Al Qaeda “Returns” to Afghanistan

by Joshua Foust on 4/6/2011 · 15 comments

Even though they never really left (according to American intelligence officials, they have maintained numbers of around 100 or so for several years), today the big news is about the “return” of Al Qaeda to Afghanistan. Naturally, I wrote about it for my column this week for PBS:

What the news of Al Qaeda’s resurgence shows is that both approaches to the war — withdrawal and escalation — fail to focus on the right objectives. The number of troops in Afghanistan doesn’t matter nearly as much as what they’re doing. The substantial increase in troops under President Obama — nearly 50,000 troops over the last two years — hasn’t been directed at securing the eastern border with Pakistan. Instead of having troops secure the border to prevent further infiltration and cross-border militancy, the lion’s share of those troops were sent south, to battle local Taliban fighting over local issues. Meanwhile, the east and the north of the country have seen their security deteriorate substantially, and concrete gains in the midst of the surge in the south remain difficult to specify…

What does need to happen is an honest accounting of what is really necessary to keep the focus on Al Qaeda. If the Obama administration believes that the viability of a strong Afghan government is contingent upon the permanent denial of a safe haven to Al Qaeda, then we should work toward that. However, the administration’s current war strategy, which leans heavily on troops and building local militias (to do more fighting), does not actually serve this larger goal.

Comment away, y’all.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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james April 6, 2011 at 5:39 pm

It seems the current goal you stated is targeted more at getting out. Not to mention there is the hope (I stress the word hope, maybe I should say “Dream”) that the Afhgans we train will keep Al Qaeda in check. One must also bear in mind that some but not all Afhgans would not welcome them back. If they behave like the “Haughty Arabs” as they did in the past that is.

Eli Wurth April 6, 2011 at 8:06 pm

Imagine a group of pro-Tibet, anti-Chinese government freedom fighters based in Virginia, (with the tacit support and knowledge of US officials) detonating a series of bombs in Bejing, killing a few thousand innocent Chinese civilians as an act of “retaliation” for the perceived wrongs done to Tibetans.

Would you gladly welcome the bombing of Cleveland, Raleigh, San Antonio, and Portland? Would you embrace 1/2 million invading Chinese troops whose sole purpose was to remove the threat to their country, including the government in Washington D.C.?

That’s what I think about our intervention in Afghanistan.

Catch you on the Twitter…

Adam April 6, 2011 at 10:51 pm

Eli, Could not have said it better myself…Afghans have been saying name one Afghan who has commited terrorism in any western country and will put his head on a platter for the west…The Al Qaeda terrorists did not fall from the sky into Afghanistan, we were involved in the 80s and in the 90s the Pakistan military worked out all the logistics for terrorists to reach Afghanistan…We are massacring Afghans while rewarding Pakistan’s state sponsored terrorism with billions…I question if we really after terrorists or that is just an excuse for greater objectives at the cost of innocent American and Afghan lives.

Johny Matrix April 7, 2011 at 5:15 pm

“Afghans have been saying name one Afghan who has commited terrorism in any western country and will put his head on a platter for the west”

So wait…During my next Shura I can just tell Haji to give me the head of Zia Rahman on a steak and it will get done? Tried and failed my friend…I respect them for their resilience and history, but a Shura is not strong enough to oust thousands of years of hatred…and that analogy is a reach…I will, however, submit to the claim that our inability of follow-through post-afg/soviet war has led to more than troublesome times. I just hope we do not make the same mistake again.

Adam April 7, 2011 at 6:12 pm

If you can name one Afghan, We have the capacity to get Haji Sahib to put Zia’s head on a platter in a formal jirga or via other means.

“I will, however, submit to the claim that our inability of follow-through post-afg/soviet war has led to more than troublesome times. I just hope we do not make the same mistake again.” I am sure you have more details on this than me, but we brokered Afghanistan policy to PAkistan after Soviets left…Before the Soviets, the PAkistani generals like Col. Imam aka father of Taliban were getting “insurgency” training here in the US to train Afghan insurgents in NORTH Waziristan against Afghanistan’s first democratic Gov’t.(against than President Daud Khan) in the EARLY 1970s. We were following PAkistan’s policy than and are doing it now, we are making the same mistake against our national interest and against Afghanistan’s stability.

Johny Matrix April 7, 2011 at 7:29 pm

Adam – Sorry misread your original post that said “committed”…past tense. I don’t know man…Nowadays, I think it’s more of an issue of individuals who can/will most definitely harm America in the future. Moving on from that, the next question is can we admit that they are still in AFG OR would they occupy once/if we left?

And no I think you know more about AfPak history than I..

