Fourteen years after the U.S and its allies routed most al Qaeda militants from Afghanistan, the country is again becoming a haven for extremist groups, the result, in part, of inadequate surveillance of its far-flung territory, Afghan and Western officials say.
At the height of their presence five years ago, the U.S military and its allies operated 852 bases and outposts across Afghanistan, many with their own informants, drones and surveillance balloons to monitor even remote areas of the vast and rugged country.
Today, these spy assets are largely gone. As of September, all but about 20 of the installations that anchored the extensive intelligence-gathering network have been closed, bulldozed or handed off to the Afghan government. With large stretches of Afghanistan now regularly unmonitored, Afghan and Western officials fear that more extremists from Islamic State, al Qaeda and other militant groups could find sanctuary inside the country’s borders.
“We lost a lot of eyes and ears,” said an official with U.S-led forces in Afghanistan. “Reporting from the provinces dried up.”
In a sign that militants are able to grow and operate undetected outside Afghanistan’s main urban centers, the U.S military in October discovered a 48-square-kilometer al Qaeda training camp in a remote and sparsely populated area of the southern province of Kandahar.
U.S special-operations forces razed the encampment, which officials described as probably the largest al Qaeda installation in Afghanistan since the U.S invasion of the country in 2001.
The mere existence of such a large facility showed that Islamist militants are still willing-and able-to establish bases in areas of Afghanistan where the government has no reach, the commander of U.S and coalition forces in Afghanistan said.
“I think they want to continue to grow,” U.S Army Gen. John Campbell said in a recent interview.
The intelligence gap has also helped the Taliban mount large-scale surprise attacks, overrunning districts and killing large numbers of Afghan troops. “It’s costing more lives than it should,” a former Afghan intelligence official said.
The Taliban and al Qaeda aren’t the only militant groups that appear to be exploiting the intelligence gap. Thousands of Central and South Asian Islamist militants have crossed into Afghanistan undetected this year after their havens in Pakistan were attacked by Pakistani military forces.
The groups include Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan fighters and members of two Pakistani groups, Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan and Lashkar-e Taiba, Afghan and U.S security officials said.
Hanif Atmar, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s national security adviser, said the “significant reduction of counterterrorism capabilities” in Afghanistan had helped the expansion of extremist groups.
With the government’s intelligence network limited, no one knows for sure the number of foreign militants in Afghanistan, though estimates by Afghan and foreign officials put the number at 5,000-7,000.
Still, the danger of foreign fighters flocking to Afghanistan was evident in September when the Taliban briefly captured the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, shocking the Kabul government and international forces. The Taliban fighters were backed by Uzbek and Pakistani militants.
The presence of foreign fighters in Afghanistan isn’t new, but a resurgent Taliban means a friendlier environment for them to operate.
“They all depend on each other for money, for lodging, for safe passage, for passage of information. So it’s harder and harder to distinguish some of the different insurgent groups,” Gen. Campbell said.
Daesh, which includes Afghan fighters, is an exception: It has recently fought the Taliban for control of pockets of eastern Afghanistan.
One of the primary goals of the 2001 U.S invasion was to ensure that Afghanistan would never again be a safe haven for terrorists.
During a visit to Afghanistan earlier this month, Defense Secretary Ash Carter indicated he believes the U.S. military should remain in Afghanistan for five to 10 years or more, hinting at the need to stay committed to helping Afghan forces thwart militant activity.
Coalition officials are working to help build Afghanistan’s intelligence assets.
Afghan forces are currently being taught how to operate and maintain tethered surveillance balloons, and next year they are expected to receive the first shipment of seven unarmed drones, according to U.S Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Davis, whose command oversees the development of Afghan forces.