Taliban overruns Afghan district where al Qaeda ran training camps

The Taliban claimed it “completely liberated” the district center for Shorabak in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar earlier today. Shorabak was the site of a massive al Qaeda training camp that was assaulted and destroyed by US forces in Oct. 2015. The Taliban now claims to control four of Kandahar’s 18 districts, and that others remain contested.

According to a statement released on Voice of Jihad, the Taliban’s official propaganda outlet, Taliban forces torched the administration buildings and police headquarters after local police and Afghan soldiers abandoned the Shorabak district center.

“The Enemy soldiers and police were forced to flee after setting fire to the said district administration center and police HQ, Mujahideen immediately got control of the region,” the Taliban stated.

Additionally, the Taliban claimed to ambush a military convoy that was dispatched from the nearby district of Spin Boldak and destroyed two armored vehicles.

The Taliban’s claim cannot be independently verified in the Afghan press or FDD’s Long War Journal, but the district has been hotly contested and overrun by the Taliban in the past. Additionally, past Taliban claims of overrunning district centers have been proven to be accurate; these claims have later been confirmed in the Afghan press.

Shorabak had previously fallen to the Taliban in Oct. 2016, but Afghan forces later pushed the jihadist troops to the outskirts of the district center. Taliban fighters have laid siege to the district center since that time. As recently as Feb. 4, Moulavi Rahimullah, the Taliban’s military commander for the souther provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Uruzgan, and Daikundi, said that his forces had the district center surrounded.

The security situation in Kandahar province has been difficult to assess. FDD’s Long War Journal estimates that four of Kandahar’s 16 districts are under Taliban control (Ghorak, Miyanishin, Registan, Shorabak). Anecdotal press reports indicate that the districts of Arghistan, Khakrez, Maiwand, Maruf, Shah Wali Kot, and Zhari are contested, but this information cannot be independently confirmed.

Taliban resurgent in Afghanistan

The security situation in Afghanistan mirrors that of Kandahar: a significant percentage of the country’s 407 districts are controlled or contested by the Taliban. At the beginning of this month, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said that the Afghan government “has lost territory to the insurgency” and “district control continues to decline.”

According to SIGAR, the Afghan government controls or influences just 52 percent of the nation’s districts today compared to 72 percent in Nov. 2015. An estimated 15 percent of Afghanistan’s districts have slipped from the government’s control over the past six months. [See Afghan government ‘has lost territory to the insurgency’.]

FDD’s Long War Journal has has identified 43 Afghan districts under Taliban control, and another 56 that are heavily contested. The number of Taliban controlled and influenced/contested districts has risen from 70 in Oct. 2015 to 99 this month.

A map created by LWJ [below] lists the districts thought to be controlled [black] or influenced/contested [red] by the Taliban. LWJ believes that the Taliban controls and contests more districts displayed on the map above, however the districts listed on the map are ones that can be confirmed via independent sources such as Taliban claims, US and Afghan government reports, and news reports. For instance, the Taliban has traditionally held significant sway in many districts in eastern and northeastern Afghanistan, however the status of these districts cannot be properly assessed based on open source information.

Shorabak an al Qaeda haven

Al Qaeda was operating at least two training camps in Shorabak as recently as Oct. 2015. That month, US special operations forces and Afghan troops raided the two camps, and killed more than 150 al Qaeda operatives. At the end of Oct. 2015, Gen. John F. Campbell, then the commander of US forces and the NATO mission in Afghanistan, described one of the camps, which was nearly 30 square miles in size, as “probably the largest training camp-type facility that we have seen in 14 years of war.”

Al Qaeda operated the Shorabak camps with the support and approval of the Taliban. This should come as no surprise, as al Qaeda’s leader has sworn allegiance to each of the Taliban’s three emirs.

While Shorabak is in a remote corner of southeastern Afghanistan, its location is strategically significant. It is far from the Afghan government and military’s reach. And it sits on the border with Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, a known safe area for the Afghan Taliban, al Qaeda, and a host of jihadist groups that fight in both countries. The Taliban’s previous emir, Mullah Mansour, was killed by the US in a drone strike in the town of Nuski in Baluchistan, which is just south of Shorabak.

Al Qaeda maintains a significant presence in Afghanistan despite claims by the Obama administration and US military and intelligence services. For six years, between 2010 and 2016, the Obama administration maintained that al Qaeda had a minimal presence of 50 to 100 leaders and fighters in country.

This changed after the Shorabak raid, when more than 150 al Qaeda operatives were killed at a single location. Two months later, the US military was forced to admit it was wrong issued a revised estimate of al Qaeda in Afghanistan to upwards of 300 fighters.

US intelligence assessments have consistently claimed that al Qaeda is confined to a small geographic region in northeastern Afghanistan, in Kunar and Nuristan provinces. However, in Sept. 2016, General John W. Nicholson Jr., the current commander of US and NATO forces, admitted that al Qaeda is actively being hunted in seven provinces. In Dec. 2016, the US military admitted that 250 al Qaeda operatives and leaders were killed in Afghanistan that year alone.

For more information on al Qaeda in Afghanistan, see the following reports from FDD’s Long War Journal:

US military: 250 al Qaeda operatives killed or captured in Afghanistan this year

US military is hunting al Qaeda in at least 7 Afghanistan provinces

Ayman al Zawahiri swears allegiance to the Taliban’s new leader

US military admits al Qaeda is stronger in Afghanistan than previously estimated

Al Qaeda opens branch in the ‘Indian Subcontinent’

Osama Bin Laden’s Files: ‘Very strong military activity in Afghanistan’

ISAF raids against al Qaeda and allies in Afghanistan 2007-2013

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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