluddin Haqqani, the network’s eponymous founder, formally joined the Taliban in the mid-1990s. His son, Sirajuddin (a key al Qaeda ally), has been the Taliban’s No. 2 leader since 2015 and oversees much of the Taliban’s military operations. Sirajuddin’s ascent within the Taliban’s ranks means that no one can pretend that the Haqqani Network and the Taliban are distinct entities any longer. The Haqqani Network has long been designated a terrorist organization by the US government. The Trump administration should extend the designation to cover the entire Taliban, thereby making it clear to anyone who does business with the Taliban that they are backing a terrorist group.

The Islamic State is a threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but not nearly as much of a threat as the Taliban-al Qaeda axis

The US has spent disproportionate resources fighting the Islamic State’s “province” in eastern Afghanistan. Earlier this year, for example, the US military dropped the “mother of all bombs” on the group’s stronghold in Nangarhar province. Several Americans have died during operations against Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s loyalists in country.

There’s no question that the Islamic State remains a serious problem in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but it still doesn’t threaten the Afghan government to the same degree that the Taliban-al Qaeda axis does. The Islamic State controls parts of perhaps several Afghan districts. But the Taliban and its allies contest or control approximately 40 percent of the country. Therefore, the US has focused a lot of resources on a, relatively speaking, smaller threat. The Trump administration will need to devise a more offensive approach to dealing with the Taliban-al Qaeda alliance, an effort that has been hampered by restrictive rules of engagement in the past.

Pakistan continues to be a big problem

It is no secret that Pakistan harbors much of the Taliban’s senior leadership. But the US has only occasionally targeted these figures inside Pakistan proper. If Pakistan won’t turn on the Taliban—and it won’t—then the Trump administration should take more aggressive action against the group’s Pakistani safe havens.

The drone campaign can be expanded to target known Taliban leaders operating inside Pakistan. For example, the organization’s leader, Mullah Mansour, was killed in a May 2016 airstrike in Pakistan after he returned from a visit to Iran. Mansour’s death was intended to open the door to possible peace talks, which didn’t materialize.

If the Taliban is allowed to continue operating unencumbered, then the administration will be repeating the mistakes of the past. For too long, the Taliban’s leaders have been able to direct the insurgency in Afghanistan from their cozy confines in Pakistan. American aid to Pakistan can and should be withheld until the country’s military and intelligence establishment proves willing to make meaningful changes in its behavior. No one should hold their breath waiting for this happen, however, and the Trump administration can’t afford to wait.

Iran remains a problem, too

The Iranian government has supported the Taliban’s insurgency since 2001. Although this assistance is not as pronounced as Pakistan’s, it is meaningful. The US government has also repeatedly noted that Iran hosts al Qaeda’s “core facilitation pipeline,” which moves fighters, funds, and communications to and from South Asia. Any successful strategy for turning the Afghan war around will have to deal with the Iranian government’s nefarious role.

The Russians are on the opposite side of the Afghan war. The Russians are, at a minimum, providing rhetorical support to the Taliban. There are reports that Russia has provided arms to Taliban insurgents as well. President Trump has made no secret of the fact that he seeks better relations with Vladimir Putin’s government. But Russia’s flirtations (and maybe more) with the Taliban are a stark reminder that this will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. In the meantime, the US will have to take steps to disrupt Putin’s relationship with his favorite jihadis in the Taliban.

The rural areas matter

US military officials often downplay the importance of rural areas, arguing that they need only bolster the Afghan government’s defenses in the more heavily populated areas. But this is a mistake. The Taliban’s insurgents have been using their advances in Afghanistan’s more rural territory to orchestrate sieges on several provincial capitals. If the US and Afghan forces don’t go on the offensive in these areas, then the jihadists will continue to squeeze the more populated terrain.

These are just some of the issues that confront the US on the road ahead.

With his decision, President Trump has ensured that the worst-case scenario won’t unfold. But that is a long way from victory. And to win, the US is going to have to get real about our jihadist enemies in Afghanistan.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal. Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban rule Afghanistan, 16 years later. @SebGorka, Deputy Assistant to the President.

 

John Batchelor Show, May 4, 2017:

Al Qaeda and the Taliban rule Afghanistan, 16 years later. @sebastiangorka, Deputy Assistant to the President.

Al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan has not occurred in a vacuum. It has maintained its strength in the country since the U.S. invasion, launched a new branch, AQIS, and established training camps with the help and support of the Taliban.

When Generals Campbell and Buchanan discussed al-Qaeda in the wake of the Shorabak raid, they described the group as resurgent. Campbell described the Taliban-al-Qaeda relationship as a “renewed partnership,” while Buchanan said it “has since ‘grown stronger.’”

