January 24, 2012

Taliban Leader's Grip on Insurgency Weakens

Taliban leader Mullah Omar's grip on the insurgency is loosening as coalition battlefield successes in southern Afghanistan help sow discord among the Taliban top ranks and weaken the organization, a top U.S. commander said.

"What we have seen in the last couple months is … a lot of infighting among some of his senior leadership," Marine Maj. Gen. John Toolan, commander of coalition forces in southwestern Afghanistan, told USA TODAY. "There were some killings within and among the Taliban."

Security analysts say the the discord among the Taliban's leadership is a sign that coalition battlefield successes have hurt the organization, though it might also mean the insurgency will increasingly be in the hands of more radical junior leaders who operate independently.

"That could break either way," said David Barno, a retired three-star general with the Center for a New American Security, a defense policy think tank.

The growing disarray in Taliban leadership comes as politicians and diplomats step up efforts to hold reconciliation talks with the Taliban. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said political reconciliation will require talking to enemies of the United States.

Marc Grossman, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, met with Afghan officials over the weekend to discuss talks.

The progress in securing parts of Helmand province, a former Taliban stronghold and opium-growing region in southern Afghanistan, has disrupted the Taliban's ability to raise funds and control territory.

Coalition success against the Taliban in Helmand has led to recriminations, suspicions and rivalry among top Taliban leaders who have grown fearful that there are spies and traitors throughout their ranks, Toolan said. The discord has weakened Omar's grip, Toolan said.

"There is some evidence … that he does not have the level of control that he may have had earlier on," Toolan said.

Omar is the cleric who ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until the Taliban was toppled by a U.S.-led invasion after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. The U.S. military suspects he is hiding in Pakistan with other top Taliban leaders.

Among the signs that he is struggling to control his subordinates are statements he has issued on the Internet demanding Taliban adherents avoid harming civilians. Most of the civilians killed in the war have been the victims of Taliban violence, according to theUnited Nations.

Despite his order, insurgents continue to attack civilians. Last week, a suicide bomber killed at least seven civilians and two policemen in the Kajaki market in Helmand province.

"Now you've got power split into different people and trying to find out who they are and how it works adds a bit of a challenge for us," Toolan said.