- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 15, 2010

With the American public growing more pessimistic about Afghanistan, war proponents are renewing their case in the face of new estimates that say no more than 100 al Qaeda operatives remain in the country.

In one of his first statements to Congress after being picked in June to command war operations, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus explained why nearly 100,000 troops are in Afghanistan nine years after the conflict began.

“In short,” Gen. Petraeus said, “we cannot allow al Qaeda or other transnational extremist elements to once again establish sanctuaries from which they can launch attacks on our homeland or on our allies.”

CIA Director Leon E. Panetta fueled the debate this summer by disclosing that his agency can count only 100 al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. He said the number may be as low as 50.

Couple that with remarks by the former commander, retired Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who said, “I do not see indications of a large al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan now,” and the question arises about why the U.S. is in Afghanistan, given it was al Qaeda that attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. Why aren’t U.S. troops fighting in Pakistan, where the al Qaeda leadership, including Osama bin Laden, fled and regrouped?

James Jay Carafano, a military analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, said a U.S. exit from Afghanistan would bolster al Qaeda throughout South Asia.

“If you don’t have an Afghan government that can stand by itself, the Taliban will be back,” he said. “That means civil war and maybe genocide. Al Qaeda will be back and so will camps that could lead to the next 9/11, plus a resurgence of terrorism across South Asia and huge propaganda victory for al Qaeda.”

An al Qaeda resurgence also could lead to increased violence in the Kashmir region, he said, “meaning nuclear-armed Pakistan and India come to blows.”

“NATO fails and crumbles” and “U.S. prestige and credibility crumbles,” Mr. Carafano added.

Some pro-war analysts dispute the estimates on al Qaeda.

Bill Roggio, an analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who edits the LongWarJournal.org, said his sources, the enemy’s martyrdom statements and a reading of command press releases indicate that many more al Qaeda operatives are in Afghanistan.

“I’ve been doing my own investigation on this, looking for al Qaeda cells in Afghanistan,” Mr. Roggio said. “A thousand would be my estimate. A lot are low-level fighters. But they are members of al Qaeda.”

A military intelligence source told The Washington Times that commanders think at least 600 al Qaeda members are fighting in Afghanistan.

For Mr. Roggio and other war supporters, the key issue is not just the numbers, but what would happen if the U.S. leaves now.

“The Taliban and al Qaeda already have safe havens inside Afghanistan, despite a U.S. presence,” Mr. Roggio said. “If we walk away from Afghanistan, instead of keeping them occupied with fighting us, they are going to be free to do what they did prior to 9/11, which is plan attacks against the U.S.

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