Analysis: Afghan Taliban say drone strikes are proof US is a ‘paper tiger’

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.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Birbal Dhar says:

    The US to be honest aren’t going to kill every Islamic terrorist in that region. After all the Pakistani army supports their “good” Taliban in places where the US would not incline to attack. To be effective, the US would have to branch out their drone attacks to other regions of Pakistan and the Pakistanis would have to drop their Taliban allies like a lead balloon, which they would never do. The strategy currently of the US, is draining ponds of Mosquitoes in one area, but not bothering in others, which in reality would never eliminate mosquitoes.

  • m3fd2002 says:

    Under the current administration, those statements hold water. After the statements in regard to Afghanistan of surge/withdrawal it became apparent that Obama’s foreign policy is to withdraw from these theaters. My observation is that the entire world is guessing what Obama will decide on next. This can be dangerous, and there might be some miscalculations that could lead to significant confrontations in the future. Maybe not. Regardless, its obvious Obama will not use the military option as a tool often.

  • blert says:

    Such propaganda releases — oriented towards internal morale — are telling.
    They’re telling us that the punishment of the top ranks is demoralizing.
    Back in the day, there was a prize fighter that had one tick: when he was really hurt he’d smile at his opponent — overcompensating for the pain.
    Very quickly, the rest of the crowd realized that this tick was a ‘tell.’ You knew you were hitting big when he counter-reacted.
    This internally directed pitch is of that same character. It’s only consistent with having received nearly a knock-out blow.
    The CIA has knocked out most of the first line bench, permanently. So now the opfor has to reach down to the AAA and farm leagues to fill the empty chairs. There’s a distinct lack of local talent.
    First off: Big Man culture does not embrace the concept of powerful deputies. Outside of blood kin, the crew has surely been kept in the dark on every manner of the ‘family’ business.
    Second: Terrible pre-natal nutrition and cousin-marriage drive IQs way, way, down. IQs norm down towards 80 in that part of the world. (The global norm is 87 not 100; most of the planet has terrible pre-natal nutrition.) Yet, it takes an IQ of about 106-8 to provide leadership initiative. That appears to be an absolute value. Such players are going to be in limited supply.
    The top leadership needs to have yet higher IQ and charisma.
    Mehsud was a local super star. He’s going to be almost impossible to replace.
    His significance is evidenced by the eulogies pouring in from all quarters of the fanatics.
    Beyond that, it must be plain that the Haqqanis HAVE to be hunkered down at this time. They can’t know who to trust — nor how the CIA is getting to them. There can be so many, many ways.
    So while the CIA has not shut them down… the Haqqani crew is certainly disrupted.
    My instinct is that they’ve lost their patrons within the ISI; but that’s just a hunch.
    In which case, this spanking has to function as a goad to keep the other players totally in line — and on board.
    The proximate departure of the ISAF has to have created mixed feelings in Islamabad. Who will be their sugar daddy, next?

  • Mirza Charoc, le Roi de Herat says:

