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.

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Also see:

To Break the Stalemate in Afghanistan, America Must Break Pakistan’s Pathologies

National Interest, by Robert Cassidy, April 6, 2017: (h/t Anthony Shaffer)

“Twenty U.S.-designated terrorist organizations operate in the Afghanistan-Pakistan sub-region; seven of the 20 organizations are in Pakistan. So long as these groups maintain safe haven inside of Pakistan they will threaten long-term stability in Afghanistan. Of particular concern to us is the Haqqani Network (HQN) which poses the greatest threat to coalition forces operating in Afghanistan.”  General Joseph Votel, Posture Statement Before the Senate Armed Services Committee, March 2017.

“The Taliban and the Haqqani network are the greatest threats to security in Afghanistan. Their senior leaders remain insulated from pressure and enjoy freedom of action within Pakistan safe havens.  As long as they enjoy external enablement, they have no incentive to reconcile.  The primary factor that will enable our success is the elimination of external sanctuary and support to the insurgents.”  General John Nicholson, Statement Before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Situation in Afghanistan, February 2017.

After 15-plus years, the war in Afghanistan remains a strategic stalemate because defeating an enemy requires taking away its capacity and will.  The Coalition and Afghan forces have hit the enemy’s capacity year after year but the Taliban’s will—their senior leaders, support, resources, rest, regeneration, and arms—continue to benefit from sanctuary and support from Pakistan’s security establishment.  In his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) in February of this year, the theater commander, General John Nicholson, stated that he believed the war in Afghanistan was a stalemate.  It has been a strategic stalemate for at least the last ten years and arguably for the last 15 years.  As early as 2003 the then-top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General John Vines, stated publicly that the Taliban were benefiting from Pakistan’s sanctuaries to regroup.  So despite suffering many losses in leaders and capacity inside Afghanistan year after year, the Taliban have not quit, and are resilient in regenerative capacity.  Tactical and operational momentum have ebbed and flowed throughout the war.  The Coalition and its Afghan partners have made some errors, but they have improved and adapted during the course of the war.  The Afghan security forces have grown in quantity and improved in quality, and have led the fight for several years.  During the peak numbers of exogenous forces for the war in 2010-2011, the Coalition forces, along with their Afghan partners, achieved marked tactical gains and operational momentum.  To be sure, Coalition and Afghan forces have undertaken many counterterrorism and counterinsurgency actions that have punished, disrupted, and displaced the Taliban and the Haqqani leadership and infrastructure, year after year.

Yet these gains at the tactical and operational levels have been short-lived and have generally lacked meaning in the face of the most conspicuous impediment to strategic success: Pakistan’s sanctuary and support for the enemy.  Killing, capturing, disrupting, and displacing insurgent and terrorist enemies, fighting season after fighting season, absent genuine strategic momentum, have made this a perpetual war.  It is beginning to seem like a Groundhog-Day war where fulfilling the purpose remains elusive.  In theory, the purpose of war is to serve policy; in practice, if war is not linked to strategic rationale and momentum, the nature of war is to serve itself.  Fighting year after year within the context of a strategic stalemate is essentially violence and war serving themselves and not policy.

[…]

Conclusion

Pakistani strategic culture stems from pathological geopolitics infused with a Salafi-Deobandi jihadist ideology, suffused by paranoia and neurosis.  The principal but not exclusive reason that Afghanistan has seen discernibly improved quality and quantity in its forces as well as fighting capacity, yet continues to face a strategic stalemate, is the Pakistani security elites’ malign strategic calculus.  The Taliban would have been a marginal nuisance, without the full support that Pakistan’s security establishment bestowed to pursue Pakistan’s imaginary notion of strategic depth on its western flank by asserting control over Afghanistan through its zealous proxies.

Pakistan has nurtured and relied on a host of Islamist insurgents and terrorists.  It is home to the world’s highest concentration of terrorist groups.  Of the 98 U.S.-designated terrorist groups around the world, 20 operate in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.  The ISI has maintained links with Al Qaeda, its longtime Taliban allies, and a host of other extremist groups inside Pakistan. It is possible for Pakistan to become a genuine U.S. strategic partner only if it ceases its support of proxy terrorists and insurgents.  The fact that America has paid Pakistan in excess of $33 billion for Pakistan’s malice and treachery since 9/11 is repugnant and ridiculous.

