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Al-Qaeda Is Still in Afghanistan, and It's Fighting for Victory
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Al-Qaeda Is Still in Afghanistan, and It’s Fighting for Victory

The problem with Joe Biden’s ‘over the horizon’ strategy for fighting terrorism.

On May 28, President Biden addressed servicemembers and their families at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, Virginia. Midway through his speech, the president offered his rationale for withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan. They don’t need to be stationed inside the country, Biden argued, because “over-the-horizon” operations can neutralize any worrisome terrorist threats.

“And now, as we draw down, we’re also going to focus on the urgent work of rebuilding over-the-horizon capabilities that’ll allow us to take out al-Qaeda if they return to Afghanistan—but to focus on the threat that has metastasized,” the president said.

“Return to Afghanistan”? Al-Qaeda is already there, and so is ISIS. 

On June 1, a team of counterterrorism experts working for the U.N. Security Council published its latest analysis of al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan. One U.N. member state reported to the team that al-Qaeda is currently operating in at least 15 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. This intelligence is bolstered by al-Qaeda’s own weekly Arabic newsletter, which has reported on the group’s presence in still more Afghan provinces over the last year. Senior al-Qaeda figures have also been hunted down in Taliban-controlled areas, as they continue to enjoy the protection of their jihadi blood brothers.

On that latter point, the U.N. report confirms, once again, that there’s been no break between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. This is true despite assurances from former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad that the Taliban would betray al-Qaeda as part of the pact they negotiated with the jihadists on behalf of the Trump administration.

The Taliban and al-Qaeda “remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties,” the U.N. monitoring team reports. The U.N.’s member states “report no material change to this relationship, which has grown deeper as a consequence of personal bonds of marriage and shared partnership in struggle, now cemented through second generational ties.”

The main al-Qaeda branch inside Afghanistan is Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, which is composed of fighters from throughout the region. But the U.N.’s analysts say al-Qaeda has a wing known as Jabhat al-Nasr—meaning the “Front for Victory.” That is, they are planning on winning the war and resurrecting the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan after America and its NATO allies complete their retreat from the country. 

Tucked away in a footnote is a potentially key detail concerning Sirajuddin Haqqani, the deputy emir of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate. The U.N.’s team of experts assesses that Haqqani is not only a senior Taliban leader, but also a “member of the wider Al-Qaeda leadership.” It’s not clear what position Haqqani is thought to hold inside al-Qaeda, but his close alliance with the organization founded by Osama bin Laden and currently led by Ayman al-Zawahiri is well-known. 

In February 2020, the New York Times published an op-ed attributed to Sirajuddin Haqqani. The piece was carefully crafted by someone to make it appear as if the Taliban was interested in some form of peace, while there is absolutely no other reason to think that is the case. As I’ve written previously, the piece was likely disinformation. The Times should have informed readers that Haqqani is a U.S. and U.N.-designated terrorist whose dossier is filled with al-Qaeda references. If the U.N. is correct that Haqqani holds a leadership role within al-Qaeda itself, then this compounds the problems with that op-ed. It would mean that the Times published a deceptive piece written in the name of a full-fledged al-Qaeda man.

The importance of this allegation goes well beyond the problems with op-ed placements in America’s elite newspapers. As the U.N.’s report accurately relays, the Haqqanis are the most effective fighting force within the Taliban’s insurgency. And the allegation concerning Sirajuddin’s role raises additional questions concerning the true strength of al-Qaeda inside Afghanistan. After all, the Haqqanis have thousands of fighters of their own—men who are often dual-hatted, belonging to the Taliban and al-Qaeda at the same time. This implies that al-Qaeda is much more heavily invested in the Afghan war than President Biden lets on.

The U.N. analysis points to a persistent ISIS presence in Afghanistan as well. Though far from the peak of its power, the ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) branch has continued to launch high-profile attacks, including in and around the Afghan capital of Kabul. The U.N. describes the leader of ISIS-K as an “ambitious new leader” known as Shahab al-Muhajir. He coordinates his operation with an ISIS office (known as Al-Sadiq office) that oversees the former caliphate’s operations throughout all of Central and South Asia, “including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Central Asian republics.” Though the ISIS mother ship probably provides only limited funding to ISIS-K at present, the two still maintain “communications”—meaning ISIS-K isn’t some truly independent entity, but instead part of a cohesive network.

During his speech on May 28, President Biden argued that the threat from both al-Qaeda and ISIS is more worrisome elsewhere—far from Afghanistan. “The greatest threat and likelihood of attack from al-Qaeda or ISIS is not going to be from Afghanistan; it’s going to be from five other regions of the world that have significantly more presence of both al Qaeda and organizational structures, including ISIS,” Biden said.

That is debatable. It’s true that both al-Qaeda and ISIS have significant arms in several jihadi hotspots throughout the Middle East and Africa. So the jihadists have more potential launching pads for attacks in the West today than in 2001. But this doesn’t mean that the threat from Afghanistan (and Pakistan) is non-existent. Indeed, the purpose of the “over-the-horizon” operations Biden intends to employ is to counter any perceived threats to the U.S. and its Western allies emanating from Afghanistan. 

As the U.N. notes in its most recent report, al-Qaeda still maintains significant leadership cadres in Afghanistan and Pakistan—leaders who can order up attacks staged elsewhere. The elderly Ayman al-Zawahiri, to name just one, is thought to be living somewhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Thousands of jihadis around the globe—in the hotspots mentioned by President Biden—still owe Zawahiri their loyalty. So, it is not the case that the jihad in Afghanistan is distinct from the jihad elsewhere. In fact, the jihadis hope that a victory against the Afghan government will be a boon for their cause globally—as many new recruits would be convinced that the jihadis can actually win.  

America’s military presence in Afghanistan is coming to an end. Nothing written here will change that. And there’s much to criticize with respect to how this war was prosecuted. But the U.S. should understand what it is leaving behind. 

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.