...interviews with numerous military and intelligence analysts, both inside and outside of government, suggest that the number of strikes the group has directed represent only a fraction of what official estimates claim. Further, al-Qaeda's presumed role in leading the violence through uniquely devastating attacks that catalyze further unrest may also be overstated.
When turning to the question of manpower, military officials told the New York Times in August that of the roughly 24,500 prisoners in U.S. detention facilities in Iraq (nearly all of whom are Sunni), just 1,800—about 7 percent—claim allegiance to al-Qaeda in Iraq. Moreover, the composition of inmates does not support the assumption that large numbers of foreign terrorists, long believed to be the leaders and most hard-core elements of AQI, are operating inside Iraq. In August, American forces held in custody 280 foreign nationals—slightly more than 1 percent of total inmates.
The State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), which arguably has the best track record for producing accurate intelligence assessments, last year estimated that AQI's membership was in a range of "more than 1,000." When compared with the military's estimate for the total size of the insurgency—between 20,000 and 30,000 full-time fighters—this figure puts AQI forces at around 5 percent. When compared with Iraqi intelligence's much larger estimates of the insurgency—200,000 fighters—INR's estimate would put AQI forces at less than 1 percent. This year, the State Department dropped even its base-level estimate, because, as an official explained, "the information is too disparate to come up with a consensus number."
How big, then, is AQI? The most persuasive estimate I've heard comes from Malcolm Nance, the author of The Terrorists of Iraq and a twenty-year intelligence veteran and Arabic speaker who has worked with military and intelligence units tracking al-Qaeda inside Iraq. He believes AQI includes about 850 full-time fighters, comprising 2 percent to 5 percent of the Sunni insurgency. "Al-Qaeda in Iraq," according to Nance, "is a microscopic terrorist organization."
If those numbers don't have you quivering in your boots, welcome to the club. If you read the press at all, you'll see that the military constantly attributes attacks in Iraq to Al Qaeda, militants they do battle with are Al Qaeda militants, media reports will use the term "insurgent" and "Al Qaeda militant/fighter" interchangeably, and repeat the military's claims without evidence either for or against. No wonder it's possible for even critics of the war to argue that the mission must be changed to fighting al Qaeda (as I myself have done.) But numbers like the ones Tilghman reports lead to the quite reasonable conclusion that were we to withdraw from Iraq entirely, Al Qaeda would more likely be destroyed by Sunnis tired of overbearing terrorists, or Shiite militias that regard Al Qaeda as a dire enemy.
That being said, it's important to note that these reports refer only to the strength of Al Qaeda in Iraq. The umbrella organization, the true Al Qaeda headed by bin Laden, has only grown in power as a consequence of the war and our distraction from their havens in Pakistan:
he last time bin Laden showed his face to the world was three years ago, in October 2004. Since then, al-Qaeda's core leadership -- dubbed al-Qaeda Central by intelligence analysts -- has grown stronger, rebuilding the organizational framework that was badly damaged after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, according to counterterrorism officials in Pakistan, the United States and Europe.
Dodging the U.S. military in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, al-Qaeda Central reconstituted itself across the Pakistani border, returning to the rugged tribal areas surrounding the organization's birthplace, the dusty frontier city of Peshawar. In the first few years, Pakistani and U.S. authorities captured many senior leaders; in the past 18 months, no major figure has been killed or caught in Pakistan.
Al-Qaeda Central moved quickly to overcome extensive leadership losses by promoting loyalists who had served alongside bin Laden for years. It restarted fundraising, recruiting and training. And it expanded its media arm into perhaps the most effective propaganda machine ever assembled by a terrorist or insurgent network.
Today, al-Qaeda operates much the way it did before 2001. The network is governed by a shura, or leadership council, that meets regularly and reports to bin Laden, who continues to approve some major decisions, according to a senior U.S. intelligence official. About 200 people belong to the core group and many receive regular salaries, another senior U.S. intelligence official said.
And of course, bin Laden releases videos of himself seemingly at will, mocking us with his survival and freedom to operate. Al Qaeda has reconstituted itself, is as powerful as ever, operates with impunity inside of Pakistan, and is almost certainly garnering it's strength for further attacks in the Middle East, Europe, and possibly the United States.
People who ought to know better argue that we cannot withdraw from Iraq because it would show our willingness to run in the face of our enemies, Al Qaeda. This is, to be frank, moronic. Bin Laden himself says the same, and why wouldn't he? As long as we stay in Iraq we sap ourselves of strength and vitality, battling Shiite militias, Sunni insurgents, and a small core of Al Qaeda terrorists in Iraq who have no ability to strike us at home. At the same time, Al Qaeda plots freely against us in Afghanistan and Pakistan and God only knows where else. Of course bin Laden will crow about our "defeat" in Iraq; he knows good and well that were we to leave, we would acquire the ability to refocus our military and intelligence might on the job of finding him and destroying his organization. Leaving Iraq is not a "defeat" because there's no victory to be had there. It's an acknowledgment that we ourselves opened up a phony front in the "war on terror" and that if the primary purpose of our national security policy now is to destroy the threat of Al Qaeda, then we must leave Iraq to do battle with Al Qaeda in their real homes, Pakistan and Afghanistan and the other camps possibly being set up around the world. This is so obvious a conclusion that it brooks no argument, though war supporters will demand a continued presence in Iraq without being able to say what the goal is or how it benefits us.
It's time to draw down in Iraq, and get to the business of destroying our enemies.