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.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP
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.

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.”

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.

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.

Stephen Biddle, a security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that's a given.

“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.”

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