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?