The Islamic terror threat in Afghanistan is expanding and poses new threats to the U.S. homeland as the Taliban, al Qaeda, and now the Islamic State build up forces inside the war-torn Southwest Asian state.
The persistent terrorist threat includes four separate Islamist groups inside the country and is one reason President Obama announced Thursday that he is reversing plans to pull all but 1,000 U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the end of next year.
"Afghan forces are still not as strong as they need to be," Obama said in announcing the decision to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through 2016.
"And meanwhile, the Taliban has made gains, particularly in rural areas, and can still launch deadly attacks in cities, including Kabul," he said, noting that the Islamic State is also emerging in the country.
"The bottom line is in key areas of the country, the security situation is still very fragile, and in some places there is risk of deterioration," Obama said.
The reversal on the troop drawdown is a setback for the president’s strategy and an indication that his policies over the past six years have not worked. Obama outlined in December 2009 three main goals for Afghanistan: Denying a safe haven to al Qaeda, reversing Taliban momentum, and bolstering Afghan forces.
The growing terror threat was outlined in little-noticed written testimony to the Senate earlier this month by Army Gen. John Campbell, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, who stated that Afghan forces remain weak as terrorists are gaining strength.
The four-star general identified the main threats as the Taliban, al Qaeda, the al Qaeda-aligned Haqqani Network, and the Islamic State, also called Daesh, along with other extremist groups he did not name.
"Collectively, these enemies will present formidable challenges to the Afghan government, [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces], [U.S. Forces-Afghanistan], and the coalition for the remainder of 2015 and beyond," Campbell stated.
During the past 10 months al Qaeda has sought to rebuild support networks and planning capabilities aimed at "reconstituting its strike capabilities against the U.S. homeland and western interests," Campbell said.
The newest threat to the country comes from the Islamic State, which is building on its success in the Middle East to gain new members in Central and South Asia and many of its members view al Qaeda as the moral foundation for jihad and IS (also known as ISIL or ISIS) as the action arm, Campbell said.
"Daesh has grown much faster than we anticipated, and its continued development in Afghanistan presents a legitimate threat to the entire region," the four-star general said. "Its adherents have already committed acts of brutality that have shocked Afghan sensibilities. Moreover, Daesh senior leadership has publically declared its goals of reclaiming Khorasan Province, which extends from the Caucuses to Western India, as its spiritual home."
Nick Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said in Senate testimony on Oct. 8 that terrorists have increased their ability to communicate without detection as a result of the exposure of U.S. intelligence collection techniques.
"The difficulty in collecting precise intelligence on terrorist intentions and the status of particular terrorist plots is increasing over time," Rasmussen said.
Rasmussen told the Senate Homeland Security Committee that some terrorist groups in Afghanistan are fighting each other and U.S. intelligence is watching closely to see whether IS "turns from that project to something aimed at us," as al Qaeda did in the past.
For the Taliban, ousted in the 2003 U.S. military operation that led to the current Afghan conflict, the Islamist group is working to seize one provincial capital and multiple district centers while working to control and hold more Afghan territory, Campbell said.
"The Taliban have attempted to gain more control of the countryside in order to expand their freedom of movement and action. They have been at least partially successful in accomplishing these goals," Campbell said.
The Institute for the Study of War also warned in a recent report that the Taliban are gaining strength. "Afghanistan may again become a safe haven for the Taliban and al Qaeda," the think tank said in an Oct. 6 report. "Taliban factions have markedly increased the pace of operations throughout Afghanistan following the September 28 offensive against Kunduz city."
Additionally, the loss of U.S. and allied close-air support aircraft has allowed the Taliban to mass their forces and they are gaining area in Pashtun-dominated areas of southern Afghanistan, according to Campbell.
The recent attack on the city of Kunduz also showed Taliban advances in the northern part of the country and further strained Afghan forces that are battling them.
"Overall, the Taliban remain a resilient, adaptable, and capable foe in spite of markedly increased casualties this year," Campbell said.
The Taliban has also suffered fissures in its leadership following the death of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the group’s commander and spiritual head, in 2013. "It is still unclear whether his death will lead to greater cohesion or splintering within the movement," Campbell stated.
The recent successes in Kunduz appear to have bolstered efforts by new Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who has the endorsement of al Qaeda leader Aymen al Zawahiri, to consolidate power and possibly limit rivals’ attempts to oust him.
The Mansour also appears to have moved the Taliban close to al Qaeda by naming a known ally of the terror group, Siraq Haqqani, as a deputy emir.
The linkage is raising new concerns that Taliban terrorists could begin conducting attacks outside Afghanistan.
Domestically, Taliban propagandists are influencing the population and the international community through social media.
Yet Campbell revealed that the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network—not the Taliban and al Qaeda—remain "the most virulent strain" of the Afghan insurgency.
Haqqani terrorism "presents one of the greatest risks to coalition forces, and it continues to be an al Qaeda facilitator," Campbell said.
The network shares the goal of the Taliban of expelling coalition military forces and taking over the Afghan government and installing an Islamist regime.
Haqqani Network fighters "lead the insurgency in several eastern Afghan provinces, and they have demonstrated the intent and capability to launch and support high profile and complex attacks against the coalition," the commander stated.
Several Haqqani planned attacks in Kabul and other locations that would have caused large numbers of casualties were they not disrupted.
Of the threat by the Haqqani Network, Campbell stated: "It will take a concerted AF/PAK effort to reduce the effectiveness and capabilities of HQN."
A key priority, Campbell said, is countering the emergence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan.
"In the last year, we have observed the movement’s increased recruiting efforts and growing operational capacity," Campbell said.
"We now classify Daesh as ‘operationally emergent,’"—a growing threat, he added.
The group is attracting disaffected Taliban and Pakistan Tehrik-e-Taliban members who are rebranding themselves as Islamic State members.
Despite the emergence of IS, Campbell said there has not been a wholesale convergence of IS with other insurgent groups, and there also has not been an influx of foreign fighters to IS ranks.
Still, while lacking military capabilities of the Taliban, IS is creating problems for Afghan security forces and the political leadership of the government.
"In the near term, we expect most Daesh operations to remain directed against the [Taliban], although attacks against nearby ANDSF or other soft targets of opportunity are possible," Campbell said.
However, the IS presence appears to be spreading rapidly. Campbell noted that of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, IS fighters in varying degrees are present in 25 provinces, with most located in the eastern part of the country, specifically Nangarhar Province.
"In the near term, we predict that they will continue to recruit and grow their numbers, using higher pay and small-scale, successful attacks as recruitment tools," Campbell said.
The Islamic State’s "virulent, extremist ideology" is a greater threat than its combat power, he said.
Asked about the increasing terror threat, Lisa Monaco, White House homeland security and counterterrorism director, told reporters that al Qaeda and IS will be the main targets of continued U.S. involvement in counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan.
"The focus is on going after al Qaeda, the remnants of al Qaeda, and anybody who could pose a threat to the homeland," she said.
"We’re going to be very focused in watching what happens with ISIL in Afghanistan," Monaco said. "Right now, it's militants who are largely disaffected with other groups, but that's a factor in terms of if it could present a threat to the homeland. We’re obviously going to be attentive to that. But the core mission on the counterterrorism side is going after remnants of al Qaeda."