A furious debate has raged for several months now whether it makes sense for the United States to throw tens of thousands of soldiers at a handful of al Qaeda that remain in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre, nine years after launching the global war on terrorism.
CIA director Leon Panetta told ABC News in June thatal-Qaeda’s presencein Afghanistan was now “relatively small … I think at most, we’re looking at maybe 50 to 100.” And in nextdoor Pakistan, arguably the more dangerous long-term threat, there were about 300 al Qaeda leaders and fighters, officials separately estimated.
Given that U.S. President Barack Obama has repeatedly said the central mission of the United States in Afghanistan was to “disrupt, defeat and dismantle ” al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is this now a turning point in the war against the group ? Surely it doesn’t make too must sense to deploy 150,000 troops in Afghanistan, now that the al Qaeda has been whittled down to less than a 100 there, argue several experts.
Fareed Zakaria wrote in the Washington Post this week that with ”al Qaeda central” down to 400 fighters worldwide, the group has been unable to execute the kind of high profile attacks that were at the core of its strategy, targeting symbols of U.S.military and politicalpower. Instead, smaller local groups, self-identified as affiliates of al-Qaeda have launched attacks against much easier sites — the nightclub in Bali; cafes in Casablanca and Istanbul; hotels in Amman, Jordan; train stations in Madrid and London. The biggest casualties in these attacks have been ordinary people, not U.S. diplomats or soldiers, and which has further turned away the local population from Islamist radicals. Instead of inspiring unstoppable waves of jihadis as some had feared, militant Islam’s appeal has plunged across the Muslim world including in Pakistan where political parties associated with Islamic jihad have performed poorly, he says.
So the legitimate question now is: Have we gone too far? Is the vast expansion in governmental powers and bureaucracies — layered on top of the already enormous military-industrial complex of the Cold War — warranted? Does an organization that has as few as 400 members and waning global appeal require the permanent institutional response we have created?
But Bruce Hoffman, professor at Georgetown University and the director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies, says its far too early to declare victory against al Qaeda. Terrorism, he says in a piece for The National Interest , is not a numbers game. It took only 19 men to change the course of history on September 11, 2001. It took only four bombers to shatter Britain’s security on July 7, 2005 in London. Further back, it was a lone gunman who assassinated the heir to the Hapsburg throne in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 and thus set in motion the chain of events that led to World War
Indeed small groups of individuals can often have a disproportionate impact on the countries that are their targets. The Red Army Faction (RAF or “Baader-Meinhof Gang”) active in West Germany from 1970 to 1998 never numbered more than two dozen or so hard-core terrorists. Yet, they were successful in imposing a reign of terror on that country despite the exertions of its sophisticated police and intelligence and security services for more than a quarter century.
Hoffman and Peter Bergen develop the argument further in a report released last Friday for the U.S. National Security Preparedness Group titled, Assessing the Terrorist Threat. Here’sthe full report but here’s the central crux of their argument not to to underestimate the threat from al Qaeda :
First, al Qaeda has always been a small, elite organization. There were only 200 sworn members of al-Qaeda at the time of the 9/11 attacks, and al-Qaeda’s role has always been as an ideological and military vanguard seeking to influence and train other jihadist groups. Second, al-Qaeda’s ideology and tactics have spread to a wide range of militant groups in South Asia, all of which are relatively large. The Taliban in Afghanistan alone is estimated to number 25,000 men, while Lashkar-e-Taiba has thousands of fighting men in its ranks. Finally, al-Qaeda Central has seeded a number
of franchises around the Middle East and North Africa that now are acting in an al- Qaeda-like manner with little or no contact with al-Qaeda Central itself.
The danger, then from al Qaeda comes not just from its central leadership holed up in Pakistan, but in its ability to inspire and cooperate with like-minded groups, the authors say.