Analysis: Don’t trust estimates of Al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan

The U.S. government, military, and intelligence services have provided inaccurate assessments of Al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan for more than a decade.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continued that tradition by recently regurgitating that Al Qaeda has fewer than 200 fighters in the country.

This estimate, like previous ones, should not be trusted.

U.S. officials have downplayed Al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan for several reasons. Chief among them, the seemingly non-threatening number has been used to justify the preferred policy of disengaging from Afghanistan. The Obama Administration sought to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban and fulfill their campaign promise of leaving Afghanistan by the end of Obama’s second term.

It would have been difficult – if not impossible – to achieve this if Al Qaeda had a major presence in Afghanistan and fought alongside the Taliban. Additionally, there are many problems with how U.S. intelligence services have defined Al Qaeda and understood its relationship with allied groups.

The “50 to 100” Fallacy

In July 2010, Leon Panetta, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, estimated that there were merely “50 to 100 Al Qaeda” operatives based in Afghanistan. This estimate remained fixed for nearly six years, until the U.S. and Afghan militaries raided two Al Qaeda training camps in Kandahar and killed or captured more than 150 Al Qaeda fighters.

By the time Panetta provided his 50 to 100 estimate, the groundwork for underestimating Al Qaeda’s strength had already been laid for a year.

In May 2009, General David Petraeus said that Al Qaeda no longer operated in Afghanistan, and that its leadership was based in Pakistan’s tribal agency. At the time, the U.S. was conducting the drone campaign to hunt Al Qaeda leaders and operatives based in Pakistan’s tribal agencies of North and South Waziristan.

In Oct. 2009, General James Jones claimed that there were fewer than 100 Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. In May 2010, some individuals began to question if there were any “Al Qaeda guys” operating in Afghanistan at all.

An Obviously Short-Sighted Estimate

FDD’s Long War Journal has closely tracked operations against Al Qaeda’s network in Afghanistan for the past decade and a half. Based on the operational tempo against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the number of operatives killed or captured during raids, it was obvious there was a major problem with Panetta’s 50 to 100 claim.

FDD’s Long War Journal gathered the data released by the U.S. military in its press releases on raids against the Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and allied jihadist groups in Afghanistan. These press releases were issued beginning in 2007 and continued until June 2013. The press releases only documented a subset of the raids against Al Qaeda, U.S. military and intelligence officials have told FDD’s Long War Journal. Therefore, only the tip of the iceberg of Al Qaeda’s network in Afghanistan could be glimpsed. Had other data, such as press reports, Al Qaeda martyrdom statements, and information from Afghanistan’s military and National Directorate of Security been included, the iceberg would have become more visible.

Still, using the U.S. military’s own data provided all the ammunition needed to disprove the static 50 to 100 estimate. By Oct. 2010, the military’s own press releases showed that Al Qaeda was operating in 62 different districts in 19 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Fifty to 100 Al Qaeda operatives could not possible manage such an extensive network.

The military’s own press releases on operations against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan provided fantastic gems that destroyed to 50 to 100 narrative.

In Sept. 2011, the military announced the death of an Al Qaeda “associate” known as Sabar Lal Melma, a former Guantanamo detainee who returned to Afghanistan to wage jihad. Buried at the end of the press release, the military disclosed that “Coalition security forces have captured or killed more than 40 al-Qaida insurgents in eastern Afghanistan” between Jan. and Sept. of 2011. The year wasn’t even over. And eastern Afghanistan is merely one region of Afghanistan. As previously noted, at this time, Al Qaeda was operating in more than half of Afghanistan’s provinces.

Despite information contained within the military’s own press releases, there was no effort by the military or the intelligence community to revise or hide the estimate of Al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan. The 50 to 100 number was repeated as gospel for well over five years.

In June 2013, the U.S. military ended its reporting on military operations agains the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and their allies. The reason given was that the Afghan military was now in charge of security. However, FDD’s Long War Journal was told that its analysis of the raids hurt the Obama administration’s case of a depleted Al Qaeda.

In May 2014, FDD’s Long War Journal mapped the data relating to the seven years of raids against Al Qaeda and its allies. The data showed that between early 2007 and June 2013, al Qaeda and its allies were targeted 338 different times, in 25 of 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces. Those raids have taken place in 110 of Afghanistan’s more than 400 districts. Again, these raids were only what the U.S. military reported; there were far more which were not.

Death of the “50 to 100” estimate

Then, in Oct. 2015, the fallacy of the static 50 to 100 estimate was laid bare. U.S. and Afghan forces raided two Al Qaeda camps in the Shorabak district in Kandahar province. One of the two camps was situated over 30 square miles and was described as the largest Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion in late 2001.

More than 150 Al Qaeda operatives were killed or captured during that raid alone.

Only after the Shorabak raids did the U.S. military revise its estimate from 50 to 100 Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan – this time from to 100 to 300.

A new, sticky “200” estimate

Pompeo’s estimate of less than 200 Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan is not new, either. The 200 number first appeared in the Nov. 2018 Department of Defense Inspector General’s quarterly report on Afghanistan (the same report also grossly estimated the Taliban’s strength).

Therefore, the estimate of 200 is already two years old.


In addition to the political angle of downplaying Al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan to justify withdrawal, there are other reasons this problem has spanned a decade. Once an estimate is thrown out there and is put into the bloodstream, there is little effort made or interest in revising the figure. The estimate is then repeated despite contrary evidence.

Also there is a significant misunderstanding of Al Qaeda in the military, intelligence community and the media. The group is operating clandestinely in Afghanistan under the banner of the Taliban – and that makes it difficult to accurately assess its operations. Al Qaeda intentionally hides its footprint in Afghanistan so as not to sabotage the Taliban’s political efforts.

The Taliban cannot get the U.S. to agree to leave Afghanistan if Al Qaeda is openly supporting the Taliban’s efforts.

A common view of Al Qaeda is that it is an organization dominated by Arabs, and thus Afghans and Pakistanis do not play a role in the group. However, Al Qaeda has a significant cadre of Afghan and Pakistanis in both its leadership and rank and file. The U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan from 2005 to 2018, as well as U.S. military operations against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, highlights that fact. Ilyas Kashmiri, a Pakistani jihadist, rose to lead Al Qaeda’s military before he was killed in a drone strike. There are numerous other examples.

The formation of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent in Sept. 2014 remains widely misunderstood. This Al Qaeda branch, which alone has hundreds of fighters, is made up of operatives from the constellation of jihadist groups in the region, including but not limited to the Afghan Taliban, the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan and other non-aligned Pakistani Taliban groups, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohmmad, Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, and Harakat-ul-Jihad-I-Islami.

This constellation of regional jihadi groups, which used to be known as Al Qaeda and Allied Movements, also fight alongside Al Qaeda as well as conduct joint operations, and thus increase Al Qaeda’s combat power. This also provides Al Qaeda with the opportunity to fill its membership from the leadership and ranks of allied groups when needed.

Additionally, an operative may actually be member of more than one group. (The U.S. military referred to these Al Qaeda leaders as “dual hatted.”) Individuals such as Aminullah Peshwari and Qari Zia Rahman are perfect examples of dual-hatted leaders.

Finally, the fluid border between Afghanistan and Pakistan makes it impossible to assess Al Qaeda strength in either country. Al Qaeda and allied groups frequently cross this border to conduct attacks, establish bases of operations, and shelter given the security situation.

Al Qaeda’s exact strength in Afghanistan may never be known. Given the history of U.S. officials of downplaying this important statistic, one should be highly skeptical of efforts to lowball Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan.

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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