Al Qaeda leader killed in Kunar, Afghanistan’s “safe haven”

April 26, 2011

For some time, Pakistan has been complaining that it is unfairly criticised for failing to fight al Qaeda-linked insurgents on its side of the border when U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan are also struggling to make headway. This has been particularly the case in Bajaur, where Pakistan said its own military operation against militants were undermined by a decision to pull Western troops back from neighbouring Kunar in Afghanistan. The row over who is to blame for not doing enough to prevent militants moving back and forth across the border between Bajaur and Kunar has been both a reflection of the distrust in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship,  and a persistent source of strain.

The mantra, repeated so often that it is rarely questioned, is that al Qaeda’s safe havens are in Pakistan. That is partially true – the organisation is believed to have secure bases in various parts of Pakistan’s tribal areas.  But Pakistani officials respond by saying that al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents also have safe havens inside Afghanistan. And just as the Pakistan Army is unwilling to fight in every part of the tribal areas at once – it has resisted U.S. pressure to launch a full-scale military operation in North Waziristan – the U.S. Army is also reluctant to spread out its troops too thinly, choosing instead to focus on populated areas.

So it’s interesting to note the language used about the killing in an air strike of senior al Qaeda leader Abu Hafs al-Najdi, a man described as the second-most wanted insurgent in Afghanistan. An International Security Assistance Force statement said Najdi, a Saudi Arabian also known as Abdul Ghani, was killed in  Kunar.

The ISAF statement said that Najdi “operated primarily from Kunar and traveled frequently between Afghanistan and Pakistan. He directed al Qaeda operations in the province, including recruiting; training and employing fighters; obtaining weapons and equipment; organizing al Qaeda finances; and planning attacks against Afghan and coalition forces.” (my italics)

 It added that “Abdul Ghani regularly circulated throughout Kunar, establishing insurgent camps and training sites, teaching insurgents explosive device construction and attack procedures. He was also a key financial conduit between Pakistan-based leaders and insurgent operatives in Afghanistan. ”

“The al Qaeda network and its safe havens remains a top priority for Afghan and coalition forces. In the last month, coalition forces have killed more than 25 al Qaeda leaders and fighters, and the death of Abdul Ghani marks a significant milestone in the disruption of the al Qaeda network.”

I don’t recall seeing that expression “safe havens” used much before in ISAF statements about al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan. Usually the phrase used repeated by Western officials is “safe havens in Pakistan“.

There are many reasons for the distrust between the United States and Pakistan, including U.S. suspicions that Islamabad/Rawalpindi provides support to Taliban insurgents fighting in Afghanistan – an accusation it denies -  and Pakistani anger over U.S. drone attacks on its territory.  But it is also stoked by the use of language that refuses to acknowledge the grey areas – and the challenges – on both sides of the border.

As a post-script,  it is worth noting that Bajaur-Kunar has been cited in the past as a possible hiding place for Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri  – see for example former president Pervez Musharraf in this 2007 WikiLeaks cable.  The Asia Times last month cited intelligence reports  about bin Laden’s  presence on the borders of Bajaur and Kunar.  Bin Laden sightings have been sporadic over the years and never confirmed. It would however, be difficult for any western official to say in public, nearly 10 years into the war, that the man responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States is hiding in a safe haven in Afghanistan.

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