Nearly one year ago, American forces killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the mastermind of Al Qaeda in Iraq in a strike that President Bush hailed as a "severe blow" to the insurgency. In the intervening year, the chaos in Iraq has only risen.
Yesterday, NATO and Afghan officials announced that they had killed Mullah Dadullah, the Taliban's top commander and a man sometimes called Afghanistan's al-Zarqawi. The coming months will reveal whether his death proves to be more significant than that of Mr. Zarqawi.
It could be, experts say. Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Mr. Dadullah has become the unquestioned leader of the Taliban resistance, blending his charisma as a one-legged "holy warrior" with equal measures of brutality. He is believed to have presided over more than a dozen beheadings and several kidnappings and acted as the primary proponent for bringing more suicide bombers to Afghanistan.
It is an important moment for the Taliban, who relied on Dadullah to provide some sense of unity to its eclectic mix of Islamist ideologues, village malcontents, and petty criminals.
"It's almost a test of competing hypotheses about the Taliban," says Barnett Rubin of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "Is it a group driven by radical extremist leadership," or is it a loosely-connected band of village rebels?
The strike is sure to be a boost for the Afghan government in its efforts to project a sense of progress in a controversial war. In recent weeks, the public's attention has turned to a series of NATO and US attacks that have killed dozens of civilians, Afghans say. Now, it can show results.
"He was responsible for all the fighting in the south and also for the media operations," says Ahmad Shakhi Achikzai, a minister of parliament from Kandahar. "For the Taliban, it is very dangerous to lose him, because it will undermine them."
As of press time, the details of his death were also unclear. NATO said he was killed in a US-led operation when he "left his sanctuary into southern Afghanistan."
Intelligence officials said he was killed in the southern province of Helmand. But it remained uncertain whether Dadullah had been killed by an airstrike or in ground combat, western military officials said.
A purported Taliban spokesman denied that Dadullah was dead, even though the government displayed to the press what is believed to be his body, naked to the waist under a pink sheet with a missing left leg.
Dadullah clearly represented a Taliban driven by radical extremists. Indeed, in recent years, he had become the face of the Taliban's extremist core – the hero who lost one leg in the war against the Soviets now taking the fight to the Americans. Of the 10 members of the Taliban's leadership council, he was by far the most recognizable, releasing videos of beheadings, and sending invectives to the press claiming he had thousands of suicide bombers at the ready.
Without him to rally around, the Taliban could struggle to maintain whatever cohesiveness it has, experts say.
"After the fall of the Taliban, all the Taliban escaped to different areas, and he was the only one to marshal them and bring them together as a cohesive force," says Waheed Mujda, author of a number of books about the Taliban.
Moreover, the Taliban's tactics could shift, says Dr. Rubin. "Dadullah was the main organizer behind suicide bombings," he says. "It's unclear the extent to which he trained successors."
Some say his ruthlessness precluded rivals or successors. "He killed the guys above him, so quite a lot of capable or respected leaders have disappeared in his move up the ranks of the Taliban," says a Western intelligence official in southern Afghanistan.
In that sense, Dadullah's insidious rise may leave a leadership void. "This indicates that there was a bit of a gap below him," the official adds.