Ter­ror­ists wait in al Qaeda’s ‘shadow’ for U.S. to with­draw

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY GUY TAY­LOR

Al Qaeda is op­er­at­ing a “shadow army” in­side Afghanistan to con­ceal its num­bers and the scope of its op­er­a­tions, while the Tal­iban is on the verge of ma­jor resur­gence as U.S. mil­i­tary forces pre­pare to de­part, for­mer se­nior Pen­tagon of­fi­cials and leading coun­tert­er­ror­ism an­a­lysts told Congress on Tues­day.

Afghanistan is at risk of be­com­ing once again a haven for al Qaeda to train, plan and launch at­tacks, ac­cord­ing to tes­ti­mony that chal­lenges the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s claims that se­cre­tive drone strikes have ham­strung the group’s orig­i­nal core and its abil­ity to launch in­ter­na­tional mis­sions in re­cent years.

With polls show­ing lit­tle pub­lic enthusiasm or in­ter­est in the 13-year-old Afghanistan mis­sion, one for­mer se­nior Pen­tagon of­fi­cial tes­ti­fied Tues­day that there is a dan­ger­ous lack of po­lit­i­cal in­cen­tive in the White House to do any­thing be­yond pull all U.S. forces out of the re­gion.

“There will be a great temp­ta­tion for the ad­min­is­tra­tion to go to the ‘zero op­tion’ and with­draw all our troops by the end of the pres­i­dent’s sec­ond term,” said Michael A. Shee­han, who served in the ad­min­is­tra­tion as as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of de­fense un­til last year.

“In my view, this would be a ma­jor er­ror and jeop­ar­dize our se­cu­rity from fu­ture al Qaeda at­tacks from this re­gion,” Mr. Shee­han, who now chairs the Com­bat­ing Ter­ror­ism Cen­ter at West Point, told the House For­eign Af­fairs sub­com­mit­tee on ter­ror­ism, non­pro­lif­er­a­tion and trade.

David Sed­ney, who served un­til last year as deputy as­sis­tant de­fense sec­re­tary over­see­ing Afghanistan, Pak­istan and Cen­tral Asia, told the com­mit­tee that al Qaeda’s nar­ra­tive that it de­feated the Soviet in­va­sion in the 1980s and 1990s is be­ing re­vived as the U.S. and its al­lies pre­pare to de­part.

“That same con­vic­tion is the bedrock for the com­ing [in their view] de­feat of the United States and NATO in Afghanistan,” Mr. Sed­ney said. “In­creas­ing Tal­iban suc­cess in Afghanistan, leading to an even­tual Tal­iban takeover, would be a ma­jor strate­gic vic­tory for al Qaeda and its ide­ol­ogy.”

Bin Laden documents

Documents seized from Osama bin Laden’s hide­out in Ab­bot­tabad, Pak­istan, dur­ing the May 2011 raid re­vealed that the ter­ror­ist group was ac­tively re­lo­cat­ing op­er­a­tives from north­ern Pak­istan back into Afghanistan, said Thomas Josce­lyn, a se­nior fel­low at the Foun­da­tion for De­fense of Democ­ra­cies in Wash­ing­ton.

Mr. Josce­lyn, who ed­its the foun­da­tion’s Long War Jour­nal, told law­mak­ers in pre­pared tes­ti­mony Tues­day that “one way that al Qaeda op­er­ates in Afghanistan to­day is through the Lashkar al Zil, or ‘shadow army,’ which is al Qaeda’s pri­mary para­mil­i­tary force in the re­gion.”

“As the name im­plies, al Qaeda is try­ing to hide the ex­tent of its in­flu­ence over this group as well as over other al­lied groups,” Mr. Josce­lyn said. “This makes it dif­fi­cult to as­sess the full scope of al Qaeda’s op­er­a­tions in­side Afghanistan to­day.”

