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How many al Qaeda operatives are now left in Afghanistan?



A video from the Sa'ad bin Abi Waqas Group, an al Qaeda subgroup in Kunar province, Afghanistan, released in early 2010 by the Ansar al Mujahideen Forum. The video shows members inventorying equipment to outfit a platoon of fighters.

Buried at the end of this morning's ISAF press release on the death of Abu Hafs al Najdi (Abdul Ghani) is a note that more than 25 al Qaeda operatives and leaders have been killed in Afghanistan over the past month:

The al Qaeda network and its safe havens remains a top priority for Afghan and coalition forces. In the last month, coalition forces have killed more than 25 al Qaeda leaders and fighters, and the death of Abdul Ghani marks a significant milestone in the disruption of the al Qaeda network.

This certainly calls into question the much-touted intelligence estimate on al Qaeda strength in Afghanistan. Last year, CIA Director Leon Panetta floated the estimate on national television.

"I think at most, we're looking at maybe 50 to 100 [al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan], maybe less," Panetta said on ABC News This Week on June 27, 2010. "It's in that vicinity. There's no question that the main location of al-Qaeda is in tribal areas of Pakistan."

General Petraeus repeated this estimate earlier this month. "There is no question that al-Qaida has had a presence in Afghanistan and continues to have a presence - generally assessed at less than 100 or so," General Petraeus told reporters in Kabul on April 10.

Given that ISAF has announced that it killed more than 25 al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan this past month alone, this leaves many questions unanswered. Here are some:

  • Why has the estimate of al Qaeda strength in Afghanistan remained static for nearly a year?
  • What is the intelligence community's present estimate of al Qaeda strength in Afghanistan? Can the estimate be revised downward to 25-75 al Qaeda operatives currently in Afghanistan given the results of operations over the past month?
  • Does US intel believe that most of the 50-100 (or is it now 25-75?) al Qaeda operatives are clustered in Kunar province?
  • What is the intelligence community and the military's definition of al Qaeda? Does this only include operatives who have personally sworn bayat (allegiance) to Osama bin Laden?

For more on the subject of al Qaeda's strength in Afghanistan, see:



READER COMMENTS: "How many al Qaeda operatives are now left in Afghanistan?"

Posted by Bungo at April 26, 2011 4:33 PM ET:

Al Queda, obviously, throws more fresh meat into Afghanistan as the previous ones are killed off. It's a continuous replenishment therefore the magic number of 100 (or whatever) averages out to be the same over a period of months. No big mystery or conspiracy here.

Posted by sd at April 26, 2011 5:17 PM ET:

I know Bill has well documented the likelihood that there are at any given time likely more than the 50-100 AQ quoted in Afghanistan. My guess is that it's not much more if you're talking strictest definition of AQ and that most of them that would meet the strictest definition of AQ (Arab or otherwise closely associated with OBL's past inner circle, pleged loyalty to OBL, etc.) are in Kunar and Nuristan.

I do believe that at most points in time more of the people that would meet the strictest definition of AQ are in Pakistan. However, I still think Bill's point is well taken for several reasons 1) The border is extremely porous and there are bound to be a significant number of AQ in Eastern Afghanistan at most times. 2) The implication that there are "only 50-100" is that we can leave Afg soon. I disagree. The second we leave, as Bill has pointed out they amass in Afg in greater numbers (as Bill has pointed out previously not to say that they ever fully left, but it seems likely that when we leave Afg they amass there in greater numbers). 3) It appears increasingly likely that groups like LeT and allies of AQ are becoming more likely to attack outside of the AfPak region, hence it doesn't matter if there are say 150 or 200, or however many AQ in Afg, there can be 0 and it can still be a threat to areas outside of the immediate region which is the West's main concern anyway.

Posted by Soccer at April 26, 2011 6:03 PM ET:

Al Qaeda also still has a sizable presence in Helmand province, based on the jihadi videos I have recently watched.

They are like a goldmine of intel on their current operations.

Posted by JT at April 26, 2011 6:20 PM ET:

I suppose there are replacements constantly being trained in Pakistan and are being moved across the border to keep the operation running.

The true nest, as most acknowledge, is in Pakistan. Unless that is taken care of, it seems that the pipeline of replacements stays running.

Here is hoping that it is getting much tougher to find recruits in Pakistan, seeing how most of them leave and never come back.

Posted by Kerry at April 26, 2011 10:15 PM ET:

Hey, that is the same insurgent that was interviewed by Sean Langan in his documentary called "Meeting the Taliban". I know that's him because I recognize the 15 year old suicide bombing setting beside him in the video!! Those guys were the scariest people to be interviewing. You should have seen the look on the interviewers face when one of the terrorist pulls out a big sword and told him that he could chop off his head with it if he really wanted to!!