The U.S and the Coalition must desist in the illusion that Pakistan, one of the foremost ideological and physical breeders of Islamist terrorists, is an ally or a friend.  It is neither.  Pretending that Pakistan is an ally in the war against Islamist militants, one that would act in ways to help defeat Islamist networks in the border tribal areas, has made the West complicit in and partly responsible for Pakistan’s machinations.

Since this war began, the U.S. has on a number of occasions stipulated that Pakistan must curb all domestic expression of support for terrorism against the U.S. and its allies; demonstrate a sustained commitment to, and make significant efforts towards, combating terrorist groups; cease support, including support by any elements within the Pakistan military or its intelligence agency, for extremist and terrorist groups; and dismantle terrorist bases of operations in other parts of the country.  Clearly, Pakistan has not complied with these stipulations and continues to do the converse, serving as the most significant supporter and employer of Islamist insurgents and terrorists.

The United States and its Coalition allies have not crafted a Pakistan strategy that uses their substantial resources to modify Pakistan’s strategic calculus.  An effective Pakistan strategy must use the full weight of the U.S. and other regional actors to compel Pakistan to alter its strategic conduct and to stop supporting terrorists.

Investing in and increasing the Afghan Special Security Forces and the Afghan Air Force to create overmatching offensive capacity, to then build tactical and operational momentum, will help assert influence over key population areas and take away Taliban capacity, but this will be ephemeral if not coupled with strategic momentum.  To break the strategic stalemate, the Coalition should cast off its illusions about Pakistan.  For far too long, Pakistan has been viewed and treated as an important non-NATO ally in the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban, but it is essentially an abysmal ally, a veritable foe, because it acts in ways inimical to Coalition troops, our and the aims of the Afghan state.  After 15-plus years of Pakistan’s perfidy, it is essential to go heavy on sticks and light on carrots to break Pakistan of its pathologies and their pernicious effects in Afghanistan.  Sticks and fear will work where carrots, cash, and cajoling have not.  The U.S. and the Coalition must consider tapping into the Pakistan establishment’s fear, honor, and interests.  U.S. fears that the Pakistani state will collapse, implode or fracture are overstated.  Pakistan is hard and resilient in deep and broad ways.

The following stipulations, steps, and ultimatums, in order of escalation, are the way to break Pakistan of its pathologies and break the stalemate: 1) stop paying for malice; 2) end major non-NATO ally status; 3) state intention to make the line of control in Kashmir permanent; 4) shut down ground lines of communications via Pakistan; 5) declare Pakistan the state sponsor of terrorism that it is; 6) issue one last ultimatum to Pakistan to end sanctuary for insurgents and not impede success; 7) invite the Indian Armed Forces into Afghanistan for security operations in the Pashtun eastern and southern regions; and 8) as a last resort, reciprocate Pakistan’s malice and perfidy.  Uncontested sanctuary contributed to the Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan, and it continues be the single biggest obstacle to defeating the Taliban and the most significant cause of the stalemate.

It is difficult, if not impossible to win in counterinsurgency when the insurgents benefit from what is essentially unimpeded sanctuary.  What’s more, if the Taliban were to revive an Islamist emirate in Afghanistan, there is every reason to forecast a future with more attacks against the West, planned and orchestrated with increasing scope and intensity from Afghanistan’s and Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Colonel Robert Cassidy, Ph.D., U.S. Army, is the author of three books and a host of articles about irregular warfare and Afghanistan.  He has served in Afghanistan four times.  The works of practitioners-scholars Fair, Gregory, Husain Haqqani, Zalmay Khalilzad, Ahmed Rashid, Rubin, and the Schaffers informed this article.  These views are from the author’s studies and service in the region and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Army, the U.S. Naval War College, or the U.S. Department of Defense.

US military drops MOAB on Islamic State in Afghanistan

AP

Long War Journal, by Bill Roggio, April 13, 2017:

The US military dropped the “MOAB,” the GBU-34 Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb which is better known as the “Mother of all Bombs,” on Islamic State fighters in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar. The strike took place in Achin, the same district where a US special forces solider was killed last week.

From the US Forces Afghanistan press release:

At 7:32 pm local time today, U.S. Forces – Afghanistan conducted a strike on an ISIS-K tunnel complex in Achin district, Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, as part of ongoing efforts to defeat ISIS-K in Afghanistan in 2017.

