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Al-Qaeda returns to Afghanistan amid fears of new jihadist alliance with Isis and Taliban

American officials are no longer so dismissive of reports about al-Qaeda’s growing presence

Kim Sengupta
Monday 02 May 2016 21:20 BST
A Taliban militiaman flaunts a rocket propelled grenade launcher on the border of Afghanistan. 15 years after the War on Terror was declared, the militant group are rebuilding their presence
A Taliban militiaman flaunts a rocket propelled grenade launcher on the border of Afghanistan. 15 years after the War on Terror was declared, the militant group are rebuilding their presence (Getty)

Al-Qaeda is back in Afghanistan, joining Isis and the Taliban in waging jihad. The three most prominent Islamist terrorist groups in the world are now in one violent arena and drawing the West back into a bloody conflict it had sought to leave behind.

The CIA is marking the fifth anniversary of Osama Bin Laden’s death five years ago by publishing, though Twitter, a rolling description of the secret mission by US special forces which killed him in Pakistan. The move is meant to mark President Barack Obama’s legacy in tackling America’s number one enemy and stress the part the agency played in achieving this.

But, 15 years after George W Bush declared the War on Terror following the September 11 attacks, with the specific pledge of destroying al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Bin Laden’s legacy, the organisation he founded, is once again spreading its tentacles across the country which it used as base to plot attacks abroad.

American officials had been dismissive of reports about al-Qaeda’s growing presence. That changed recently with the sobering acknowledgment by Major General Jeff Buchanan, the deputy chief of US forces in the country: “If you go back to last year, there were a lot of intelligence estimates that said within Afghanistan al-Qaeda probably has 50 to 100 members, but then, just in this one camp we found more than 150. To find al-Qaeda back in Afghanistan was quite troubling.”

The camp in was the Shorabak district of Kandahar. It took American troops, backed by 63 air strikes, two days of intense fighting to capture. It turned out to be the largest al-Qaeda complex found in Afghanistan, no less than 30 square kilometres in size. Masoom Stanekzai, the country’s acting defence minister, wanted to stress the danger posed ahead: “al-Qaeda are really very active. They are preparing themselves for bigger attacks. They are working behind other networks, giving them support and the experience they had in other places…They are not talking too much, but they are a big threat.” A recent Nato assessment found that al-Qaeda fighters were now active in no fewer than 20 provinces.

The Bin Laden Tapes

There had been similar initial denials last year from Western officials about the growing strength of Isis in Afghanistan. The group pledging allegiance to Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi now commands around 3,000 fighters who have brought a new level of barbarity to the conflict with trademark torture and beheadings of prisoners.

The Taliban meanwhile has continued to take over swathes of area, forming "shadow governments" and repeatedly carrying out attacks in the heart of the capital, Kabul. Hopes of the group holding meaningful talks with the Afghan government and peace breaking out have all but disappeared.

There has not been much news coverage of Afghanistan in recent times with the focus more on the latest Isis snuff video coming out of Syria. But Afghanistan was the birthplace of modern jihad. The Islamist international brigade funded and trained by the West and its allies against the occupying Russian forces taking holy war back to their respective lands.

Barack Obama’s hopes of being the president who disentangled the US from Afghanistan and Iraq have faded away. The renewed involvement of American forces in Afghanistan is taking place, however, under a lesser public gaze than in Iraq. Three years after the US led Isaf ( International Security Assistance Force) officially ended its combat mission, the current American troop strength in the country stands at almost 10,000. The total in Iraq is 4,500.

One of the US army’s most highly regarded commanders, General John Nicholson, the former chief of airborne forces, was recently appointed the head of the American military in Afghanistan, and there have already been some significant advances against the insurgents since his arrival. But the General has highlighted the dangers posed by a “greater linkage” between the Taliban and al-Qaeda and has told the Senate that he will re-evaluate previously proposed drawdown of troops to 5,500 next year in the light of the rise in violence.

This was not meant to happen. After the fall of Mullah Omar’s Taliban regime, Tony Blair declared “this time we will not walk away” as the West had done when it abandoned the country to the Taliban and poverty after using the Afghans to fight off the Russians.

But that’s what effectively happened. Resources needed to provide security and rebuild Afghanistan were sunk, instead, into the black hole of Iraq after George W Bush decided, with Tony Blair following faithfully, to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Nothing was done about the safe havens in Pakistan where the Taliban were fed and watered by elements of Pakistani military and secret police, ISI; a replenished insurgency returned across the border to create havoc as a result.

Isaf was sent to Afghanistan. But by 2013, facing a public at home wearied by the long war, the decision was taken by West to disengage. This was followed by the public announcement of a timetable for withdrawal, allowing the insurgents and their backers to wait and prepare to go on the offensive when the time came.

In the haste to leave the training period for recruits to Afghan military was cut drastically to achieve a projected total of 352,000. This led to some of the military shortcomings which followed and contributed to the horrendous casualties being suffered by the Afghan forces; 16,000 killed or injured just in the last 12 months, a rise of 28 per cent from the previous year.

The current debacle is not entirely the fault, however, of the West. A serious miscalculation by the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, has played its part in what has unfolded.

After gaining power in a disputed election, Mr Ghani reversed the policies of his predecessor who regularly accused Pakistan of orchestrating Taliban attacks In his first visit to Pakistan, the new President broke protocol by visiting the hierarchy of the country’s army and ISI, instead of the elected government, sidelining Afghan defence chiefs in the process.

The new President may have thought that reaching out to those who wield real power in Pakistan may bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and help halt attacks. But neither has happened and Afghanistan is, instead, hosting now a wider and deadlier variety of terrorists.

President Ghani, facing severe criticism at home over the worsening security situation, has reversed course and attacked Pakistan for sheltering terrorist groups, saying he would complain to the UN Security Council unless Islamabad took action against these groups

In reality there is little chance of the violence ending anytime soon. This year al-Qaeda and Isis as well as the Taliban will be taking part in the traditional spring offensive. There is apprehension is that swathes of territories controlled by the insurgents may, once again, be used to plot attacks abroad. The West may find, again, that walking away from Afghanistan comes with a high price.

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