Sunday, December 24, 2006

Tempering the Good News From Afghanistan

U.S. officials have confirmed the death of Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Osmani, a top Taliban military commander who died in a coalition airstrike last Tuesday. News of Osmani's departure was apparently delayed several days, until his identity could be confirmed, and intelligence operatives had a chance to examine the site where he died.

Osmani was a big fish in terrorist circles, reportedly the highest-ranking Taliban official ever killed by coalition forces. A close associate of both Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, Osmani played a leading role in planning terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, including the recent surge in suicide bombings. His death will create at least a temporary void among the Taliban's military leadership, and cause potential setbacks in the short-term planning and execution of future attacks. If there's an "up side" for the Taliban, it's that Osmani died during the winter months, when weather conditions produce a lull in the fighting. That will give Mullah Omar and his associates more time to pick and groom a successor before the Taliban's expected spring offensive.

At the time of his elimination, Osmani was reportedly traveling in a single vehicle with only two bodyguards, near the Afghan-Pakistan border. He was apparently unaware that the U.S. military had been tracking his movements for "a while," and did little to conceal his travels. Indeed, with the recent drawdown of Pakistan military operations on the southern side of the border, Osmani may have become complacent. A U.S. military spokesman indicated that the Taliban military commander had been observed on both sides of the border in recent months, and his activities allowed our forces to begin active tracking. The time and place of his elimination were apparently selected because Osmani was away from populated areas, eliminating the possibility of collateral damage--and the removal of bodies and other forensic evidence by terrorist sympathizers.

Tuesday's successful strike marks at least the third operation of its type over the past 15 months. In earlier efforts, U.S. Predator drones fired Hellfire missiles at compounds believed to house Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qadia's #2 leader. One of those operations narrowly missed Zawahiri because the terror mastermind decided--at the last moment--not to attend a dinner held at the targeted hourse.

The elimination of Osmani--and close calls with Zawahiri--suggest that our intelligence in Afghanistan is improving and may yield ever better results in the future. But such optimism should be tempered with a word of caution: we got Osmani (in part) because he got a little too comfortable. Such complacency is partly the result of the garrison strategy employed by some NATO forces in southern Afghanistan. By refusing to patrol actively and search out Taliban and Al Qaida elements, some of our allied partners are ceding portions of the countryside to the terrorists. That may provide an opening for additional strikes against high-value targets, but it also raises the possibility of greater problems in the spring, when the next Taliban offensive could result in a NATO base being overrun by the enemy.

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