Se­nior Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing the pres­i­dent him­self, have ar­gued that al Qaeda’s orig­i­nal core has been put on the path to de­feat. While run­ning for re­elec­tion in 2012, Pres­i­dent Obama re­peat­edly told cam­paign ral­lies across the na­tion that the Pak­istani and Afghan group was on the run and had been dec­i­mated.

Now, how­ever, Mr. Obama and CIA Di­rec­tor John O. Bren­nan de­scribe al Qaeda as an evolv­ing global move­ment whose off­shoots and af­fil­i­ates in the Mid­dle East — in Syria, Ye­men, north­ern Africa and else­where — pose their own threat to the United States as great as that from the orig­i­nal core in Pak­istan and Afghanistan.

“Much re­cent com­men­tary, both from U.S. of­fi­cials and in the me­dia, de­scribes a ‘core al Qaeda’ that is some­where on a spec­trum from ‘on the road to de­feat’ to ‘de­graded,’” Mr. Sed­ney said dur­ing Tues­day’s hear­ing. “These analy­ses then claim that be­cause al Qaeda is now more de­cen­tral­ized, has many re­gional fran­chises, and de­pends more on in­di­vid­u­als than on cen­trally di­rected op­er­a­tions, it is less of a threat.”

Big­ger pic­ture

Mr. Sed­ney said that anal­y­sis misses the “big­ger strate­gic pic­ture.”

“When the State Depart­ment’s an­nual re­port on ter­ror­ism, re­leased in April, shows an in­crease from 2012 to 2013 of 43 per­cent in world­wide ter­ror­ist at­tacks, it is im­por­tant to ask whether pol­icy views of al Qaeda as a spent or ter­mi­nally weak­ened force are ac­cu­rate.”

Sev­eral law­mak­ers and for­mer se­nior in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials have raised con­cerns that the al Qaeda move­ment to­day con­trols more ter­ri­tory around the world than it did when it was based in Afghanistan un­der bin Laden be­fore Sept. 11.

Con­cern that Afghanistan may again be­come a haven for the ter­ror­ist net­work has added an­other twist to the de­bate over the ex­tent of the al Qaeda threat fac­ing the United States.

“It is clear that al Qaeda is evolv­ing,” said Mr. Sed­ney. “How­ever, it is likely that such evo­lu­tion is mak­ing al Qaeda more, not less, of a threat.”

Nonethe­less, a CNN/Opin­ion Re­search poll from De­cem­ber showed that 82 per­cent of Amer­i­cans had come to op­pose the U.S. mil­i­tary ef­fort in Afghanistan.

Mr. Obama has promised that Amer­i­can mil­i­tary com­bat op­er­a­tions will end in Afghanistan by the close of this year, but the ad­min­is­tra­tion has left open the pos­si­bil­ity of leav­ing thou­sands of troops on the ground to con­tinue train­ing an Afghan mil­i­tary that U.S. forces have built from the ground up over the past decade.

While U.S. forces also would be needed to pro­tect air sta­tions from which clan­des­tine drone op­er­a­tions are based in the re­gion, the ad­min­is­tra­tion has not in­di­cated the size of the Amer­i­can force it may seek to main­tain in Afghanistan.

One key vari­able is the will­ing­ness of the Afghan govern­ment, now in the mid­dle of a month­s­long pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, to sign an agree­ment to al­low at least some U.S. troops to stay af­ter this year.

Mr. Obama may out­line his think­ing at a May 28 com­mence­ment ad­dress at the U.S. Mil­i­tary Academy at West Point.

“It is un­likely he will make an an­nounce­ment on the fi­nal size of our forces [in Afghanistan] post-2014,” said Mr. Shee­han. “But when that de­ci­sion is made, I hope that he will leave enough ca­pa­bil­ity to sus­tain the suc­cess we have had against al Qaeda ‘cen­tral’ in pro­tect­ing our home­land and other strate­gic tar­gets since Sept. 11.”

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