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Mullah Omar, We Hardly Knew Ye

By Rosa Brooks, Foreign Policy, 4 August  2015

So Taliban leader Mullah Omar is dead, and apparently no one noticed for two whole years. His death is a good thing, insofar as it saves American taxpayers the $10 million bounty the United States was offering for his capture. Still, if I were to drop dead, I’d like to think that someone might notice a bit more promptly, if only because my kids might wonder why no one was cooking dinner anymore. But perhaps that explains the delay: Mullah Omar hadn’t been making dinner for anyone in the U.S. intelligence community. Nonetheless, Mullah Omar’s belatedly recognized demise suggests several lessons for the United States.

1. We don’t know what’s going on.

Mullah Omar was on America’s most wanted list for almost 15 years — and we couldn’t even figure out whether he was still alive.

Take all intelligence assessments with several grains of salt.

Take all intelligence assessments with several grains of salt.

Better still, add a whole bushel of salt: Reports now suggest that Jalaluddin Haqqani, leader of the Taliban’s lethal Waziristan-based Haqqani network, has also been dead for the last year — and he actually did make dinner for people in the U.S. intelligence community, back in the day. What’s next? Soon, I imagine, we’ll be told that Angela Merkel has also been dead for a decade and that the Germans have just been wheeling her effigy to and fro ever since.

2. Reports of the Taliban’s demise have been exaggerated, though reports of Mullah Omar’s demise were not.

Although constantly reported to be in disarray, the Taliban still managed to keep Mullah Omar’s death a secret for two years (see 1), and the group still poses an urgent and ongoing threat to Afghan and Pakistani stability. Significant Taliban attacks continue in both countries, and in a May report, the Brookings Institution noted that “the 2015 fighting season between the Taliban and Afghan security forces is turning out to be the bloodiest on record since 2001.” Not bad for an organization led by a bunch of dead guys.

3. “Decapitation” strategies have questionable value.

For years, the United States has operated on the premise that if it could just get rid of top terrorist leaders, their organizations and ideological movements would be undermined. The fact that neither the rank-and-file Taliban nor the rest of the world even noticed Mullah Omar’s death for two whole years suggests that this is not necessarily so.

Numerous studies have called into question the efficacy of going after senior terrorist leaders. Ask yourself how many times Washington has triumphantly announced the deaths of senior terrorist leaders since the 9/11 attacks — and ask yourself whether the global threat posed by violent Islamic extremists has diminished.