Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had some interesting things to say during a speech at Duke University on Wednesday. In particular, the following caught my eye. From Reuters:
[Gates] later fielded questions from students, telling them eastern Afghanistan “is increasingly an unholy syndicate of terrorist groups working together: al Qaeda, the Haqqani network, the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban and groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba. A success for one is a success for all.”
(1) “Syndicate” is a good word to use when describing the collusion between various terrorist groups. We’ve described al Qaeda as being the tip of the jihadist spear — that is, an essential part of a jihadist coalition. The concept is the same. These groups work hand-in-hand to achieve their common goals. It is a mistake to think they can be easily disentangled. They share common ideological roots (al Qaeda has worked hard to make sure this is the case, by the way), safe havens, sources of funding, training camps, arms suppliers, etc. They cooperate in operations on a daily basis. And, by and large, they share the same enemy list, with America being enemy #1.
(2) It is precisely this overlap that makes counting the number of “al Qaeda” operatives inside Afghanistan an intrinsically difficult proposition. If you follow Bill Roggio’s work at the Long War Journal closely, then you know that he points to reports of Taliban, al Qaeda, Haqqani, Hekmatyar, etc. commanders who straddle multiple organizations all the time. How do you put a terrorist who is deeply in bed with both the Taliban and al Qaeda into one bucket or the other? I don’t think you can.
But that is exactly what some in the US government have tried to do. You will recall that the CIA guesstimated there were only 50-100 al Qaeda operatives inside Afghanistan at one time. I don’t think that is true even using a narrow definition of “al Qaeda.” And this range is highly dependent on where you draw the line between the various organizations. “Syndicates” don’t make that easy to do. Moreover, Bill has dissected the absurdity of this poor approximation previously.
“A success for one is a success for all,” Secretary Gates said. He is right.