A fight against the odds
By Nick Turse and Tom Engelhardt
In his book on World War II in the Pacific, War Without Mercy, John
Dower tells an extraordinary tale about the changing American image of the
Japanese fighting man. In the period before the surprise attack on Pearl
Harbor, it was well accepted in military and political circles that the
Japanese were inferior fighters on the land, in the air and at sea - "little
men", in the phrase of the moment. It was a commonplace of "expert" opinion,
for instance, that the Japanese had supposedly congenital nearsightedness and
certain inner-ear defects, while lacking individualism, making it hard to show
initiative. In battle, the result
was poor pilots in Japanese-made (and so inferior) planes, who could not fly
effectively at night or launch successful attacks.
In the wake of their precision assault on Pearl Harbor, their wiping out of US
air power in the Philippines in the first moments of the war, and a sweeping
set of other victories, the Japanese suddenly went from "little men" to
supermen in the American imagination (without ever passing through a human
phase). They became "invincible" - natural-born jungle- and night-fighters, as
well as "utterly ruthless, utterly cruel and utterly blind to any of the values
which make up our civilization".
Sound familiar? It should. Following September 11, 2001, news headlines
screamed "A NEW DAY OF INFAMY" and the attacks were instantly labeled "the
Pearl Harbor of the 21st century". Soon enough, al-Qaeda, like the Japanese in
1941, went from a distant threat - the George W Bush administration, on coming
into office, paid next to no attention to al-Qaeda's possible plans - to a team
of arch-villains with little short of superpowers. After all, they had already
destroyed some of the mightiest buildings on the planet, were known to be on
the verge of seizing weapons of mass destruction, and, if nothing was done,
might soon enough turn the Muslim world into their "caliphate".
Al-Qaeda was suddenly an organization against which you wouldn't launch
anything less than the full strength of the armed forces of the world's "sole
superpower". To a surprising extent, they are still dealt with this way. You
can feel it, for instance, in the recent 24/7 panic over the thoroughly inept
underwear bomber and the sudden threat of a few hundred self-proclaimed
al-Qaeda members in Yemen. You can feel it in the ramping up of the Af-Pak war.
You can hear it in the "debate" over moving al-Qaeda detainees from Guantanamo
to US maximum security prisons. The way some politicians talk, you might think
those detainees were all Lex Luthors and Magnetos, super-villains incapable of
being held by any prison, just like the almost magically impossible-to-find
Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri in the wild borderlands of Afghanistan
Because most Americans have never dealt with or thought of al-Qaeda as a group
made up of actual human beings or accepted that, for every televisually
striking success, they have an operation (or several) that go bust, the US
can't begin to imagine what it's actually up against. The current president,
like the previous one, claims that the US is "at war". If so, it's a war of
one, since al-Qaeda and the US military are essentially not in the same
war-fighting universe, which helps explain why repeatedly knocking off
significant portions of al-Qaeda's leadership (even if never finding bin Laden
and Zawahiri) doesn't seem to end the threat.
But let's stop here and try, for a moment, to imagine these two enemies
side-by-side in the same universe of war. What, in that case, would the lineup
of forces look like?
Assessing al-Qaeda's 'troops'
According to US intelligence estimates, there are currently about 100 al-Qaeda
fighters in Afghanistan, as well as "several hundred" in Pakistan and, so the
latest reports tell us, a similar number in Yemen. Members of al-Qaeda in the
Islamic Maghreb (Algeria, Mali and Mauritania) and those based in Somalia
undoubtedly fall into the same category at several hundred each. According to
authorities from the Iraq Study Group to the US State Department, even at the
height of the insurgency and civil war in Iraq, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia never
had more than 1,300-4,000 active fighters. Today, it is believed to consist
only of "small, roving cells".
Combined, these groups - think of them as al-Qaeda's shock troops, add up to
perhaps 2,100 fighters, about one-fifth the number of US troops now based in
Italy. As the 9/11 attacks, the intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass
destruction and the failure to disrupt the underwear bomber's plot indicate, US
intelligence has long been flying blind, but even if al-Qaeda turned out to
have sleeper cells with 300 additional committed members in every nation on
Earth, its clandestine operatives would only moderately exceed the number of US
forces now based in Germany.
Al-Qaeda does have some "training camps" in the backlands of countries like
Yemen, and it has civilian supporters, financiers and other scattered allies.
