A smaller Afghan role for al-Qaeda is very bad news for the West

Because public discussion about Afghanistan is heated in the wake of another corrupt Afghan parliamentary election, as well as because of rising U.S.-NATO casualties and the start of General Petreaus’s long-delayed Kandahar “offensive,” I have posted below a talk that I recently delivered. The talk deals with how al-Qaeda’s role in the Taliban’s war against the U.S.-led coalition has shifted from mostly combat to mostly support since 2006-2007. It argues that the smaller role al-Qaeda now plays is as vital as the larger role it played earlier, and that it is, indeed, more dangerous to the United States and its European allies both inside Afghanistan and externally.

This article is much longer than most of the pieces I post here, but I hope readers will find it informative.


I was asked this afternoon to discuss al-Qaeda’s [AQ] current role in Afghanistan. As it happens, AQ’s Deputy Chief Ayman al-Zawahiri recently issued a statement concisely showing that he, Osama bin Laden, and al-Qaeda are operating on the belief that AQ’s heavy lifting in Afghanistan, at least in a military sense, is over, and that the bulk of the combat against the U.S.-NATO forces is in the capable hands of Mullah Omar’s Taliban and the organizations of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Sirajuddin Haqqani, and others.

Speaking in a taped audio statement to the Muslim ummah, al-Zawahiri opened by saying:

“What I want to point out here in this talk of mine isn’t the imminent victory — Allah permitting — of the mujahideen under the banner of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan led by the Amir of the Believers, Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid, may Allah protect him, for this is something which the enemy and the friend have agreed about, by the grace of Allah, and no one doubts it will happen, not even the American-led Crusader coalition itself. Rather the argument is about ‘when’ and ‘how.’”

While the Western media and the White House have described al-Zawahiri’s words as “more ranting and raving,” and one senior U.S. official rebutted al-Qaeda’s deputy leader with the astounding claim that “the United States is winning in Afghanistan,” there is no reason to believe al-Zawahiri presented anything other than AQ’s perception of reality on the ground in Afghanistan. And there is even less reason to think his claim is inaccurate.

Since at least early 2007, al-Qaeda has been reducing the presence of its fighters in Afghanistan. The reduction is due not to excessive loses or military failure, but from a simple recognition that the Taliban and other Afghan insurgent groups have more than enough well-trained manpower to force an end to both the occupation and Karzai’s regime.

This reality was welcomed by bin Laden and his lieutenants as it allowed them to return to al-Qaeda’s traditional modus operandi, which is to support Islamist insurgencies not to lead them.

And given the temporarily disastrous impact Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s attempt to lead Iraq’s Sunni resistance had on al-Qaeda’s fortunes, the group’s senior leaders could only have been relieved when the Afghan mujahideen proved they had recovered enough to retake leadership of the insurgency in late 2006 and early 2007.

The shifting of AQ’s role from playing a major combat-and-leadership role to playing its traditional support role can be dated from bin Laden’s 2007 appointment of the recently killed Egyptian insurgent, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, also known as Shaykh Said.

Abu al-Yazid was a founding member of al-Qaeda and perhaps its most respected administrator, financial manager, and logistician. Al-Yazid had had some combat training and experience during the anti-Soviet jihad but he was not a skilled field commander.

Abu al-Yazid‘s appointment was a clear signal, as noted above, that AQ’s role in Afghanistan was henceforth to be marked with less combat activity and more support activities. I must say it has never been clear to me that Bush and Obama Administration officials picked up on the importance of this shift, notwithstanding the fact that al-Yazid himself explained his role in support of the Afghan mujahideen in several lengthy interviews with al-Jazirah and al-Sahab, the latter is al-Qaeda’s media organization.

Indeed, the recent statement by CIA Chief Panetta that there are only about 50 or 100 al-Qaeda fighters left in Afghanistan — if it is accurate — clearly underscores the vital but much less manpower intensive role al-Qaeda is now serving in Afghanistan.

So what, then, are the most important activities al-Qaeda is now performing in Afghanistan? While to my knowledge we have not yet heard from the man who replaced Abu al-Yazid, there is no reason to think al-Qaeda’s modus operandi in Afghanistan has changed since al-Yazid explained it in 2008 and 2009. The following are the four areas in which al-Qaeda’s effort now focuses:

First, training:The improved combat performance of Taliban and other Afghan insurgent forces since late-2001 is witness to the training regimen provided by al-Qaeda trainers. As Abu-al-Yazid told the media, al-Qaeda established numerous small camps in Pakistan’s tribal area after evacuating Afghanistan and began training both Afghan fighters and would-be mujahideen who came from elsewhere in the Islamic world. It also is likely that AQ and the Taliban used the larger training camps in Pakistani Kashmir to train fighters for Afghanistan. Included in the training were classes on how to assembly and deploy IEDs of the type used in Iraq. Prior to his death, Abu al-Yazid said that because the Taliban had sufficient manpower, some non-Afghan Muslims being trained in South Asia were being sent to fight in Iraq, Somalia, North Africa, and Yemen.