But like the estimate that al-Qaeda maintained a small cadre of 50 to 100 operatives in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2016, the idea that the Taliban and al-Qaeda have only recently reinvigorated their relationship is incorrect. Al-Qaeda would not have been able to maintain a large cadre of fighters and leaders inside Afghanistan, conduct operations in 25 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, establish training camps, and relocate high-level leaders from Pakistan’s tribal areas to Afghanistan without the Taliban’s long-term support.

Al-Qaeda has remained loyal to the Taliban’s leader, which it describes as the Amir al- Mumineen, or the “Commander of the Faithful,” since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Osama bin Laden maintained his oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s founder and first emir. When bin Laden died, Ayman al-Zawahiri renewed that oath. And when Mullah Omar’s death was announced in 2015, Zawahiri swore bayat (an oath of allegiance) to Mullah Mansour, the Taliban’s new leader. Mansour publicly accepted Zawahiri’s oath.

Photo: Long War Journal

Also see:

House Panel Expert: U.S. ‘Losing in Afghanistan’ as Al-Qaeda Grows Stronger

Reuters

Breitbart, by Edwin Mora, April 27, 2017:

WASHINGTON D.C. — Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is growing stronger with the resurgence of the Taliban in recent years and “remains a direct threat” to America more than a decade and a half after the United States began targeting both terrorist groups in response to 9/11, an expert tells House lawmakers.

In October 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan, and the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda has been raging since.

President Donald Trump inherited chaos and overall deteriorating security conditions in the war-devastated country.

Under former President Barack Obama’s watch, the Taliban seized more territory in Afghanistan than during any time since the U.S. military removed the jihadist group from power in 2001 and the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) gained a foothold in the country.

The U.S. military “downplayed this problem of the Taliban” during Obama’s tenure, Bill Roggio, an expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and editor of the Long War Journal, told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism.

“If that’s the attitude of the U.S. military towards the Taliban inside Afghanistan, we will continue to lose this war,” he later added. “We need to reassess Afghanistan… our policy in Afghanistan is a mess frankly, and the Trump administration needs to decide what to do and how to do it quickly.”

“The Taliban—al-Qaeda relationship remains strong to this day. And with the Taliban gaining control of a significant percentage of Afghanistan’s territory, al-Qaeda has more areas to plant its flag,” also said Roggio in his written testimony.

Last Friday, the Taliban carried out its deadliest-ever attack on a major military base in northern Balkh province that left as many as 250 soldiers dead.

Although the U.S. military argues the Afghan conflict is at a “stalemate,” Roggio told the House panel that America is losing the war.

“We are losing in Afghanistan… and The Taliban controls or contests at least half of Afghanistan,” Roggio told lawmakers, adding in his written testimony:

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. Al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan has not occurred in a vacuum. It has maintained its strength in the country since the U.S. invasion, launched a new branch, AQIS [al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent], and established training camps with the help and support of the Taliban.

Roggio testified alongside Dr. Seth Jones from the RAND Corporation and Dr. Vanda Felbab-Brown from the Brookings Institution.

Echoing the U.S. military, the experts told lawmakers that Russia and Afghanistan’s neighbor Iran are providing military assistance to the Taliban, adding that neighboring Pakistan provides sanctuary to the terrorist group as well as its al-Qaeda and Haqqani Network allies.

According to the Pentagon, the Haqqani Network poses the “primary threat” to the American military in Afghanistan.

The experts noted that a U.S. military withdrawal from the war-devastated country would spell trouble for America’s national security.

The United States has already invested nearly $120 billion in nation-building efforts in the country.

Despite the threat posed by the Afghan Taliban, the group is not officially listed as a terrorist group by the United States like its ally al-Qaeda and its rival ISIS.

Roggio pointed out that although ISIS’s presence in Afghanistan is a problem, the Taliban remains a bigger threat.

ISIS is considered an enemy by both the al-Qaeda and the Taliban, considered the strongest group in the country.

“The reason the Taliban matters is the Taliban and al-Qaeda, they remain tied at the hip,” testified Roggio. “The Taliban refuse to surrender al-Qaeda members — Osama Bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks. They continued to fight side by side. Al-Qaeda serves as a force multiplier.”

“The Islamic State is on the fringe. It’s a small problem in Afghanistan compared to al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other Pakistani jihadist groups that operate there (in ISIS’ Afghan stronghold Nangarhar province),” he added. They operate primarily in four districts in Nangarhar province and have a minimal presence in the north, and it certainly is a problem.

This week, ISIS in Nangarhar killed two U.S. troops and wounded another, the Pentagon revealed.

“Our efforts seemed to be focused on the Islamic State at this point in time while largely ignoring what the Taliban is doing throughout the country and that is directly challenging the Afghan military. They’re going toe to toe; They’re raiding their bases; They’re taking control of territory,” said Roggio.