The strike used a GBU-43 bomb dropped from a U.S. aircraft. The strike was designed to minimize the risk to Afghan and U.S. Forces conducting clearing operations in the area while maximizing the destruction of ISIS-K fighters and facilities.

“As ISIS-K’s losses have mounted, they are using IEDs, bunkers and tunnels to thicken their defense,” said General John W. Nicholson, Commander, U.S. Forces – Afghanistan. “This is the right munition to reduce these obstacles and maintain the momentum of our offensive against ISIS-K.”

U.S. Forces took every precaution to avoid civilian casualties with this strike. U.S. Forces will continue offensive operations until ISIS-K is destroyed in Afghanistan.

US and Afghan forces have been attempting to clear the Islamic State’s so-called Khorasan province from Achin and several other districts in eastern Afghanistan for nearly two years, but like the Taliban in other areas of Afghanistan, the group remains entrenched. The deployment of the MOAB may indicate a degree of desperation in the fight against the Islamic State in Achin district. This is the first use of such a weapon, which is described as the largest bomb next to a nuke, in Afghanistan.

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

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Sanction Pakistan As State Sponsor Of Terror

hqdefault_0Forbes, by Anders Corr, Feb 23, 2017:

In the past two weeks, Pakistan has closed border crossings with Afghanistan, and attacked Afghan soil with airstrikes and heavy artillery, causing 200 families to flee. Pakistan claims that these measures counter cross-border terrorists. But in so doing, Pakistan punishes Afghanistan economically and obfuscates the primary source of South and Central Asian terrorism: Pakistan itself. Pakistan is a supporter of the Taliban, Haqqani, Islamic State, and Al Qaeda. To convince Pakistan to cease supporting terrorism, influential nations must label Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism, and impose economic sanctions.

Pakistan seeks to turn Afghanistan into its backyard and put the government under its sphere of influence. It seeks “strategic depth” in Afghanistan for Pakistan’s competition with India. It seeks to influence, through political, military, and economic measures, the government of Afghanistan in order to limit Iranian influence in the country. Pakistan is doing this with military strikes, state-sponsored terrorism, economic inducements, and economic punishments such as border closings.

Afghanistan is a landlocked country, but it is nobody’s backyard. It is a sovereign and exceedingly fragile democracy of 30 million people under siege by terrorists. The democratically-elected government of Afghanistan needs the support of Pakistan in its fight against terrorism. Afghanistan’s struggle to provide peace and development to its citizens deserves that support.

Pakistan must honor its commitments in the 2016 Quadrilateral road map negotiated with Afghanistan, the U.S., and China, as Afghanistan plead for on Saturday. The government of Afghanistan invited the Taliban to talks, but the Taliban refused. Now, Pakistan must take action against cross-border Taliban terrorists in Pakistan. That will be politically impossible within Pakistan until the U.S. and E.U. take very tough economic and diplomatic measures. It is time to label Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism, and support targeted sanctions against select military- and intelligence-linked Pakistani companies.

 Anders Corr is the Principal of Corr Analytics Inc, providing international political risk analysis to government and commercial clients. Twitter – @anderscorr, email – corr@canalyt.com.

House Report: ‘Unprecedented Spike’ in Homegrown Terror Threat

Homeland Security Committee

Homeland Security Committee

Breitbart, by  Edwin Mora, February 9, 2017:

The 2017 terrorism forecast for the United States and the rate at which Americans are being radicalized at home is “alarming,” according to a monthly assessment by the House Homeland Security Committee.

Citing an “unprecedented spike in the homegrown terror threat, primarily driven by the rise of” the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), the House panel’s Terror Threat Snapshot for February warns that, “at this rate, the forecast for 2017 looks alarming.”

“Authorities continue to track a high number of homegrown terror plots in the United States, and the number of cases since 9/11 is nearing a historic milestone: There have been nearly 200 total homegrown jihadist cases in the United States since 9/11 (the figure currently stands at 193), a majority having taken place in just the past few years,” points out the House report.

The monthly assessment attributes the alarming rise in the terror threat to the pressure ISIS is facing “in its key safe havens,” noting that the jihadist organization’s “external operations plotting appears undiminished.”

According to the report, there have been at least 39 homegrown jihadist plots or attacks across 19 U.S. states since the beginning of 2016.

