Al Qaeda Expands its Presence in Afghanistan

 

By Scott DesMarais and Emily Estelle

Key Takeaway: Al Qaeda has expanded its presence in Afghanistan since 2014 in collaboration with the Taliban. The Taliban and al Qaeda maintain, and will sustain, an enduring and intimate relationship that invalidates the premise of U.S. negotiations with the Taliban. The Taliban-al Qaeda partnership will allow al Qaeda militants to exploit any potential U.S. military withdrawal to expand further their access to safe havens in Afghanistan.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper reaffirmed the Trump Administration’s intent to reach a political agreement and continue the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan during a visit to the country on October 21.[1] U.S. President Donald Trump halted negotiations with the Taliban in September in the wake of a bombing in the country’s capital that killed a U.S. soldier.[2] It is unclear whether the U.S. and the Taliban will resume talks in the near term. Meanwhile, al Qaeda continues to expand its presence in Afghanistan in a close relationship with the Taliban that undermines a central premise of talks: that the Taliban will break with al Qaeda as part of a peace deal. Al Qaeda has already exploited previous U.S. drawdowns and is prepared to surge in collaboration with the Taliban if the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda has prioritized its re-entry into Afghanistan since 2014, when the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) drew down forces.[3] Al Qaeda Emir Ayman al Zawahiri announced the formation of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) in 2014, a move intended to counter the Islamic State’s declaration of a so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria as well as exploit the ISAF drawdown.[4] Al Qaeda’s re-entry into Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan forced the U.S. to resume counter-terrorism operations there in 2015.

Senior AQIS leaders and Taliban commanders are co-located in Afghanistan today, signaling an enduring and high-level partnership. American and Afghan forces targeted a joint Taliban-al Qaeda compound in Musah Qal’ah District, a Taliban stronghold considered the group’s de facto capital, in Helmand Province on September 22.[5] Multiple Afghan security organizations reported that the operation killed senior AQIS leader Asim Umar and a courier who connected AQIS leaders to Zawahiri. Afghanistan’s intelligence agency and a U.S. official have since confirmed Umar’s death in the raid.[6] The operation also targeted several Taliban commanders from districts in Helmand Province.[7] It is a sign of the extent of al Qaeda’s return to the area.

The joint compound in Musah Qal’ah is only one example of the depth and breadth of the Taliban-al Qaeda relationship. Al Qaeda members are embedded with the Taliban at positions throughout Afghanistan. The U.S. military assessed in February 2019 that approximately 200 al Qaeda militants are active in Kabul, Badakhshan, Kunar, Paktia, Helmand, and Nimroz Provinces.[8] The UN Security Council (UNSC) assessed that al Qaeda “considers Afghanistan a continuing safe haven for its leadership” and that al Qaeda continues to rely “on its long-standing and strong relationship with the Taliban leadership” in July 2019.[9] The UNSC also assessed that al Qaeda is actively attempting to grow its presence in Shighnan District in Badakhshan Province and Bermal District in Paktika Province.[10] A senior Taliban official said in December 2018 that several thousand foreign fighters operate in Taliban territory.[11] Many of these fighters are likely affiliated with al Qaeda. Durable alliances between al Qaeda militants and Taliban members indicate an entrenched al Qaeda network embedded within the Taliban.[12] Al Qaeda members also provide military and religious instruction to the Taliban.[13]

The U.S. cannot expect the Taliban to fulfill its counter-terrorism requirements against al Qaeda. The Taliban has already demonstrated that it will not act to thwart al Qaeda. The Taliban neither severed ties with al Qaeda nor took action to prevent terrorists from operating in Afghanistan, as it promised in a now-defunct draft agreement with the U.S. in early September.[14] Al Qaeda will continue to exploit its relationship with the Taliban to expand its presence in Afghanistan and will accelerate this expansion if the U.S. withdraws.




