How Dangerous is al-Qaeda in Afghanistan?

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Via Glenn Greenwald, here is Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff interviewing Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, about the current threat from al-Qaeda in the AfPak region:

Isikoff: Let’s get a sense of what the overall threat picture looks like right now. [White House chief of staff] Rahm Emanuel said [recently] that about half of Al Qaeda has been eliminated in the last 18 months. How many people is that, and how many people are left in the other half?

Leiter: I think [CIA director] Leon Panetta said on Sunday, and I agree with him, that in Afghanistan, you have a certain number, a relatively small number, 50 to 100. I think we have in Pakistan a larger number.

How many?

Upwards — more than 300, I would say.

When I wrote about Panetta’s estimate a week ago, I cautioned that he had only talked about Afghanistan, not Pakistan. But now Leiter has given us an estimate for Pakistan, and it looks like there’s no more than 400-500 al-Qaeda members in the entire AfPak region. This is, obviously, not the only consideration for assessing the continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan, but it’s sure a mighty big one. (And the others don’t necessarily point in the direction of staying either. See Matt Yglesias here, for example.)

At this point there’s not a lot left to say about this that hasn’t been said a hundred times before, but just to restate the obvious, it’s getting harder every day to justify the continued loss of life and continued multi-billion dollar expense of a full-out counterinsurgency campaign there if it’s truly aimed at no more than a few hundred extremists living in caves. Maybe Joe Biden had this one right.

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