WASHINGTON (CN) – More than 15 years after U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaida, experts told members of a House committee Thursday that jihadist groups have proliferated while the Taliban is stronger than at any time since 9/11.
“We are losing in Afghanistan,” Bill Roggio told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee.
Far from fading away, the editor of the Long War Journal said that al-Qaida has launched a new branch in Afghanistan with the full support and help of the Taliban.
The two groups, he said, “remain tied at the hip.”
Known as AQIS, al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent emerged in 2014 from jihadist groups operating in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The newly formed branch maintains its headquarters in Pakistan but operates across South Asia.
Despite the insistence of Obama administration officials that the two have only recently rekindled a relationship, Roggio said al-Qaida has enjoyed long-term Taliban support in Afghanistan.
“The Taliban-al-Qaida relationship remains strong to this day,” Roggio said. “And with the Taliban gaining control of a significant percentage of Afghanistan’s territory, al-Qaida has more areas to plant its flag.”
According to his estimate, the Taliban controls or contests roughly half of the country in predominantly rural areas.
Roggio appeared before the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade with several other experts to offer testimony Thursday afternoon about Afghanistan’s “terrorist resurgence.”
The hearing came the same day the Pentagon announced that two U.S. service members were killed and a third injured during a raid with the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces against insurgents in Nangarhar Provence.
“The fight against ISIS-K is important for the world,” Gen. John W. Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said in a statement, abbreviating the Islamic State Khurasan. “But sadly, it is not without sacrifice.”
While the United States has recently focused its efforts in the country on targeting the Islamic State, Roggio insists that the Taliban is the real problem – a dynamic he says the U.S. military has downplayed.
Earlier this month, the U.S. military deployed the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in its arsenal in an Islamic State stronghold in eastern Afghanistan, reportedly to destroy an underground cave network used by the group.
Known as the “mother of all bombs,” Afghan officials said the 11-ton massive ordinance air blast killed about 90 ISIS-linked fighters.
The Department of Defense, however, has not yet released its own casualty figures.
“Our policy in Afghanistan is a mess, frankly,” Roggio said. He urged the Trump administration to assess U.S. policy and quickly devise a way forward.
However, increasing contacts between Russia and the Taliban could complicate U.S. efforts.
According to Seth Jones of the Rand Corporation, Russia is providing limited support to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
“It is not a positive step in developments in the region,” Jones said.
The Pentagon is keeping mum on the degree of Russian support, but Russian officials disclosed late last year that Russia was in touch with the Taliban.
U.S. military leaders have since suggested that Russia could be providing the group with weapons.
There are currently about 13,000 U.S. and NATO troops in the region. Bloomberg reported on March 31 that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, had said that Russia supports the Taliban’s demand for the removal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.
Any U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan will need to focus on improving governance, said Vanda Felbab-Brown.
The Brookings Institute fellow, along with Jones and Roggio, said the United States will likely need to deploy more troops to Afghanistan in order to stabilize it.
However, future U.S. efforts in Afghanistan should be focused, she said.
Felbab-Brown offered up her punch line at the outset of her testimony: “Improving governance, not merely beefing up military efforts or attempting to counter external sponsors of terrorism in Afghanistan, is critical for the success of U.S. counterterrorism efforts.”
Lack of a continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan would destabilize Pakistan, she added. That in turn could destabilize all of Central and South Asia, and trigger negative developments in the relationship between India and Pakistan.
As long as Afghanistan remains unstable with jihadist groups operating in its territories, that will continue to spill across the border, preventing Pakistan from dealing with some of its other critical issues.
Aside from the regional implications a reduced U.S. and NATO presence could have, she noted that al-Qaida has resurged in parts of the country with a limited Afghan government and international military presence.
The Brookings fellow proffered that the United States continues to have strong interests in Afghanistan beyond counterterrorism objectives. Its reputation as a nation that honors its commitments is at stake in Afghanistan.
“A disintegration of the Afghan state or an outbreak of a full-blown civil war will be a great boost to salafi groups throughout the world: once again, a great power will be seen as having been defeated by the salafists in Afghanistan,” she testified.
To claim victory, the Taliban would not need to entirely retake the country.
“From the salafi perspective, merely a gradual, but steady crumbling of the Kabul government, with a progressively greater accretion of territory and power by the Taliban, would be sufficient to claim victory,” Felbab-Brown said.
When it mobilized the international community to build support for Operation Enduring Freedom to topple the Taliban, the United States made a pledge to help the Afghan people.
That is a promise the U.S. should keep, she said.
“Although often caricatured as anti-Western, anti-government, anti-modern, and stuck in medieval times, Afghans crave what others do,” Felbab-Brown said. “Relief from violence and insecurity and sufficient economic progress to escape dire, grinding poverty.”