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.
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In theory, the targeting of militant leaders downgrades the overall skill and experience of a group and forces its members to communicate less freely. In practice, both the Taliban and Al Qaeda have replaced their lost leaders, prompting some analysts to question the strategy’s effectiveness.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan
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“It’s a little bit like saying: ‘Have injuries to the Washington Redskins really weakened the team’s performance?’ ” says Mr. Biddle. “The replacement is never as good as the person being replaced.”
Different groups, different strategies
But others with knowledge of the Taliban and Al Qaeda and their different goals say the targeted killings have impacted the two groups differently.
Al Qaeda has taken more time than the Taliban replacing its leaders, says Sami Yousafzai, a senior Pakistani journalist. That’s because there are only a few hundred Al Qaeda operatives in the region, and they tend to be more educated and skilled.
The Taliban, however, have been able to replace their leaders almost instantly.
“Becoming a subcommander doesn’t require a long history of being a Taliban,” says Mr. Yousafzai. As for higher-ranked commanders and shadow governors, few have actually been killed, he notes. The top-level leadership, meanwhile, remains in havens inside Pakistan where the security establishment is disinclined to help the US catch them.
Al Qaeda’s brand of terrorist plots against the West requires higher levels of education and ingenuity. The Taliban’s guerrilla war against foreigners, meanwhile, requires the sorts of fighting skills not uncommon in the rugged tribal areas of Afghanistan.
“We don’t face any gaps after someone dies. It doesn’t take a long time for us to replace someone,” says Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi. “In the Taliban, we don’t care if someone is knowledgeable and educated. We just look at who is a good fighter.”
Mr. Ahmadi claims the number of Taliban gets bigger every day thanks to civilian casualties by coalition forces.
Al Qaeda, meanwhile, faces strong headwinds against recruitment. The appeal of the group in the Arab world has suffered dramatic declines with the Arab Spring.
“We can fairly say that Al Qaeda has been isolated in the political mind-set of the Middle East and that the ideology of Al Qaeda appears to be irrelevant and problematic. The attention now is given to reform and democracy,” says Mohammad Al-Momani, a political science professor at Yarmouk University in Irbid, Jordan. “The measures that have been taken to crack down on Al Qaeda seem to be working and Al Qaeda is having a harder time recruiting.”