In July 2016, FBI Director James Comey predicted that, as ISIS came close to defeat in its home turf of Iraq and Syria, the number of terrorist attacks against the U.S. and other Western countries would increase.

Echoing Comey, Michael McCaul (R-TX), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement:

I am very encouraged that the Trump Administration is preparing to put greater pressure on jihadists in their safe havens throughout the world. But as they do, we can expect to see militants returning to the West to build new networks and to plot more deadly operations. I look forward to working with the new Administration on shutting down terror pathways in America. We must also remain vigilant here at home, because Americans are being radicalized at an alarming rate.

The Terror Threat Snapshot notes that the jihadist threat against Europe has also increased dramatically.

“European nations are moving forward with counterterrorism reforms designed to cope with the surging terror threat,” points out the assessment. “Yet despite improvements, the continent still suffers from major security weaknesses that make European countries more vulnerable to attack and put U.S. interests overseas at risk.”

Since 2014, there have been at least 166 ISIS-linked plots or attacks against Western targets, including 69 in Europe, 36 in the U.S., and 61 targeting Westerners outside those two regions.

The U.S.-led war against ISIS began in 2014, soon after the group announced the establishment of its now shrinking caliphate.

In the assessment, the House panel also notes that al-Qaeda and its ally the Taliban remain dangerous after more than 15 years of U.S.-led war against the terrorist groups.

“The Taliban threat has proven resilient and powerful in Afghanistan. According to an Afghan Defense Ministry official, the group is responsible for nearly 19,000 attacks throughout the country in just the past 10 months,” states the assessment. “Throughout that time, however, Afghan National Security Forces only carried out approximately 700 counter-insurgency operations.”

U.S. Gen. John Nicholson, the top commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday that a few thousand more U.S. troops would help break the current “stalemate” with the Taliban.

“We remain very focused on the defeat of al-Qaeda and its associates, as well as the defeat of Islamic State Khorasan Province, which is the ISIL affiliate in Afghanistan,” he added. The U.S. declared war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan in October 2001.

Trump left countries with high terror risk off his banned list

Taliban militants train in a lawless region along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in 2011. EPA

Taliban militants train in a lawless region along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in 2011. EPA

New York Post, by Paul Sperry, January 28, 2017:

Afghanistan is conspicuously absent from the list of terror-prone countries in President Trump’s indefinite immigration ban, even though al-Qaeda has reopened terrorist training camps there and Afghan immigration factors into recent homegrown terrorism, including the Orlando and Chelsea attacks.

Trump signed an executive order on Friday temporarily blocking entry into the US for immigrants and nonimmigrants from seven Muslim countries — Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen — until the government can tighten security procedures to screen out terrorists under Trump’s proposed “extreme vetting” program. It would also completely stop the processing and resettling here of Muslim refugees from ISIS hotspot Syria.

“It’s countries that have tremendous terror,” Trump explained. “And it’s countries that people are going to come in and cause us tremendous problems.”

Leaving Afghanistan — as well as high-risk Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — off the list may prove shortsighted, however.

A new Pentagon report reveals that 20 terrorist groups, including ISIS, are now operating in Afghanistan, mostly along the Pakistan border. It notes that “the Taliban and other insurgents have gained territory over the past two years,” as President Obama withdrew US troops, and now control almost 40 percent of the country.

Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, has built massive new terrorist training camps — including one 30-square miles in size, the largest training facility the Pentagon has seen since 9/11 — signaling the group is gearing up to repeat its pre-9/11 horror of exporting terrorism from Afghanistan.

Lost in the noise over Syrian refugees and the terrorist threat they pose is the growing wave of Afghan refugees hitting our shores, as Afghanistan descends into its own civil war. As the security situation has deteriorated, Afghan immigration has surged.

Afghan refugees have fled the country as it’s descended further into civil war.Getty

Afghan refugees have fled the country as it’s descended further into civil war.Getty

Between 2013 and 2015, the last years reported by the State Department, the total number of Afghan refugees admitted to the US actually outpaced the number of Syrian refugees admitted: 2,324 vs. 1,823. The number of Afghan refugees resettled in US cities — namely, New York, Houston and Sacramento — jumped 21 percent in 2015, after increasing 14 percent in 2014. Afghans reported as admitted in the first three months of 2016 had already exceeded State’s projection for the entire year. Meanwhile, another 10,000-plus Afghans are seeking asylum here.

