Taliban Acknowledges 'Thousands' of Foreign Fighters in Their Ranks

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In a startling admission, a senior leader in the Afghan Taliban told NBC News that “thousands” of foreign fighters are currently embedded in the group in Afghanistan. The admission is astonishing as the Taliban has attempted to obscure its relationship with al Qaeda, even though it slips up every now and then. FDD’s Long War Journal has maintained for the last eight years that US military and intelligence estimates of between 50 to 100 al Qaeda in Afghanistan (later modified to 200) have been woefully low.

The Taliban leader, who has not been named, admitted this to NBC News as the group was conducting negotiations with the US in Qatar. From the report:

A senior Afghan Taliban commander who is also a member of the group’s leadership council told NBC News that there were around 2,000 to 3,000 non-Afghan fighters in their midst, mostly from China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, Tunisia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

“We are Muslims and according to our religion … we cannot deny shelter to someone if he or she comes to trouble,” said the commander, who recently attended three days of talks with Khalilzad in Qatar. “None of the foreign militants would be allowed to take up arms and use this soil against any country in the world.”

Thousands of Pakistanis are also thought to be fighting as members of the Taliban.

It is unclear why the Taliban leader felt the urge to admit that thousands of foreign fighters are fighting alongside his group (most these are without a doubt al Qaeda, note how the Taliban commander refers to them as “foreign militants”). Perhaps he is emboldened by the US government’s desperation to negotiate with the Taliban, and is unconcerned that his comments will make US officials reconsider the Taliban’s relationship with al Qaeda. 

Regardless of the reason, the admission further validates eight years of research by FDD’s Long War Journal, which has rejected the absurd notions that al Qaeda was defeated in Afghanistan and the Taliban has distanced itself the group.  Between 2010 and 2015, LWJ fought back against the US military and intelligence community’s unchanging assessment of 50 to 100 al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. Using the US military’s own press releases on operations against al Qaeda, and al Qaeda’s own statements of its operations in Afghanistan, it was clear that the terror group’s footprint was far larger than 50 to 100 operatives. The fact that this estimate remained the same for six straight years was also a tell that the intelligence on al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan was being gamed, likely for political reasons, primarily to justify the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The preposterous 50 to 100 estimate was completely discredited in Oct. 2015, when the US military raided two al Qaeda camps in Shorabak, Kandahar. More than 150 al Qaeda fighters were killed in an area that the US military and intelligence community claimed al Qaeda didn’t operate. After admitting the 50 to 100 estimate was incorrect, US military leaders laughingly increased the estimate of al Qaeda’s strength to about 200 fighters

Now, a Taliban leader is saying thousands of foreign fighters are operating alongside it. Will the US military and intelligence community up its estimate? It is doubtful, as the US government is hell-bent on withdrawing, and the fact that thousands of al Qaeda are fighting alongside the Taliban would make it difficult to sell negotiations with the group that hosted al Qaeda when the US was attacked on 9/11.

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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This article appeared originally at FDD's Long War Journal.

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