U.S. Braces for Return of Terrorist Safe Havens to Afghanistan
Posted March 12, 2018 8:18 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — For 17 years, three successive presidents have told the American public that above all else, Afghanistan must never again provide “safe haven” to terrorist groups seeking to harm the United States and its interests.
But Defense Department and intelligence officials now say exactly that may be on the verge of happening.
With the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in its twilight, U.S. officials are tracking foreign fighters veering to provinces in Afghanistan’s north and east. Meanwhile, al-Qaida remains a persistent and deadly threat across the country, a senior U.S. general told senators last week.
And a report published in November by the Institute for the Study of War flatly stated that Afghanistan is “a safe haven for terrorist plots against the U.S. homeland.”
Afghan officials believe there are now an estimated 3,000 Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan. Last week, the Islamic State in Khorasan released a video promoting Jowzjan province in Afghanistan’s north and Nangarhar province in the east as the next spot for Islamic extremists to establish a caliphate now that the group has been routed from its de facto capital in Syria.
Titled “The Land of Allah Is Vast,” the 25-minute video bragged about the strength of the Islamic State contingent that has taken safe haven in Tora Bora and Wazir Tanki, districts in Nangarhar province that are both close to Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. It also mocked President Donald Trump for using the so-called mother of all bombs, the largest conventional bomb in the American arsenal, in an unsuccessful effort last April to clear Islamic State fighters from a cave complex in nearby Achin district. “From the mountains of Tora Bora, we send the glad tidings to the caliph of the Muslims, of the return of the caliphate to this area that was swarming with immigrants and supporters who fought for the caliphate to be established,” a narrator intoned in the video, posted by the Washington-based SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors terrorist organizations.
Sweeping footage from the video showed militants training, fighting, eating and praying in remote Afghan areas.
In its report, the Institute for the Study of War found that the Islamic State was planning attacks in the United States from safe havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It said that residents in Jowzjan province reported in November that Islamic State extremists from France, Sudan, Chechnya, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were recruiting fighters and training child suicide bombers.
U.S. military officials confirmed that the Islamic State, as well as the Taliban, has now established training camps in Jowzjan province.
In October, the Justice Department unsealed charges against three Islamic State operatives in a plot for coordinated attacks in New York in summer 2016. Two of the men, according to the charges, said they were working with the Islamic State Khorasan in Afghanistan; one said he received authorization from the Afghanistan group for the planned attacks.
Most of the concerns about safe havens focus on the Islamic State’s move into Afghanistan.
The Islamic State, a successor to al-Qaida in Iraq, has joined a battle for turf and power among about 20 terrorist groups in Afghanistan, many of them with designs on the West. Together, they make up the highest concentration of extremist groups worldwide among 98 that have been designated as terrorist organizations by the United States or the United Nations, according to Gen. John W. Nicholson, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Many experts say that Nicholson’s data may be conflated. Yet no one questions that the number of terrorist groups in Afghanistan has increased sharply in recent years — despite the 17-year presence of U.S. troops.
“The Afghanistan War is almost old enough to vote, and we have more groups that want to launch attacks against the U.S. operating there than we did when we started,” said Caitlin Forrest, an Afghanistan expert with the Institute for the Study of War. This was not supposed to happen.
Weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush sent a small group of Special Operations troops into Afghanistan. Ever since, top officials have repeatedly justified the war as necessary to ensure that Afghanistan never again allows safe haven for groups that targeted U.S. interests.
“Afghanistan provided safe haven for al-Qaida,” Bush said during a 2006 news conference. “That’s where they trained. That’s where they plotted. That’s where they planned the attacks that killed thousands of innocent Americans.”
President Barack Obama picked up that mantle when he took office, sending a surge of U.S. troops there in 2009 before declaring the end of the combat mission in Afghanistan a few years later. “As president and commander in chief, I’ve made it clear that I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again,” Obama said on July 6, 2016.
Trump has struck a similar note. “We are committed to ensuring that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists who want to commit mass murder of our citizens,” Trump said in August, announcing a strategy to send an additional 4,000 U.S. troops to the country.
But as the Islamic State in Khorasan has surged under Trump, and the Taliban and Haqqani networks have continued relentless attacks on civilian and military targets in Afghanistan, U.S. officials have increasingly warned that safe havens are back.
Administration officials cited a huge concern at U.S. Central Command, which largely runs the war in Afghanistan, about the return of safe havens. Russia is also worried that an increased Islamic State presence in Afghanistan will further radicalize the Caucuses; as a result, according to Central Command officials, Moscow began supporting the Taliban as a counterweight, sending its fighters weapons and night vision goggles.
At a Senate hearing last week, Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said the Islamic State in Khorasan intended to “expand ISIS’ self-declared caliphate and compete with the Taliban for recognition as the dominant militant group in the region.”
He also said that al-Qaida had “retained the intent and limited capability to threaten coalition and Afghan forces and interests in the region,” a reference to the U.S.-led NATO coalition that has been fighting in Afghanistan.
The official line at the Pentagon is that the textbook definition of “safe havens” — where insurgent groups can plan and conduct operations without disruption by significant external factors like arrest and airstrikes — has not quite been re-established in Afghanistan.
Military officials said U.S. and Afghan forces were doing just enough to pressure training camps and strongholds that the Islamic State had built in remote and ungoverned areas of the country. One high-profile example of that, Central Command officials said, was the “MOAB” — the massive GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, nicknamed the “mother of all bombs,” that Nicholson ordered against the Islamic State cave complex.
But how the largest American conventional weapon came to be deployed, some 16 years after Bush first vowed that Afghanistan would never again provide safe haven to terrorist groups plotting against the United States, says much about the difficulties of keeping that pledge.
One year ago, after Islamic State insurgents seized a series of towns and villages in the east, U.S. and Afghan Special Operations forces responded with Operation Hamza to take back the territory. In its initial stage, U.S. commandos helped run the extremists from the area. But officers in the Afghan 201st Corps at the nearby Tactical Base Gamberi were reluctant to secure the territory to keep the extremists from returning.
“They did not have the appetite to go into southern Nangarhar and fight Daesh,” said Maj. Richard Anderson, a U.S. operations adviser to the 201st Corps, using another name for the Islamic State. During a fight a month earlier, the 201st Corps lost 16 men in one night.
So Nicholson ordered that the huge bomb be dropped on Achin. Though it did initially clear the area of Islamic State fighters, many have since returned. And Afghan troops have urged American commanders to simply drop more bombs instead of launching ground battles. “They said: ‘You dropped the MOAB. Why don’t you just drop another MOAB?’” Anderson recalled in an interview at Gamberi in August.
But securing territory — generally with constant patrols and ground intelligence — is necessary to prevent safe havens from being created. And now, Afghan and U.S. officials said, the same area that was obliterated by the United States’ biggest conventional bomb is once again being used by extremists to plot attacks against the Afghan government and the West.