Intelligence officials on Wednesday disputed suggestions that President Obama is sending 30,000 more troops just to fight 100 Al Qaeda operatives estimated to be remaining in Afghanistan, arguing that their influence with the thousands-strong Taliban makes them far more harmful than their numbers would indicate.
The officials responded after an ABC News story referred to the intelligence community estimate on the number of Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan as "Obama's secret," and something he deliberately omitted mentioning in his speech Tuesday night.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., invoked the 100 figure in her response to Obama's Afghanistan strategy speech Tuesday night.
"I do not support adding more troops because there are now 200,000 American, NATO and Afghan forces fighting roughly 20,000 Taliban and less than 100 Al Qaeda," she said in a written statement.
But officials called any suggestion that the surge is meant to fight 100 terrorist operatives irresponsible.
While intelligence officials confirmed that only about 100 Al Qaeda operatives remain in Afghanistan and their "center of gravity" is in Pakistan, they said "their leadership works tightly with leaders of the Afghan Taliban."
In other words, the Taliban are taking orders from the few Al Qaeda members in the region. Between the two countries, there are only thought to be several hundred Al Qaeda members.
The Taliban follow a brutal version of strict Wahhabi Islamic law, banning all "un-Islamic" activity and committing numerous human rights violations, including restricting all freedom for women. Al Qaeda's goal to divorce all Muslim countries from foreign influence would be warmly received by a Taliban-led government in Afghanistan, as was the case in the 1990s.
Top officials on Wednesday defended Obama's surge decision, arguing that the U.S. military needs to take on the Taliban as a way to keep Afghanistan from falling into hands that Al Qaeda can exploit.
"The Taliban and Al Qaeda, while separate, are two peas in a pod," Rice told Fox News.
Top military officials have for months estimated that the actual number of Al Qaeda operatives in the region is small.
National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones said in an interview in October that Al Qaeda was "very diminished" in Afghanistan, that fewer than 100 were left, and that they were not able to launch attacks on the United States or its allies from the country.
Fox News' Justin Fishel contributed to this report.