5 years, 11 months ago
From The Wall Street Journal:
In late September, U.S. fighter jets streaked over the cedar-studded slopes of Korengal, the so-called Valley of Death, to strike a target that hadn’t been seen for years in Afghanistan: an al Qaeda training camp.
Among the dozens of Arabs killed that day, the U.S.-led coalition said, were two senior al Qaeda members, one Saudi and the other Kuwaiti. Another casualty of the bombing, according to Saudi media and jihadi websites, was one of Saudi Arabia’s most wanted militants. The men had come to Afghanistan to impart their skills to a new generation of Afghan and foreign fighters.
Even though the strike was successful, the very fact that it had to be carried out represents a troubling shift in the war. Nine years after a U.S.-led invasion routed almost all of al Qaeda’s surviving militants in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden’s network is gradually returning.
Over the past six to eight months, al Qaeda has begun setting up training camps, hideouts and operations bases in the remote mountains along Afghanistan’s northeastern border with Pakistan, some U.S., Afghan and Taliban officials say. The stepped-up infiltration followed a U.S. pullback from large swatches of the region starting 18 months ago. The areas were deemed strategically irrelevant and left to Afghanistan’s uneven security forces, and in some parts, abandoned entirely.
Strategically irrelevant to the campaign planners who focused their efforts on population-centric counterinsurgency and thus withdrew troops to redeploy in larger population centers. Not strategically irrelevant to me. Google the phrase Abandoning the Pech and see where TCJ lies in authority. I have supplied a surrogate conversation between flag officers when AQ returns to the Pech (which would be now), and argued that without hitting the Taliban’s recruiting grounds, fund raising and revenue development, training grounds, and logistical supply lines, the campaign cannot be won. I have pleaded that we not abandon the chase, and that we kill every last Taliban. Campaign management and I just disagree.
Continuing with the article:
American commanders have argued that the U.S. military presence in the remote valleys was the main reason why locals joined the Taliban. Once American soldiers left, they predicted, the Taliban would go, too. Instead, the Taliban have stayed put, a senior U.S. military officer said, and “al Qaeda is coming back.”
No, American commanders didn’t really believe that. They fabricated the only narrative available at the time that had any hope of convincing the administration that the strategy would work. As I pointed out, this argument was similar to the one deployed by the British to justify their retreat from Basra. Continuing:
The militant group’s effort to re-establish bases in northeastern Afghanistan is distressing for several reasons. Unlike the Taliban, which is seen as a mostly local threat, al Qaeda is actively trying to strike targets in the West. Eliminating its ability to do so from bases in Afghanistan has always been the U.S.’s primary war goal and the motive behind fighting the Taliban, which gave al Qaeda a relatively free hand to operate when it ruled the country. The return also undermines U.S. hopes that last year’s troop surge would beat the Taliban badly enough to bring them to the negotiating table—and pressure them to break ties with al Qaeda. More than a year into the surge, those ties appear to be strong.
To counter the return, the coalition is making quick incursions by regular forces into infiltrated valleys—”mowing the grass,” according to one U.S. general. It is also running clandestine raids by Special Operations Forces, who helped scout out the location of the Korengal strike, U.S. officials said.
[ … ]
Last year’s surge of 30,000 U.S. forces, authorized by President Barack Obama, aimed to inflict enough pain on the Taliban that they would negotiate a peace settlement on terms acceptable to the West. Coalition commanders and civilian officials were initially bullish about the new strategy’s chances, seizing on reports from Taliban detainees that a “wedge” was developing between al Qaeda and midlevel insurgent commanders. The insurgent leaders were said to be tired of fighting and increasingly resentful of what they considered the Arab group’s meddling in their fight.
The reappearance of al Qaeda fighters operating in Afghanistan undercuts those reports from detainees. “There are still ties up and down the networks…from the senior leadership to the ground level,” said a U.S. civilian official, citing classified intelligence.
Interviews with several Taliban commanders bear out that assessment. The commanders say the al Qaeda facilities in northeastern Afghanistan are tightly tied to the Afghan Taliban leadership. “In these bases, fighters from around the world get training. We are training suicide bombers, [improvised explosive device] experts and guerrilla fighters,” said an insurgent commander in Nuristan who goes by the nom de guerre Agha Saib and who was reached by telephone.
Of course the ties are still strong. I pointed out one and a half years ago that the ideological ties were powerful.
… 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.
And topping off this disturbing report is the most disarming quote of all.
The problem, say officials, is that JSOC, with a global counterterrorism mission that gives it responsibility for strikes in Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and other trouble spots, is already stretched thin. Relying on it to police Afghanistan’s hinterlands as American forces pull out may be unrealistic, some officials said.
“We do not have an intelligence problem. We have a capacity problem. We generally know the places they are, how they are operating,” said the senior U.S. military official, speaking of al Qaeda. The problem “is our ability to get there and do something.”
As I have pointed out for years, the high value target program is a failure. It won’t work. Nor will swooping in with SOF troopers to conduct raids in the middle of the night based on poor intelligence and no local “atmospherics” whatsoever (no atmospherics because there are no U.S. troops there). Of course we have a capacity problem. Kinetics needs to be conducted by everyone, and everyone needs to be off of FOBs, living among the locals, including SOF troopers. We have discussed this at great length.
But the same, tired, worn out paradigms of SOF troopers conducing raids, general purpose forces serving as policemen, most of the troops tied to huge bases, and begging the criminals Hamid and Wali Karzai to go groovy on us are still employed, hoping that good governance can turn Afghanistan into Shangri La.
But it isn’t working, and AQ is returning to the Hindu Kush. Can we jettison the failed strategy in time?
Taliban Massing of Forces category