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Petraeus: ‘Double Digits’ of al-Qaeda Fighters in Afghanistan

Something that couldn’t fit into my piece yesterday but bears mentioning: Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia, told a Senate panel that al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan numbered in the “double digits.”

In a somewhat heated exchange with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — Petraeus at one point told Graham that he preferred “more nuance” than Graham was willing to provide when describing the state of governance in Afghanistan — Petraeus said there are “probably very small numbers, certainly” of al-Qaeda in the country, somewhere in the “double digits.” Asked to assess the numerical strength of al-Qaeda in its safe havens across the border in the tribal areas of Pakistan, Petraeus answered, “Now we’re into the hundreds.”

He qualified: “This is a question of how you talk about symbiotic relationships.” When factoring in those “symbiotic relationships” between al-Qaeda and the Afghan or Pakistani Taliban, the Haqqani network and other extremist forces — considering that al-Qaeda operatives marry into families and tribes of other extremist groups to entrench alliances, etc. — the total falls in the “thousands.”

Graham didn’t draw out the strategy implications of those numbers. And “single digits” could mean ten or it could mean 99. But given that there was a brief shock when it was reported in December that President Obama was raising U.S. troop levels to 98,000 to secure Afghanistan against merely 100 al-Qaeda operatives in the country, it’s possible that Petraeus’s assessment will provoke some reconsideration of the administration’s strategy.

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