Exploiting the fault lines of Islamic terrorism

Family Security Matters, by Lawrence Sellin, Sept.8, 2017:

The U.S. has largely viewed Islamic terrorism as a monolithic threat with varying degrees of extremism distributed among various geographic locations.

We have often not adequately appreciated the historical, ideological and geopolitical subtleties underlying Islamic terrorism and, consequently, missed opportunities to enhance our national security by effectively pitting one faction against another, if not by defeat, then by disruption.

For example, an extraordinary and mostly unnoticed diplomatic démarche occurred in Kabul on August 7, 2017, when the senior Saudi diplomat in Afghanistan, Charge d’affairs Mishari al-Harbi, accused Qatar of supporting Taliban “armed terrorists” even though Saudi Arabia itself had long been a financial backer of the Taliban and, together with Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), officially recognized the group when it assumed control of Afghanistan in 1996.

At a high level, that event can be traced back to the centuries-old conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam upon which modern geopolitical interests are layered.

The basis of the Saudi action, however, was a continuation of the June 2017 diplomatic breakdown among Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and isolation of Qatar, initially by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Eqypt, that included severing of diplomatic ties, border closing, an embargo and the expelling of Qatari diplomats and residents expelled from GCC countries. Qatar was accused of sponsoring terrorism and meddling in the affairs of other GCC countries, specifically through its support of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.

Although Qatar is indeed a major supporter of radical Islam, the root cause of the conflict is Qatar’s amicable relationship with Saudi Arabia’s Shia nemesis, Iran, with whom Qatar shares a natural gas field in the Persian Gulf. Because Qatar’s major export is gas not oil, it is less under the political domination of Saudi Arabia, often pursuing an independent foreign policy, which is not appreciated in Riyadh.

The Saudis’ hostile rhetoric in Kabul was meant to discourage independent Saudi donors from supporting the Taliban and, by de-legitimization of the Taliban, undercut Qatar’s effectiveness as a mediator between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

One factor contributing to the Saudi break with the Taliban is the increasing support the Taliban have accepted from Iran. In addition, the ambassador to Afghanistan of Saudi ally, the UAE, was wounded and five of its diplomats were killed in the January 2017 Kandahar bombing, which was allegedly planned at the Afghan Taliban-linked Mawlawi Ahmad Madrassa in Chaman, Pakistan.

Over the last decade, there has also been a shift in Saudi funding to Pakistan away from Deobandi groups like the Taliban to the more extreme Ahl-i-Hadith sect, the Pakistani equivalent of Wahhabism. Local sources in Pakistan have reported that Saudi Arabia is providing funding for Jihadi training camps in order to launch attacks on Iran from Balochistan.

All of the above accentuates the importance for U.S. policy makers to understand and exploit elements of the Sunni-Shia struggle, the divisions among Sunni extremist groups and the geopolitical vulnerabilities of the nations who sponsor terrorism.

The ideology that sustains radical Islamic terrorism is really an amalgamation of ideologies, whose inherent incompatibilities can be exploited to create conditions whereby the ideologues attack each other or, at a minimum, are kept continuously off balance.

That is what a winning strategy looks like, not troop levels and nation building.

Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired colonel with 29 years of service in the US Army Reserve and a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq. Colonel Sellin is the author of “Restoring the Republic: Arguments for a Second American Revolution “. He receives email at lawrence.sellin@gmail.com.

This ‘offensive’ leaflet made the Pentagon apologize to Muslims

Keith Binns | Getty Images

Conservative Review, by Jordan Schachtel, Sept. 6, 2017:

Here’s the leaflet that the Pentagon deemed so offensive to Muslims that it warranted an official apology from a U.S. commander, according to journalists who posted the leaflet on social media.

Above the photo of the lion chasing the dog, the leaflet said in Pashto, according to Reuters:

“Take back your freedom from the terrorist dogs and cooperate with coalition forces so they can target your enemy and eliminate them.”

The leaflet was air-dropped over Parwan Province, Afghanistan, Monday night. The airdrop was commenced as part of a psychological warfare campaign encouraging locals to join with coalition forces in their fight against the Taliban. Bagram Air Base, reportedly the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan, is located in Parwan Province.

