The ‘only 50 to 100’ al Qaeda in Afghanistan fallacy

The CIA continues to get it all wrong when discussing al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Numerous officials are repeating CIA Director Leon Panetta’s claim that al Qaeda maintains only a small footprint in Afghanistan. Here is what Panetta said over the weekend on ABC News’ This Week:

“I think at most, we’re looking at maybe 50 to 100, maybe less. It’s in that vicinity. There’s no question that the main location of al-Qaeda is in tribal areas of Pakistan,” he said.

As noted in the somewhat recent Threat Matrix series tracking dead ‘al Qaeda guys’ in Afghanistan, the number would seem to be a tad higher. Just this week, the US and the Afghan military launched an operation in Kunar that targeted “al Qaeda and Taliban leadership in the area.” The names of the al Qaeda and Taliban leaders were not disclosed. At LWJ we provided the names of two known major al Qaeda leaders, Abu Ikhlas al Masri, al Qaeda’s operations chief for the province, and Qari Zia Rahman, who sort of straddles both the al Qaeda and Taliban. Rahman is considered the top regional commander in Kunar and Nuristan, as well as across the border in Bajaur, Pakistan.

While researching al Qaeda and the Taliban in Kunar, I was pointed to this analysis on Kunar by the Institute for the Study of War. There is a lot of good information on the province, but this stuck out [emphasis mine]:

Provincial officials estimated in 2008 that there were at least 2,000 insurgents in the mountains of Kunar. This number probably varies widely given the proximity to the Pakistani border and the ease with which insurgents can cross the frontier. About half the insurgents in Korengal are believed to be local fighters, while the other half are believed to be foreigners, including Pakistanis, Arabs, Chechens, and Uzbeks.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the 2,000 insurgents in Kunar has remained constant since 2008, even if this number is probably low, as more fighters are said to have moved into Kunar since the US began abandoning outposts there last fall. That makes an estimated 1,000 of those fighters foreign. Now, how many of these are actually al Qaeda is certainly something up for debate, as the odds are good that the bulk of these are Pakistanis. But as we’ve argued many times before, the distinctions between these groups are breaking down as time moves on. Qari Zia Rahman is a good example of this.

So, again for the sake of argument, even if 90 percent of the foreign fighters in Kunar belong to the Pakistani Taliban (another distinction that increasingly is becoming meaningless, see Hakeemullah Mehsud, Siraj Haqqani, the Punjabi Taliban, etc.), and the remaining 10 percent, or about 100 fighters, are Arabs, Uzbeks, Chechens, etc., then Kunar alone has quite an al Qaeda problem.

Unfortunately, the top tiers of US intelligence continually underestimate al Qaeda’s strength and overestimate the US’ ability to degrade the network. Just the other week, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that half of al Qaeda has been eliminated. The Bush administration used to do this all the time, for instance in 2004 it claimed that 3/4 of al Qaeda had been killed or captured.

Using CIA math, if 1/2 of the remaining 1/4 of al Qaeda operatives have been killed or captured, that means we only have 1/8 to go, right? Are they all in Kunar?

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Scott Miller says:

    Al Qaeda in Afghanistan?!? The Taliban and Al Qaeda inseperable linked?!? PSHAW! Don’t believe your own lying eyes! Nothing to see here folks, move along.
    The political/leadership class in this country is always in denial about all harsh realities.

  • Owen_B says:

    Bill- I enjoy reading your webpage on a regular basis but you’re far off target with this article. The numbers thrown around by Panetta are accurate.
    Also, my assumption is that your Institute for the Study of War source for the quote was the Kunar/Nuristan paper co-authored by James Fussell. While the paper focuses on the areas of Korengal and Kamdesh, James Fussell never worked in either of those locations and the paper is filled with numerous obvious errors- such as the claim that half the fighters in Korengal were FFs. It was one of the worst papers I have ever read on Kunar/Nuristan and should not be used as a source. Anyone who says that half the fighters in Korengal were foreigners has clearly never set foot in that valley. The co-author worked near Asadabad (such as Sarkani) during his time with SF and TF Paladin.

