Establishment counterterror analyst Max Abrahms, who recently revealed himself to be yet another in a seemingly endless series of arrogant pseudo-academic puffballs (a series that also includes Joseph Lumbard, Mia Bloom, Christine Fair, Omid Safi, and of course, Reza Aslan), reaches a new low in this Wall Street Journal piece featuring a gaggle of establishment “terror experts” seriously wondering if the U.S. should take out “militant leaders.” A former State Department wonk, Barnett Rubin, says of the killing of the Taliban’s Mullah Akhtar Mansour: “I don’t think it will weaken the Taliban, and it may strengthen them.” Then a bit farther along in the piece, the learned Max weighs in with this: “When a leader of a militant group has been taken out, the group tends to become even more extreme.”
Of course. The Taliban were just sitting around puffing cigars and playing bocce until Mullah Mansour was killed. But now we’ve gone and made the poor dears angry. Who knows what they might do now? They might even target a security team protecting government VIPs, murdering at least 28. Or respond with rocket fire to an invitation to negotiate. Or launch a new wave of jihad attacks in Kabul.
Oh, wait, my bad: they did those things in recent months, before Mullah Mansour was killed. What will they do now? More of the same: attacks on American troops, attacks on Afghan government forces. They are at war, and now they will have to prosecute that war without the strategic expertise and inspiration of Mullah Mansour. Anytime a group loses a major leader, it can only weaken the group, unless that leader was completely incompetent. Rubin’s assumption is that Afghans who didn’t support the Taliban will become “radicalized” by the U.S. killing of Mansour, and will join them when they otherwise would not have done so. That line of reasoning, followed out to its logical conclusion, would lead us never to fight back against those who are at war against us, for to do so will only strengthen enemy recruitment. That is what Abrahms is counseling as well: if we don’t want the Taliban to become “even more extreme,” we better not kill their leaders. We should instead leave them alive to…plot the killings of Americans.
Abrahms is counseling surrender and defeat. And he is a mainstream “terrorism theorist.” No wonder we’re in the fix we’re in.
“Do U.S. Killings of Militant Leaders Work?,” by Yaroslav Trofimov, Wall Street Journal, May 26, 2016:
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….
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….
Social scientists who examined the effect of such decapitations on militant groups have found little empirical evidence that the killings advance U.S. goals. One of these researchers is Max Abrahms, a scholar of terrorism at Northeastern University.
“When a leader of a militant group has been taken out, the group tends to become even more extreme,” he said. “When militant groups are placed under duress, there is also greater chance that they will decentralize, sometimes by splitting.”…