The controversy over the leaflet is centered around the dog in the image, which is sporting the Taliban flag. The same slogan used by the Taliban is also on the jihadi flags of extremist groups like the Islamic State, al-Qaida, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and Hamas.

But Afghan locals have apparently become enraged by the leaflet, because the verse inscribed on the dog (although widely understood in modern times as a jihadi slogan) is also a popular Quranic verse expressing commitment to Islam. The Shahada expresses a belief in God and Islam’s Muhammad as God’s prophet, or messenger.

Moreover, a dog is considered unclean by some sects of Islam, so having Islamic texts on a dog may cause offense to some Muslims, even if that dog is sporting a slogan that is used by the Taliban to commit jihad against innocents.

“The design of the leaflets mistakenly contained an image highly offensive to both Muslims and the religion of Islam,” Major General James Linder said in a statement late Tuesday. “I sincerely apologise. We have the deepest respect for Islam and our Muslim partners worldwide,” he added, pledging “to determine the cause of this incident and to hold the responsible party accountable.”

Upset Afghans plan on protesting the “unforgivable” offense the leaflet apparently caused to Muslims.

“Those who have committed this unforgivable mistake in the publicity, propaganda or media section of the coalition forces will be tried and punished,” said Parwan Province Governor Mohammad Hasem.

Ghulam Bahauddin Jilani, a provincial council head, also called for “whoever is responsible” to be “arrested and put on trial.”

The situation has “sparked riots” across the country, CBS News reports. Calls for legal repercussions for seemingly harmless activity is commonplace in much of the Islamic world, where the punishment for offending Islam is sometimes death or a severe beating.

The controversy is erupting two weeks after President Trump committed to continuing the war effort in Afghanistan for an indefinite amount of time.

In Afghanistan, End the Trump-Obama Taliban Fantasy

Tenth Marine Regiment Marines on patrol in Habbib Abad, Afghanistan, 2012. (Photo: Lance Corporal Robert Reeves)
Read more at: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/450831/donald-trump-afghanistan-plan

However many troops we send, the Taliban will always outlast us.

National Review, by Andrew C. McCarthy, Aug. 26, 2017:

On the matter of an outcome in Afghanistan after 16 years of fitful war, President Trump is adamant. “The men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory,” he proclaimed in Monday night’s big speech. “They deserve the tools they need, and the trust they have earned, to fight and to win.”

The president hammered home the point, again and again:

Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win. From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.

Stirring stuff. Or at least it would have been if Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had not, less than 24 hours later, undercut his boss’s bold message. Victory? There is no battlefield victory to be had in Afghanistan, Tillerson maintained at Foggy Bottom. Instead, the modest goal is to convince the Taliban that, while “we might not win,” they won’t win either.

Eh . . . not so stirring.

By the time the secretary was done tinkering with the president’s “plan for victory,” one couldn’t be sure if the Taliban was an enemy, a terrorist organization, or a “peace partner.” Indeed, not content to leave pathetic enough alone, Tillerson contemplated “political legitimacy” for the mullahs, proclaiming that the Trump administration “stand[s] ready to support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban without precondition.” You read that right: without precondition — not even the condition that they abandon their alliance with al-Qaeda (you know, the reason we went to Afghanistan in the first place). As the Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes observed, this is “the same kind of diplomatic tail-chasing that was a priority of the Obama administration’s failed approach.”

The band’s got new players. The pitch is a bit higher. But the song remains the same.

Ultimately, Tillerson elaborated, “it is going to be up to the Afghan government and the representatives of the Taliban to work through a reconciliation process.” Sound familiar? Yeah . . . just like Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, during an April 2016 trip to Kabul, expressing “support for the government of Afghanistan’s efforts to end the conflict in Afghanistan through a peace and reconciliation process with the Taliban.”

The Taliban has now been recognized by the Obama and Trump administrations as the solution to the Afghanistan problem. That is, Trump has adopted The Way of the Swamp: Any problem that won’t go away eventually becomes “the solution.” The strategy — and who says hope isn’t a strategy? — is that the mullahs will finally come to their senses, end their remorseless jihad, and join the ineffective regime we have struggled to prop up for over a decade.

