Those '40 al-Qaeda insurgents'...

I never really thought I'd be writing something in semi-solidarity with the Long War Journal, but this jogged my mind. 10 days ago, ISAF put out a press release following the killing of Sabir Lal, someone who was said to be a 'key affiliate' of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. You can read more about him here and here (watch how those headlines start to resemble chinese whispers).

I've been working on a report for the Afghanistan Analysts Network relating to ISAF's press releases these past few months, as those of you following me on twitter will already know. A pleasant byproduct of that research is the database of press releases that I've put together, one that allows me to isolate, for example, all the instances where ISAF went after someone they thought was associated or affiliated with al-Qaeda in some way.

For 2011, operations against al-Qaeda in eastern Afghanistan amount to the following:*

1. January 7, 2011 [2011-01-S-091] - 'Several' (minimum 3) suspected insurgents killed in an airstrike in Pech Valley, Kunar, while pursuing an "al-Qaida-associated Taliban leader". Later 'confirmed' that he was 'Qari Baryal, an al-Qaida-associated Taliban leader'. [Total: 1 'associated leader' killed]

2. January 8, 2011 [2011-01-S-099] - One suspected insurgent detained in Chaprahar, Nangarhar while in pursuit of an 'al Qaida-associated Taliban leader'.

3. April 11, 2011 [2011-04-S-039] - Taliban leader detained in Behsud district, Nangarhar province. "The leader operated for al-Qaida and the Taliban." [Total: 1 leader captured].

4. April 11, 2011 [2011-04-S-042; 2011-04-S-047; 2011-04-S-079] - Several 'al-Qaida insurgents, including the suspected al-Qaida leader in Kunar province' killed in Dangam district, Kunar province, in an airstrike. Editorial comment notes 25 leaders and fighters killed between March 14-April 13 [Total: approx 3 killed].

5. April 19, 2011 [2011-04-S-060] - 17 insurgents killed 'including foreign fighters' and one detained while searching for a senior al-Qaida leader in Dangam district, Kunar province. [Total: 17 killed, no indication who is AQ or not]

6. June 23, 2011 [2011-06-S-079] - 5 detained in Gailan district, Ghazni province, with suspected ties to al-Qaida. [Total: 5 detained on suspicion of having ties to AQ]

7. September 2, 2011 [2011-09-S-002] - Key AQ affiliate killed in Jalalabad district, Nangarhar province. [Total: 1 killed and several (minimum 3) suspected insurgents captured]

TOTAL 22 killed and 10 captured from the above numbers

Note first of all, that the numbers don't even reach the minimum '40' claimed in the press release, EVEN if we assume that all those listed were 'al-Qaeda insurgents'. As Bill rightly notes in his post, "what is the intelligence community and the military's definition of al Qaeda?" A lot of the people in the list above will have been Afghans, and many are simply noted as having been 'suspected ties'.

I hope that all the discussion about this magical number '40' ISAF put out has made it back to whoever wrote the press release on Sabir Lal's killing. I suspect not. It goes to something deeper about the things we read about the war in Afghanistan, namely that the 'metrics' used to define and claim success -- remember when the war was all about metrics? -- are, in various ways, false metrics, or at the very least highly misleading.  I'll have more on this in my report.


*[Note that for all of Afghanistan there were 13 operations mentioned, several of which captured only 'Afghan insurgents' and 3 of which took place in either Zabul or Balkh. I didn't really feel Ghazni (see #6 above) qualified as 'eastern Afghanistan', but I gave ISAF the benefit of the doubt on that one since technically Ghazni is part of RC-East.]

Photo Credit: © Philip Poupin