Self-described Taliban fighters pose in October 2006 in Zabul province, Afghanistan. A U.S. military commander says there is a "wildfire" of insurgents in Afghanistan. (Allauddin Khan / The Associated Press)
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KABUL — The expansion of Islamic extremist groups across the Afghanistan-Pakistan region is "the worst I've seen it," with Afghan insurgents receiving help from Iranian operatives and "very possibly" freelancing Pakistani intelligence agents, as well as a small but growing number of "deadly" foreign fighters, said Maj. Gen. Mike Flynn, director of intelligence for Gen. Stanley McChrystal's headquarters here.
"I wouldn't say it's out of control right now, but this is a California wildfire and we're having to bring in firemen from New York," said Flynn, who has been tracking Islamic extremism for at least eight years in postings as director of intelligence for Joint Task Force 180 (in Afghanistan), Joint Special Operations Command, Central Command and the Joint Staff.
The U.S. intelligence community estimates that 19,000 to 27,000 insurgents are operating in Afghanistan, a roughly tenfold increase from 2004's estimate of 1,700 to 3,200, said Flynn, who was brought in by McChrystal to head up intelligence operations for NATO's International Security Assistance Force and is considered one of the four-star general's closest confidantes here.
Providing what Flynn described as "a deadly fuel to the fire" in Afghanistan are foreign fighters whose numbers have increased over the past 12 months. He stressed that by "foreign" he was not referring to Pashtun fighters in Afghanistan, who were Pakistani citizens, but rather insurgents from places like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Germany and Chechnya.
Flynn compared the latest numbers with an intelligence community report in October 2001 — the month after the Sept. 11 attacks, when the Taliban still ruled Afghanistan — that estimated the Taliban army's strength at 33,000 to 35,000, "with potentially up to 20,000 reserve fighters."
‘We … missed the signs'
"I'm not a big one to match numbers, but what I look at is their capacity," Flynn said. "So the Taliban existed as a government — they had an army, it was defeated … and then we basically screwed this thing up. And what we did was we allowed it to come back, and when we really, really missed it. …
"When it started to really show again, I believe, was probably somewhere between 2006 and 2007. And we just flat missed the signs. … [W]e were in the middle of that period of time when we were losing in Iraq, and I just think people weren't paying attention enough, and certainly not listening to the leadership out here at that time."
Analysts generally divide the Afghan insurgency into three main groups: the Taliban run by Mullah Omar through the "Quetta Shura," named after the Pakistani city where the Taliban's leaders are believed to reside; the Haqqani network, led by former mujahedeen commander and Taliban minister Jalaluddin Haqqani and, increasingly, his sons Sirajuddin and Badruddin; and the Hezb-i-Islami group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, often referred to by coalition forces as Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin, or HiG.
There is a "loose but … subordinated" level of coordination between the three groups, according to Flynn.
"The Haqqanis, they subordinate themselves for a variety of reasons to the Quetta Shura," with the Taliban senior leadership in Quetta issuing orders to the Haqqanis, he said. Meanwhile, Hekmatyar's group does not necessarily subordinate itself to the Taliban but it does cooperate with them, so that when HiG conducts an attack, "like an operation against a governor in the east, they will say that it was a Taliban-initiated event," Flynn said. "They use the Taliban as sort of their umbrella, to act as one, or certainly to be perceived as one."
However, Flynn added, Hekmatyar's organization does not represent the same level of threat as the other two insurgent groups. "He's more independent, but he's not all that effective, really," he said. "He's not effective like the Haqqani network is right now, nor is he as effective as the Taliban."
Flynn distinguished between "the Afghan Taliban," including those crossing into Afghanistan from bases in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and "the Pakistani Taliban," who also operate from the FATA, but aim most of their attacks at Pakistani targets. Pakistani security forces "generally don't mess with" the Afghan Taliban, "because they're not the ones killing a hundred people and wounding 150 in Peshawar," he said.
"The TTP [Tarik-e-Taliban Pakistan], led by Hekmatullah Mehsud, is doing that. That's the Pakistani Taliban. Now, does Hekmatullah Mehsud's group provide fighters that fight in Afghanistan? The answer's probably yes. In fact it is yes. It's ‘go up there and get your battle stripes, get your combat patch, but come back, because we have a job to do here in Pakistan.' "
That sort of coordination between armed Islamist groups has Flynn worried.
