Ben Farmer of the Telegraph confronts this question in his latest report from Kabul. Mullah Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a deputy leader of Karzai’s peace council, has claimed that efforts by the coalition to target the Taliban hierarchy have been “in vain.” Although NATO has recently been successful in its campaign to target leaders of the insurgency, Mujahid claims that they are merely being replaced by a new breed of fanatic young militants. These individuals are reportedly even more violent and extreme than their “pragmatic” older generation of leaders currently being targeted and killed. Farmer notes that from September to November of this year, NATO forces have captured or killed 385 insurgent leaders.

Leadership is one of the most important aspects of an insurgency/counterinsurgency campaign (see Mark Moyer’s A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq). Although older, more “pragmatic” leaders are reportedly being replaced by younger, more fanatic militants, I have trouble believing that this will ultimately be to our detriment. Perhaps these new leaders will, indeed, conduct a more violent and ruthless campaign; however, they are inexperienced and thus prone to make vital mistakes. The Taliban has been fighting this war for several years and maintains substantial influence in various parts of the country. Their campaign has been sustained, in part, by a network of leaders focussed on the larger picture of expelling NATO forces. Ruthless and inexperienced young fighters could easily collapse the Taliban network by engaging in costly mistakes. Although there may be a temporary spike in violence, NATO commanders will be able to utilize these transitions in leadership to their advantage in the long run.

According to Farmer’s report, a spokesman for the coalition, Lt. Col. John Dorrian, has stated: “The insurgents replacing those who are captured or killed often have less technical and leadership expertise…Many midlevel fighters and senior-level Taliban leaders are fleeing the country; their networks are under constant pressure by every aspect of our comprehensive campaign. That pressure will intensify as we squeeze the insurgency from all sides.” Although violence is at extremely high levels this year, I tend to agree with Dorrian over Mujahid in this particular instance. Experienced commanders familiar with past COIN campaigns understand the importance of leadership and how to take advantage of these kinds of opportunities. NATO should continue to target and assassinate the current Taliban hierarchy, as it will ultimately result in a breakdown of communication and cohesiveness among insurgents.