There are two major problems with this approach.

First, the Taliban believe they will win without negotiating because they are confident they will outlast us. They responded to Trump’s speech (and Tillerson’s revise-and-extend exercise) by promising to “sustain our jihad” as long as it takes. Obama could not get them to the table despite having over 100,000 American troops in theater. Trump currently has 8,400, a paltry number he is reluctantly willing to increase by about 4,000 (the administration is being coy about the exact number). Even if he were to double that (not likely), what would be accomplished?

The president rebuked his predecessor over the futility of waging war by advance announcements to the enemy of his withdrawal timelines. Trump has a point. There was no sense in Obama’s approach: pegging wartime troop levels to political rather than military considerations, imposing force-reduction timelines with no regard for battlefield conditions and requirements. All that said, though, from 2009 through mid 2014, Obama kept in Afghanistan a force between three and eight times the size that Trump will have after his mini-surge. Yet, unfazed and unmoved by Obama-Kerry pleas for “reconciliation,” the Taliban continued to fight. As they and their jihadist allies gained ground, Obama responded by withdrawing troops. The Taliban knew they were winning.

Now, beneath Trump’s “we will fight to win” applause lines, the Taliban see that he is resistant to anything but a marginal escalation in what is a skeleton force, on hand more in an advisory than a combat role. They read the papers. They know the president didn’t even want to do that much. They realize that Trump has stated, time and again over the years, that he does not believe any American troops should still be in Afghanistan.

To summarize, the Taliban know they are on their home turf against a commander-in-chief who doesn’t want to be there and who was contemplating total withdrawal as a serious option just a month ago. Why should they budge?

I said that there are two major problems with Trump’s strategy. Alas, the one I’ve just described is the easier one. The second, tougher problem is that the Taliban are still the Taliban.

They are the vanguard of fundamentalist Islam, the Sunni version of sharia supremacism. So virulently anti-American is their totalitarian ideology that the Taliban are making common cause with their Shiite counterparts in Iran to persevere in their jihad against American forces.

It can get tiresome recounting this history, but it is worth remembering that our forces invaded Afghanistan all those years ago because the Taliban, while ruling that country beginning in the mid-1990s, gave safe haven to al-Qaeda to plot, train for, and orchestrate several attacks against the United States. The 9/11 atrocities were not a one-off; they were the last in a series. Even so, President George W. Bush offered to give the mullahs a pass on the condition that they turn al-Qaeda’s leadership over to the United States. Only when the Taliban refused, knowing it meant they would be driven from power, did our forces invade.

The Taliban is the creation of fundamentalist Islamic elements of Pakistani intelligence, conceived as a geopolitical weapon against India. The Pashto word “taliban” means students – and, as you’ve no doubt guessed, we are not talking about students of comparative lit or macroeconomics. They are students of sharia, Islam’s ancient societal framework and legal code. They refer to themselves as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. They rose to power and have been sustained through 16 years of war because, contrary to what Western progressives would have you believe, they have significant support in what is a modernity-resistant sharia society. That is why they gave al-Qaeda sanctuary. It is why, to this day, they stand shoulder-to-shoulder with al-Qaeda in the jihad.

So what’s our plan? Why, we’re going to “reconcile” them so they can have a share of power. Fabulous.

Of course, if the Taliban were interested in the foot in the regime door that we are offering, it would only be for the purpose of retaking full power once we leave. If that seems perfectly obvious to you, you are clearly not wired for diplomatic work. The State Department — regardless of which party is in the White House — proceeds on the assumption that the Taliban will make peace with the rickety regime in Kabul. They will join in the governance of the emirate — um, I mean, the country. This time they’ll behave themselves, eventually deep-six their al-Qaeda alliance, and go easy on the subjugation of women, the killing of homosexuals, the death sentences for apostates, the effacement of non-Islamic cultural vestiges, the jihad against the West, and the rest of the classical sharia vision these students have been studying for decades.

Crazy? No crazier than State’s convincing itself that Iran is complying with Obama’s legacy deal and has no interest in acquiring nukes. As the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Tom Joscelyn explains, “officials in the State Department and elsewhere in government are heavily invested in the idea that the Taliban is a legitimate, albeit noxious, political faction that must be reconciled with the Afghan government,” even though “this policy goal has been betrayed by reality at every turn.”