  • Bungo says:

    As you say, the distinction between AQ and The Taliban are virtually moot these days. You have Taliban commanders backing lone bombers against America and AQ trained foreign fighters involved in the ground war/insurgency in Afghanistan. Nowadays AQ is a multi-headed creature that is made up of “foreigners” as oppossed to “local” or “indigenous” fighters. After that you can sub-classify them ‘ad infinitum’.

  • Abu Nasr says:

    Panetta’s statement is frightening since it tells us they have no idea how many al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. Let me rephrase his quote:
    “I think at most, we’re looking at maybe x to twice that number, maybe less.”
    So basically either his first number or twice as many. How can any military officer plan an operation around such poor information?
    A kill vs. recruitment ratio would be far more valuable than these dangerous guesses.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    I am not directing the Predator campaign, but was able to tell the readers that Hakeemullah Mehsud wasn’t killed, even when the CIA said he was. Sometimes being there or running the show doesn’t equate with understanding the situation. If you want to take on the ISW report, then a version of the ‘chicken analyst’ argument won’t do.
    I largely disagree with the ISW conclusion (pull out of remote areas, US presence is causing insurgency, etc.) however the data is sound. I get this from people who I trust understand the situation and are very knowledgeable on AQ in the region. Also the report doesn’t claim there are 1,000 FF in the Korengal, they were referring to the province as a whole. Also, someone needs to explain all of the FFs that appear in the propaganda videos.

  • Jose says:

    I usually enjoy your commentaries, but this one puzzles me. I guess, most reasonable people would expect the numbers of fighters to vary significantly, from week-to week, especially in a war zone. The article you had quoted gave a WAG at numbers in 2008 and even said it will vary. I’m just not clear on what point you are trying to make. It seems you are trying to take WAG’s yourself at the numbers…just like the CIA would. So what? I mean, who cares?
    Now we have the CIA wag in 2008, and your WAG in mid-2010. Wasting valuable brain power on trivia.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    My point is that a WAG of 50-100 AQ in all of Afghanistan is silly on its face and any serious person that tracks Afghanistan and AQ’s involvement there would know this. My point with comparing to Kunar is that good, open source intel shows that this CIA WAG would likely not even cover one sparsely populated province in the northeast.
    When people start yelling for withdrawal from Afghanistan because AQ is no longer there, and use the CIA WAG, they will have cover.

  • Owen_B says:

    My point is that the open source intel you’re using, such as the ISW paper, is completely wrong. The data is not sound and the entire paper is riddled with mistakes. The same goes for any other OSINT that supports such a conclusion. The idea that there are all these FFs running around Afghanistan is entirely incorrect. Yes, it sounds sexy to say that Al Qaeda agents are fighting us in Afghanistan and that gets a lot of attention but it’s just not true.

  • T Ruth says:

    Lets not get lost in the detail.
    Bill’s larger point as i read it is:
    “But as we’ve argued many times before, the distinctions between these groups are breaking down as time moves on. Qari Zia Rahman is a good example of this.”
    Further, what is even CLEARER TO ALL is that the distinction between the AF and the PAK border is an optical illusion and AQ/T knows that, esp in their night vision. Panetta’s latter half of the quote is:
    “There’s no question that the main location of al-Qaeda is in tribal areas of Pakistan”
    But then he/the original article gloss over that.
    As for AQ, it is as much a phenomenon, as it is an organization. The taliban is part of that phenomena as it is under the umbrella of AQCentral. By virtue of supporting HAQ, Hek and others, Pakistan provides an even larger umbrella.
    Bottom-line is Panetta should’ve provided better context to his count, even if he believes that, and still can. The lack of context does not inspire comfort; to the contrary.

  • Frank M says:

    Can someone please explain why it is important to classify the enemy fighters as Al Qaeda, or Taliban, or this or that islamic group? Over the years I have read reports where significance is placed upon these classifications, even arguments about whether some guy was Al Qaeda or not, but I haven’t understood why. Is it for military planning purposes? Or what?