Posted by Charu at April 27, 2011 1:35 AM ET:

With a porous border and a friendly country next door, this is surely a rhetorical question. ISAF does us a great disservice by downplaying the extent of the problem. Separating Haqqani's Taliban or the assorted Pakistani terror acronyms from al Qaeda is an exercise in gross self-deception.

Posted by Jeff Williams at April 27, 2011 9:12 AM ET:

It would be interesting to determine the methodology that the ISAF uses to determine the number of al Qaeda are killed? Do they put troops on the ground to verify or do any dead bodies scattered about automatically become al Qaeda? In Vietnam it was often the case that if it was a dead Vietnamese it was Viet Cong.

Posted by Johno at April 27, 2011 1:29 PM ET:

In the late 80's the Wahabi's poured into Afghanistan when a deal was struck with the 'perestroika' Soviets that the Afghan adventure was over. Their sole aim was to establish bases from which they could attack the West & any secular Islamic society in the third world.

The not so militailry astute chose low lying regions such as Kandahar, Paktia, Logar etc to establish themselves. The more 'switched on' chose regions which had successfully repelled Soviet special forces during the occupation (No doubt with an eye on things to come).

These safe havens became the wedding equivalent of Las Vegas as hundreds of Wahabis embraced their new found brides in the shadows of the Hindu Kush.

In 2011 thousands of children from these happy unions are now in their twenties. Supplement that with a steady stream of fruitcake from every corner of the globe and we are now facing tens of thousands of fighting age men who can be reasonably considered committed to the Wahabi cause.

You add the native Afghans who are up for the fight and the 900 we have recently let go from the R&R centre in Kandahar and tell me there are around only 75 AQ in-country!

Imagine my relief. I must dust off my 'Mission Accomplished!' banner.

Posted by J Henry at April 28, 2011 3:19 PM ET:

This reminds me of the same numbers game that took place in Iraq. Numbers range from the number of active fighters, inactive fighters, and supporters. The next factor will be the replacement rate. When we looked at coalition operations and added up the captured/ killed/ reconciled and compared that to rate of replacement (through the northern Syrian border or through Iranian Kurdistan), we could see a change in the rate of significant activity associated with AQI and its affilate organizations (Ansar al-Islam/ Ansar al-Sunna). The biggest question remains is how AQ is being defined. Is it including Lashkar al-Zil? Is it solely UBL and AZ and their cadres? If we are going to assume that the 25- 75% reduction is true then we should be looking at extremely limited operations by AQ.

Posted by ES at April 29, 2011 6:53 AM ET:

A definition of al-Qaida can be narrowly based on historical formation (those who are with Osama Bin Laden), or the global consensus (UN Security Council Sanctions List which includes some affilliates), more widely by national definitions (US designations as global terorrists with aims to attack the US) or it can include any non-Afghan / non-Pakistani Pashtun Islamist taking up arms in Afghanistan (Afghan Security Forces Definition including Jundullah, Jaysh Muhammadi, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Hizb at-Tahrir, Lashkari Tayyiba and so on). I think General Petraeus is basing his estimate on the national definition, but cannot be sure. This being said, a discussion needs to be had in light of the debate of the size and nature of the interdependence between Taliban and al-Qaida on how one defines al-Qaida.

Posted by Caratacus10ad at April 29, 2011 1:44 PM ET:

How many Al Qaeda operatives are now left in Afghanistan?

Well the way I read it is that the intelligence heads are suggesting that their is approximately 50-100 High priority AQ targets that they wish to eliminate...

i.e foot soldiers/ low level commanders of AQ maybe a lot more, but it is the high priority commanders which needing elimination are around what is being quoted in numbers.

The US/NATO involvement within Afghanistan/Af-Pak borders appears to my way of thinking, purely to get retaliation at the 'Core' Al-Qaeda military/political command personnel and structure.

Though maybe with the withdrawal from Iraq, the West of Afghanistan may become far more important than the East in terms of deployment of forces?

Posted by kp at April 29, 2011 7:02 PM ET:

It is noticible that the US uses both the terms Al Qaeda (presumably the group of people whose reporting ultimately leads to UBL and AZ) and Al Qaeda Related Organizations (groups that work with AQ and share the same aims but who are not directly run by AQ).

I still think that when they use AQ in this context they really mean "people whose boss or "grandboss" or "greatgrandboss" ultimately leads to UBL and AZ). I'm not sure how deep their reporting tree is. These people may be "on detachment" with other orgs but ultimately determine UBL and AZ (and the #3s) determine their tasking.

It would be helpful if there was a glossary (from the DoD, CIA and the like) of the precise terms they use and how they are defined.

Posted by Steve L. at May 4, 2011 5:28 AM ET:

Why are the wasting their rubees on military uniforms? Their tactical advantage was the ability to blend in with the population at will.
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