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A Tale of an Afghan Airstrike

What a botched airstrike says about US plans to use over-the-horizon strikes in Afghanistan.

Words: Franz J. Marty
Pictures: Top: malmanxx Body: Franz J. Marty
Date:

In May 2021, the now toppled Afghan Republic asserted to have killed al-Qaida operatives and wounded the Taliban commander hosting them in an airstrike in a remote district in southern Afghanistan. But the targeted Talib and locals tell a different story.

It was late spring, almost the beginning of summer, when Haji Ulfat, a local Taliban commander, dozed in a large room of his compound in Bagat, a place at the edge of the vast desert that covers a good part of the southern Afghan province of Helmand. Haji Ulfat’s compound is — like almost all other buildings in Bagat that are sprinkled amongst fields and withering blades of grass where camels graze — enclosed by a high mud wall and only sports a few simple rooms arranged around a courtyard.

“Shortly after lunch on that day, my two friends, both local Taliban, were shaking me out of my nap,” Ulfat remembered when speaking to me in late December 2021. “‘There are planes in the sky. They are looking for you,’ one of my friends warned me.”

“I did not believe that the planes were a threat,” he continued. “I thought that with the [then] ongoing peace efforts, the time of airstrikes was over and went back to sleep.”

A little later, his companions woke him up again, urging him to leave. “But I still did not feel in danger and remained sitting in the middle of the room,” Ulfat recounted. “That was when the missile hit.”

A group of Taliban in the district governor’s office in Khaneshin District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan (Franz J. Marty, December 22, 2021)

ALLEGATIONS OF STRIKING AL-QAIDA 

On May 24, 2021, the day of the airstrike, the Ministry of Defense of the Afghan Republic that was toppled by the Taliban less than three months later touted it as a success. A press communiqué called it “a targeted operation (…) against members and hideouts of the al-Qaida terrorist network,” adding that 13 members of al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) were killed and that the important [Taliban] commander Haji Ulfat hosting them was wounded. AQIS is the regional al-Qaida affiliate in Afghanistan and South Asia that was founded in 2014. Given that Bagat has, according to people who live there, been under Taliban control for years, it is unclear how the Afghan Republic could be so sure about the results of their strike. The now-defunct Afghan military corps in whose area of responsibility the strike took place did not reply to requests for comment sent briefly after the incident had taken place.

Ulfat contested all of this. “The claim of having hit al-Qaida was only a pretense for the bombardment,” he asserted, “there were never any foreign [jihadists] here, not even during the first Taliban Emirate [before the US intervention in autumn 2001 in the wake of the terror attacks of September 11]. And I myself have never had contact with al-Qaida.”

Ulfat’s statements cannot be taken at face value, as he — if the allegations were true — would have a strong motive to deny them. However, other sources and factual circumstances corroborate Ulfat’s account.

“There were no foreign jihadists in Bagat,” an elderly civilian living in Bagat told me about a week after my visit via telephone. And as he openly contested other statements of Ulfat downplaying the magnitude of the current economic crisis in Bagat, there is no indication that he would lie to cover Ulfat. Yet, another civilian man from Bagat also asserted that the claims about al-Qaida in Bagat were untrue, alleging that he and other local men have been wrongly accused of being al-Qaida members. “I have family in Pakistan and call them regularly,” he explains, “then they say I am al-Qaida just because they check telephone records and deem them suspicious.”

I could not independently corroborate that man’s account. However, a detailed investigative report by Connecting Vets based on drone footage and interviews with US servicemembers involved in past airstrikes in Helmand showed that local men in Helmand were swiftly designated as enemy combatants by the US military, sometimes for as little as using a radio and despite being unarmed. As such, the chances of locals being misidentified by American and also Afghan Republican forces were indeed high.

A ferry over the Helmand river that separates Bagat from the administrative center of Khaneshin District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan (Franz J. Marty, December 22, 2021)

HIT AND MISS 

The site of the strike also supports Ulfat’s claim.

“Above the door [to the courtyard], the missile entered,” Ulfat showed me.

The almost circular hole had been repaired, but the simple bricks with which it has been patched up still clearly differed from the rest of the wall. “The missile then went through the room and out through the wall on the other side,” Ulfat explained, indicating another smaller hole low over the floor that has since been filled up with roughcast. “The warhead did not explode, also not outside,” Ulfat said, “this happens sometimes.”

