300 Guys. In Pakistan

Rob over at Arabic Media Shack has made this point a few times recently, and it’s one worth repeating. When people — like me — say, “Al-Qaida is in Pakistan,” just what do we mean?

We need numbers. Like how many people? After all,wouldn’tknowing the exact number offighters tell us something about thestrategic significance of the threat? 50 would obviouslybe lesssignificant than 400; 2,000 would definitely be moreworryingthan500. But how come we never hear this question being asked?There is one exception that I noticed recently. John Mueller, writing in this month’s issue of Foreign Affairs, putsthe number of people in “Al-Qaeda Central” at 300.

That squares with other estimates he’s seen in the Arabic-language press and in conversations with knowledgeable people in the Middle East.

Now, those 300 people, given the latitude, could do quite a bit of damage. But Rob’s put his finger on something that warrants some sort of discussion. One of the by-products of the lazy use of labels — whereby all attacks in Iraq from 2004-2007 were the work of terrorists, and the Taliban and al-Qaida have been lumped together into the same category of threat — is that we’ve conceptually inflated the size and strength of the group that was interested in attacking us.

We’ve now got upwards of 40,000 troops in Afghanistan, with the ostensible mission to eliminate the threat posed by 300 guys. In Pakistan. Think about that.

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