"They're coordinating enough today that I believe this expansion of the Islamic extremist movement, particularly in this region, is to the point where it's the worst I've seen it, [and] the coordination amongst those groups is the best I've seen it," he said, adding that the groups share common strategic goals. "The common goals are to create an Islamic state and to rid the region of the un-Islamic enemies, and particularly in Afghanistan it's the international community that's here, certainly the Americans," he said.
Not just Pashtun fighters
While Arabs are "certainly" part of that mix, the number of Arab fighters arriving in Afghanistan are not close to the number of non-Iraqi Arabs who fought coalition and Iraqi security forces during the deadliest period of the Iraq war, Flynn said.
"We haven't captured the Arabs — the foreign Arabs — that we captured in Iraq," he said. "There at the height it was probably somewhere between 150 and 200 a month that were just driving down from al Qaim to Baghdad, or coming through Mosul. Here it's not like that." One reason why not is that "it's just harder to get here," he said.
The number of foreign fighters in Afghanistan who could be described as "al-Qaida" forces is less than 100, according to the intelligence community's latest estimates, but they have a disproportionate impact on the war, Flynn said.
"The numbers have gone back and forth — is there 50? 70? 100?" he said. "It doesn't make any difference. If there's a couple out there that are the hard-core, ideologically-driven individuals and they have the imprimatur of Mullah Omar to get out there and help train, then they become a very deadly fuel in a fire."
In addition to the al-Qaida troops there are "more than a hundred" other foreigners fighting alongside home-grown insurgents across a wide swath of Afghanistan, Flynn said. Just across the border, in the Pakistani tribal areas, are another 400 to 1,500 foreign fighters, he said, a number that is growing as those fighters' families expand.
"We now have children [of foreign fighters] who were 11 on 9/11 and who are now like 20, so if they're following in their father's footsteps — Christ, if they're 16, they're dangerous," Flynn said.
The two-star general chose his words carefully when asked whether Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which was an early sponsor of the Taliban and retains links to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani from their days as mujahedeen commanders, still supports those groups.
"There is no known state affiliation," said Flynn, who had just returned from a meeting with Pakistani military leaders in Islamabad. He acknowledged that the implication of his statement was that if ISI personnel were helping the insurgents, it was on a freelance basis, outside the purview of the ISI leadership, and said that scenario was "very possible."
Flynn was more direct when asked about the activities in Afghanistan of Iran's Quds Force, an elite element in the Revolutionary Guard that combines intelligence and special operations functions.
"They are conducting intelligence operations," he said, adding that the Quds Force was "playing games on both sides [of the Afghan-Pakistan border] that are very dangerous."
The Quds Force was "probably" doing things in Afghanistan that were getting coalition troops killed, including providing weapons to insurgents and training the Taliban, he said.
U.S. forces in Afghanistan have not captured any Quds Force operatives, but "the Afghans have captured Iranians," Flynn said, referring to four Iranians caught smuggling small arms in Nimruz in July. Asked if his people were "beating down the door" to interrogate the Iranians, Flynn answered "Yes," before adding, "We have had great cooperation with the Afghans."
When questioned as to whether it was his working assumption that the four were Quds Force members, Flynn replied: "They were bringing in weapons. Now, do they have the badge that says ‘QF' on the logo? No."
Flynn's assessment is that the Iranians were probably planning to sell the weapons in Helmand and return to Iran, "maybe with some narcotics to take back out."
He noted that, on this occasion at least, the Iranians were not smuggling explosively formed projectiles, which are used to make a particularly lethal form of roadside bomb, and which the Iranians supplied to Iraqi insurgents in large numbers. "There's been only a couple of EFP discoveries here," he said. "They have not taken that strategic step, and I would recommend that they don't. That would be a huge strategic line to cross, especially given what they've done in Iraq."
Nonetheless, the Quds Force was still a malevolent force in Afghanistan, Flynn stressed. "The IRGC Quds Force is an organization that needs to be checked at the door," he said. "And if the country of Iran wants to act responsibly on the world stage they need to take that organization, dismantle it and get it to quit acting like a nation-state-backed terrorist organization."
Instead, he said, "They're playing the game. When I talk about the California wildfire, they're not standing there with a big fire hose putting the fire, let's just say that. If there's anything coming out of that hose, it's grease."