By Nick Turse and Tom Engelhardt
According to U.S. intelligence estimates, there are currently about 100 al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, as well as "several hundred" in Pakistan and, so the latest reports tell us, a similar number in Yemen. Members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Algeria, Mali, and Mauritania) and those based in Somalia undoubtedly fall into the same category at several hundred each. According to authorities from the Iraq Study Group to the U.S. State Department, even at the height of the insurgency and civil war in Iraq, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia never had more than 1,300-4,000 active fighters. Today, it is believed to consist only of "small, roving cells."
Over the years, and sometimes with good reason, Washington has lumped Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan with al-Qaeda and counted various militant groups, including Somalia's al-Shabab Islamic rebels, as al-Qaeda affiliates. Add such fighters in and you would swell these numbers by many thousands.
Additionally, al-Qaeda has an arsenal of weaponry. Members have access to rocket-propelled grenades, small arms of various sorts, the materials for making deadly roadside bombs, car bombs, and of course underwear bombs.
The active duty U.S. military alone enjoys a 666:1 advantage over the estimated number of al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Algeria, Mauritania, Mali, and Somalia. Adding in the reserves, the ratio jumps to an embarrassingly-high 1,286:1. Even if you were to factor in those hordes of nonexistent al-Qaeda sleeper agents, 300 each for 195 countries from Australia to Vatican City, the U.S. military would still enjoy a 23:1 advantage (or 45:1 if you included the reserves, now regularly sent into war zones on multiple tours of duty).
In sum, after the better part of a decade of conflict, the United States has spent trillions of taxpayer dollars on bullets and bombs, soldiers and drones. It has waged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have yet to end, launched strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, dispatched Special Ops troops to those nations and others, like the Philippines, and built or expanded hundreds of new bases all over the world. Yet Osama bin Laden remains at large and al-Qaeda continues to target and kill Americans.
Al-Qaeda has no tanks, Humvees, nuclear submarines, or aircraft carriers, no fleets of attack helicopters or fighter jets. Al-Qaeda has never launched a spy satellite and isn't developing advanced drone technology (although it may be hacking into U.S. video feeds). Al-Qaeda specializes in low-budget operations ranging from the incredibly deadly to the incredibly ineffectual -- from murderous car bombs and airplanes-used-as-missiles to faulty shoe- and underwear-explosives.
Of course, comparisons of the strengths of the U.S. military and al-Qaeda "at war" would be absurd, if it weren't for the fact that the United States actually went to war against such a group. It was a decision about as effective as firing a machine gun at a swarm of gnats. Some may die, but the process is visibly self-defeating.
In the present War on Terror, called by whatever name (or, as at present, by no name at all), the two "sides" might as well be in different worlds. After all, al-Qaeda today isn't even an organization in the normal sense of the term, no less a fighting bureaucracy. It is a loose collection of ideas and a looser collection of individuals waging open-source warfare.
The Pentagon, with its giant bureaucracy and its miles of offices and corridors, is the headquarters of the U.S. war effort, but there is no central al-Qaeda headquarters, not in Afghanistan or Pakistan
not anywhere. There is probably no longer even an "al-Qaeda central." Osama bin Laden has vanished or, for all we know, may be dead. Think of it, at best, as an open-source organization that is remarkably capable of replicating by a process of self-franchising.
Isn't it time, then, to stop imagining al-Qaeda as a complex organization of terrorist supermen capable of committing super-deeds, or as an organization that bears any resemblance to a traditional enemy military force? With al-Qaeda, the path of war has undoubtedly been the road to perdition -- as we should have discovered by now, more than one trillion dollars later.
It's time to put al-Qaeda back in perspective
a human perspective, which would include its stunning successes, its dismal failures, and its monumental goof-ups, as well as its unrealizable dreams. (No, Virginia, there will never be an al-Qaeda caliphate in or across the Greater Middle East.) The fact is: al-Qaeda is not an apocalyptic threat. Its partisans can cause damage, but only Americans can bring down this country.