We know we got one, but did we ring up five? Afghan and US sources tell NBC News that a drone strike in northern Pakistan killed the top commander of the Taliban in that country, long targeted for a series of atrocities and the mastermind behind the attack that nearly killed Malala Yousafzai, who has become an international activist. A $5 million bounty might have finally paid off:
The leader of the Pakistani Taliban was killed by a U.S. drone strike, an Afghan official said Friday. ..
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammad Radmanish told NBC News that Fazlullah died in a strike in the Marawaya district of the border province of Kunar.
It might have targeted Fazlullah, but there are indications that the drone strike might have gotten more than anticipated. NBC’s sources within the Pakistani Taliban told them that they had lost contact with four other top commanders after the strike:
Prior to the Afghan Defense Ministry stating that Fazlullah had been killed, several members of the Pakistani Taliban told NBC News they had been unable to make contact with him and other senior commanders since receiving word of the strike.
They said they feared four other top commanders may also have been killed.
“Most of our people are seriously concerned after they heard about the killing of our leader, but the top leadership is out of access,” Pakistani Taliban commander Maulvi Obaidur Rahman told NBC News.
Pakistani intelligence confirms that all five got killed in the same strike, although the US military is being more circumspect on success claims:
Pakistani intelligence officials said the group’s leader, Mullah Fazlullah, and four other senior commanders were killed Wednesday in a drone strike in the Afghan province of Kunar, near the Pakistani border. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, but Mr. Fazlullah’s death was later confirmed by the Pakistani Ministry of Defense.
The spokesman for the United States military in Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Martin O’Donnell, confirmed that the military had carried out a drone strike on Wednesday in Kunar. He said the target was “a senior leader of a designated terrorist organization,” but he did not offer further details or confirm that Mr. Fazlullah had been killed.
That’s a lot of leadership to get vaporized in one shot. One would have to wonder why Fazlullah would have met with four of his top commanders at the same time under any circumstances. Perhaps he’s been doing so all along, but if this report turns out to be true, it’s a great example of why terror groups and insurgencies tend to use dispersed-leadership structures and call very few board meetings. The loss of Fazlullah and his top lieutenants may create a leadership vacuum that at best will set back coordination by several months, and is likely to touch off an internecine fight over who gets to be the next leader with a $5 million bounty on his head.
That bounty was a recent development, too. The Trump administration applied it in March, as part of an effort to get Pakistan to crack down on Taliban operations on their side of the border. The US wants to push the Afghan Taliban into peace talks with the government in Kabul, and isolating them from their largely Pashtun-tribe support in Pakistan might add some incentives. However, the Afghan Taliban has done pretty well over the last few years, expanding its zone of control and ramping up its attacks on Kabul in recent months. The fall of Fazlullah and his lieutenants will put a big dent in their operations, but it seems doubtful that it will get them to throw in the towel.
On the other hand, a cease-fire has been in effect for Eid, and it appears to be holding:
#Taliban and #Afghan security forces jointly celebrates #EidulFitr in MaidanWardak province. The unprecedented move towards peace and ceasefire is gaining hearts of the #Afghans. @NasibAtta @thepashtuntimes @bashirgwakh @BRRubin @NSAAtmar pic.twitter.com/oJA2KQGYPU
— Basir Pashteen Atiqzai (@BasirAtiqzai) June 15, 2018
The US took pains to point out that the cease-fire does not extend into Pakistan:
“US Forces-Afghanistan and NATO-led Resolute Support forces continue to adhere to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s unilateral ceasefire with the Afghan Taliban, announced by … Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, which began on the 27th day of Ramadan.
“As previously stated, the ceasefire does not include US counterterrorism efforts against IS-K, al Qaeda, and other regional and international terrorist groups, or the inherent right of US and international forces to defend ourselves if attacked,” read the statement. IS-K refers to ISIS’ presence in Afghanistan.
“We hope this pause leads to dialogue and progress on reconciliation and a lasting end to hostilities,” the statement added.
The pause can’t hurt. And neither can the sudden departure of Fazlullah and his top lieutenants, who were also jointly responsible for an atrocious 2014 attack on a Peshawar elementary school that left 141 children dead. Assuming this is true, Malala will long outlive Fazlullah, and hopefully the Taliban as an effective fighting force.