Ever since senior Obama administration advisers such as CIA Director Leon Panetta and Vice President Biden admitted that Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan was minimal, with fewer than 100 operatives believed to be on the ground there, war critics have complained the President has little justification for escalating the U.S. commitment there.
But the inside-the-Beltway political debate underscores a fundamental misunderstanding of what Al Qaeda’s role in Afghanistan — which Osama Bin Laden’s minions call “Khorasan” — truly has been, according to Special Operations commanders and troops on the ground.
Critics also fail to realize that a single Al Qaeda operative’s knowledge and experience in guerrilla and terror tactics is of incalculable value as a force multiplier to the Taliban.
Al Qaeda’s Arab operatives are considered a fearless elite. They have knowledge of Islam that makes them seem like religious scholars to many Pashtun tribesmen, who they have led into battle in the past. After Al Qaeda fled Afghanistan’s cities with their Taliban government allies in 2001-02, they reorganized and reconstituted their ranks in Pakistan. Al Qaeda returned to the fight in 2004, training, equipping and often leading or joining Haqqani fighters in battle along the eastern border.
Their presence was often suggested by the tactics used by Haqqani fighters, the cells’ skill at accurately firing AK-47s and RPGs, and gear such as armor-piercing ammo, body armor and night-vision devices.
Arabs from Al Qaeda still fund and train the Taliban, but no longer lead operations from the front, Army Col. Donald C. Bolduc, who leads the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, told me in his office at Bagram Airfield this month.
“They’re considered much too valuable to risk that,” said another U.S. official in the war zone.
During the winter, Taliban leaders ensconced in Pakistan send in Al Qaeda operatives to train their fighters in bombmaking tradecraft during the lull in fighting, sources said.
“The Pakistani madrassahs are still the big recruiting and training place. The Afghans go to a madrassah in Pakistan, where an Arab is typically like the dean, or headmaster, and learn how to fight,” the official told me. “Then the Afghan goes back home and teaches others to build bombs or fight — and gets paid handsomely for it.”
Al-Qaeda has also moved into these less visible roles based on the threat of alienating the local population - some of which may not see AQ's motives as inline with their own.
"The [Al-Qaeda] numbers aren't large, but their ability to help local forces punch above their weight acts as a multiplier," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and Georgetown University professor. "They've learned from their previous experiences, when their foreign fighters were front and center."
In Iraq, he noted, al-Qaeda figures from elsewhere alienated the locals by trying to hijack that insurgency.
U.S. military officials say al-Qaeda recognizes the same risk in Afghanistan. Taliban leaders often see al-Qaeda, their erstwhile ally, as "a handicap," according to an unclassified briefing presented in December by Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, the top U.S. military intelligence officer in Afghanistan.
Although Taliban commanders want support from al-Qaeda and jihadists around the world, according to Flynn, they are sensitive to the idea that ordinary Afghans might view it as foreign interference.
That balancing act has resulted in a limited, if steady, flow of foreign fighters. Most are Uzbeks and Chechens who join networks affiliated with, but not formally part of, al-Qaeda, U.S. military officials said. Less common are Arabs and European Muslims who answer al-Qaeda's direct call to join the jihad in Afghanistan.