Adam April 7, 2011 at 9:15 pm

Johny, The Soviet Union and communists killed millions of Afghans yet not one Afghan targeted Moscow. While we allowed Pakistan to use Islam to gather former Arab prisoners and make it an ideology movement against communism. However, I think Afghans fought for their independence and against Soviet occupation while the Arabs fought in the name of religion….
Anyways, we befriended the wrong people(NA) to get the ‘job” done after 2001 and we trusted the wrong establishment (Pakistan army)…Had we studied Afghanistan last few centuries out of its 6,000 year history, and only Pakistan 60 year history we would have established our own comprehensive policy on Afghanistan-but someone was too lazy and fooling old administration and Pakistan generals…..I think AQ would not be able to re-establish where there are Nationalists “taliban” say in Kandahar, Afg or in Quetta, Pak. But what is a threat is the Pakistan military establishment’s Pan-Islamic ideological buddies in N. Waziristan- Haqannis and AQ. Now I do not know if the Obama Admin. is showing re-establishment of AQ in Afghanistan for certain policy objectives(i.e continue the war) or If Pakistani military has called its proxies in N. Waziristan to disperse(towards Kunar, Nuristan etc) before an Pak Army offense. Again, finding nationalist Afghans (I was told we do not like to deal with them because they hate being dictated to) in Afghanistan AND Pashtun nationalists in Pakistan to enlist them against our common enemy,AQ- they dislike AQ more than us because they blame AQ for Afghanistan’s destruction.

It is certain that if Pakistan does not act against AQ and its allies(Let, Sipah E saba, Haqanni and others), in Pakistan we will not rid the region nor the world of terrorism(if can stop importing $4 billion dollars per year in Pakistani goods and get supplies via other routes to afghanistan we might be closer to action). I do not know how we can prevent the cancer from spreading from Pakistan without force…the nationalists Afghan “Taliban” will be happy with minimal American forces as their movement is confined to Afghanistan, but AQ and it terrorists allies have crazier ambitions that are beyond Afghanistan. I knows Pakistani and the important chuck of Afghanistan’s history… This is just my opinion, I am not an terrorism expert….

Johny Matrix April 7, 2011 at 10:15 pm

Okay, we might go off the page with these replies. I remember one night in the bazaar listening to my terp plead me to get ahold of the rogues in America who were giving aid to Pak. When I told him it was our government he couldn’t believe me. So you’re def spot on concerning our dealings with Pak…we need to be smarter with our money and you’ve got a good point about Pak-AQ relationship…I have failed to see anything concerning Pak-on-AQ operations.

I would put to you that this recent AQ ‘return’ is not so much of a conspiracy by the admin, in contrast I would argue again that they never left…and also (I’m being optimistic) that someone is finally trying to refocus our efforts.

Also…do you really think Pak would stand for us rising up these Pashtun nationalists, supporting their movement crossing their sovereign border IOT attack AQ and the TTP that supports them? Not only do I not think that would go down too well with Pak but again, we put too much credibility into the gusto of the Pasthuns. I know they can get it on when it counts, but I always got the feeling that they were getting sick of war…good thing I’m addicted to it, right?

Adam April 7, 2011 at 11:30 pm

“I told him it was our government he couldn’t believe me.” lol, even some in our who approve it don’t believe it… I think 1/3 of CIA’s budget is allocated to ISI plus billions more per year.\11\17\story_17-11-2009_pg3_1

“I always got the feeling that they were getting sick of war” but they have not stopped fighting anyone who have come in uninvited for thousands of years(even after the Ghengis khan’s army kills 25% of its pop. and Soviets killed 10% of it pop.). Having studied Afghans and Pashtuns in particular, if we are to rid the region of terrorism they have to be part of any fight against it or we will never succeed. Plus, Pakistan needs the stick, we have never supported Pashtun nationalism(even the non-violent movements) because we believed Punjabi Pakistan establishment was a bullwark in the region for western interest-I DO NOT THINK SO….”I [do] not think that would go down too well with Pak” PAk army/ISI is refusing to dismantle the terrorism infrastructure in Pakistan, India threat is B/S-India has never attacked Pakistan, It destroyed Afghanistan because a strong Afghanistan dominated by “progressive” Pashtun gov’t (like in 60-70s) threatens Islamabad. It prefers unstable, weak, unrecognized Afghan gov’t..Besides alienating the Pashtuns politically, we listened to Pakistan on not creating an Afghan Pashtun dominated army (and its insistence on a weak Afghan army overall, I see today’s attacks on Afghan army recruits in Kandahar as work of Pak Army/ISI/MI est.)….

M Shannon April 6, 2011 at 9:44 pm

I saw an article reporting AQ were building bases in eastern Afghanistan. Since we have B-52s & JDAMs that’s a good thing isn’t it?

Which of course brings up the question of whatever would we do if the Taliban took over Kabul. Well if the US was still hostile I suggest cabinet meetings not be held every Tuesday at 0900 in the Arg and the Taliban should take a pass on big graduation parades at KMTC.

The US may not be able to rebuild a society but it can certainly prevent a small hostile regime from operating above an early 19th century level.

Adam April 6, 2011 at 10:43 pm

If we went in to get Al Qaeda, and our operations seem to be only against Afghans. We are at war with Al Qaeda where ever it goes we should after them, if we did not consider sovereignty of Afghanistan when Taliban ONLY harbored Al’ Qaeda- we should not consider Pakistan’s sovereignty over the autonomous Pashtun highlands even though we have evidence the Pakistani ISI/Army/Air force helped Al Qaeda with weapon storage, travel, safe havens, and intel (aside from the fact military establishment had advance knowledge and hand in the 911 tragedy). Pakistani establishment can pin point terrorists to it location and is able to rid Pakistan of terrorists in tribal areas within 60 days. The occasional and timed capture of high profile terrorists is part of double game policy to fool us and milk us. Sadly the war on terror has become a war on Afghanistan/Afghans, why are we not going after Al Qaeda.

