6 years, 6 months ago
Asking the question whether al Qaeda and the Taliban are in Pakistan or Afghanistan is like asking whether the water is on the right or the left side of a swimming pool.
The conversation on Pakistan versus Afghanistan presupposes that the Durand Line means anything, and that the Taliban and al Qaeda respect an imaginary boundary cut through the middle of the Hindu Kush. It doesn’t and they don’t. If our engagement of Pakistan is to mean anything, we must understand that they are taking their cue from us, and that our campaign is pressing the radicals from the Afghanistan side while their campaign is pressing them from the Pakistani side.
Advocating disengagement from Afghanistan is tantamount to suggesting that one front against the enemy would be better than two, and that one nation involved in the struggle would be better than two (assuming that Pakistan would keep up the fight in our total absence, an assumption for which I see no basis). It’s tantamount to suggesting that it’s better to give the Taliban and al Qaeda safe haven in Afghanistan as Pakistan presses them from their side, or that it’s better to give them safe haven in Pakistan while we press them from our side. Both suggestions are preposterous.
Further, I have repeatedly pointed out that the small footprint model, enticing and seductive though it may be, contains its own defeater. Without adequate troops to ensure contact with and protection of the population against the insurgency – for those who want protection – there would be no lines of logistics to supply this small number of troops, and no intelligence networks. The model simply won’t work because there will be no known targets, period, much less high value targets.
But continuing with the more current argument against heavy commitment to Afghanistan, it has been stated that al Qaesa represents only a small fraction of the insurgency. The drone attacks, it is said, have accomplished their purpose. This position ignores the very real possibility that the Taliban have morphed into something other than what they were ten or more years ago.
In fact, I have claimed just the condition I described above.
… they have evolved into a much more radical organization than the original Taliban bent on global engagement, what Nicholas Schmidle calls the Next-Gen Taliban. The TTP shout to passersby in Khyber “We are Taliban! We are mujahedin! “We are al-Qaida!” There is no distinction. A Pakistan interior ministry official has even said that the TTP and al Qaeda are one and the same.
Add to this yet another data point comes to us from the New York Daily News.
Ever since senior Obama administration advisers such as CIA Director Leon Panetta and Vice President Biden admitted that Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan was minimal, with fewer than 100 operatives believed to be on the ground there, war critics have complained the President has little justification for escalating the U.S. commitment there.
But the inside-the-Beltway political debate underscores a fundamental misunderstanding of what Al Qaeda’s role in Afghanistan — which Osama Bin Laden’s minions call “Khorasan” — truly has been, according to Special Operations commanders and troops on the ground.
Today’s Washington Post makes hay of the fact that Al Qaeda is barely mentioned in the 76,000 pages of war files released last month by WikiLeaks. The story overlooks two key facts: (1) The voluminous files are mostly “sigact” – “significant action” – combat reports dispatched as incidents happened; and (2) troops who faced Arabs in battle fighting alongside Afghan “Taliban” rarely knew, even after they had killed them, that they were up against non-Afghan opponents.
Critics also fail to realize that a single Al Qaeda operative’s knowledge and experience in guerrilla and terror tactics is of incalculable value as a force multiplier to the Taliban.
Al Qaeda’s Arab operatives are considered a fearless elite. They have knowledge of Islam that makes them seem like religious scholars to many Pashtun tribesmen, who they have led into battle in the past. After Al Qaeda fled Afghanistan’s cities with their Taliban government allies in 2001-02, they reorganized and reconstituted their ranks in Pakistan. Al Qaeda returned to the fight in 2004, training, equipping and often leading or joining Haqqani fighters in battle along the eastern border.
Their presence was often suggested by the tactics used by Haqqani fighters, the cells’ skill at accurately firing AK-47s and RPGs, and gear such as armor-piercing ammo, body armor and night-vision devices.
Today, as they withstand CIA’s withering drone onslaught in Pakistan’s tribal belt, the Arabs are more low-key in their Afghan ops than they were in the past. The CIA’s targeted killing of Skeik Mustafa Abu al-Yazid after he left Mir Ali may also have impacted their activities on the other side of the AfPak.
Arabs from Al Qaeda still fund and train the Taliban, but no longer lead operations from the front, Army Col. Donald C. Bolduc, who leads the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, told me in his office at Bagram Airfield this month.
“They’re considered much too valuable to risk that,” said another U.S. official in the war zone.
During the winter, Taliban leaders ensconced in Pakistan send in Al Qaeda operatives to train their fighters in bombmaking tradecraft during the lull in fighting, sources said.
“The Pakistani madrassahs are still the big recruiting and training place. The Afghans go to a madrassah in Pakistan, where an Arab is typically like the dean, or headmaster, and learn how to fight,” the official told me. “Then the Afghan goes back home and teaches others to build bombs or fight — and gets paid handsomely for it.”
Again, this is yet another point of confirmation of my previously described hypothesis, i.e., that of a shift in the theological landscape within Afghanistan and a morphing of the Taliban into a more globally focused and religiously motivated entity. These rogue elements swim in the same waters, and to use the expressions “al Qaeda” or “Taliban,” while certainly precise from the perspective of a close view analysis, misses the point of a morphing of these elements into something new and different.