A multi-day operation in southern Afghanistan this month that involved 200 Special Operations forces and scores of American airstrikes targeted what was “probably the largest” al-Qaeda training camp found in the 14-year Afghan war, the senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan said.
Army Gen. John F. Campbell, the four-star officer in charge of the U.S. war effort, said the camp was used by AQIS, an acronym for al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. The group’s formation was announced last year by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, and is believed to be based in Pakistan and focused on India, Pakistan and other nations in southern Asia.
The operation, announced by the U.S. military on Oct. 11, hit one training area that sprawled over 30 square miles and another small one that was about one square mile, U.S. military officials said. U.S. and Afghan troops were involved in the ground assault, with 63 airstrikes launched to cover them. Some 160 al-Qaeda fighters were reported killed.
The training camps were found in Kandahar province’s Shorabak district, a sparsely populated area along Afghanistan’s southern border with Pakistan, and the facilities are believed to have been in existence for up to a year.
That in itself has raised questions about the effectiveness of the U.S. military to find and strike the militants 14 years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks prompted the United States to topple the Taliban and begin hunting al-Qaeda. U.S. officials have long said that only the bare remnants of al-Qaeda remained in Afghanistan, and that they were concentrated in a few valleys in the eastern part of the country.
“It’s a place where you would probably think you wouldn’t have AQ. I would agree with that,” Campbell said of the Kandahar operation, using an acronym for al-Qaeda. “This was really AQIS, and probably the largest training camp-type facility that we have seen in 14 years of war.”
Campbell, speaking in an interview in his office, said the existence of the camps in Kandahar province were discovered after a raid this summer on another al-Qaeda facility in the Barmal district of eastern Afghanistan’s Paktika province. That rugged, mountainous district borders North Waziristan, in one of Pakistan’s tribal areas with a long history of both al-Qaeda and Taliban operations.
“We looked at it for a while to make sure we reduced the risk to the forces that go in on a target like that,” Campbell said of the operation this month. “It was a very complex target set over several days.”
Campbell said it was initially surprising to find the camps in the south, “but I think as we step back now and really analyze it, it shouldn’t.” The enemy continues to evolve, he said, especially as Pakistan launches operations on its side of the border to root out insurgent fighters and the Islamic State competes with al-Qaeda for global influence.