  • Lorenz Gude says:

    It strikes me that your last comment probably clarifies why the CIA is taking a minimizing position.

  • Bungo says:

    Maybe the root problem here is whether or not you classify every “foreign fighter” in theater as “AL Queda” or not. Maybe Panetta and the CIA are using a more limited definition. When you get down to it, other than “foreigner”, how the heck can you say someone is AQ or not over there. Is it on their shoulder patch or do they carry an AQ i.d. card?

  • Bill Roggio says:

    We’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one. The evidence in the open source clearly supports the case that their are plenty of foreign fighters in Afghanistan – or at least more than the 50-100 estimate, that is for sure. I am not getting this just from open source info, this comes from military/civilian intel officials whom I trust on this subject.

  • Owen_B says:

    Frank M-
    It’s important to distinguish between AQ and TB or other fighters because AQ are exporting terrorism while TB and other groups have more local interests that affect the Afghan government but not as much us at home in the US.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Look at the failed Times Square bombing, and see who the culprit was there. Hint: it wasn’t AQ.
    And it took our agencies a week to admit that this was carried out by the Taliban, when we here at LWJ knew the answer in 12 hours (and published it).
    See here & here:
    I’m not saying this to brag (in fact that behavior is against everything I stand for). I’m using this as an example of an intelligence failure which has infected the reasoning in our highest levels of government.
    I agree it is important to distinguish between groups but for other reasons: understanding origins, leadership, weaknesses, strengths, TTPs, modes of operating, areas of operations, etc. But from a level of ideology, there is often much these groups agree on.

  • blert says:

    Panetta is politically framing the case that we can call off operations after a time because we’ve done so much damage to AQ in Afghanistan that it must constitute victory of a kind.
    Unsaid is the obvious difficulty of going beyond drone attacks in Northwest Pakistan. It is tacitly accepted by his audience that pursuing the enemy into that sanctuary is a non-starter.
    AQ operates like cockroaches: for every one that you see far more are creeping around in the night.
    Even the 911 conspiracy is turning out, after all this time, to have a broader sweep than was previously known.
    The course of action and inaction chosen by GWB and BHO assures us that this war can have no resolution. The enemy targets NY, the Capitol and the White House — but we refuse to go after their headquarters and critical personalities without restraint.
    The enemy claims that they are fighting a religious war — but we claim that it’s anything but that.
    Instead of spanking the enemy — we engage in ‘nation building’ in a society that is riven with tribal factions, a society that normally regards its neighbors with rage and anger over past injustice.
    There is NO DESIRE by Afghans for a unified nation. The LAST THING they want is centralized control from Kabul or anywhere else. Economically, they are in no position to afford the taxes central administration requires.
    We persist in maintaining a brutal logistical tail as bad as the Burma Road. Obama & Company ramped up a campaign that is logistically restricted. At least Bush understood that Afghanistan requires a lean footprint due to the logistics and politics of Afghanistan.
    Panetta understands this too well, and is preparing the optics for winding down the build-up.
    I rather suspect that Petraeus has already informed Gates and Obama that we are near the logistical limit and that HIS strategy is to go back to a long pursuit and limited goals. It takes time to identify the Taliban after they’ve embedded themselves with the locals.
    As for tactics, I’m amazed at the logistically impossible locations that ISAF have selected to man.
    We should not ever advance into situations that are a nightmare to sustain. Like micro-forts requiring helicopter re-supply.
    I say bring back the Calvary. Couple them to overhead drones and the logic of the Stryker’s positional awareness. Stay off the roads. We’re being blown-up — NOT shot up. Drill for water and grow alfalfa, ASAP. Use tracking dogs and local scouts. Use intelligent ‘mines’ to increase paranoia. (Immobile Droids that shoot night and day — with human tele-presence in the link. If moved by the enemy it blows up. c.f. :Aliens)

  • T Ruth says:

    Owen, the Dec 30 slaughter of CIA people at FOB Chapman, was that carried out by AQ or the Taliban? The Jordanian bomber himself was he AQ or Taliban? Was he in the Af count of operatives or Pak count? Indeed was he an operative? In any count at all?
    Isn’t it for precisely this reason that the Obama admin labelled it as Af-Pak, and then backed down?
    If its the export of terror we are talking about then i would agree its more likely to come with the label “Made in Pakistan” than “Made in Afghanistan”, but then that is also true for the terror in Afghanistan itself–“Made in Pakistan”, just like Chapman and Times Sq. But to think its solely AQ and not the Taliban, or even LeT or others (eg Bombay), would be a huge calculation error.

