Is the killing of militant leaders counterproductive?

The Wall Street Journal reports: Killing leaders of Islamist militant groups, such as the Saturday strike on Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour, has long been a signature strategy of the Obama administration—an alternative to massive troop deployments overseas.

But how effective are those “decapitations” in the long run? The verdict is far from clear and, to an extent, depends on the size and cohesion of the targeted group.

Both the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and the targeting of Mullah Mansour on a Pakistani road were major successes for U.S. intelligence and the Pentagon.

Al Qaeda’s central command, a relatively tight international terror network now led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, has been in decline since bin Laden’s death. It has been unable to fully recover from the blow or to mount major attacks against the West.

But the experience is less encouraging for wide-scale insurgencies such as the Afghan Taliban. While such decapitations can provide a short-term gain, they rarely change the course of the conflict — and frequently backfire if not accompanied by a much broader, resource-intensive involvement of a kind the White House has been loath to pursue.

Unlike al Qaeda, the Taliban enjoy support from a significant swath of the Afghan population. The group’s military advances in 2013-15 weren’t impeded by the fact that its leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was secretly dead at the time, or by the assassinations of scores of commanders.

In announcing Mullah Mansour’s death, President Barack Obama said his killing “gives the people of Afghanistan and the region a chance at a different, better future.”

That optimistic assessment isn’t shared by many, in the region or in the U.S., who closely follow the Taliban.

“I don’t think it will weaken the Taliban, and it may strengthen them,” said Barnett Rubin, a former U.S. State Department official who worked on peace negotiations with the Taliban and who is now associate director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University.

It is also far from certain that removing Mullah Mansour would make such peace talks — an avowed U.S. goal — any easier to resume.

The minister of aviation in the pre-2001 Taliban government, Mullah Mansour belonged to the original generation of Taliban leaders, was involved in the political outreach, and could influence field commanders. His successor named on Wednesday, Maulavi Haibatullah, is believed to represent a more uncompromising cast.

“After this killing, the Taliban will be more hard-line and the people who think that the war will solve all the problems will be more powerful. This is a blow to peace,” said Waheed Muzhda, a Kabul political analyst who served in the Taliban regime’s foreign ministry before 2001.

U.S. officials have argued that, with Mr. Mansour, there wasn’t any peace process to derail anyway.

“It’s not as if he was going to open negotiations and this is going to stop that effort. He was not,” said James Cunningham, a fellow at the Atlantic Council who served as U.S. ambassador in Kabul in 2012-14.

Social scientists who examined the effect of such decapitations on militant groups have found little empirical evidence that the killings advance U.S. goals. [Continue reading…]

Vanda Felbab-Brown writes: Commenting on the death of Mullah Mansour during his visit to Vietnam this week, President Obama said, “Mansour rejected efforts by the Afghan government to seriously engage in peace talks and end the violence that has taken the lives of countless innocent Afghan men, women and children.”

So runs the official line from the White House: Because Mullah Mansour became opposed to negotiations, removing him became necessary for new peace talks. Yet the notion that the United States can drone-strike its way through the leadership of the Afghan Taliban until it finds an acceptable interlocutor seems optimistic, at best.

The revelation, last July, of the 2013 death in Pakistan of the Afghan Taliban’s previous leader and founder, Mullah Muhammad Omar, led to a competition for the succession that hurt the group’s willingness and capacity to negotiate. The Taliban’s subsequent military push has been its strongest in a decade, causing thousands of civilian casualties. In particular, suicide bombings by the Taliban’s most dangerous and violent faction, the Haqqani network, have struck at the heart of the nation’s capital.

Facing this onslaught, the whole country has been plunged into insecurity. The struggling Afghan National Security Forces have been hanging on, but the military momentum is on the Taliban’s side.

In quickly announcing on Wednesday that Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, a deputy to Mullah Mansour, would be their new leader, the Taliban is trying to avoid the chaos that surrounded Mr. Omar’s succession and to keep their military momentum. It’s likely the violence will continue. [Continue reading…]

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