And these are just the permanent resettlements and do not include the thousands of Afghans that Homeland Security is admitting as “temporary immigrants.” US visas issued annually to Afghans have nearly doubled under the Obama administration, soaring from 2,454 in 2008 to 4,156 in 2015, the latest year for which data are kept.

Few in Washington are raising alarms about the largely uncontrolled influx of these Afghan immigrants, but the security risk is just as great.

Though their numbers are relatively small next to the projected flood of Syrians, “some may cause trouble,” as they have in Germany, which is deporting 12,000 Afghan refugees after some carried out terrorist attacks there, said David North, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies.

It’s not that there aren’t legitimate refugees among these Afghan nationals. The problem is there’s no vetting procedures in place to reliably sort the “good guys” from the “bad guys.” As a result, the government’s screening system has repeatedly failed to ID jihadists and other turncoats who have betrayed the hospitality extended to them by this country.

Recent examples include: Afghan refugee Hayatulla Dawari, who got as far as naturalization before authorities learned of his involvement with an Afghan terror group and convicted him in 2014; and Afghan refugee Sohiel Omar Kabir, who was sentenced in 2015 to 25 years in federal prison for providing material support to terrorists and conspiring to kill Americans.

Chelsea bomb suspect Ahmad Rahami was radicalized after a 2014 trip to AfghanistanAP

Chelsea bomb suspect Ahmad Rahami was radicalized after a 2014 trip to AfghanistanAP

Nor does the government monitor these immigrants once they arrive. Investigators now believe Afghan-born Ahmad Khan Rahami, the accused New York City bomber, was radicalized after returning from a 2014 trip to Afghanistan, where his father reportedly once fought as a “mujahedeen.” Afghan-American Omar Mateen, the Orlando terrorist, also maintained Afghan connections through his father, an open supporter of the Taliban.

Our military exchange program is another major hole in security involving Afghan immigration that virtually nobody is talking about. The Pentagon can’t even keep track of the Afghans it brings here for military training exercises designed to help them go back and defend their homeland.

Alarmingly, at least 45 Afghan soldiers have disappeared in the US over the past two years while training at military installations. Many of these AWOL immigrants, who came here on special visas, have extensive training in weapons and explosives. Homeland Security has joined the military in the hunt for the missing Afghans.

Further raising security alarms, the Taliban has infiltrated the Afghan security forces supplying these immigrants. Penetration is so deep that, according to the Pentagon report released earlier this month, the Taliban obtain much of their weapons and ammunition, as well as gasoline, from US-supplied Afghan soldiers.

“Taliban commanders give instructions to their forces to buy weapons, ammunition and fuel from the Afghan army and police,” the report reveals.

It also disclosed that from January 2015 through August 2016, there were 101 insider attacks in which Taliban or other insurgents posing as Afghan security personnel turned on fellow Afghan security force members, killing 257.

Saudi nationals also get a pass under Trump’s restrictions. In fact, they may continue to be ushered in as “trusted travelers” and bypass the normal security process under a deal Obama struck with the kingdom that opened the floodgates to more than 709,000 Saudi students and other visa-holders since 2009. It’s as if 9/11 never happened and 15 Saudi terrorists never infiltrated the country on rubber-stamped visas.

Sperry is a former Hoover Institution media fellow and author of “Infiltration: How Muslim Spies and Subversives Have Penetrated Washington.”

Russia’s new favorite jihadis: The Taliban

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Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, January 4, 2017:

Note: This article was first published by The Daily Beast.

More than 15 years into America’s war in Afghanistan, the Russian government is openly advocating on behalf of the Taliban.

Last week, Moscow hosted Chinese and Pakistani emissaries to discuss the war. Tellingly, no Afghan officials were invited. However, the trio of nations urged the world to be “flexible” in dealing with the Taliban, which remains the Afghan government’s most dangerous foe. Russia even argued that the Taliban is a necessary bulwark in the war against the so-called Islamic State.

For its part, the American military sees Moscow’s embrace of the Taliban as yet another move intended to undermine NATO, which fights the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State every day.

After Moscow’s conference, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova spoke with reporters and noted that “the three countries expressed particular concern about the rising activity in the country of extremist groups, including the Afghan branch of IS [the Islamic State, or ISIS].”

