Center for Strategic Communication

The Afghan Taliban recently claimed that the US’ reliance on drone strikes to target Taliban leaders masks the decline of American power in the world and the failure of its counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban also called the US a “paper tiger,” the same phrase used by Osama Bin Laden to describe the American military when it withdrew from Somalia after the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993.

The Afghan Taliban made the statements in report titled “A reflection on the American Drone War Strategy,” which was released on Nov. 25 on its website, Voice of Jihad. The report is a mix of propaganda and what purports to be Taliban views on the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and reliance on airpower to defeat the group.

In the report, the Taliban claim that the US switched to a strategy of “drone warfare” after conventional warfare and then counterinsurgency operations “failed to defeat the Afghans.” The Taliban also accuse the Obama administration of ramping up the use of drones to cover its withdrawal from Afghanistan after 12 years of war.

“It [the Obama administration] has openly declared the desire to leave Afghanistan,” the report states. “However, conscious of maintaining at least a semblance of continuing this war, the Obama regime has instead resorted to using unmanned drones that are both inexpensive financially and non-costly in terms of [American] human lives.”

Drones ineffective in decapitating Taliban’s leadership cadre

The Afghan Taliban describe the US’ use of drones to target Taliban leaders as “a publicity stunt,” and claim the strikes have been ineffective in eliminating the group’s top leaders, who are described as its “symbolic leaders.” The Taliban say they have sheltered their top leaders by delegating less senior leaders to serve as “operational commanders” to execute the orders of their superiors:

It is worth keeping in mind that these drone strikes have only been able to target those that have been very active in the public sphere and thus prone to be targeted through a number of means. The drone strikes have virtually been of no use against targeting the more important symbolic leaders of the opposition to the American aggressors. Any leaders that suspect being targeted by drone planes inevitably retract their public profile and instead delegate their operational duties to other less known associates. In other words, most of those targeted by these drone strikes are operational commanders. The targeting of these commanders cannot disrupt any of their activities because these commanders always nurture several delegates who are able to take over and resume activities in the event of the death or capture of any operational commanders.

While the Taliban’s statements should be taken with a grain of salt, there does appear to be some truth to the claims. The US government has previously detailed how top Taliban leaders exercise command and control of “subordinate Taliban commanders” while the leaders remain out of reach of US and Coalition forces in safe havens in Pakistan, often with the support of that country’s military and intelligence service. [See the US designation of Mullah Naim Barich, for an example.]

With the exception of the Haqqani Network, a subgroup of the Afghan Taliban that is based in North Waziristan, where US drones routinely strike top leaders, senior Afghan Taliban leaders are largely untouched by the drone program. The US drones rarely stray outside of North and South Waziristan to conduct a strike, while top Afghan leaders are based throughout Baluchistan province and in major cities such as Quetta and Karachi.

But perhaps the best indication that the US has failed to defeat the Taliban using drones (or by targeted raids and conventional airstrikes in Afghanistan) is that after 12 years of war, the Taliban remain a viable fighting force. Despite yearly claims in media outlets that the Taliban’s leadership is broken by more than a decade of fighting and that the group is on the verge of collapse, the Taliban continue to wage an effective insurgency and their leadership remains intact. The group still controls rural areas of Afghanistan, even in areas where Coalition forces surged between 2009 and 2011, routinely attacks Afghan forces and disrupts movement on the Ring Road, and is capable of conducting high-profile attacks in the capital and in other major cities, as well as against Coalition and Afghan bases.

The “paper tiger”

The Taliban’s recent statement maintains that the American reliance on drones is a sign of the decline of the US as a global power.

“The people of the drone-affected areas have now come to see what the US truly is – a paper tiger which a superficial claim to be the greatest empire of all time,” the group concludes.

The Taliban’s statement adopts the same phrase used by Osama bin Laden to describe the American military following its withdrawal from Somalia after the Battle of Mogadishu in early October 1993 resulted in the loss of 18 US soldiers. The bodies of US soldiers who were left behind were mutilated and dragged through the streets of the Somali capital. The US and UN withdrew from Mogadishu by March 1994.

In an interview with ABC News in 1998, bin Laden said the quick US withdrawal was a sign of weakness that emboldened the burgeoning global jihadist movement.

“The youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers and realized more than before that the America soldiers are paper tigers,” bin Laden said. “After a few blows, the Americans ran away in defeat.”

Afghan Taliban join the push against US drone strikes

With the Nov. 25 statement on the American reliance on drones, the Afghan Taliban have now joined al Qaeda, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Shabaab, and the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan in criticizing the program.

The Afghan Taliban invoked similar themes as the other terror groups, most notably the allegation that the US strikes kill an inordinate amount of civilians. The report described the drones as “inherently unreliable and indiscriminate” in killing civilians:

Such weaponry naturally results in a lot of casualties all of whom might not necessarily be involved in any activity against the US. Due to these two weaknesses drone strikes cause disproportionate civilian casualties. These high proportion of civilian casualties in effect ferment a lot of hatred against the US in the affected areas. The affected local populations, traumatized by such attacks, begin to view the Americans as a discriminate and immoral force that is willing to sacrifice the lives of the locals in order to attack a small number of their enemies.

A study by The Long War Journal of the US’ use of drones against al Qaeda and allied groups in North and South Waziristan shows that civilians appear to constitute a small percentage of those killed. While it is difficult to assess the number of civilians killed in Pakistan’s tribal areas due to Taliban control, Pakistani press reports indicate the number is low.

Additionally, civilian attitudes toward the US drone campaign are not as uniformly critical as the Taliban and al Qaeda would have you believe. There are credible reports that civilians who suffer under Taliban rule are supportive of the targeting of terrorist leaders and fighters.

But the Afghan Taliban’s adoption of arguments and rhetoric used by al Qaeda and other terror groups against the drones may indicate that the groups are coordinating their propaganda efforts. The groups cooperate on the battlefield in Afghanistan, so the sharing of propaganda would not come as a surprise.