***

Also see:

‘Islamists’ Slay US-Employed Bangladeshi Gay-Rights Activist (Update : Al Qaeda claims credit)

Roopbaan-twitter-640

Clarion Project, April 26, 2016:

So far no one has claimed responsibility for the April 25 stabbing to death of two men in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka.

Police officers identified the victims as USAID employee and editor of the country’s first gay-rights magazine Xulhaz Mannan and his friend and local police officer Tanay Majumder.

The incident, assumed by police to have been carried out by Islamists, follows the murder of university professor Rezaul Karim Siddique three days earlier in Rajshahi, in the country’s northwest. ISIS said it was behind that killing.

Mannan and other unnamed LGBT campaigners launched Roopbaan magazine in January 2014.

“The main reason for this publication is to promote love,” the editor said at the launch party for the magazine, “promoting love and promoting the right to love. The audience for love is huge and that’s who this is for.

“I feel that I have a relationship with every line and letter in this magazine. A relationship that has cast such an influence on me.”

Homosexuality is illegal in Muslim Bangladesh, with those arrested facing likely imprisonment.

On its website, Boys of Bangladesh urges homosexuals not to be afraid, saying it is in contact with “powerful people” to seek change in the country:

“…we envision a world free of discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation enabling every LGBT individual to enjoy the blessing of life, love and companionship. …We hope Bangladesh would soon start talking about real LGBT issues and eventually take a bold positive step towards building a better society free of any kind of stigma and discrimination.”

***

(Update : Al Qaeda claims credit)

Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent claims killing of LGBT activist, friend in Bangladesh by Thomas Joscelyn

A team of several jihadists posing as deliverymen killed a LGBT activist, Xulhaz Mannan, and his friend in Bangladesh’s capital of Dhaka yesterday. The men were reportedly hacked to death with machetes in Mannan’s flat.

Ansar al Islam, the Bangladeshi branch of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), quickly claimed responsibility for the slayings in a message released on Twitter and other social media sites.

Assuming AQIS’s claim is accurate, the murders are the latest in an orchestrated campaign against men accused of offending the Islamic faith and spreading supposedly immoral behaviors. More than one dozen victims have been killed or wounded in the assaults since 2013. AQIS previously said that the killings were authorized by al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri.

The assassinations demonstrate how al Qaeda is attempting to market its draconian version of the Islamic faith. AQIS even tries to claim the moral high ground after butchering innocent men.

Mannan was the founder of a LGBT magazine in Bangladesh and worked for the US Embassy there for eight years before joining USAID. He and his friend, Samir Mahbub Tonoy, were specifically targeted by AQIS for their LGBT activism.

16-04-26 AQIS claims killing activists

“By the grace of Almighty Allah, the mujahidin of Ansar al-Islam (AQIS, Bangladesh branch) were able to assassin [sic] Xulhaz Mannan and his associate Samir Mahbub Tonoy,” the group’s claim of responsibility reads. The English version of the message, which was released in multiple languages, can be seen on the right.

“They were pioneers of practicing and promoting homosexuality in Bangladesh,” the AQIS statement continues. “Xulhaz Mannan was the director of Roopbaan (A cult comprised of the gays and the lesbians) while Samir Mahbub Tonoy was one of its most important activists. They were working day and night to promote homosexuality among the people of this land since 1998 with the help of their masters, the US crusaders and its Indian allies.”

The assassinations of Mannan and Tonoy are part of an ongoing, targeted campaign by AQIS, which selects specific men for death. AQIS deliberately contrasts its actions with indiscriminate acts of violence.

16-04-09 Killing of Nazimuddin Samad

For example, the Ansar al Islam branch of AQIS released a statement earlier this month entitled, “Who’s Next?” In it, AQIS set forth the criteria for its slayings. The message can be seen on the right.

The group identified its “next targets” as belonging to eight categories of people, ranging from those who have allegedly insulted Allah or the prophet Mohammed to those “who oppose the Islamic Shariah [law] by their talks or writings or show insolence towards it or insult it.”

Mannan and Tonoy may have been marked for death because AQIS included them in the seventh category. It reads: “Those who are engaged in spreading nudity, obscenity and shamefulness in the Muslim society. Note that, there is a huge difference in the Islamic Shariah between doing something haram (prohibited) personally and trying to spread it in the society.”

Portraying its terror as a defense of Islam

Most of the victims targeted by AQIS thus far had allegedly insulted the religion of Islam. [See LWJreport, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent leader says attacks on ‘blasphemers’ ordered by Zawahiri.]

In May 2015, AQIS leader Asim Umar, claimed responsibility for the murders of six people who were supposedly “blasphemers.” Umar claimed that his jihadists were responsible for killing Rajib Haider (a blogger murdered in February 2013), Muhammad Shakil Auj (who was the dean of Islamic Studies at the University of Karachi when he was shot in September 2014), Shafiul Islam (a professor at Rajshahi University who was killed in September 2014), Aniqa Naz (a Pakistani blogger), Avijit Roy (a prominent atheist blogger hacked to death in February 2015) and Washiqur Rahman (a blogger who was killed in March 2015).

