Intelligence agencies are at odds over how many al Qaeda are in Afghanistan. The estimates vary between a "hundred or so" and "less than a thousand." There is also some dispute as to who exactly qualifies as a "member" of the terrorist organization. For example, do local Afghans, hired for security or support jobs qualify? Or only non-Afghan terrorists who were chased out of places like Iraq, Yemen or Chechnya? The CIA tends to go with the experienced terrorists being the only true members, while other intel outfits are inclined to include local hires and trainees. All agree that the al Qaeda footprint in Afghanistan is small, and isn't much larger in Pakistan. Al Qaeda has become more of an idea (and not a very good one) than an organization.
Meanwhile the "Taliban comeback" keeps getting headlines in the media. But it's the Taliban who are increasingly under attack. There hasn't been a "Taliban Spring Offensive" for the last two years, and the key Taliban financial resource; heroin in Helmand province, has been under attack as well. The opium crop declined over 25 percent this year. The Taliban hoped that drug gang profits, al Qaeda assistance and Pakistani reinforcements would turn the tide. But al Qaeda is a very junior, unpopular, and shrinking partner, and the Pakistani Taliban are sending refugees, not reinforcements. With all that, violence nationwide was up, mainly because there are more foreign troops in the country, being more aggressive against the Taliban and drug gangs. Foreign troops lost 295 dead in combat during 2008, and that increased 76 percent, to 519, in 2009. That's about half the casualty rate for foreign troops in Iraq during the peak year of 2007. So far this year, the casualty rate is running at the same rate of last year. The Taliban are on the defensive, and their roadside bomb weapon is losing its punch. Like Iraq, the violence in concentrated in a few small areas (in the south). Independent minded tribes, warlords, corruption and drug gangs remain a greater threat to peace, prosperity and true national unity, than the Taliban (on both sides of the Pakistan border). The newly elected Pakistani government finally decided to take on the pro-Taliban tribes and various Islamic terrorist organizations. That reversed the flow of gunmen from Pakistan into Afghanistan, with the Pakistani Taliban calling for help from their Afghan cousins.
But violence inside Afghanistan is growing, largely because of the growth of the drug gangs, and their support for tribes (especially pro-Taliban ones) that oppose the corrupt national government. The foreign nations, fighting their war on terror in Afghanistan, have finally realized that there has never been an Afghan national government that was not corrupt, and changing that is going to be more difficult than fighting the Taliban or finding bin Laden. Without the foreign troops, al Qaeda could set up shop again, as long as they caused no problems for the locals, and were generous to local tribal leaders and a few national officials.
Meanwhile, the worldwide War on Terror has morphed into the War Against Islamic Radicalism. This religious radicalism has always been around, for Islam was born as an aggressive movement, that used violence and terror to expand. Past periods of conquest are regarded fondly by Moslems. The current enthusiasm for violence in the name of God has been building for over half a century. Historically, periods of Islamic radicalism have flared up periodically in response to corrupt governments, as a vain attempt to impose a religious solution on some social or political problem. The current violence is international because of the availability of planet wide mass media (which needs a constant supply of headlines), and the fact that the Islamic world is awash in tyranny and economic backwardness. Islamic radicalism itself is incapable of mustering much military power, and the movement largely relies on terrorism to gain attention. Most of the victims are fellow Moslems, which is why the radicals eventually become so unpopular among their own people that they run out of new recruits and fade away. This is what is happening now. The American invasion of Iraq was a clever exploitation of this, forcing the Islamic radicals to fight in Iraq, where they killed many Moslems, especially women and children, thus causing the Islamic radicals to lose their popularity among Moslems. The sharp decline in the Islamic nation opinion polls was startling.
Normally, the West does not get involved in these Islamic religious wars, unless attacked in a major way. Moreover, modern sensibilities have made that more difficult. For example, fighting back is considered, by Moslems, as culturally insensitive ("war on Islam"), and some of the Western media have picked up on this bizarre interpretation of reality. It gets worse. Historians point out, for example, that the medieval Crusades were a series of wars fought in response to Islamic violence against Christians, not the opening act of aggression against Islam that continues to the present. Thus, the current war on terror is, indeed, in the tradition of the Crusades. And there are many other "Crusades" brewing around the world, in the many places where aggressive Islamic militants are making unprovoked war on their Christian neighbors. Political Correctness among academics and journalists causes pundits to try and turn this reality inside out. But a close look at the violence in Africa, Asia and the Middle East shows a definite pattern of Islamic radicals persecuting those who do not agree with them, not the other way around.
While Islamic terrorism grabs most of the headlines, it is not the cause of many casualties, at least not compared to more traditional wars. The vast majority of the military related violence and deaths in the world comes from many little wars that get little media attention outside their region. Actually some of them are not so little. While causalities from terrorism are relatively few (usually 5,000-10,000 dead a year worldwide), the dead and wounded from all the other wars actually comprise about 95 percent of all the casualties. The Islamic terrorism looms larger because the terrorists threaten attacks everywhere, putting a much larger population in harm's way, and the more numerous potential victims are unhappy with that prospect. In the West, and most Moslem nations, Islamic terrorism remains more of a threat than reality.