With Trump’s State Department sounding exactly like Obama’s State Department, is it any surprise that The Donald is starting to sound like Imam Barack? Did you notice what was missing from Monday night’s speech? Though Trump was addressing a war with jihadists in which we’ve been mired for 16 years, there was not a single utterance about “radical Islamic terrorism.” That, you may recall from the 2016 presidential campaign, is the enemy Trump has repeatedly said we cannot be afraid to name. On Monday, to the contrary, the president assured us that “terrorists who slaughter innocent people will find no glory in this life or the next.”

Does he reckon that’s what they believe throughout Afghanistan?

To be fair, there are no good answers about what to do in that awful country. But it is hard to imagine a worse answer than trying to reconcile the Taliban to the regime.

There is a vital American interest in preventing ungoverned territories from becoming sanctuaries where jihadists plot against us. In most places, we deal with this challenge without having thousands of U.S. troops on the ground. If you were waiting to hear the president explain why, after all our sacrifice, Afghanistan should not be one of those places, you waited in vain.

The problem in Afghanistan is not the Taliban. The problem in Afghanistan is Afghanistan. The Taliban (and al-Qaeda, and the Haqqanis, and the “ISIS-K” in Khoransan province) are an inevitable consequence of sharia society, not its cause. We cannot change that. Contrary to Washington wisdom, there are no “vacuums” in the Middle East. There is Islamic fundamentalism. Absent the intervention of military force or tyrannical regimes, Islamic fundamentalism produces sharia societies that guarantee savage infighting and repression. As long as such societies endure, there will always be another Taliban to partner with another al-Qaeda; and there will always be Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Qatar, Turkey and the rest to support and exploit them — all the while posing as opponents of “extremism.”

We should be taking every sensible step to protect our society from the threats — kinetic and cultural, ideological and legal — posed by these aggressor societies. On that score, what we do on visa policy and border security is much more important than what we do in Afghanistan. Congress, moreover, should be enacting a new authorization of military force that solidifies the president’s authority to strike jihadist sanctuaries in Afghanistan and wherever else the enemy plots against us.

But let’s face facts: We are now 16 years down the road, and our government still refuses to be clear-eyed about sharia-supremacist ideology. We’ve lost thousands of valiant lives and wasted trillions of dollars trying to better the lot of people who hate us. Our nation, moreover, has no appetite for the formidable war effort it would take to pursue actual victory against our enemies and their sponsors. We should not inch up our forces in Afghanistan. We should strip down to the minimum assets needed to carry out and support counterterrorism strikes. And we should have as little to do with this region as our vital interests allow.

***

Also see:

The myth of a ‘moderate’ Taliban

KaninRoman | Getty Images

Conservative Review, by Jordan Schachtel, Aug. 23, 2017:

In his defense of President Trump’s strategy to once again bolster U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has explained that the Trump administration may seek to engage with “moderate elements” of the Taliban to achieve peace and stability in the war-torn country.

“We think there are plenty of others that we’re going to call upon for assistance as well,” Tillerson stated Tuesday in a State Department briefing.

“Rather, we’re there to facilitate and ensure that there is a pathway for reconciliation and peace talks as this pressure begins to take hold, and we do … we believe, we already know there are certain moderate elements of the Taliban who we think are going to be ready and want to help develop a way forward. How long that will take will be, again, based on conditions on the ground.”

The idea that there is a “moderate Taliban” in Afghanistan has been promoted largely by both the Republican and Democratic foreign policy establishment in Washington, D.C. Before President Trump came into office, the Obama administration and former presidential contender Hillary Clinton spoke of peace talks with the “moderate Taliban,” seeking to distance this supposed faction with the jihadist Taliban that commits acts of carnage against innocents.

It would be quite convenient for there to be a “moderate” Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban has agents embedded in the Afghan government, and the Taliban now contests or controls about 40 percent of the country (not to mention the backing of state actors like Russia and Iran).

But comparable to the so-called Arab “moderate Syrian rebels” — who all too often have gone off to join ISIS and al-Qaida — the “moderate Taliban” is just as unreliable and nonexistent.