According to Reuters, Zakharova added that China, Pakistan, and Russia agreed upon a “flexible approach to remove certain [Taliban] figures from [United Nations] sanctions lists as part of efforts to foster a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban movement.”

The Taliban, which refers to itself as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, quickly praised the “Moscow tripartite” in a statement posted online on Dec. 29.

“It is joyous to see that the regional countries have also understood that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is a political and military force,” Muhammad Sohail Shaheen, a spokesman for the group’s political office, said in the statement. “The proposal forwarded in the Moscow tripartite of delisting members of the Islamic Emirate is a positive step forward in bringing peace and security to Afghanistan.”

Of course, the Taliban isn’t interested in “peace and security.” The jihadist group wants to win the Afghan war and it is using negotiations with regional and international powers to improve its standing. The Taliban has long manipulated “peace” negotiations with the U.S. and Western powers as a pretext for undoing international sanctions that limit the ability of its senior figures to travel abroad for lucrative fundraising and other purposes, even while offering no serious gestures toward peace.

The Obama administration has repeatedly tried, and failed, to open the door to peace. In May 2014, the U.S. transferred five senior Taliban figures from Guantanamo to Qatar. Ostensibly, the “Taliban Five” were traded for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an American who reportedly deserted his fellow soldiers and was then held by the Taliban and its jihadist allies. But the Obama administration also hoped that the exchange would be a so-called confidence-building measure and lead to more substantive negotiations. The Taliban’s leaders never agreed to any such discussions. They simply wanted their comrades, at least two of whom are suspected of committing war crimes, freed from Guantanamo.

Regardless, Russia is now enabling the Taliban’s disingenuous diplomacy by pretending that ISIS is the more worrisome threat. It’s a game the Russians have been playing for more than a year.

In December 2015, Zamir Kabulov, who serves as Vladimir Putin’s special representative for Afghanistan, went so far as to claim that “the Taliban interest objectively coincides with ours” when it comes to fighting ISIS head Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s loyalists. Kabulov even conceded that Russia and the Taliban have “channels for exchanging information,” according to The Washington Post.

The American commanders leading the fight in Afghanistan don’t buy Russia’s argument—at all.

During a press briefing on Dec. 2, General John W. Nicholson Jr., the commander of NATO’s Resolute Support and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, discussed “the malign influence of external actors and particularly Pakistan, Russia, and Iran.” Gen. Nicholson said the U.S. and its allies are “concerned about the external enablement of the insurgent or terrorist groups inside Afghanistan, in particular where they enjoy sanctuary or support from outside governments.” Russia, in particular, “has overtly lent legitimacy to the Taliban.”

According to Nicholson, the Russian “narrative” is “that the Taliban are the ones fighting the Islamic State, not the Afghan government.” While the Taliban does fight its jihadist rivals in the Islamic State, this is plainly false.

The “Afghan government and the U.S. counterterrorism effort are the ones achieving the greatest effect against Islamic State,” Nicholson said. He went on to list the U.S.-led coalition’s accomplishments over the past year: 500 ISIS fighters (comprising an estimated 25 to 30 percent of the group’s overall force structure) were killed or wounded, the organization’s “top 12 leaders” (including its emir, Hafiz Saeed Khan) were killed, and the group’s “sanctuary” has been reduced from nine Afghan districts to just three.

“So, this public legitimacy that Russia lends to the Taliban is not based on fact, but it is used as a way to essentially undermine the Afghan government and the NATO effort and bolster the belligerents,” Nicholson concluded. While Nicholson was careful not read too much into Russia’s motivation for backing the Taliban, he noted “certainly there’s a competition with NATO.”

There’s no doubt that ISIS’s operations in Afghanistan grew significantly in the wake of Baghdadi’s caliphate declaration in 2014. However, as Nicholson correctly pointed out, Baghdadi’s men are not adding to the territory they control at the moment. Their turf is shrinking. The same cannot be said for the Taliban, which remains the most significant threat to Afghanistan’s future. At any given time, the Taliban threatens several provincial capitals. The Taliban also controls dozens of Afghan districts and contests many more. Simply put, the Taliban is a far greater menace inside Afghanistan than Baghdadi’s men.