[1] Idrees Ali, “Pentagon chief in Afghanistan as U.S. looks to kickstart Taliban talks,” Reuters, October 20, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-afghanistan-pentagon/pentagon-chief-in-afghanistan-as-u-s-looks-to-kickstart-taliban-talks-idUSKBN1WZ0C4.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Anne Stenersen, “Al-Qa’ida’s Comeback in Afghanistan and its Implications,” CTC Sentinel 9, no. 9 (September 2016), https://ctc.usma.edu/al-qaidas-comeback-in-afghanistan-and-its-implications/.

[4] Anurag Chandran, “Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent: Almost Forgotten,” Critical Threats Projecta t the American Enterprise Institute, September 3, 2015, https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/al-qaeda-in-the-indian-subcontinent-almost-forgotten.

[5] Susannah George, “U.S., Afghan forces carry out deadly raid on al-Qaeda in southern Afghanistan,” Washington Post, September 23, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/us-official-acknowledges-possible-civilian-casualties-in-afghanistan-airstrike/2019/09/23/dd789cf2-de0a-11e9-b199-f638bf2c340f_story.html; and “Taliban territory: Life in Afghanistan under the militants,” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-40171379.

[6] Ayesha Tanzeem, “Al-Qaida South Asia Chief Killed in Afghanistan Raid,” Voice of America, October 8, 2019, https://www.voanews.com/south-central-asia/al-qaida-south-asia-chief-killed-afghanistan-raid.

[7] Afghanistan National Directorate of Security, Twitter, September 24, 2019, https://twitter.com/NDSAfghanistan/status/1176450110882009088; and Afghanistan National Security Council, Twitter, September 23, 2019, https://twitter.com/NSCAfghan/status/1176212078069276677?s=20.  

[8] Glenn A. Fine, “Operation Freedom’s Sentinel: Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress,” March 1, 2019, https://media.defense.gov/2019/Mar/01/2002094845/-1/-1/1/FY2019_LIG_OCO_REPORT.PDF.

[9] UN Security Council, “Letter dated 15 July 2019 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) concerning Islamic State and Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities addressed to the President of the Security Council,” July 15, 2019, https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/3813209/files/S_2019_570-EN.pdf.

[10] UN Security Council, “Letter dated 15 July 2019 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) concerning Islamic State and Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities addressed to the President of the Security Council.”

[11] F. Brinley Bruton and Mushtaq Yusufzai, “9/11 hangs over Taliban talks and assurances militant group has changed,” NBC News, December 17, 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/9-11-hangs-over-taliban-talks-assurances-militant-group-has-n946011.

[12] Phil Stewart, “At Afghan base, al Qaeda memories fresh 18 years after September 11 attacks,” Reuters, September 11, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-sept11-afghanistan/at-afghan-base-al-qaeda-memories-fresh-18-years-after-september-11-attacks-idUSKCN1VW24D; Council on Foreign Relations, “The al-Qaeda-Taliban Nexus,” November 24, 2009, https://www.cfr.org/expert-roundup/al-qaeda-taliban-nexus; Robert Windrem and William M. Arkin, “Why Hasn’t the U.S. Killed Bin Laden’s Wingman Ayman al-Zawahiri,” NBC News, May 17, 2016, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/why-hasn-t-u-s-kill-bin-laden-s-wingman-n574986; and Jonathan Landay and Steve Holland, “In Trump’s team, misgivings emerge over any deal with Taliban in Afghanistan: U.S. officials,” Reuters, August 30, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-afghanistan-concerns/in-trumps-team-misgivings-emerge-over-any-deal-with-taliban-in-afghanistan-u-s-officials-idUSKCN1VK2NW.

[13] UN Security Council, “Letter dated 15 July 2019 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) concerning Islamic State and Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities addressed to the President of the Security Council.”

[14] Siobhan O’Grady and Sharif Hassan, “Bombing rocks Kabul as U.S. envoy announces draft troop pullout deal with Taliban,” Washington Post, September 2, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/us-envoy-to-taliban-talks-us-would-pull-out-troops-135-days-after-peace-deal-is-signed/2019/09/02/bc8f2b10-cd74-11e9-87fa-8501a456c003_story.html.