- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2014

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 re-election 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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