Mission Creep

As Obama Draws Down, Al Qaeda Grows in Afghanistan

American forces are headed for the exit in Afghanistan. But new U.S. intelligence assessments say that the terrorist threat there is on the rise.

Naseer Ahmed/Reuters

As President Obama outlines what he promises to be the end of the war in Afghanistan, new U.S. intelligence assessments are warning that al Qaeda is beginning to re-establish itself there.

Specifically, the concern for now is that al Qaeda has created a haven in the northeast regions of Kunar and Nuristan and is able to freely operate along Afghanistan’s only major highway—Route One, which connects the airports of Kandahar and Kabul.

“There is no doubt they have a significant presence in northeast Afghanistan,” Mac Thornberry, the Republican vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told The Daily Beast. “It’s a lot of speculation about exact numbers, but again part of the question is what are their numbers going to be and what are there activities going to be when the pressure lets up.”

If Thornberry’s warnings prove correct, then Obama is faced with two bad choices. He either breaks his promise to end America's longest war or he ends up losing that war by withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan too soon, allowing al Qaeda to re-establish a base of operations in the country from which it launched 9/11.

For years, the official intelligence community estimate was that a little more than 100 al Qaeda fighters remained in Kunar Province, a foreboding territory of imposing mountains and a local population in the mountains at least that largely agrees with al Qaeda’s ascetic Salafist philosophy.

But recent estimates from the military and the U.S. intelligence community have determined that al Qaeda’s presence has expanded to nearby Nuristan and that the group coordinates its operations and activities with allies like the Pakistan-based Taliban and Haqqani Network.

On Tuesday, in response to President Obama’s announcement that he would be leaving 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan past his original end of 2014 deadline for withdrawal, Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, also warned about northeast Afghanistan.

“Even now, an al Qaeda safe haven is emerging in northeastern Afghanistan,” Rogers said. “And I question whether the enemy will take further advantage of the announced timeline to renew its efforts to launch new operations, as we see them attempting in Iraq and Syria today.”

Stephanie Sanok Kostro, the acting director for homeland security and counterterrorism at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Daily Beast, “By reducing troop levels to under 10,000 [in Afghanistan], it will certainly create more space for al Qaeda in the north. The north has not seen a lot of attention given ISAF’s focus on the south and southeast of the country. So this has left the north vulnerable to al Qaeda influences and this is only going to get worse.”

Those concerns are not universally held by Washington’s national security community, however. Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence Committee, acknowledged the risk of al Qaeda’s re-emergence in Afghanistan, but he said today the threat from al Qaeda was far more worrisome in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq.

“I think there has always been a concern that when we leave Afghanistan that al Qaeda may be able to re-assert itself. While there is some al Qaeda presence remaining in Afghanistan that we should be worried about, there is far more to worry about in Syria, Iraq and Yemen,” he told The Daily Beast.

Schiff said he thinks al Qaeda in Afghanistan has been “significantly degraded and repressed,” but he added that he did not believe the group’s presence has been “eliminated.” “That’s the reason why the president wants to keep 9,800 troops there,” he said.

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The White House had hinted earlier that it would agree to a much lower number, but in the end Obama agreed to nearly all of the troops requested by Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, the commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Dunford pressed Obama for 10,000 troops with the hope of an additional contingent of a few thousand NATO forces as well.

But Obama is nonetheless committed to ending the war by the end of his term. On Tuesday, he said half of the 9,800 troops would be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2015 and those troops that remained would exit the country by the end of 2016.

Dunford himself has warned publicly that al Qaeda would re-emerge if the White House withdrew all forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

For years, the military was content to leave the mountainous Kunar and Nuristan region to insurgents and their Islamist allies. “We made a calculated decision to pull out of the valleys of Kunar and Nuristan and to focus on securing the only meaningful route connecting the mountains to access to the rest of the world which is the Kunar River Valley,” Fred Kagan, an unofficial adviser to three ISAF commanders between 2009 and 2012, told The Daily Beast.

Kagan served on the assessment group for former ISAF commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, that informed the 2009 counter-insurgency strategy for Afghanistan. That strategy deployed a surge in forces into the country with the goal of pacifying the Taliban and training up the Afghan security forces to the point where they could secure the country without assistance from the U.S. military.

One U.S. intelligence officer whose focus is Afghanistan said al Qaeda and its allies have already gained access to the Kunar River Valley as U.S. forces began to draw down its presence this year.

Another concern for the U.S. military and intelligence community is the access al Qaeda now has to Route One, the highway that runs through the provinces south of Kabul that connects the capital city to Kandahar. The U.S. intelligence official said there remains disagreement on the group responsible for a massive truck bomb that was intercepted last fall before it could detonate at its target, Forward Operating Base Goode near Gardez in Paktia Province. “There is a lot of evidence that this was al Qaeda,” this official said.

Kagan said he was concerned because the military never cleared the provinces south of Kabul of the Haqqani Network and Taliban forces during the surge in 2009 and 2010. “The provinces south of Kabul were never fully cleared of Haqqani and Taliban forces because the president withdrew the surge forces prematurely,” Kagan added.

Needless to say, this is not the picture of Afghanistan painted this week by Obama. Speaking at the Commencement Ceremony at West Point, he said, “We are winding down our war in Afghanistan,” he said. “Al Qaeda’s leadership in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more.”

While it’s true that Osama bin Laden and other top lieutenants were killed in Obama’s first term, it’s also true that the pace of those drone attacks against the extremists in Pakistan have since declined. According to the New America Foundation’s database for drone attacks there have been no drone strikes in Pakistan since December 25, 2013. Reza Jan, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats project, concluded in a paper published Wednesday that the pause in drone strikes in Pakistan has given the Pakistani Taliban a chance to regroup and replenish its leadership ranks. Jan said Maulana Fazlullah, the new chief of Pakistan’s Taliban, has established a haven in Nuristan today. Other reports from the region have said he travels between Afghanistan and Pakistan’s border region with ease.

“I think our intelligence community is very concerned that al Qaeda in northeastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan will grow stronger without pressure being applied to them,” Thornberry said.