Experts on the country have near-unanimously lambasted the Obama administration’s search for a moderate Taliban.

“Where are the so-called moderate Taliban? Who are the moderate Taliban?” asked Waheed Mozhdah, a former Afghan official, in 2009. Analyst Qaseem Akhgar also weighed in, adding:   “Moderate Taliban is like moderate killer. Is there such a thing?”

But the myth of a moderate Taliban continues, and it’s being adamantly pushed by actors in the Gulf, such as the state of Qatar.

Qatar often hosts Taliban delegations for talks with Western governments. From the Taliban’s political office in Doha, the group sometimes teases the West by floating the idea of peace. But this is ultimately a soft-power play to legitimize its cause of ruling Afghanistan.

And realities on the ground show that the Taliban wants conquest, not peace. Further, the Afghan people — in survey after survey — express extreme doubt over the Taliban’s sincerity concerning peace negotiations.

There are no records of moderate Taliban factions departing from their Islamic supremacist, Caliphatist ideology. And worse, Taliban factions deemed by some Western analysts as “moderate” have later led slaughter campaigns against thousands of people.

A U.S.-initiated strategy to legitimize any element of the Taliban would mean America taking an active role in normalizing an evil jihadist cult. The Taliban kills hundreds (if not thousands) of innocents each year, using suicide attacks and other vicious and indiscriminate methods to rack up the casualty count.

It’s bad enough that President Trump has chosen to bolster the U.S. role in Afghanistan without defining what “victory” is, or mapping out an exit plan. It’s worse that he’s flirting with helping a terrorist organization secure its grip over the country.

There are no moderate elements of the Taliban, just as there are no moderate elements of al-Qaida or ISIS.

Jordan Schachtel is the national security correspondent for Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @JordanSchachtel.

Winning Afghanistan: Support Trump’s Strategy

A US soldier holds the national flag ahead of a handover ceremony at Leatherneck Camp in Lashkar Gah in the Afghan province of Helmand on April 29, 2017. (Photo: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Clarion Project, by Ryan Mauro, Aug. 22, 2017:

President Trump is pledging to “win” in Afghanistan by defeating the terrorist “losers.” He is correct about the disaster ahead if the U.S. retreats from Afghanistan, but his speech doesn’t seem to have addressed the concerns of those who believe that the campaign there is a lost cause.

Trump rightly pointed out that there are 20 groups designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations by the U.S. State Department operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If the U.S. abandons Afghanistan, these groups will use the country as a launching pad to target the U.S. and destabilize the region, including nuclear-armed Pakistan.

From this base, they will likely be able to roll back progress we’ve made against terror havens in Iraq, Syria and Libya. And, of course, each success breeds a multitude of new members for the victorious terrorist group as momentum is interpreted as Allah’s blessing.

Yet, these realities do not address the core skepticism of those who oppose the war in Afghanistan — that there’s simply nothing more we can do. President Trump needed to confront this head on.

It’s extremely important that the American public understand that the war in Afghanistan is not like a videotape on loop. We have made progress, but the American public rarely heard about it because President Obama did not wish to bring attention to the war and its political liabilities. The progress was then lost due to the rapid withdrawal based on an arbitrary timeline.

“We cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistakes our leaders made in Iraq,” Trump said.

Addressing the need to make a long-term commitment to Afghanistan to defeat the terror forces there, Secretary of Defense Mattis said it best when he told President Trump, “Mr. President, we haven’t fought a 16-year war so much as we have fought a one-year war 16 times.”

In 2014, 95% of all operations were being done by the Afghans and they were taking 95% of all casualties, according to Michael O’Hanlon. Foreign forces were only 15% of coalition manpower. The Taliban and other jihadists had a growing presence in the areas where foreign forces decreased, but this territory only encompassed about 10% of the Afghan population.

The Defense Department’s April 2014 report said that U.S. casualties had “dropped significantly” over the previous year and the Afghan forces conduct “virtually all of these operations independently.” The Afghan economy was lunging forward and the Defense Department reported a “dramatic increase in basic education.”

