July 24, 2008 -- After a relentless series of "decapitation strikes" coalition sources say they have captured or killed almost the entire leadership of the Taliban that confronted NATO a year ago. The Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Omar, however, still remains at large.
"The Taliban's command and control, as it was, has effectively been liquidated in south Afghanistan," said one senior NATO official. "The acid test is whether this will prove a strategic turning point, or whether a new leadership will emerge that is less controlled but more deadly."
There are already signs that the decapitation campaign is having an effect. One NATO commander said many local Taliban commanders were "getting a real sense that their death is near."
While many in the coalition say they believe a strategy of reconciliation – bringing low-level Taliban commanders over to the Government side – may ultimately be the key to ending the insurgency, few doubt that the threat of elimination will be an important incentive to persuade fighters to put down their weapons.
In the most recent success, British forces confirmed reports swirling around Pakistan's northwest frontier that Mullah Abdul Rahim Akhund, the Taliban shadow governor of Afghanistan's most volatile province and opium capital, Helmand, and the number three in the entire organization, surrendered to the Pakistani forces close to the border last Saturday. Though his death and capture have been proclaimed at least twice before now it seems one of America and Britain's most deadly foes in Afghanistan is truly at last off the battlefield.
The capture of Abdul Rahim marks the end of an intensive manhunt by US and British Special Forces that has lasted more than two years.
According to Afghan intel, Abdul Rahim was behind attacks on American, British and other NATO troops, the arbitrary execution of accused coalition spies, the destruction of health clinics and schools and a campaign of intimidation against anyone involved with the Afghan government or reconstruction.
Abdul Rahim was also a deft propagandist and made frequent calls to the media, always from a different mobile phone. One Afghan tribal leader also confirmed that Rahim had called him and helped devise a scheme to generate media publicity after a strike on a Taliban target also caused civilian casualties.
The destruction of the Taliban's high-level command began in December 2006 with the death of Mullah Akhtar Usmani, who was killed in a coalition strike in Helmand. A former Taliban corps commander in Kandahar, Usmani had been considered a potential successor for Mullah Omar.
It was Usmani whom former CIA operative Robert Grenier met with shortly after 9/11 to deliver America's last-chance offer to the Taliban to deliver Osama bin Laden or face the consequences, according to former CIA Chief George Tenet in his book "At the Center of the Storm".
Then in May last year a special forces raid in Helmand killed the next most important associate of Mullah Omar and the Taliban's alleged chief strategist, Mullah Dadullah. A Kakar tribesman who lost a leg in combat, Dadullah became known as the "al Zarqawi of Afghanistan" after ruthless execution of hostages and ex-spies. He was credited with the introduction of suicide bombers into the country. Dadullah's body was displayed to reporters by the Governor of Kandahar.
Though split into many small factions, the Taliban movement in the south seemed to be split broadly into two factions. One, consisting of more local tribal factions, reported to Mullah Abdul Rahim and then to Mullah Omar; and the other more extreme one, with closer links to Al Qaeda and more foreign fighters, who took orders from Mullah Dadullah.
Strikes on lower level leadership continued throughout year and culminated last November and December in strikes on the Taliban's then stronghold of Musa Qala in northern Helmand.
By then Dadullah's faction had been taken over by his brother, Mansour Dadullah. But after a split with Mullah Omar, Dadullah was captured in late December by Pakistan forces. Afghan intelligence reports have suggested he may later have been released in exchange for the Pakistan ambassador who had been taken hostage, but one source said there were no indications he continued to play any current role.
This summer, strikes on the Taliban leadership included the elimination by air strike of what the Afghan Army claimed was the Taliban's entire leadership council for Kandahar province, including Mullah Abdul Shukur, the Taliban governor of Kandahar; Mullah Kamran, the chief of police and Mullah Baaz Mohammad, chief of intelligence for the province.
Meanwhile in Helmand, late June saw the death of what NATO declared as a "planner and bomb-maker", Mullah Sadiqullah, and a key strategist named Mullah Bishmullah on July 12. Then just after midnight on Sunday, a day after Abdul Rahim's capture, a missile strike from a British aircraft killed Abdul Rasaq, a Taliban leader who led fighters in the Musa Qala area of Helmand province, according to a British spokesman who spoke to the Associated Press. Rasaq was also known as Mullah Rahim.
But whatever the success against the leadership down South, the Taliban movement remains a potent threat to American and British forces, with most Afghans reporting that security continues to be on the slide.