“The Afghan War is coming to an end,” President Obama said this afternoon in a speech about the future of U.S. counterterrorism policy. “Today, the core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on a path to defeat. Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us,” he added.
This would be great news if it were true.
The reality is that as U.S. and NATO troops are withdrawing and transitioning security to the Afghan lead, al Qaeda and its affiliates are making a comeback in eastern parts of the country.
On Tuesday, the governor of Nuristan Province, Tamim Nuristani, warned that the province would change into a “second Waziristan” as foreign fighters, including Arab and Lashkar-e Taiba militants, are using it as a passage to reach other northern and northeastern provinces. The killing of a senior al Qaeda commander, Abu Sulaiman Yemeni, in Nuristan earlier this month was another indication that the terrorist group is trying to reestablish itself in areas vacated by foreign troops. During another raid in Nuristan on May 15, Afghan and coalition special operations forces targeted a senior Taliban leader who facilitated the movement of al Qaeda fighters into Afghanistan.
Nuristan tribal elders say 70 percent of the province is now in effect under the rule of the Taliban and foreign militants, who have waged an aggressive campaign to intimidate the population and assassinate government officials. On May 11, the Taliban killed Nuristan’s deputy intelligence chief Mohammad Faiz in a bomb attack. Foreign troops have vacated Nuristan and transitioned security to the Afghans. But local officials say they do not have sufficient number of troops to deal with growing militancy there. The situation in neighboring Kunar and Badakhshan provinces is similar.
President Obama is right that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have made significant progress in the past three years. The ANSF is leading about 90 percent of all military operations and is set to assume responsibility for security of the entire Afghan population this summer. But the success of ANSF heavily hinges upon the support it receives from the coalition – especially in terms of air power, medevac, intelligence, reconnaissance, and logistics. Without coalition support, ANSF’s operational capacity will decline significantly.
And if the administration withdraws the remaining 60,000 troops precipitously and does not leave a significant residual force post-2014 to assist the ANSF and conduct counterterrorism operations along the Afghan-Pakistani border, al Qaeda and its affiliates will reemerge in southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan – from where they could try to topple the Kabul government and plot attacks against the U.S. and its allies abroad. Moreover, the CIA-led drone strikes targeting al Qaeda in Pakistan will either cease or become mostly ineffective.