The mantra we always hear in the media is that the Afghans won’t fight the Taliban and other terrorists. They did.

There was also major economic, educational and political progress.

That year, Afghanistan held a hotly-contested presidential election where all of the major candidates agreed that the U.S. military should be asked to stay. The election was a big success, as U.S.-backed Afghan forces made the Taliban and other Islamist terrorists fail miserably in achieving their stated goal of wreaking havoc during the voting.

Despite the extremely high risk, voter turnout was about 58%, matching that of America’s 2012 presidential election. One in three voters were women and a record number of women were running for office, including two for vice president.

After the vote was held, accusations of fraud came from both sides. Sectarian tension was high as each candidate represented different constituencies. Amazingly, despite all these pressures, the parties then reached a power-sharing agreement and had Afghanistan’s first peaceful transfer of the presidency through elections.

It is absolutely essential for President Trump to mention this progress to the skeptical American public so that they can know we haven’t been simply running in circles in Afghanistan. It is also important for the U.S. military that sacrifices so much to hear that their gains are known and appreciated.

Any progress that this new strategy makes will be limited by the assistance that the Taliban and other terrorists are receiving from Pakistan, Iran and Russia.

President Trump put Pakistan on notice like never before. The Pakistani government is going to be held accountable for harboring and materially supporting the terrorist network that sustains the jihad in Afghanistan. It is probable that we’ll see an increase in cross-border operations.

Trump’s praise for India as a strategic partner is a powerful lever to pull to pressure Pakistan. The State Department’s recent designation of Hizbul Mujahideen as a Foreign Terrorist Organization shows that the Trump Administration is serious about this. Hizbul Mujahideen is a terror group that primarily targets India and is backed by Pakistan.

It was strange that Iran’s role in assisting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda went unmentioned in Trump’s speech. Iran is actively murdering U.S. and Afghan troops. However, Secretary of Defense Mattis’ desire to deliver some payback to the Iranian regime for targeting the U.S. military is well-known. You can bet he has plans in mind for that.

All of the talk about the war in Afghanistan inevitably brings up the experience of the Vietnam War. Although there is much to criticize about National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster, he wrote a critically-acclaimed book about the Vietnam War.

There should be no doubt that the lessons of Vietnam are in the mind of McMaster and have been discussed within the Trump Administration every step of the way towards crafting the U.S.’ strategy in Afghanistan.

As Trump acknowledged, Americans are understandably frustrated and sick of being at war in Afghanistan. But there is reason to believe we can be successful. Moreover, advocates of a withdrawal have yet to explain how we can withdraw and still stop Afghanistan from becoming an extremely dangerous terrorist base.

If we would withdraw from Afghanistan now, how would we feel seeing images on our TV screens of the Taliban coming back to power, carrying out massacres and once again stopping girls from going to school, knowing that we could have stopped it.

We’ve sacrificed too much already to hand Afghanistan back to the Taliban and regressive forces. The consequences of retreat are so dire that it’s worth giving Trump and his team a chance for their strategy to work.

***

***

***

Clare Lopez: What is core US national security interest in Afghanistan?

****

Also see:

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.

Analysis: Taliban propagandists release ‘open letter’ to President Trump

LONG WAR JOURNAL, BY THOMAS JOSCELYN & BILL ROGGIO | August 15, 2017

The Taliban has published an “open letter” to President Donald Trump, urging him to “adopt the strategy of a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan instead of a troops increase.” The letter was clearly penned with the Trump administration’s ongoing debate over the war in Afghanistan in mind.

Senior administration officials have reportedly prepared several plans, ranging from a complete withdrawal to a small increase of several thousand American troops. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, favors the latter while alternative scenarios have also been presented to the president.

President Trump has been reticent to commit additional forces, as he would then take ownership of the longest war in America’s history. The Taliban obviously knows this and is trying to influence the debate inside the US.

But readers should keep in mind that the new letter is propaganda and should be read as such. The letter is laced with erroneous and self-serving statements. And some of its key points, crafted for Western readers, are contradicted by the facts.

Allied with al Qaeda, which exports terrorism around the globe

The Taliban describes itself as a “mercy for Afghanistan, [the] region and the world because the Islamic Emirate does not have any intention or policy of causing harm to anyone and neither will it allow others to use the Afghan soil against anyone.”