Second, logistical assistance: As noted, AQ’s self-designated primary role in each Islamist insurgency it assists is the provision of logistical, financial, training, and procurement support; al-Yazid himself was one of AQ’s best in these skills. Al-Qaeda’s logistical and financial networks are now helping and supplementing the Taliban’s and there is no indication the Afghan insurgents are wanting in any necessary of war. The logistics arena is, like the combat arena, a place where the need for AQ personnel declines over time. Just as al-Qaeda fighters teach combat skills, the organization’s support people teach logistical, organizational, and financial skills that help an insurgency to become more self-sufficient and over time allows AQ to reduce its manpower commitment. (NB:The fact that, unlike the Soviets, U.S. and NATO commanders have refused to mine the passes connecting Afghanistan and Pakistan has greatly eased the task of managing logistics operations and so increased both the Taliban’s combat capabilities and U.S. and NATO casualties.)

Third, intelligence collection: AQ’s intelligence-collection networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan operate in a framework built over twenty-five years. In intelligence terms, al-Qaeda is an old-established South Asian firm. Based on relationships created during the anti-Soviet jihad (1979-1992), AQ’s intelligence officers work closely with those of Mullah Omar, Hekmatyar, Haqqani, and others. And although he is an Afghan parliamentarian and appears pro-Karzai, bin Laden also has close ties to Shaykh Abdul Rasul Sayyaf who commands a small but well-trained and highly clandestine insurgent force in Kabul and the region west of the city. AQ has a long history of cooperation with Sayyaf; Shaykh Sayyaf, for example, gave bin Laden land for his first training camp, and helped al-Qaeda to set up Masood for assassination in September 2001. It would be Pollyanish to think this cooperation has ended; it is more likely that Sayyaf‘s people provide intelligence to AQ and other Afghan mujahideen about the plans and intentions of Karzai’s regime, the movement of NATO forces in and around Kabul, and assists them in covert operations in the city.

There are two areas of intelligence collection which are especially important to al-Qaeda and its Afghan allies at the moment:

The first area is in the southern provinces of Helmand, Nimruz, and Kandahar and focuses particularly on collecting intelligence on Canadian and British forces. Abu al-Yazid and other senior al-Qaeda leaders have drawn attention to the weak support that British and Canadian voters provide for their governments’ Afghan commitment; more than half of Canadians oppose the war, and about two-thirds of Britons oppose it. As the pace of operations in Kandahar increase, Taliban insurgents are likely to try to inflict as many casualties as possible on UK and Canadian soldiers, an action which directly serves al-Qaeda’s strategic goal of stripping away U.S. allies.

The second area in which al-Qaeda is surely operating with other Afghan and Pakistani insurgent organizations is in ensuring a steady flow of intelligence about the land routes NATO uses to move supplies, fuel, and ordnance into Afghanistan from Karachi, Peshawar, and the Former Soviet Union. The Afghan mujahideen drove the Red Army to distraction with an uncanny ability to slow, disrupt, and bleed the vehicle convoys on which the Soviets and their Afghan allies depended for all of their needs. Then as now, Afghanistan produces nothing and so every materiel need had to be brought in from the Soviet Union, and because of mujahideen anti-convoy operations the Soviets and their allies were always short of everything. In this realm, it is likely that al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Hekmatyar are especially interested in building a capability to attack the resupply routes from Central Asia. Each of these organizations have long been eager to build a capacity to project power into Central Asia, and each surely welcomes the chance to build ties to the mujahideen in northern Afghanistan who are beginning to believe they have simply exchanged an infidel Soviet occupation for an infidel U.S.-NATO occupation and its Karzai puppet.

Fourth, media operations: As it has done in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, and North Africa, al-Qaeda’s al-Sahab Media Production Organization has revolutionized the local insurgency’s attitude toward and use of the electronic media. Prior to 2001, Mullah Omar and his lieutenants had little domestic media capability and none internationally. In fact, Omar and his coterie frankly said they cared little about media activities, and some Taliban leaders even regarded media equipment as unIslamic. Things have changed. Today the Taliban has an around-the-clock media organization that produces regular video tapes, audio messages, and radio broadcasts from all parts of Afghanistan. This coverage features interviews with Taliban commanders, video of attacks on NATO forces; and testimony from local Afghans welcoming the Taliban’s return and the Islamic justice systems it brings. This reporting feeds the print and electronic media in Pakistan and the Arab Peninsula and is fed worldwide on Taliban Internet sites that are available in Pashtu, Arabic, Urdu, and some other languages. Taliban media operatives also use satellite telephones to contact Western reporters when NATO operations kill civilians, and the operatives often send pictures or video of the incidents to their Western contacts via their mobile phones.