“Praise be to Allah, these assassinations are part of a series of operations initiated by the different branches of al Qaeda on the orders of our respected leader Sheikh Ayman al Zawahiri (may Allah protect him),” Umar said in the May 2015 video. “It is equally part of our commitment to fulfill the oath of Sheikh Osama [bin Laden] (may Allah have mercy on him).”

Umar connected the series of murders to other terrorist attacks, including the massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris in January 2015. The jihadists “have taught a lesson to blasphemers in France, Denmark, Pakistan and now in Bangladesh,” Umar claimed. He said al Qaeda’s assassination campaign is part of the “same war…whether it is fought with drones [in northern Pakistan] or with the cursed pens of Charlie Hebdo.”

16-01-08 Timeline of Assassinations

AQIS claimed responsibility for additional killings and attempted murders in the months that followed Umar’s message. In January, the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF) posted an infographic online (seen on the right) in which several other attacks were claimed.

Earlier this month, AQIS said its men were responsible for the death of Nazimuddin Samad, whom the jihadists accused of mocking Allah on Facebook.

Supporters of the Islamic State have lashed out at individuals as well. Rezaul Karim Siddique, a university professor, was hacked to death earlier this week. Amaq News Agency, a propaganda arm of the Islamic State, said Siddique was killed because he was “calling to atheism in the city of Rajshahi in Bangladesh.” However, the professor’s family denied that he was an atheist.

AQIS claims that its victims are chosen with precision. “We are not targeting every atheist bloggers [sic],” the organization’s targeting criteria reads. “We don’t have problem [sic] with other religions or beliefs but we will not tolerate anyone insulting [the] prophet Muhammad. We are targeting those who are insulting our Prophet in the name of Atheism, Free Speech or Free Thinking.”

And the jihadists are now targeting LGBT activists as well.

Police officials in Dhaka say that previous AQIS claims were proven to be fake. But if they are right, then this would mean that roving bans of murderers have randomly and repeatedly targeted prominent commentators and activists in the same manner with machetes and knives. Although some of AQIS’ statements may be inaccurate, it is reasonable to assume that the jihadists are targeting victims just as they say.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for The Long War Journal.

Drone Strike Kills Two Hostages and Two American Al Qaeda Terrorists

drone-srtoke-victimsCSP, by Sean MacCormac, April 23, 2015:

President Obama made an open, heartfelt apology for the deaths of two hostages in an airstrike conducted in January on an Al Qaeda compound near the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, taking full responsibility for the actions which lead to their deaths. The two hostages were Warren Weinstein, an American director for J.E. Austin Associates who was captured in Lahore, Pakistan by Al-Qaeda in 2011, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian aid worker kidnapped in 2012. President Obama declassified the information about the attack, claiming transparency and the need for the families of the two hostages to know the information. Both hostages were not known to be in the area when the air strike, conducted via unmanned aerial vehicle, was carried out.

Adam Gadahn and Ahmed Farouq were two other Americans confirmed to have been killed in the two drone strikes, albeit these individuals were Al Qaeda terrorists. Neither were specifically targeted in the attack. Adam Gadahn was infamous for being the American mouthpiece for Al-Qaeda, having left for Pakistan to join Al Qaeda in 1998 after his conversion to Islam in 1995. After becoming estranged from his Christian parents in the mid 1990s, then-teenaged Gadahn left for his grandparents in Santa Ana, California where he started studying Islam at the Islamic Society of Orange County. The Islamic Society of Orange County once invited Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman to speak in 1992, and it was here that Gadahn fell in with a group of fundamentalists. This group grew displeased at the society’s president, Haitham Bundakji, and his interfaith outreach, referring to him as “Danny the Jew.” Adam Gadahn would later assault Bundakji, making his first trip to Pakistan a few months after being convicted. Though Ahmed Farouq is much less well known, sources indicate that he was a deputy emir of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. Farouq was killed in the same drone strike that killed the hostages, while Gadahn was killed in a separate drone strike in the same month.

Though the White House stated that it believed the drone strike was lawful, an investigation will be carried out in the hopes of making sure that errors such as the accidental killing of hostages will not occur again. Though the US military plans to draw down its operations in Afghanistan, the CIA wishes to keep several bases in Afghanistan active in order to gather intelligence for drone strikes in the tribal regions of Pakistan. Certainly, UAVs are an effective intelligence gathering and surgical strike tool, and will continue to be used as such for the foreseeable future.

***

CSP’s Kyle Shideler appears on Newsmax’s American Forum to discuss the incident (at 3:30 in the video)

Also see: