Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

How many al Qaeda can you live with ?

September 16, 2010
(A box of  'Super Osama bin Laden" candles bought at a bazaar in Kandahar)

(A box of 'Super Osama bin Laden" candles bought at a bazaar in Kandahar)

A furious debate has raged for several months now whether it makes sense for the United States to throw tens of thousands of  soldiers at a handful of al Qaeda that remain in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre, nine years after launching the global war on terrorism.

CIA director Leon Panetta  told ABC News in June thatal-Qaeda’s presencein Afghanistan was now “relatively small … I think at most, we’re looking at maybe 50 to 100.” And in nextdoor Pakistan, arguably the more  dangerous long-term threat, there were about 300  al Qaeda leaders and fighters, officials separately estimated.

Given that U.S. President Barack Obama has repeatedly said the central mission of the United States in Afghanistan was to “disrupt, defeat and dismantle ” al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan,  is this now a turning point in the war against the group ? Surely it doesn’t make too must sense to deploy 150,000 troops in Afghanistan, now that the al Qaeda has been whittled down to less than a 100 there, argue several experts.

Fareed Zakaria wrote in the Washington Post this week that with ”al Qaeda central” down to 400 fighters worldwide, the group has been unable to execute the kind of high profile attacks that were at the core of its strategy, targeting symbols of U.S.military and politicalpower.  Instead, smaller local groups, self-identified as affiliates of al-Qaeda have launched attacks against much easier sites — the nightclub in Bali; cafes in Casablanca and Istanbul; hotels in Amman, Jordan; train stations in Madrid and London. The biggest casualties in these attacks have been ordinary people, not U.S. diplomats or soldiers, and which has further turned away the local population from Islamist radicals.  Instead of inspiring unstoppable waves of jihadis as some had feared, militant Islam’s appeal has plunged across the Muslim world including in Pakistan where political parties associated with Islamic jihad have performed poorly, he says.

So the legitimate question now is: Have we gone too far? Is the vast expansion in governmental powers and bureaucracies — layered on top of the already enormous military-industrial complex of the Cold War — warranted? Does an organization that has as few as 400 members and waning global appeal require the permanent institutional response we have created?


But Bruce Hoffman,  professor at Georgetown University and the director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies,  says its far too early to declare victory against al Qaeda. Terrorism, he says in a piece for The National Interest , is not  a numbers game. It took only 19 men to change the course of history on September 11, 2001. It took only four bombers to shatter Britain’s security on July 7, 2005 in London. Further back, it was a lone gunman who assassinated the heir to the Hapsburg throne in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 and thus set in motion the chain of events that led to World War

Indeed small groups of individuals can often have a disproportionate impact on the countries that are their targets. The  Red Army Faction (RAF or “Baader-Meinhof Gang”) active in West Germany from 1970 to 1998 never numbered more than two dozen or so hard-core terrorists. Yet, they were successful in imposing a reign of terror on that country despite the exertions of its sophisticated police and intelligence and security services for more than a quarter century.

Hoffman and Peter Bergen develop the argument further in a report released last Friday for the U.S. National Security Preparedness Group titled, Assessing the Terrorist Threat. Here’sthe full report  but here’s the central crux of their argument not to to underestimate the threat from al Qaeda :  

First, al Qaeda has always been a small, elite organization. There were only 200 sworn members of al-Qaeda at the time of the 9/11 attacks, and al-Qaeda’s role has always  been as an ideological and military vanguard seeking to influence and train other jihadist groups. Second, al-Qaeda’s ideology and tactics have spread to a wide range of militant groups in South Asia, all of which are relatively large. The Taliban in Afghanistan alone is estimated to number 25,000 men, while Lashkar-e-Taiba has thousands of fighting men in its ranks. Finally, al-Qaeda Central has seeded a number
of franchises around the Middle East and North Africa that now are acting in an al- Qaeda-like manner with little or no contact with al-Qaeda Central itself.

The danger, then from al Qaeda comes not just from its central leadership holed up in Pakistan, but in its ability to inspire and cooperate with like-minded groups, the authors say.







Do you treat cancer when it is only a few cells? Or do you wait for it to grow out of control.

Posted by Ericlklein | Report as abusive

To (mis)quote someone.

“Never believe a small group of committed individuals cannot change the world. Nothing else ever has”

Posted by Dafydd | Report as abusive

The US declared bin Laden enemy number one after 9/11. They missed a historical chance of apprehending him at Tora Bora. If they wish to assert their status as super power, they must fulfill the legacy. It has become a question of principle.

After Arminius had betrayed the Romans in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, the Romans kept on his heels. Though they abandoned their ambition to turn Germany into a province, they mustered almost three times the number of legions lost in the battle and destroyed Arminius’ insurgency after seven years. Arminius met a violent end at the hands of an assassin.

Read more here: 9/teutoburg-forest-mind.html

We must be assertive, if we wish to be respected.


Al Qaida, taliban, Lashkar e Toiba are all the same & no distinction should be made in killing them. All these people are a group of thugs bent to forcing their Islamic agenda on all peoples of the world by force. Full force must be exerted & these thugs must be killed so that world becomes a safer place. Non Muslims have a right to exist on earth and these hoodlums want to deny that right of ours.


We should not confuse Islam with the traditionds of arabs, muslims and christians, nor of other muslim countries who do not have common culture or traditions.

Posted by rex Minor | Report as abusive

‘Taliban = Thug’ is the correct definition. U pay afghan warlords (Taliban being the largest warlord) the right price and they sell their mothers for it. That has been their history, it is their present and will remain their future. They will never unite as one because of their never ending greed. If Taliban is so much of super Islam then why has it agreed to reconcile with US, a country that killed so many of their beloved countrymen(if they are beloved to Taliban). They are at best paid prostitutes who would dance to any tune given the right price.

Posted by 777xxx777 | Report as abusive

only 400, we have as many dangerous people here., in the usa.

declare the conflict over, reconciliation , you can never eliminate every one of your enemy. Focus should be to strenghten police and rule of law ,not military.
There has been too many innocent victims for us to make real friends there.

no declaration of victory- we sought justice (I hope) not victory. Lets move on.

We cant deal with clowns like Chavez, in our own backyard, will this theater is going on

Posted by thomas | Report as abusive

I wish NATO or Russia would nuke the entire northwest Pakistan region, and rid mankind of this scourge! Death to al Qaeda scum and their supporters!!! May Osama bin Laden gargle swine balls, Satan be upon him!!!

Posted by wang | Report as abusive

I wish people would opt for peace, and united they would succeed. Your wish of death for al Qaeda has woken up the gene and the response is in the media. Go back to sleep and dream of peace, take your brave soldiers with you. People in Europe asked for peace and that is what they have now!
Rex Minor

Posted by rex Minor | Report as abusive

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see