The Taliban’s media operations — when added to those of the Pakistani media and al-Jazirah — are again making the Afghan jihad a priority concern across the Muslim world, a fact that seems to be validated by media reporting that in 2009, donations from individuals in the Arab Peninsula states and other Muslim nations provided a greater portion of the Afghan insurgents’ operating revenue than did their share of profits from heroin trafficking. All told, the impact of the media productions by the current Afghan insurgents dwarfs that of the media produced two decades ago by the anti-Soviet jihadis. Millions more Muslims worldwide are intimately familiar with the events and personalities of today’s Afghan war than they were twenty years ago during the anti-Soviet war, and that awareness is yielding increased volunteers and donations.

Overall, then, Afghanistan is no longer a place that requires the bulk of al-Qaeda’s attention and human and material resources. Al-Qaeda believes Mullah Omar’s Taliban and the other Afghan insurgent groups have the war well in hand and that the slow but steady spread of insurgent operations around the country clockwise from Kandahar demonstrates that the Afghan mujahideen have the initiative and that more ordinary Afghans — nationalists and Islamists — want to be rid of the occupation.

As a result, while al-Qaeda core is based in South Asia, it is still able to devote increasing amounts of its manpower and resources to activities outside Afghanistan and Pakistan. The improved capabilities of al-Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa are evidence of this, as is the ongoing rebuilding and increasing operations of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the just reported planning for wide-ranging al-Qaeda-related attacks in Europe; and the growing presence of Salafist scholars and mujahideen groups in Jordan, Lebanon, Gaza, and Jerusalem. Bin Laden and his lieutenants also have successfully increased the number of U.S. citizens within their military and media wings, which surely means that al-Qaeda is planning more attacks on U.S. interests and is intent on further radicalizing young U.S. Muslim males

Bin Laden and his lieutenants also perceive that the U.S. government has never understood its Afghan problem, has never intended to win the war, and that the current U.S. administration has given up. The points supporting this belief include:

The excessive concern of U.S. leaders for civilian casualties and the resulting reduction in night operations, artillery support, and air attacks to prevent such casualties. All three were major negatives for the mujahideen and the reduction of such operations is most welcomed by them.

The success of U.S.-NATO operations humanitarian operations — 3 million more Afghan kids in school, better health care, more roads and electricity, etc. — that has occurred simultaneously with the geographic spread of the insurgency and the increase in popular support for it. Afghans are accepting Western aid, but they are not giving their hearts and minds to the occupiers.

Washington’s abandonment of virtually every war goal set out in 2001, as seen in its willingness to deal with the Taliban and last year’s setting of a date for the start of U.S. troop withdrawal. Each is seen as evidence that the current Administration has thrown in the towel.

The widespread corruption of the Karzai regime, and especially that of the president’s family and friends, has made it clear to the mujahideen and most of the Afghan people that the regime represents only itself and can survive only as long as there are NATO bayonets to protect it, no matter how many elections are held.

The willingness of the U.S.-NATO high command to give the mujahideen six-months’ notice before major offensives — as was done in Helmand and now in Kandahar — is taken as evidence that the last thing Western forces want to do is to incur heavy casualties and so the mujahideen are given time to move the bulk of their manpower and supplies out of harm’s way before campaigns are started.

The enormous U.S.-NATO expenditure of time, money, and manpower to build large Afghan military and police forces, a program that mostly benefits the mujahideen. The British tried this in the 1880s, the Soviets did the same in the 1980s, and the result was the same both times: the Afghan fighters enlisted to get armed, trained, and learn the enemy’s tactics and then deserted to the mujahideen; others won some trust from their trainers and then turned their guns on them; and yet others continued to serve in the forces as agents-in-place to assist the mujahideen at a later time.

The miniscule presence of U.S.-NATO combat forces in Afghanistan and their one-hand-tied-behind-the-back modus operandi. For al-Qaeda and the Taliban, it is not only laughable but self-defeating for the U.S. and NATO to believe that they can beat the insurgency with 120,000 troops focused on winning hearts and minds when the Soviets could not do so with 120,000 troops using the utmost savagery.

In closing let me say that al-Qaeda’s ability to reduce its manpower and material commitment to the Afghan jihad does not connote any lessening in its determination to see the U.S. and NATO forced to withdraw. If the Taliban’s current positive conditions turn negative, bin Laden will refocus some of al-Qaedas forces and resources in its support.

Afghanistan, for al-Qaeda, all Islamist groups, and most Muslims, remains of overwhelming symbolic and theological importance. It is the site on which Allah provided the mujahideen with Islam’s first victory over a superpower, and al-Qaeda, their mujahideen brethren, and their civilian benefactors will spare no effort to fight so as to be deserving of Allah providing Islam a second victory over a superpower in the same Muslim land.