Killing of terrorist leaders is only half the battle won
Extremist groups in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere prosper only because the governments of those countries have lost the faith of the people
Extremist groups like Islamic State (IS) and the Taliban thrive on poor governance in the countries in which they have seized territory. Their often complex structures and networks make them difficult to eliminate. Adversaries who focus on their leadership in the hopes of bringing about their demise rarely succeed; a well-aimed gunshot or missile strike from a drone will claim only an individual, not the organisation and its supporters. The elation when a commander is killed therefore should be tempered by a measure of realism.
US President Barack Obama and the Afghan government last week enthusiastically greeted the Taliban’s confirmation of the killing of its chief, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in an American drone strike in Pakistan. They portrayed the death as a possible turning point in the 14-year conflict by Washington, Nato, their allies and Afghan security forces to oust the fundamentalist Muslim group from Afghanistan. But the insurgents quickly appointed a successor, a pattern repeated with the slaying of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011 and whenever IS loses a high-ranking official on the battlefield. A single military success, while good for political morale, does not necessarily signal an about-face for the fortunes of terrorists, radicals or extremists.
Mansour was uncooperative with efforts by negotiators to broker peace with the Taliban; his removal offers a fresh start for that process. But the same hopes were raised when Mansour’s predecessor, Mohammed Omar, was revealed to have died in 2013, an event that led to factional infighting for control of the group. But leadership changes and factionalism have not prevented its ability to carry out attacks or maintain a grip on drug production. A record 3,545 Afghan civilians were killed last year; a truck bomb in Kabul in April took the lives of 64.
Nor is the Taliban, which has a presence in many parts of Afghanistan, particularly the south, the only threat. IS has a growing presence in the east and some Taliban supporters have become followers. Al-Qaeda is also reported to be making a comeback, with camps set up in southern provinces.
Such groups have a chance to prosper in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere where governments have failed to unite the people they claim to serve or provide the basics of education, employment and security. Removing an extremist leader is a significant moment for an ongoing battle, but it may not be reason to sway citizens who have lost faith in their leaders’ ability to govern.