Over the years, and sometimes with good reason, Washington has lumped Taliban
fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan with al-Qaeda and counted various militant
groups, including Somalia's al-Shabab Islamic rebels, as al-Qaeda affiliates.
Add such fighters in and you would swell these numbers by many thousands.
Additionally, al-Qaeda has an arsenal of weaponry. Members have access to
rocket-propelled grenades, small arms of various sorts, the materials for
making deadly roadside bombs, car bombs, and of course underwear bombs.
Assessing America's troops
United States efforts to crush al-Qaeda have certainly not failed for lack of
resources. The US military has spent about US$1 trillion on its post-9/11 wars
so far. It has an army, a navy, an air force and a marine corps which, like the
navy, has its very own air force. It possesses trillions of dollars in weapons,
materiel and other assets. It can mobilize spy satellites, advanced fighter
planes and bombers, high-tech drones and helicopters, fleets of trucks, tanks
and other armored vehicles. It has advanced missiles and smart bombs, aircraft
carriers, nuclear submarines and state-of-the-art ships in all shapes and
It also has incredibly well-trained special operations forces - almost 56,000
elite troops, including the US Army Rangers and Special Forces, Navy SEALs and
Special Boat Teams, Air Force Special Tactics Teams and Marine Corps Special
Operations Battalions, armed with incredibly advanced weaponry. It has military
academies that churn out highly-educated officers and specialized training
camps, schools and universities. It has more than half-a-million buildings and
structures on more than 800 bases sitting on millions of hectares of prime real
estate scattered around the world, including in or near lands where various
branches of al-Qaeda operate.
In addition, the US military has manpower - lots of it. All told, the United
States has approximately 1.4 million active duty men and women under arms and
another 1.3 million reserve personnel. It employs more than 700,000 civilians
in support roles - from stocking shelves and serving food at stateside bases to
assisting in intelligence analysis in war zones - and utilizes untold tens of
thousands of private security hired-guns and various other kinds of private
contractors all around the globe.
These numbers would be further swelled by intelligence agents who aid military
efforts, including 100,000 members of the civilian intelligence community. And
then there are the allies the US can draw on, ranging, in Afghanistan alone,
from the Afghan army and police to tens of thousands of North Atlantic Treaty
Organization and other foreign allied troops from more than 40 countries.
Comparing the sides
Even excluding from the US side of the equation all those US reserves, Defense
Department civilians, intelligence operatives and analysts, private contractors
and allies of various sorts, if you compare the two enemies in the current
"war", you still end up with either the Mark of the Beast or a marker for
The active duty US military alone enjoys a 666:1 advantage over the estimated
number of al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Algeria,
Mauritania, Mali and Somalia. Adding in the reserves, the ratio jumps to an
embarrassingly-high 1,286:1. Even if you were to factor in those hordes of
non-existent al-Qaeda sleeper agents, 300 each for 195 countries from Australia
to the Vatican City, the US military would still enjoy a 23:1 advantage (or
45:1 if you included the reserves, now regularly sent into war zones on
multiple tours of duty).
In sum, after the better part of a decade of conflict, the US has spent
trillions of taxpayer dollars on bullets and bombs, soldiers and drones. It has
waged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have yet to end, launched strikes in
Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, dispatched special ops troops to those nations and
others, like the Philippines, and built or expanded hundreds of new bases all
over the world. Yet Osama bin Laden remains at large and al-Qaeda continues to
target and kill Americans.
Founded in 1988, bin Laden's al-Qaeda formally issued a "declaration of war" on
the United States in 1996, primarily over the US military presence in the
Middle East. While Washington has been hunting bin Laden and al-Qaeda since the
mid-1990s, a post-9/11 congressional resolution authorized the president to use
force against that group and the Taliban. Ever since, the Pentagon has been
waging one of the most ineffective campaigns of modern times in an effort to
During these years, Bush declared himself a "war president" heading a country
"at war" and living in "war time". In a milder way, President Barack Obama has
repeatedly declared the US to be "at war" and, as in his surge speech at the
West Point military academy in December, has identified the main enemy in that
war as al-Qaeda. In the process, the US military has unleashed tremendous
destructive power on parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia,
causing the deaths of al-Qaeda fighters, non-al-Qaeda militants and innocent
civilians. Thousands of its own troops have died and tens of thousands have
been wounded in the process, not to mention the losses to allied forces.