He pointed to a spot on the other end of the large oblong room, only about five meters away: “That’s where I sat. But neither me nor anyone else got wounded.”

All the above casts doubt on the Afghan Republic’s claim of having struck al-Qaida in Bagat on that day in May 2021. However, seeing this example as an indication that the Afghan Republic simply made up al-Qaida allegations to hit targets, as Ulfat insisted, would be a simplistic conclusion, as the situation is more complicated than that.

For example, according to an eulogy for an AQIS member published in the August 2020 issue of Nawai Ghazwat al-Hind, the group’s flagship propaganda magazine, there is or at least was an AQIS-center in Khaneshin, the district in which Bagat lies. That said, Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert with the United States Institute for Peace, who tracks militant groups in the region told me on Jan. 17, 2022, that he assesses that “Khaneshin and other parts of Helmand plausibly have an enduring al-Qaida presence, partly due to proximity with key borders as well as due to strong al-Qaida ties with key Taliban leaders from the area.” Furthermore, in early May 2021 only weeks before the strike targeting Ulfat, a source in Helmand who had on previous occasions refuted claims about al-Qaida activities in the province told me that there have been reports about al-Qaida in Khaneshin.

And there are other examples indicating that al-Qaida — a group that has never made a secret about its ambitions to attack the West in general and the United States in particular as it had done on Sept. 11, 2001 — has been and still is also active elsewhere in Helmand. Asim Umar, the first leader of AQIS, was killed in Helmand’s Musa Qala District in September 2019 and a well-placed jihadist source told me as late as December 2021 about two small al-Qaida centers in another place in Helmand.

OVER-THE-HORIZON

In view of all the above, the crux is to gather accurate intelligence on the comparatively few al-Qaida targets still active in Afghanistan. This is all the more the case in the wake of President Joe Biden’s announcement following the complete withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan according to which the United States “will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries” with “over-the-horizon capabilities.” “Over-the-horizon” means to launch counterterrorism strikes from afar, usually with drones or aircraft taking off and landing in other countries than the location of the target. And “without American boots on the ground,” as Biden put it.

Al-Qaida and other jihadists can potentially continue to operate in the black holes of Afghanistan, out of which little if any reliable information is available.

However, it is unclear how this will effectively work. While the United States still has the ability to eavesdrop on electronic communications in Afghanistan, this will arguably yield limited successes at best. Available information indicates that jihadists largely refrain from using electronic communications, and instead rely on human couriers to prevent any electronic eavesdropping. This was corroborated by anecdotal statements that I have heard from jihadists in Afghanistan over the past years that show that they are paranoid about using mobile phones and overestimate what US and other intelligence services actually can track.

Such paranoia was also apparent with Ulfat, who declined to share his telephone number and, after initially agreeing to pose for photos in the room where he closely escaped death, requested that none of the photos will be published as he seemed afraid that this might put him in danger.

In view of this, US plans to monitor potential terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan would require well-placed sources on the ground in Afghanistan. In this context, Douglas London, who prior to his retirement in 2019 served as the CIA’s Counterterrorism Chief for South and Southwest Asia and authored the memoir The Recruiter, wrote that the CIA has likely “prepared a stable of Afghan ‘stay behind’ agents.” However, the unexpectedly swift toppling of the Afghan Republic by the Taliban in August 2021 that led tens, if not hundreds of thousands of supporters of the old regime to flee the country or go into hiding, has likely limited CIA assets on the ground. And contacting and using the ones who remain has become much more difficult in now Taliban-ruled Afghanistan — not to speak of vetting their and their information’s credibility. Due to these circumstances of operating in denied areas with no allied government on the ground as well as other reasons, London assessed that the current situation of intelligence gathering in Afghanistan “poses a tradecraft nightmare.”

As such, al-Qaida and other jihadists can potentially continue to operate in the black holes of Afghanistan, out of which little if any reliable information is available. And this means that — if the United States should deem it necessary to conduct over-the-horizon counterterrorism strikes in Afghanistan — there is a real danger that mistakes like in the Afghan airstrike in Bagat will repeat themselves.

Franz J. Marty

Franz J. Marty has been living and working in Afghanistan as a freelance journalist since December 2014 and is also a fellow of the Swiss Institute for Global Affairs. While he writes on a broad range of topics, he focuses on security issues. 

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