“The Pious Caliphate Will Start From Afghanistan”: Is al-Qaeda’s Long-Held Afghan Strategy Now Unfolding?

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 2 Issue: 12

Amid Pakistani President’s Musharraf’s claims that al-Qaeda’s “back is broken,” and those by U.S. officials that Al-Qaeda is focused on Iraq, the Arabic daily Al-Quds al-Arabi has described “a noticeable increase in the attacks on U.S. forces in various parts of Afghanistan.” Explanations for the attacks range from better weather, Pakistani interference in Afghan affairs; and increased aid to the insurgents from “regional powers.” This article examines these claims, assesses their validity, and suggests a fourth cause for the violence — that al-Qaeda is simply pursuing its long-term Afghan strategy.

Rites of Spring, Pakistani Designs, and Foreign Conspiracies?

The jump in violence in Afghanistan is being been attributed to several factors. Senior Coalition officials say the spike was “predictable” after the spring thaw. U.S. General Eric Olson minimized the threat posed by the attacks, saying they “lack cohesion” and will “fade [even] in traditional Taliban strongholds.” [1] Perhaps hedging their bets, Coalition military officials followed Olson’s analysis by announcing that two-to-five thousand more NATO troops would deploy to Afghanistan later in 2005.

Departing U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, on the other hand, said on 18 June that the attacks in Afghanistan are directed from abroad because Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar are not in Afghanistan. (4) Khalilzad did not say where the two men are, but none-too-subtly pointed to Pakistan. “If GEO [Television] can get in touch with them [Taleban leaders],” Khalilzad said, “how can the intelligence service of a country which has nuclear bombs and a lot of military and security forces, not find them?” [2] Simultaneously, senior Afghan scholar Morab Boresh and presidential spokesman Jafar Rasuli excoriated Pakistan. “The Pakistanis will never stop interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs,” Baresh told Kabul‘s Tolu Television. “We still have Pakistani elements within our own [Afghan] government… I do not know when they will stop [interfering]” On 20 June, DCI Porter Goss also hinted that bin Laden and Omar are in Pakistan. [3]

Other Afghan officials saw multiple foreign hands at work. President Karzai, for example, said the violence was caused by an external “conspiracy [that] will increase against our country” as parliamentary elections near. [4] “It looks,” Defense Minister Rahim Wardak added, “like there has been a regrouping of al-Qaeda, and [that] they have changed their tactics to concentrate on Iraq, but Afghanistan too.” [5] Wardak and Karzai’s spokesman Jawid Luran also claimed “foreigners” and “regional powers” were promoting the attacks through increased support for the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Luran said the killing of pro-Karzai cleric Mullah Fayyaz and the bombing of a U.S. Reconstruction Team’s base — both in Qandahar Province — was the work of non-Afghan “terrorists.” [6] Qandahar governor Gul Agha Shurzai supported this judgment. After the bombing of the mosque conducting Fayyaz’s funeral, Shurzai said police “found documents on the [bomber’s] body that showed he was an Arab.” Shirazi said this proved “Arab al-Qaeda teams had entered Afghanistan and had planned terrorist attacks.” [7]

Al-Qaeda: Staying its Course in Afghanistan

Each of these contentions contains some truth. That said, the increased violence is mainly due to Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents having emerged relatively unscathed from the deadliest period of Coalition military activity, October 2001-March 2002. They have since regrouped, reinforced, retrained, and rearmed. They also benefited from a two-plus-year respite resulting from the Coalition keeping its conventional units in garrison and chasing the insurgents only with Special Forces and intelligence officers. The Taliban acknowledged this respite in May 2005 when it posted “night letters” condemning Karzai for giving the U.S. permanent bases and seeking a “strategic partnership” with Washington. The letters told Afghans that “the principle duty of the mujahideen [e.g., fighting infidels] has just started.” [8]

The recent attacks fit bin Laden’s strategic goal of ensuring “the pious Caliphate will start from Afghanistan.” [9] In 1998, bin Laden pledged personal loyalty to Mullah Omar, describing him as “our chief” and “the legitimate ruler of the state of Afghanistan … [the] embodiment of Islamic respect.” [10] These facts are downplayed by Western leaders who say bin Laden was paying lip service to Omar and that al-Qaeda is now solely focused on the jihad in Iraq. No one, however, should doubt bin Laden’s resolve to help retake Afghanistan for Mullah Omar. In June 2000, Bin Laden stressed Afghanistan’s central place in al-Qaeda’s strategy”

“Any aggression by the United States today against Afghanistan would not be against Afghanistan itself, but against the Afghanistan that hoists the banner of Islam in the world, the true, mujahid Islam, which fights for the sake of God… Allah has blessed Afghanistan, the people of Afghanistan… They were able to unify the country under the Taliban and under the leadership of Amir ul-Mu’mineen [Commander of the Faithful] Mulanna [our Mullah] Omar. So today, Afghanistan is the only country in the world that has the Shari’ah. Therefore, it is compulsory upon Muslims all over the world to help Afghanistan. And to make hijra to this land, because it is from this land that we will dispatch our armies to smash all kuffar all over the world.” [11]