In these years, new al-Qaeda "affiliates" like al-Qaeda in Iraq/Mesopotamia
have nonetheless sprung to life regularly and, as in Yemen, have even been
officially crushed, only to be reborn. These groups have often made up their
own "al-Qaeda" membership requirements, and focused on their own chosen
targets. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda wannabes and look-alikes have proliferated and the
organization (or those sympathetic to it or praising it) has reportedly spurred
further attacks in the US and encouraged men from New York to California,
Nigeria to Jordan, to join the movement, and then work, fight, kill and die for
it, sometimes in attacks on Americans.
Al-Qaeda has no tanks, Humvees, nuclear submarines, or aircraft carriers, no
fleets of attack helicopters or fighter jets. Al-Qaeda has never launched a spy
satellite and isn't developing advanced drone technology (although it may be
hacking into US video feeds). Al-Qaeda specializes in low-budget operations
ranging from the incredibly deadly to the incredibly ineffectual - from
murderous car bombs and airplanes-used-as-missiles to faulty shoe- and
Comparisons of the strengths of the US military and al-Qaeda "at war" would be
absurd, if it weren't for the fact that the United States actually went to war
against such a group. It was a decision about as effective as firing a machine
gun at a swarm of gnats. Some may die, but the process is visibly
In the present "war on terror", called by whatever name (or, as at present, by
no name at all), the two "sides" might as well be in different worlds. After
all, al-Qaeda today isn't even an organization in the normal sense of the term,
no less a fighting bureaucracy. It is a loose collection of ideas and a looser
collection of individuals waging open-source warfare.
You don't sign up for al-Qaeda the way you would for the US Army. If you and
two friends are sitting around a table in some country and you're angry,
alienated and dissatisfied with the state of the world, you can simply claim to
adhere to the basic ideas of Osama bin Laden and declare yourself al-Qaeda in
[fill in the blank]. Who then gets into your organization and how you link up,
if at all, with other "al-Qaedas" is up to you.
That's why groups like al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia are always referred to in the
press as "homegrown". What you have, then, in this post-war-on-terror war is a
massive global military force aided and abetted by allied troops, "native"
forces, and all sorts of corporate contractors facing off against something
fluid and "homegrown", fierce but strangely undefined, constantly morphing and
shape-shifting. Every one of its "members" could be destroyed without the
"enemy" being destroyed, because the enemy is a set of ideas, however extreme
or strange to most Americans.
The Pentagon, with its giant bureaucracy and its miles of offices and
corridors, is the headquarters of the US war effort, but there is no central
al-Qaeda headquarters, not in Afghanistan or Pakistan - not anywhere. There is
probably no longer even an "al-Qaeda central". Osama bin Laden has vanished or,
for all we know, may be dead. Think of it, at best, as an open-source
organization that is remarkably capable of replicating by a process of
Isn't it time, then, to stop imagining al-Qaeda as a complex organization of
terrorist supermen capable of committing super-deeds, or as an organization
that bears any resemblance to a traditional enemy military force? With
al-Qaeda, the path of war has undoubtedly been the road to perdition - as we
should have discovered by now, more than one trillion dollars later.
When this "war" began, Bush and his followers, like bin Laden and his
followers, were eager to proclaim future "victory" and to say with bravado to
the other side: "Bring 'em on!" The word "victory" has long since fled
Washington's lips, along with boasts that the US is a new Rome.
So far, no matter how many of its operatives may be dead, "victory" remains on
the lips of those calling themselves al-Qaeda-in-anywhere. After all, they did
get Washington to "bring 'em on" and the results have been disastrous and
draining for the United States. The US military has killed many al-Qaeda
operatives, but it cannot annihilate its appeal by "surging" in Afghanistan and
making war, with all the civilian destruction involved, in Muslim lands.
It's time to put al-Qaeda back in perspective - a human perspective, which
would include its stunning successes, its dismal failures and its monumental
goof-ups, as well as its unrealizable dreams. (No, Virginia, there will never
be an al-Qaeda caliphate in or across the Greater Middle East.) The fact is:
al-Qaeda is not an apocalyptic threat. Its partisans can cause damage, but only
Americans can bring down this country.
Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com and the winner of a
2009 Ridenhour Prize for Reportorial Distinction as well as a James Aronson
Award for Social Justice Journalism. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles
Times, the Nation, In These Times, and regularly at TomDispatch. Turse is
currently a fellow at New York University's Center for the United States and
the Cold War. He is the author of
The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives(Metropolitan
Books). His website is NickTurse.com.