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 U.S. 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 twenty-first century." Soon enough, al-Qaeda, like the Japanese in 1941, went from a distant threat — the 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 U.S. maximum security prisons. The way some politicians talk, you might think those detainees were all Lex Luthorsand 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 and Pakistan.
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 U.S. can’t begin to imagine what it’s actually up against. The current president, like the last one, claims that we are "at war." If so, it’s a war of one, since al-Qaeda and the U.S. military are essentially not in the same war-fighting universe, which helps explain why repeatedly knocking off significant punortions 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 line-up of forces look like?
According to U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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, U.S. 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 U.S. forces now based in Germany.
Al-Qaeda does, of course, 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
U.S. efforts to crush al-Qaeda have certainly not failed for lack of resources. The U.S. military has spent about one trillion dollars 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 sizes.
It also has incredibly well-trained special operations forces — almost 56,000 elite troops, including 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 acres of prime real estate scattered around the world, including in or near lands where various branches of al-Qaeda operate.
In addition, the U.S. 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 U.S. can draw on ranging, in Afghanistan alone, from the Afghan army and police to tens of thousands of NATO and other foreign allied troops from more than 40 countries.
Comparing the Sides: The Mark of the Beast or the Mark of Futility?
Even excluding from the U.S. side of the equation all those U.S. 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 futility.
The active duty U.S. 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 nonexistent al-Qaeda sleeper agents, 300 each for 195 countries from Australia to Vatican City, the U.S. 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 United States 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 U.S. 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 destroy it.
During these years, President George W. Bush declared himself a "war president" heading a country "at war" and living in "wartime." In a milder way, President Obama has repeatedly declared the U.S. to be "at war" and, as in his surge speech at West Point in December, has identified the main enemy in that war as al-Qaeda. In the process, the U.S. military has unleashed tremendous destructive power on parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia causing the deaths of al-Qaeda fighters, non-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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 underwear-explosives.
Of course, comparisons of the strengths of the U.S. 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 self-defeating.
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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 self-franchising.
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, George W. Bush and his followers, like Osama 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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, where this article first appeared, 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.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years.