Although the Taliban does not explicitly mention al Qaeda, the group likely wants readers to assume that this sentence means there is a clear distinction between the Taliban’s operations inside Afghanistan and jihadist threats outside of the country. In reality, there is no such clear line of demarcation.

Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda, remains openly loyal to the Taliban’s overall leader. Zawahiri swore allegiance to Mullah Mansour in Aug. 2015. Mansour, the successor to Taliban founder Mullah Omar, described al Qaeda’s leaders as the “heroes of the current jihadist era” and Osama bin laden as the “leader of mujahideen.” Mansour publicly accepted the “esteemed” Dr. Zawahiri’s fealty shortly after it was offered.

After Mansour was struck down by an American drone strike in Pakistan in May 2016, Zawahiri quickly rehearsed the same oath to Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, who still presides over the Taliban. Akhundzada’s son carried out a suicide bombing in Helmand province in July. The attack was just the latest piece of evidence confirming that the Taliban emir is a committed ideologue, not a prospective peace partner.

Under Akhundzada’s leadership, the Taliban is hardly bashful about its continuing alliance with al Qaeda. The Taliban celebrated the relationship in a Dec. 2016 video, which contained images of Osama bin Laden alongside Mullah Omar. One such image from the production can be seen below:

Other al Qaeda figures are also proudly featured in the Taliban video, such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Khalid al Batarfi, a veteran jihadist who plays an important ideological role. Batarfi praised the Taliban for harboring and supporting al Qaeda. And he directly connected the Taliban’s war in Afghanistan to the jihad against the US.

“Groups of Afghan Mujahideen have emerged from the land of Afghans that will destroy the biggest idol and head of kufr of our time, America,” Batarfi said in the Taliban’s video. The “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was sacrificed and even vanished in support of our sacred religion, but they (the Taliban) did not trade off their religion.” Batarfi crowed that the jihadists can finally “see [the] light of victory,” as governance according to the “rule of Sharia” law is “even stronger in Afghanistan than before.”

While the Taliban is often portrayed as a nationalist group (this is the intended implication of the group’s letter to President Trump), the Dec. 2016 video portrayed the Taliban’s struggle as part of the global jihad and the effort to reclaim all Muslim lands.

Akhundzada’s top deputy is the aforementioned Sirajuddin Haqqani, a longtime al Qaeda ally. The Haqqanis have been in bed with al Qaeda since the 1980s. Sirajuddin’s father, Jalaluddin, was one of Osama bin Laden’s earliest and most influential backers. Files recovered during the May 2011 raid on bin Laden’s compound reveal that al Qaeda’s men have fought alongside Sirajuddin’s forces for years. This is especially significant because Haqqani oversees the Taliban’s military operations.

There are numerous other ties. In Sept. 2014, for instance, Zawahiri publicly announced the creation of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which brought together existing al Qaeda-allied groups. AQIS has repeatedly made it clear that its men fight under the Taliban’s banner and that its primary goal is to restore the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate to power in Afghanistan. In Oct. 2015, US and Afghan forces raided two massive al Qaeda training camps in southern Afghanistan. One of the camps, approximately 30 square-miles in size, may be the largest al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan’s history. Both of the camps were supported by the Taliban. AQIS conducts operations in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and elsewhere.

Just over two weeks before the 2016 presidential election, the US hunted down a top al Qaeda commander known as Farouq al-Qahtani in eastern Afghanistan. Qahtani not only commanded jihadists fighting alongside the Taliban, he was planning attacks inside the United States at the time of his demise.

All of these details, and more, belie the Taliban’s claim that it won’t “allow others to use the Afghan soil against anyone.”

State sponsors and enablers of the Taliban-led insurgency

The Taliban claims that the US government has concluded that the “mujahideen” are entirely self-sufficient and do not receive any foreign support. “Your intelligence agencies admit that our Mujahideen are not being supported by any country and neither can they produce any proof in the contrary,” the letter reads.

This is obviously false — Pakistan’s support for the Taliban is longstanding and well-known. Other countries, such as Iran and Russia, provide some level of assistance. Wealthy benefactors in the Gulf have contributed rich sums to the Taliban cause as well.