Time and setbacks have not dulled bin Laden’s resolve. After the 9/11 attacks, for example, bin Ladin said Afghanistan would be the site of “one of Islam’s immortal battles.” [12] “[U]nder the leadership of our mujahid Amir … Mullah Muhammad Omar,” bin Laden wrote, “we are firm on the path of jihad for the cause of God.” Bin Laden said Omar knew “the United States was not against me. It was not even against the Taliban. It was against Islam.” [13] In late 2004, bin Laden again stressed the Afghans’ courageous hospitality and the strategic importance of restoring Taliban rule. He used poetry, which he employs for topics of great importance, to assert that Allah had made Afghanistan “a door of sustenance” for all Muslims:

“The love of Hijaz is deep in my heart.

But the rulers there are wolves.

In Afghanistan, I have a home and companions.

And from Allah comes a door for sustenance.

Like friends, horses are few.

Even if they appear many, in the eyes of the inexperienced.

And anyone who appreciates kindness is loved.

And any place where glory is home grown, is blessed.” [14]

Consistent with al-Qaeda’s tactical doctrine for aiding Islamist insurgencies, Taliban leaders are taking the lead in discussing and claiming credit for the increased violence. Al-Qaeda’s doctrine is clear: Support the insurgents fully and offer advice, but stay in the background, do not dictate, and allow local leaders to run operations as they see fit. Thus, on 15 June 2005, senior Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Usmani told GEO Television about the state of the Afghan insurgency. Usmani said bin Laden was, “thanks be to God … absolutely fine, in good health and fit,” but said no more about him. Usmani, who was charged in 2003 with reorganizing Taliban forces, then moved to Omar, calling him “our leader and chief,” asserting that “no one [in the Taliban] is against him,” and saying Omar instructs him regularly by telephone. Usmani also said the Taliban is reorganized and it,

“is in all areas [of Afghanistan]. In some areas, it is working more; in some areas, it is working less. However, it is present and working in all provinces… Almost 80 percent of the [Afghan] people are with us; they were not in the past, but now they are because when they consider U.S. atrocities and actions, they come to understand the United States is their enemy… Now our fighting is increasing. It may increase manifold this year… We also have weapons. We do not need anything. [15]


It is not yet clear that the increased insurgent attacks in Afghanistan are the start of a sustainable, al-Qaeda-backed, Taliban-led offensive. The attacks, however, fit al-Qaeda’s strategic goal of returning Mullah Omar‘s to power, and its tactical policy of helping the insurgents while leaving them in charge and in the spotlight. For now, al-Qaeda’s main contributions are its public fealty to Omar and provision of Arab suicide bombers which — if used in numbers similar to Iraq — would present an unprecedented challenge to the Coalition.

Finally, Taliban and al-Qaeda military efforts are being augmented by what Al-Quds al-Arabi described as “conditions in Afghanistan [which] are deteriorating at a terrifying speed and returning to the state of chaos similar to the one that prevailed before [the] Taleban took over power….” This, at day’s end, is the insurgents’ strongest ally, and one the Coalition can do little to defeat without country-wide military operations and massive infusions of economic aid.


1. Amin Tarzai and Kathleen Ridalfo, “Arab Boost for Afghan Resistance,” Asia Times, 61 June 2005

2. “Interview of Zalmay Khalilzad,” GEO Television [Dubai], 18 June 2005

3. Tolu Television [Kabul], 16 June 2005.

4. Sayed Salahuddin, “Afghan leader predicts violence as NATO pledges troops,” Reuters, 15 June 2005.

5. Paul Haven, “Afghan minister says al-Qaeda regroups,” Associated Press, 17 June 2005

6. Ibid. and “Problems in Afghanistan Emanate Abroad,” Eslah [Kabul], 16 June 2005.

7. Amin Tarzai and Kathleen Ridalfo, “Arab Boost for Afghan Resistance,” Asia Times, 61 June 2005.

8. Ibid.

9. Mufti Jamal Khan, “Bin Ladin: Expel Jews, Christians from Holy Places,” Jang [Pakistan], 18 November 1998.

10. “Hero of Modern Times,” The Nation, Lahore Edition (Internet version), 21 August 1998.

11. “Usama Speaks on Hijrah and the Islamic State,” Al-Jihaad Newsletter, Issue No. 4, 22 June 2000.

12. “Letter by Usama Bin Ladin to the Pakistani People,” Al-Jazeera TV, 24 September 2001.

13. Hamid Mir, “The War has not yet begun; Detailed interview with Usama bin Ladin,” Ausaf [Pakistan], 16 November 2001.

14. “Osama Bin Laden’s December 16,2004, Statement to the Saudi Rulers,” jihadunspun.com

15. “Interview with Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Usmani,” GEO Television [Dubai], 15 June 2005; Rahimullah Yusufzai, “Taliban commander Usmani in limelight after GEO interview,” The News [Pakistan], 16 June 2005; and Safaqat Jan, “Taleban Chief: Bin Laden alive and well,” Associated Press, 15 June 2005.