How many al Qaeda fighters are in Afghanistan again?
The banner for al Qaeda's propaganda tape, titled "Winds of Paradise - Part 5, Eulogizing 5 'Martyrs,'" from the Ansar forum.
Today's announcement by ISAF of the killing of al Qaeda "associate" Sabar Lal Melma in Nangarhar is interesting not only because of his status as a former detainee at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility [see Thomas Joscelyn's excellent writeup here], but also because of this interesting admission buried at the end of the portion of the press release dealing with his death:
Coalition security forces have captured or killed more than 40 al Qaeda insurgents in eastern Afghanistan this year.
This is interesting because US officials, including former ISAF commander and soon-to-be CIA chief General David Petraeus, have, for the past year plus, insisted that only 50 to 100 al Qaeda operatives remain in Afghanistan.
At both The Long War Journal and Threat Matrix, we've contested this estimate multiple times. See the following posts for a few examples:
- How many al Qaeda operatives are now left in Afghanistan? (April 26, 2011)
- Al Qaeda never left Kunar, and other problems with US intel (April 7, 2011)
- Analysis: Al Qaeda martyrdom tape shows nature and extent of terror group's reach in Afghanistan (Oct. 28, 2010)
- Analysis: Al Qaeda maintains an extensive network in Afghanistan (July 29, 2010)
- Counting al Qaeda (July 10, 2010)
- The 'only 50 to 100' al Qaeda in Afghanistan fallacy (July 1, 2010)
In April of this year, the US military claimed that 25 al Qaeda operatives were killed throughout all of Afghanistan during a one-month period. Today, we're told that 40 al Qaeda operatives were killed in the east alone.
Keep in mind that if 40 al Qaeda operatives have been killed/captured this year in just the east, and 25 al Qaeda operatives were killed/captured throughout Afghanistan during a one-month period earlier this year, then the total number is somewhat higher than 40. For instance, we know that an al Qaeda leader and associate of Osama bin Laden, and two of his aides were captured in Balkh province in June, and 10 al Qaeda fighters were killed and several more were captured in Ghazni in the southeast in May. But we'll use the number of 40 regardless, to be generous.
Back in April, The Long War Journal requested information from ISAF on the nature and strength of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, how the US military views the threat of al Qaeda and its affiliate groups, and if it considers groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan a threat to US national security. The answers we were given were vague (and the answers largely focused on the Taliban, not al Qaeda). So, we'll repeat these general questions that were posed in How many al Qaeda operatives are now left in Afghanistan? from earlier this year. The questions have been slightly modified to account for the new data:
- Why has the estimate of al Qaeda strength in Afghanistan remained static for more a year?
- What is the intelligence community's present estimate of al Qaeda strength in Afghanistan? Can the estimate be revised downward to 10-60 al Qaeda operatives currently in Afghanistan given the results of operations since the beginning of the year?
- Does US intel believe that most of the 50-100 (or is it now 10-60?) al Qaeda operatives are clustered in the east?
- 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 or Ayman al Zawahiri?
We don't expect an answer. But we do know, based on information released by the US military on operations against al Qaeda, that the static estimate of 50 to 100 operatives in country doesn't pass the basic logic test.