Regardless, the Russians continue to press their case. Their argument hinges on the idea that ISIS is a “global” force to be reckoned with, while the Taliban is just a “local” nuisance.

Kabulov, Putin’s special envoy to Afghanistan, made this very same claim in a newly-published interview with Anadolu Agency. Kabulov contends that “the bulk, main leadership, current leadership, and the majority of Taliban” are now a “local force” as a “result of all these historical lessons they got in Afghanistan.”

“They gave up the global jihadism idea,” Kabulov adds. “They are upset and regret that they followed Osama bin Laden.”

Someone should tell the Taliban’s media department this.

In early December, the Taliban released a major documentary video, “Bond of Nation with the Mujahideen.” The video included clips of the Taliban’s most senior leaders rejecting peace talks and vowing to wage jihad until the end. It also openly advertised the Taliban’s undying alliance with al Qaeda. At one point, an image of Osama bin Laden next to Taliban founder Mullah Omar is displayed on screen. (A screen shot of this clip can be seen above.) Photos of other al Qaeda and Taliban figures are mixed together in the same shot.

An audio message from Sheikh Khalid Batarfi, an al Qaeda veteran stationed in Yemen, is also played during the video. Batarfi praised the Taliban for protecting bin Laden even after the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackings. “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 threatened.

A narrator added that the mujahideen in Afghanistan “are the hope of Muslims for reviving back the honor of the Muslim Ummah [worldwide community of Muslims]!” The Afghan jihadists are a “hope for taking back the Islamic lands!” and a “hope for not repeating defeats and tragedies of the last century!”

The Taliban’s message is, therefore, unmistakable: The war in Afghanistan is part of the global jihadist conflict.

All of this, and more, is in one of the Taliban’s most important media productions of 2016. There is no hint that the Taliban “regrets” allying with al Qaeda, or has given “up the global jihadism idea,” as Kabulov claims. The exact opposite is true.

There is much more to the Taliban-al Qaeda nexus. In August 2015, al Qaeda honcho Ayman al Zawahiri swore allegiance to Mullah Mansour, who was named as Mullah Omar’s successor as the Taliban’s emir. Mansour publicly accepted Zawahiri’s fealty and Zawahiri’s oath was prominently featured on the Taliban’s website. After Mansour was killed earlier this year, Zawahiri pledged his allegiance to Mansour’s replacement, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada. Zawahiri and other al Qaeda leaders regularly call upon Muslims to support the Taliban and reject the Islamic State’s Afghan branch.

In his interview with Anadolu Agency, Kabulov concedes that not all of the Taliban has “given up” the global jihadist “ideas.” He admits that within the Taliban “you can find very influential groups like the Haqqani network whose ideology is more radical, closer to Daesh [or ISIS].”

Kabulov is right that the Haqqanis are committed jihadi ideologues, but he misses the obvious contradiction in his arguments. Siraj Haqqani, who leads the Haqqani network, is also one of the Taliban’s top two deputy leaders. He is the Taliban’s military warlord. Not only is Siraj Haqqani a “radical” ideologue, as Kabulov mentions in passing, he is also one of al Qaeda’s most committed allies. Documents recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound show that al Qaeda’s men closely cooperate with Siraj Haqqani on the Afghan battlefields.

Kabulov claims that the Islamic State “operates much more smartly” than al Qaeda and has “learned from all the mistakes of al Qaeda.” He says Baghdadi’s enterprise has “brought more advanced and sophisticated people to design, plan, and [execute] policy.” Once again, the exact opposite is true.

Al Qaeda has long known the pitfalls of the Islamic State’s in-your-face strategy, and has smartly decided to hide the extent of its influence and operations. Zawahiri and his lieutenants have also used the Islamic State’s over-the-top brutality to market themselves as a more reasonable jihadi alternative. And both the Taliban and al Qaeda are attempting to build more popular support for their cause as much of the world remains focused on the so-called caliphate’s horror show.

Al Qaeda’s plan has worked so well that the Russians would have us believe that the Taliban, al Qaeda’s longtime ally, should be viewed as a prospective partner.

Kabulov says that Russia is waiting to see how the “new president, [Donald] Trump, describe[s] his Afghan policy” before determining what course should be pursued next.

Here’s one thing the Trump administration should do right away: Make it clear that the Taliban and al Qaeda remain our enemies in Afghanistan.

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