  • Render says:

    The enemy embedded footage from during and after COP Keating and Wanat is still available.!
    There are (or were) other video’s available.
    The foreign fighters seen in those videos are fairly distinctive from the locals also seen in those videos.
    The majority, if not all, of the heavy crew served weapons and all of the indirect fire seen in those videos (14.5mm AA guns, 82mm mortars, recoiless rifles, and 107mm rockets) are clearly manned by trained professional foreign fighters from the other side of the Durand Line.
    While there were fundamental differences in ideology, tactics, and equipment there was little else useful to distinguish between the 5th and 12th Waffen SS divisions.

  • Neo says:

    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t!
    The occupation of Afghanistan has so far been largely successful in achieving it’s first short term purpose, in denying and disrupting Al Qaeda’s ability to directly attack the West in general, and the United States specifically. It has made only marginal headway in discrediting the Islamist political movement that surrounds the Al Qaeda and is currently having little success in forging a stable government in Afghanistan. Prospects for a long term stable government in Afghanistan or even Pakistan, seem very slim at this point. The problem is, you can not continue the meet the requirements of denying Al Qaeda a base from which to attack, without some sort of political and military guarantee that they won’t set up shop in Afghanistan once again. If you leave Afghanistan to the Taliban and its Al Qaeda guests, you give up what measure of security you have had over the last nine years.
    The problem here with CIA analysts, is they are being paid to come up with solutions, namely a short term solution to Afghan political stability, so we can leave on a shortened timetable. Many people in the CIA can see that political stabilization of Afghanistan in the short term is impossible and they don’t know how to produce a politically palatable solution.
    Given a problem with no solution, combined with a lot of pressure to find a solution, it becomes tempting for the analyst to redefine the problem. First, they re-define Al Qaeda in the tightest of terms, and get a somewhat appealing result that very few in the Afghan resistance actually meet your stringent definition. There may indeed be relatively few Al Qaeda people actually planning attacks on the United States. It might be pointed out that there never were a large number of people involved in actual plots against the United States. From the beginning they were always allied with many fellow co-travelers and living at the behest of Taliban government authorities.
    The chief purpose of identifying a local Taliban seems to be to find a partner with witch to reasonably engage in negotiation. The Taliban, for its part, has flatly rejected even the hint of negotiations, although it might be noted that the ISI may be willing to negotiate as a proxy to the Taliban. That’s a proposition that should seem sadly comical, considering very recent history.
    It seems the Talibans main objection to negotiation is ideologically against the notion of any honest negotiation with the infidel. They don’t have specific grievances, as much as the completely despise us. The Taliban has also repeatedly stated it is ideologically in agreement with Al Qaeda. It would seem that the distinction we are trying to draw between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, is in the function of the mission of those respective organizations, rather than any significant difference in ideology.
    It’s all a little like drawing a distinction between a gladiator and the point of his blade. Naturally the intent of the point of his blade is to kill me. Maybe, I’ll have better luck negotiating with the shield and armor, or maybe the arms, legs, and torso would oblige me more kindly. Perhaps we could talk, if only he would stop growling and grunting, and staring at me like a hideous carcass.
    I am afraid this will all be settled with a different sort of negotiation. The US military and CIA will eventually negotiate with the State Department, the Executive, and Congress. Call me cynical if you wish.
    If they can’t make retreat palatable or sensible, they can at least make it a moral imperative. That way when stuff starts blowing up on the home front, they can at least satisfy themselves that it was all someone else’s fault.


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