“Allah has promised us victory and America has promised us defeat,” Mullah Muhammad Omar, the first head of the Taliban, once said, “so we shall see which of the two promises will be fulfilled.” When his colleagues admitted this summer that Mullah Omar had died, Al Qaeda and affiliated groups around the globe remembered those words — victory is a divine certainty — in their eulogies. And in Afghanistan today, though the majority of Afghans still do not identify with the Taliban or Al Qaeda, Mullah Omar’s bold defiance in the face of a superpower is beginning to look prescient.
Since early September, the Taliban have swept through Afghanistan’s north, seizing numerous districts and even, briefly, the provincial capital Kunduz. The United Nations has determined that the Taliban threat to approximately half of the country’s 398 districts is either “high” or “extreme.” Indeed, by our count, more than 30 districts are already under Taliban control. And the insurgents are currently threatening provincial capitals in both northern and southern Afghanistan.
Confronted with this grim reality, President Obama has decided to keep 9,800 American troops in the country through much of 2016 and 5,500 thereafter. The president was right to change course, but it is difficult to see how much of a difference this small force can make. The United States troops currently in Afghanistan have not been able to thwart the Taliban’s advance. They were able to help push them out of Kunduz, but only after the Taliban’s two-week reign of terror. This suggests that additional troops are needed, not fewer.
When justifying his decision last week, the president explained that American troops would “remain engaged in two narrow but critical missions — training Afghan forces, and supporting counterterrorism operations against the remnants of Al Qaeda.” He added, “We’ve always known that we had to maintain a counterterrorism operation in that region in order to tamp down any re-emergence of active Al Qaeda networks.”
But the president has not explained the full scope of what is at stake. Al Qaeda has already re-emerged. Just two days before the president’s statement, the military announced that it led raids against two Qaeda training camps in the south, one of which was an astonishing 30 square miles in size. The operation lasted several days, and involved 63 airstrikes and more than 200 ground troops, including both Americans and Afghan commandos.
“We struck a major Al Qaeda sanctuary in the center of the Taliban’s historic heartland,” Brig. Gen. Wilson A. Shoffner, a military spokesman, said. General Shoffner described it as “one of the largest joint ground-assault operations we have ever conducted in Afghanistan.” Other significant Qaeda facilities are already being identified in local press reporting.
Recently, Hossam Abdul Raouf, a chief lieutenant of the Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, confirmed in an audio message that Qaeda’s senior leadership has relocated out of northern Pakistan — no secret to the military and the C.I.A., which have been hunting senior Qaeda figures in Afghanistan and elsewhere throughout the year.
The Taliban are not hiding their continuing alliance with Al Qaeda. In August, Mr. Zawahri pledged his allegiance to Mullah Omar’s successor, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. Within hours, Mullah Mansour publicly accepted the “esteemed” Mr. Zawahri’s oath of fealty. And Qaeda members are integrated into the Taliban’s chain of command. In fact, foreign fighters affiliated with Al Qaeda played a significant role in the Taliban-led assault on Kunduz.
The United States made many mistakes in the 9/11 wars. After routing the Taliban and Al Qaeda in late 2001, President George W. Bush did not dedicate the resources necessary to finish the fight. President Obama was right in December 2009 to announce a surge of forces in Afghanistan, but it was short-lived. Al Qaeda is not nearly as “decimated” in South Asia as Mr. Obama has claimed.
We don’t think 5,500 troops is enough. No one is calling for a full-scale occupation of the country. But a force of as many as 20,000 to 25,000 would far better support our local Afghan allies, helping them defend multiple provincial capitals at the same time and fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban in their strongholds.
While many believe that Al Qaeda is solely focused on attacking the West, it has devoted most of its efforts to waging insurgencies. This is the key to understanding how it has been able to regenerate repeatedly over the past 14 years. Al Qaeda draws would-be terrorists from the larger pool of paramilitary forces fighting to restore the Taliban to power in Afghanistan or to build radical nation-states elsewhere. Therefore, the mission of the United States is bigger than the one Mr. Obama envisions. Drones and select counterterrorism raids are not enough to end the threat.
Al Qaeda and like-minded groups were founded on the myth that the Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan because of the mujahedeen’s faith in Allah alone. This helped spawn a generation of new wars and terrorist attacks, most of which have targeted Muslims. Should the Afghans suffer additional territorial losses, Mullah Omar’s words will appear prophetic. And a new myth, one that will feed the Taliban’s and Al Qaeda’s violence for years to come, will be born.
Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio are senior fellows at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the editors of The Long War Journal.