No one knows for sure who was responsible for the slaying outside of Kabul of Maj Gen. Harold Greene—the first American general killed in a war zone since Vietnam. But U.S. intelligence agencies have recently detected a spike in threats from the Taliban and other associated jihadist organizations in Afghanistan, particularly against Kabul. And one American congressman has already laid the assassination at the feet of the Taliban.
The Afghan Defense Ministry said simply that the attacker was a man wearing an Afghan army uniform. A Taliban spokesman on Tuesday praised the attack but did not claim credit for it.
But House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon sees a Taliban hand behind the slaying. “Because the Taliban has been unable to succeed militarily against Afghan and coalition forces, they are continuing to conduct cowardly, headline-grabbing insider attacks,” he said in a statement.
The Taliban have spent the last seven years trying to embed moles inside Afghanistan’s army and security services. At a press briefing Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Adm. John Kirby was careful not to assign blame for the attack, describing the assailant only as an Afghan soldier. But the U.S. military has spoken publicly for years about its efforts to root out the Taliban infiltrators inside the military President Obama hopes will keep Afghanistan from becoming an al Qaeda haven.
One congressional staff member told The Daily Beast, “Our view is: This is Taliban until proven otherwise.”
Even if the Taliban had nothing to do with Tuesday’s attack—and they might not have—the threat from the group and other Islamic extremists in Afghanistan is rising, current and former U.S. intelligence and military officials tell The Daily Beast. The new danger in Afghanistan reflects an optimism from the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network that Obama will remove U.S. forces from the country by the end of his presidency, leaving them an opportunity to re-establish havens within Afghanistan.
“What we are seeing broadly, and this has nothing to do with today’s attack, is that as Americans withdraw from various parts of the country, in the east and the south in particular, Afghan units are also withdrawing or being pushed back by Taliban advances,” said Ret. Gen. David Barno, who commanded U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan between 2003 and 2005. “We’ve seen this in Helmand province, where the Marines fought successfully for a number of years, and we are seeing some reports of this in the eastern part of Afghanistan, as well.”
One senior U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, concurred. “Look at the areas we pulled out early in and how badly those are going,” this official said. “This will continue to happen. This will be like dominoes.”
This official said U.S. intelligence agencies have recorded “an uptick” in attacks and attempted attacks in Afghanistan in the last two months. “Some of these are Haqqani Network attacks, some are al Qaeda, and some are Taliban.” This official stressed that all of these groups synchronize their activities through the leadership council or Shura Council in Quetta, Afghanistan. “We know they coordinate and we never admit it publicly,” this official said.
U.S. officials described the attack on Tuesday at the Marshal Fahim National Defense University, on the outskirts of Kabul, as an Afghan soldier who fired at coalition forces. Fifteen were reportedly wounded in the incident, including a German brigadier general.
The incident highlights the precarious state of Afghanistan as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw from the country. Outgoing Defense Intelligence Agency Director Michael Flynn warned last month against underestimating insurgents like the Taliban and its allies.
"We look at some of these people as if they were in shower shoes and bathrobes, but twice they were defeating the most sophisticated military in the world, in 2006 in Iraq and 2009 in Afghanistan,” he said last month at the annual Aspen Security Forum. “And they’re watching everything that’s going on in Iraq as we transition out of Afghanistan.”
The warning about Iraq is particularly prescient. U.S. troops had largely defeated al Qaeda’s franchise in that country by the end of 2009. But this year the group, which broke off from al Qaeda and renamed itself the Islamic State, has amassed a mini-state composed of territory in eastern Syria and western Iraq. This spring, the Islamic State’s fighters and other Sunni insurgents took over Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul.
In Afghanistan, the U.S. estimate of al Qaeda has officially claimed for years that the group had no more than 100 fighters in remote Kunar Province. But in the last year many in the military and intelligence community have challenged that figure, saying the group has been able to expand its reach inside the country.
The Obama administration also has failed up to now to persuade the Taliban to break off relations with al Qaeda and reconcile its differences with the government in Kabul. Just last month, al Qaeda publicly reaffirmed its loyalty to Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s reclusive leader. An edition of al Qaeda’s online magazine produced earlier this year but only released online in July by the group’s propaganda arm opens “by renewing the pledge of allegiance to [the] Emir of the Believers Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid.”
The Long War Journal, which tracks jihadist groups and reported on al Qaeda’s oath, judged that the statement was timed as a rebuke to competing claims of authority made by the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. But the relationship between al Qaeda and the Taliban has a long history that predates the current power struggle with the Islamic State. In a video from 2001, Osama bin Laden praised Mullah Omar while enthusing about his own pledge of loyalty to the “emir” and declaring that other Muslims owed Omar their support.
Barno said he believed that the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and al Qaeda were now working together from time to time.
“I think they all loosely coordinate and to some degree they de-conflict their operations,” he said. “They are supportive of each other’s goals and objectives, broadly speaking. The Taliban has more local objectives than al Qaeda, which tends to have global ambitions, but they are mutually supportive in a lot of these endeavors in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
Mark Jacobson, former deputy NATO representative in Afghanistan, said that any success the Taliban or other groups have in launching terrorist attacks would not likely benefit the Taliban’s prospects for taking over Afghanistan. Instead, he said, the success or failure of Afghanistan rests on the ability of the country’s leaders to form a government after recent elections.
“Regardless of any tactical setbacks, the real issue is going to be political cohesion in Afghanistan,” he said. “If you don’t settle the political struggle, no matter how strong the Afghan National Security Forces are, there is no way they will be able to stop the Taliban from making territorial gains.”
—with additional reporting by Josh Rogin and Jacob Siegel