In July, the US State Department once again confirmed that Pakistan harbors the Taliban, including the so-called Haqqani Network (HQN), which plays an integral role within the organization. “Pakistan did not take substantial action against the Afghan Taliban or HQN, or substantially limit their ability to threaten US interests in Afghanistan, although Pakistan supported efforts to bring both groups into an Afghan-led peace process,” State’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2016 reads. A “number” of attacks inside Afghanistan throughout 2016 “were planned and launched from safe havens in Pakistan.”

In a report submitted to Congress in June, the Defense Department also explained the enduring importance of the jihadists’ Pakistani safe havens. “Attacks in Afghanistan attributed to Pakistan-based militant networks continue to erode the Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship,” the Pentagon noted. “Militant groups, including the Taliban and Haqqani Network, continued to utilize sanctuaries inside Pakistan.”

The Afghan Taliban is not operating under the radar in Pakistan, but instead receives assistance from parts of the government. “Afghan-oriented militant groups, including the Taliban and Haqqani Network, retain freedom of action inside Pakistani territory and benefit from support from elements of the Pakistani Government,” the report reads (emphasis added).

This is consistent with Pakistan’s “Good Taliban” vs. “Bad Taliban” policy, which favors jihadists who are focused on attacking the Afghan government and allied forces, including the US. Only the “Bad Taliban” — that is, those jihadists operating against the Pakistani state — are regularly targeted by Pakistani security. The effects of this policy are plain to see. The Quetta Shura Taliban (QST) earned its name because the group’s most senior leaders have been able to operate openly in the city. It is well-known, too, that the Haqqanis have cozy relations with the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment. Sirajuddin Haqqani has been the Taliban’s top deputy leader since 2015.

Pakistan isn’t the only regional player supporting the Taliban-led insurgency. The Iranian government is as well.

“Iran provides some support to the Taliban and Haqqani Network and has publicly justified its relationships as a means to combat the spread of the ISIS-K threat in Afghanistan,” the Pentagon reported in June. Although the Iranians attempt to justify their policy as a form of realpolitik, a necessary consequence of fighting the Islamic State’s Wilayah Khorasan (Khorasan “province,” or ISIS-K), the reality is that they first forged a working relationship with their former foes in the Taliban immediately after the 9/11 hijackings. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Analysis: Iran has supported the Taliban’s insurgency since late 2001.]

A striking example of Iranian complicity in the Afghan insurgency was revealed in May 2016, when the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Mansour, was killed in an American airstrike. The US followed Mansour from Iran, where he was holding meetings, across the Pakistani border into Baluchistan, where he was struck down. Mansour’s ability to travel freely inside Iran speaks volumes about the ongoing relationship.

At a minimum, Russia has rhetorically backed the Taliban. “Russian-Afghan relations suffered due to Russia’s public acknowledgment of communications with the Taliban and support of the Taliban’s call for coalition withdrawal from Afghanistan,” the Pentagon has said. Press reports continue to point to evidence that Russian-supplied weapons are helping to fuel the Taliban-led insurgency. Asked about these reports in April, Gen. John Nicholson, the Commander of Resolute Support and US Forces Afghanistan, refused to refute them.

There are other obvious problems with the Taliban’s letter. The group accuses President Trump’s generals of lying about the American casualties incurred. The “[g]enerals are concealing the real statistics of your dead and crippled however the Afghans can easily count the coffins being sent your way on a daily basis,” the letter reads. This is nonsensical, as American casualties are readily verified. Moreover, the Taliban frequently lies about the number of Americans killed or wounded in combat.

The Taliban says that it could “conquer many provincial capitals currently under siege,” if it “were not for fear of civilian casualties.” There is no question that the Taliban currently threatens multiple provincial capitals, but its concern about civilian casualties is mostly cosmetic. The United Nations has repeatedly documented the Taliban’s culpability in killing and wounding innocents. The group is responsible for more civilian casualties in Afghanistan than any other actor.

The US approach to the war in Afghanistan should be based on a rational assessment of the situation, not the Taliban’s misleading claims.

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.