British, Afghan commandos capture two Taliban leaders

As inept as Osama bin Laden’s defense proved when faced with US special forces in his final moments, he still outscores two Taliban commanders in Afghanistan.  In a raid on a compound, British commandos successfully captured two key Taliban military leaders alive this weekend, without a single shot fired:

A crack SAS team has captured two top Taliban commanders without a shot being fired in a secret dawn raid in Afghanistan.

The 12 elite troops seized Maulawi Rahman and Maulawi Mohammed at a high-walled compound north of the remote town of Babaji in Helmand province.

Both men, who surrendered without a fight, are said to have been close confidants of Osama Bin Laden, the terror mastermind killed by US Special Forces in Pakistan last month.

The Daily Mail says the capture of two top-ranked Taliban field commanders will significantly disrupt operations in Afghanistan.  I’d guess that it will significantly disrupt morale, too.  The SAS are top-flight commanders, of course, but these geniuses couldn’t even put up a fight?  Heck, two couriers did better than that in Abbottabad four weeks ago.  You think some of the lower-level Taliban aren’t rethinking their confidence in strategy and tactics promulgated by leaders that can’t secure a compound well enough to put up any kind of defense?

The successful mission might give the US some leverage in negotiations that recently began with the Taliban, at least at arm’s length:

American officials have met with a senior aide to the fugitive Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, at least three times in recent months in the first direct exploratory peace talks, officials in the region said.

The meetings have been facilitated by Germany and Qatar, but American officials have been present each time, meeting with Tayeb Agha, who is a close personal assistant to Mullah Omar, the officials said. The C.I.A.and the State Department have been involved in the meetings, one official said.

The meetings were first reported by The Washington Post last week and the German magazine Der Spiegel this week. A senior Afghan official and Western officials working in the region confirmed the reports on the condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to talk to the news media about the issue.

Begun well before the killing of Osama bin Laden on May 2, the meetings represent a clear shift in the attitude of the Obama administration toward peace talks with the Taliban, first signaled by a speech in February by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Western officials said. In that speech Mrs. Clinton said that previous requirements for starting talks could instead be considered “desired outcomes,” opening the way to exploratory meetings without preconditions.

The Daily Mail makes an important error in its reporting, or at least in the headlines and photo captions, which identified the commanders as al-Qaeda instead of Taliban.  The two terms are not interchangeable.  While both use terrorism, AQ is primarily an Arab organization looking to conduct global terrorism.  The Taliban are primarily Pashtuns and are focused on tribal warfare in Afghanistan for control over the country.

This is not a difference without a distinction.  The Pashtuns are one of the largest tribes in Afghanistan, and a significant demographic in Pakistan as well.  The war with the Taliban is a civil war in many ways, and eventually the Pashtuns will have to get integrated into a new Afghan political structure.  There are too many Pashtuns to think that they can be wiped out, which makes negotiations inevitable.

However, it would be preferable to get the Pashtuns to jettison their leadership and produce rational and moderate leadership rather than give the Talibani any more credibility than they already have.  The US has been trying to pressure the Pashtuns to do that, with no success, for years in both the Bush and Obama administrations.  A few more raids like this, and we may have more success — or the Taliban just might run out of leaders.