Earlier this week, the US military claimed that al Qaeda has a “limited presence” in Afghanistan and is confined to “the remote areas of eastern Afghanistan.” Although Obama administration and military officials have stated for the past four years that al Qaeda has a minimal presence in Afghanistan, the group and its allies continue to sustain operations in the country.
The claim was made in the newly released Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan, a semiannual update prepared by the Department of Defense.
“AQ [Al Qaeda] maintains a limited presence in the remote areas of eastern Afghanistan such as Kunar and Nuristan, and maintains a seasonal presence in other provinces,” the report states.
“During the reporting period [from April 1 to Sept. 30] , sustained counterterrorism (CT) operations exerted pressure on AQ personnel and networks, and eliminated dozens of al Qaeda (AQ) operatives and facilitators, restricting AQ movements to isolated areas within northeastern Afghanistan,” the report continues.
“ISAF [the International Security Assistance Force] estimates that the number of AQ fighters in Afghanistan remains very low, but the AQ relationship with local Afghan Taliban formations remains intact.”
While claiming that al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan is minimal, the report does not mention al Qaeda-allied groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and other organizations that fight in Afghanistan and also are part of the global jihad. A plot by the IMU to conduct attacks in Europe was broken up after an IMU operative was captured in Afghanistan in 2010.
US officials downplay al Qaeda’s importance in Afghanistan
US military officials continue to downplay al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan, despite ample evidence that the group is active in the country as well as in Pakistan.
In an interview on July 28, General Joseph Dunford Jr., the Coalition commander in Afghanistan, said al Qaeda was merely a “shell” of its former self, with only about 75 members in Afghanistan, who were mostly too busy trying to stay alive to plan attacks against the West, the New York Times reported.
Similarly, Major General Joseph Osterman, the deputy operations commander of the International Security Assistance Force, said in July that al Qaeda is fighting for its survival in Afghanistan and is isolated primarily in Nuristan province.
“They are less than 100, I would say, and they are in fact just trying to survive at this point,” Osterman told Reuters. “I think what you find is that it’s not necessarily that they have got a springboard in there.”
Since the summer of 2010, Obama administration officials have been consistently claiming that 50 to 100 al Qaeda operatives are present in Afghanistan [for examples, see Threat Matrix reports, The ‘only 50 to 100’ al Qaeda in Afghanistan fallacy, from July 2010; and How many al Qaeda operatives are now left in Afghanistan?, from April 2011]. The claims of a limited presence of al Qaeda have been used to justify US disengagement from Afghanistan.
But a study by The Long War Journal that looks at ISAF’s own reports on its raids against al Qaeda since 2007 paints a different picture. Since 2007, ISAF has conducted 357 reported raids against al Qaeda and allied groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Lashkar-e-Taiba, in Balkh, Farah, Ghazni, Helmand, Kandahar, Khost, Kunar, Kunduz, Laghman, Logar, Nangarhar, Paktia, Paktika, Sar-i-Pul, Takhar, Wardak, and Zabul, or 17 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Many of these raids have taken place over the past three years.
ISAF data on the location of al Qaeda’s network in Afghanistan is mirrored by al Qaeda’s propaganda. Al Qaeda routinely reports on its Afghan operations in Vanguards of Khorasan, a magazine produced for its members and supporters. Al Qaeda has reported on operations in all of the provinces in which ISAF has conducted raids.
Al Qaeda operatives serve as military advisers to the Taliban, and also fight in small formations throughout the country.
At the end of June, after completing its transition of security responsibilities to the Afghan National Security Forces, ISAF stopped reporting on its raids against al Qaeda, shutting off information on the targeting of al Qaeda’s network in Afghanistan.