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Afghanistan war: The limits of targeting Taliban leaders

President Obama said the Afghanistan war drawdown would be done from a position of strength, citing success in killing Al Qaeda leaders. But a similar campaign to weaken the Taliban has not been equally successful.

By Staff writer, Correspondent / June 23, 2011

Afghans listen to a speech of President Obama on a television broadcast in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday, June 23. Obama's withdrawal plan for Afghanistan marks the beginning of the end of a troop-intensive approach to countering a Taliban insurgency that until recent months had fought the US and its NATO allies to a standstill.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP

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New Delhi; and Kabul, Afghanistan

In his Afghanistan drawdown speech last night, President Obama said the US would start withdrawing troops from a position of strength, with Al Qaeda under “enormous strain.”

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He attributed those gains to the targeting, capturing, and killing of terrorist leaders. Intelligence from Osama bin Laden’s compound, the president said, revealed that the former Al Qaeda chief “expressed concern that Al Qaeda had been unable to effectively replace senior terrorists that had been killed.”

That achievement came about mainly from the use of special forces, intelligence gathering, and drones – not a heavy troop presence. This logic aids Obama’s case for withdrawing a significant number of troops as Americans tire of the war.

The problem for the US presence in Afghanistan, however, is that a similar campaign to kill Taliban leaders has not proven as successful. As troops begin to depart, US hopes for leaving behind a stable country grow more reliant on either the Afghan security forces dramatically raising their game or negotiations with the Taliban bearing fruit.

The Taliban have recently started negotiations with the US, but by all accounts the discussions remain preliminary. Shaun Gregory, a regional expert at the University of Bradford in England, expressed doubts that the Taliban are feeling much pressure given the meager number of low-level Taliban who have decided to disarm, despite major government efforts to get more of them to do so.

“With the new announcement by Obama that the troops are coming home in significant numbers by next summer, this is just not a moment [for the Taliban] to start compromising,” says Mr. Gregory.

US commander Gen. David Petraeus has said the Taliban’s mid-level commanders have taken “enormous losses” over the previous year. Those special forces killings and the deployment of surge troops into new areas have strengthened security in some areas.

Overall security hasn't improved

In large parts of Helmand and Kandahar, residents now say that they have increased freedom of movement and face less intimidation from insurgents.

But the overall security picture in Afghanistan has not improved, with attacks increasing in number and geographic scope. Attacks by the armed opposition surged 51 percent in the first quarter of 2011 over that period last year, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office in Kabul.

“We anticipate that 2011 will be the most violent year since we have been keeping records,” reads ANSO’s most recent report.

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