We should take military actions immediately against Al’ Qeada and it terrorists allies if we are serious about fighting Terrorism and saving humanity not just the world and US/Europe, be in N. Waziristan or Southern Punjab(from India, Russia, to the former soviet states- all will help if needed). We must not leave the nest of terrorism untouched before departing.

I am beginning to believe the Afghans, as Afghans say “..United States prolongs the war to test new weapons, destabilize central Asia, or maintain a stepping stone to Caspian oil reserves…” If US does not get rid of the Al’ Qeada and Haqanni Taliban and keeps funding Pakistan- Afghans might be right once again.

Johnny Matrix April 7, 2011 at 3:00 am

Joshua…agree on the ‘never left’ point…there is / has been plenty of space (especially in Eastern) Afg in which AQ can hide out. My question is what do you make of this 100-150 AQ individuals? A-Do you place credibility with this claim and B-What do you think they are doing? Honestly I cannot completely answer these ?’s but I have my opinions…
A-Probably true maybe even on the high side, but what we should be worried about are the AQ hardcore on the sideline in Pak
B-I think they are managing the Taliban shadow government (money / direction) until we leave

does anyone agree / disagree?

Steve Magribi April 7, 2011 at 7:58 am

There is a huge disconnect between…

A. The Administrations Policy

B. The Afghan Governments Aims

C. The War Strategy of Petraeus.

A and C have nothing to do with each other. C ignores B. A is A regardless of B.

Since the relative non Existence of AQ comes out of the CIA, which has nothing to do with the War Strategy in except as the cross border areas all factors are completely running their own story lines.

We need to be careful that we know which soap opera we are watching. If you want to talk about the War Strategy, pulling out of Kunar and sitting on Kandahar that goes straight to what P4 has been doing. It is good to ask why. But not sure there is any real reason. They decided in 2007 and we are still doing it. The War strategy moves at no pace in particular. Part of the problem.

If you are talking about the Administration policy. It is get out while the getting is good. There is an election coming. As long as nothing dramatic happens we march toward 2014 and leave the next set of decisions for the next term.

Yes, nothing is joined together well. Yes, there is no plan. But remember these are diverse groups of careerists with a shallow view of the future. They all can see only what is the best course for themselves.

For that matter, no one wants to include the Taliban and AQ in any sort of analysis. They are separate. The interaction between the two in terms of ideology and tactics and even general direction is happily discounted by most. There is AQ, there is Taliban.

Now we have, there is Taliban in the South who are local. And there is Taliban in the North who are AQ and not local.

It is a lot less confusing if you just see which soap opera is being played at one time and realize they all have different plots.

The Afghan Government and Afghan people exist in another universe, and exist so we can study them. Until they get included in this, fantasy is the theme and reality forgotten.

Johnny Matrix April 7, 2011 at 10:47 am

Steve…good points…I don’t know much at all about the South but has anyone here heard of Abu Iklhaus? Recently captured in Kunar, he was apparently part of the Anwar Sadat assassination as an Egyptian-born national… he made my life a living hell by financing and motivating local/AQ enemy…literally marrie into Pashtun culture (has a Pashtun wife). If he is one in 100/150, then AQ is stronger than the CIA thinks, which is unfortunate/

Adam April 7, 2011 at 2:05 pm

Having spent 25 years in and around Afghanistan and Pakistan, here is my take and question.
Why are the AQ using Pashtun dominated areas as their base/battleground and using Pashtun children instead of Arab children, do they not have Arab support?

The best weapon against Terrorism:
Taliban is largely a Pashtun movement(except for Haqani leadership), whereas AQ is Arab dominated and influences Haqanni leadership…I think our military and political policies were influenced by info. from Pakistan’s military establishment. We could have used Pashtun nationalism (from my experience majority of Pashtuns in the tribal areas, N. Balochistan and PAkhtunkwa province of PAkistan consider themselves Afghan) to stop the tide of terrorism but were led the other way by Pakistan- because it fears Pashtun nationalism more than India/AQ/Taliban terrorism(History is proof:There have been many Pashtun rebellions against Pakistan since 1947 and ISI/Army vetted Jahidists while sidelining Afghan nationalists during the Soviet Invasion). We should have promoted the policies of Pashtun nationalists like Abdul Ghaffar Khan(aka Frontier Gandhi) via PAshtun nationalists figures in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This would have allowed for Pashtun nationalists to reverse the backwardness in PAshtun areas through principals of AGK(i.e nonviolence, education, tolerance,etc). Also, Afghan nationalism dominated by Pashtun forces in Afghanistan is feared by Iran and its neighbors. Why is our Afghanistan policy especially when it comes to Pashtun people influenced by Afghanistan’s neighbors?

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