Afghanistan and Iraq: Two Sunni War Theaters Evolving Into One?

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 10

The lack of reliable metrics that can be used to measure progress or the lack thereof in the war on terrorism is a continuing problem. This is particularly the case when trying to assess what appears to be an evolving and common approach to the war against U.S.-led coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq. In examining this phenomenon, there is inevitably a large portion of informed observation and outright guesswork, and a smaller than desirable portion of hard facts and statistical data. Still, the current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, even on an impressionistic level, suggest the Islamists are shaping a common approach to war against Western conventional military forces and that there is some cross-fertilization between the theaters in terms of operational tactics.


In both Afghanistan and Iraq, Sunni Islamists have made enormous and substantively similar strides in their effective use of electronic media. In Afghanistan, Taliban leaders paid practically no attention to waging domestic or international media campaigns before the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. By mid-2002, however, Taliban leaders had inaugurated a widespread traditional propaganda campaign that included “the distribution of dictums, leaflets, cassettes and books that call for jihad and explain the punishment for those who cooperate with or work for the crusaders” (al-Neda, July 28, 2002). Today, the Taliban is focused on using electronic media for news and instructional and propaganda purposes. Indeed, beyond using such traditional media venues as the Afghan Islamic Press, the Taliban has formed its own media organization which is modeled on al-Qaeda’s al-Sahab (The Clouds). Interviews with Taliban chiefs like Mullah Omar and others, the designation of a Taliban press spokesman, daily news pieces covering events in Afghanistan and the Muslim world and well-made videotapes depicting Taliban military attacks on the units or firebases of the U.S.-led coalition are now commonplace. In Iraq, the insurgents have built an extraordinary media organization from a near-zero base; there was no opposition or dissenting media apparatus in Iraq under Saddam. Today, this organization supplies Iraqis and much of the Arab and Islamic worlds with daily, near real-time coverage of military and political developments in the country and shapes their perceptions accordingly. The Islamists’ media in Iraq are especially effective in using videotapes of their military operations to visually refute oral claims of military progress made by spokespeople for the coalition and the Iraqi government. Clearly, the Sunni Islamist insurgents in both countries have heeded al-Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri’s mid-2005 advice that the Islamists’ struggle cannot be won without an effective media arm (Office of the Director of National Intelligence, July 9, 2005).

Foreign Fighters

While much of the Western media continue to mistakenly identify attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan as “al-Qaeda attacks” or “strikes by foreign Islamists,” there appears to be no reason to doubt that the insurgencies in both countries are now led by national and not foreign elements. Last week, for example, many Western media reports announced that Al-Qaeda in Iraq claimed credit for the suicide attack on the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad’s Green Zone. This, of course, is incorrect. The attack was claimed by the “Islamic State of Iraq, Information Ministry,” a grouping of which Al-Qaeda in Iraq is an important member, but one in which it has all but submerged its individual identity since the death of Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s first chief, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (Fajr Media Center, April 13). In retrospect, al-Zarqawi’s death erased two significant threats that his philosophy and actions had posed to al-Qaeda’s future viability as a vanguard Sunni Islamist organization: the intensifying Shiite-Sunni civil war in Iraq is no longer identified as the responsibility of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and al-Qaeda is no longer accused of usurping the leadership of the Sunni Iraqi insurgency.

In Afghanistan, al-Qaeda’s forces and the other foreign fighters operating there—Kashmiris, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Central Asians, among others—are active and effective, but nearly invisible. Since October 2001, the Taliban and several mujahideen leaders from the anti-Soviet-jihad era—such as Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar—have been the public face of the Afghan Islamist insurgency, a factor that is absolutely essential if the insurgency is to maintain the support of the intensely nationalistic Afghan people.

Cross-Fertilization of Tactics

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders have said and written that Islamist fighters in Afghanistan and Iraq would be traveling to each other’s theaters of operations to observe, participate and learn. “We have full contacts with the mujahideen in Iraq,” Mullah Dadullah announced in early 2006. “We are one and the same mujahideen. We are all united against infidels. We are fighting in the same trench; our Islam is the same” (Afghan Islamic Press, February 9, 2006). Today, the process thus described seems to be ongoing. In Iraq, it seems clear that Afghan instructors have slowly inculcated among Iraqi fighters the skills they acquired while learning to counter Soviet attack and transport helicopters with such weapons as heavy machine guns (12.7mm and 14.5mm) and rocket-propelled grenades. During the anti-Soviet jihad, the Afghans gradually developed this skill which tellingly punished the Soviet helicopter fleet, and which was later greatly augmented by the addition of shoulder-fired Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. The transfer of this skill to the Iraqis appears to have taken some time as it is only in the past year that a significant number of U.S. helicopters have been downed. The other major skill the Iraqi Sunni insurgents have acquired from the Afghan theater is, as noted above, the use of electronic media. The Iraqis’ skill in this regard almost certainly represents the major contribution made by the al-Qaeda fighters who came from Afghanistan to support the Iraqi jihad under the leadership of long-time senior bin Laden insurgent commander Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi (Newsweek, October 1, 2005).

In Afghanistan, the contribution of the Iraqi insurgents is clear in three areas. First, the Afghan Islamists’ use of remotely detonated Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) has expanded both in number and skillful employment during the past two years. The use of IEDs was haphazard and minimally effective during the jihad against the Soviets and in the first year after the U.S. invasion. By late 2003, however, the use and lethality of IEDs in Afghanistan were increasing and a senior British officer there attributed that reality directly to skills acquired by the Afghans from the Iraqis. “There is no doubt,” Colonel Mike Griffiths told the media. “There are now indications of technology transfer from Iraq. Some of the things we have seen in Iraq we are beginning to see here” (Independent, December 14, 2003). Today, highly lethal IEDs are a fact of daily life for coalition forces.

The second contribution from Iraq appears to be the suicide bomber, although the Afghans are not yet as skilled and accurate as the Iraqis in using this weapon. Suicide attacks were all but unheard of during the 13-year struggle (1979-1992) between the Afghan mujahideen and the Soviet and Afghan communists. Since the Afghan election in September 2005, however, the number of insurgent attacks featuring suicide operatives has grown from a few dozen to hundreds, a reality that senior Taliban leaders have suggested is the result of the “Iraqi mujahideen” who are in Afghanistan “to support us in suicide attacks and operations” (Adnkronos International, March 13, 2006).

Finally, the Taliban appears to have adopted a set of brutal counter-intelligence techniques that are common in Iraq, but have previously been applied in a hit-and-miss manner in Afghanistan. In the last year or so, for example, the Taliban has developed a fairly systematic process of identifying Afghans who are providing information to Hamid Karzai’s regime, coalition forces, or Pakistani intelligence, kidnapping and killing them and often members of their family, and then broadcasting the news of the executions to dissuade others from similar activity. At times, Taliban intelligence has even beheaded suspected informers, an action which has not yet induced the same level of popular revulsion that it did in Iraq in 2005-2006 (Agence France Presse, April 11). All told, the 2005 words of the Iraq-trained Taliban field commander Mohammed Daud ring true: “I am explaining to my fighters every day the lessons I learned and my experience in Iraq. I want to copy in Afghanistan the tactics and experience of the glorious Iraqi resistance” (Newsweek, October 1, 2005).