    The Talib and their mullah pals are totally and completely helpless against drones is all. This is just their frustration showing itself.
    For our part, in applying drones to more serious wars, let us not forget that attack drones only work well so long as it is possible to first establish air supremacy. Otherwise, they are majorly vulnerable as they loiter for hours on end in the badlands. And if the other guy has any kind of radar, fuhgeddaboutit.
    One of these days, the mullahs are going to learn to extract the emitters from their el-cheapo Chinese microwaves, turn them skywards and duck whenever their cell phones go beep.
    Or something.
    Or easier still, when they get a hold of some clunky old Chinese-copied Soviet era radar from the Pakilanders, complete with operators.
    That will throw our kill rates out the window, but it could give our drone crews real-world experience in SEAD, after we inevitably arm drones with any of our AGM 78s that are still around somewhere.
    So much for paper tigers.
    And what the heck do these jokers even KNOW about tigers, paper or otherwise – there are no tigers in talib-land.
    I grew up near what is today a world-famous tiger preserve, where my dad took me hunting every other weekend back then, and we ran into tigers chawing on a deer about once every three or four trips. Meeting one of them big cats in the wild is not anything like seeing them in a zoo, even one that is done killing for the day and is contentedly feeding its face – it flash-freezes one’s blood for sure.
    Now imagine seeing that first puff of smoke as an AGM-114 fires-up. No paper tigers then, no sir.
    Man, that brings back memories. ‘Hunting’ was a misnomer – the adults never fired a shot, and hung-out getting drunk and recounting war stories from Monte Cassino or their desert campaigns of WW II, in the flickering campfire light, but a good time was had by all, even the jungle-critters who were watching us crazy humans.
    All except my dad’s psycho cavalryman-pal, Brigadier ‘X’ shall we say, who had liberated a DShK from a T-55 that had brewed up in some long-forgotten melee a thousand miles north of us, up near mullah-land. He had mounted it on his jeep, decades before similarly armed ‘technicals’ became fashionable in the horn of Africa. Insane dude just loved watching those heavy rounds rip the innards out of a poor deer and splatter them all over the countryside way over yonder and across the river, even as the poor thing still stood there in way too much shock to realize it was dead…
    Now that I am reminiscing on the gentle, bucolic days of my youth, I remember the late great President Ezer Weizman, who had spent WW II as a fighter pilot in India and knew the place well, remember him saying that Israel and India were two pillars of sanity, while the two thousand miles between them was only – chaos.
    Words truer now than when he said them, sadly enough.
    Those were the days of larger than life swashbucklers: Air Marshal Bishnoi, who precision bombed a meeting of top leaders of East Pakistan’s government to great effect in a supersonic MiG 21, using only a hastily procured tourist road map to guide him (!!), the Indian army’s Lt. Gen. Jacob-Rafael Jacob, who masterminded the large-scale helicopter borne vertical envelopment that created Bangla Desh (much later, I spent two delightful days hosting Gen. Jacob in California, when he and I fought every battle from Gaugamela to Desert Storm), and, representing the Eastern Med, folks like Weizman, Avraham ‘Bren’ Adan and the always flamboyant Moshe Dayan.
    One of the defining mental images of those times will forever be Dayan in a cloud of sand, gallivanting around the Negev while sticking out of a Sherman, famous eye-patch over one eye – the quintessential conquering hero.
    In marked contrast to that governor guy from our own liberal North-East, shaming his long-gone Achaean ancestors, peering ludicrously over the sill of that M1.
    Now THAT was a paper tiger, not our drones which are working just great, thank you very much Mr. Mullah.
    Speaking of the Achaeans: DESTROY the Spartans!! Unleash doom and gloom in Michigan State, grind their girly-man offensive line into the Pasadena dirt, boys – ANNIHILATE…

  • JB says:

    Ineffective… Hmm… Tell that to the dead guys.

  • Mirza Charoc, le Roi de Herat says:

    I cut and paste from today’s news reports from Asia – this may explain why Susan Rice and other minions from D.C. have failed so far with the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) in Afghanland.
    Plus, looks like those from the Israeli armed forces and intel establishments, who have for years been seeking to tone down rhetoric against Iran and an Iranian bomb, may have had a point, at least with regard to international positioning and political maneuvering: Not only has Israel’s #1 trading partner and sponsor, the US, but Israel’s #2 global trading partner and prime customer, India, are both soft on Iran.
    So here goes:
    Having refused to sign a bilateral security agreement with the US, while simultaneously signing a comprehensive co-operation pact with Iran, Afghan president Karzai will be in New Delhi on Friday to ask for more defense aid from India.
    Karzai, who was educated in India and is an Indian protege, is arriving Thursday on his 14th visit to India in 12 years. During talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Friday, Karzai would apprise him of progress on the BSA negotiations with the US, as well as reconciliation efforts with the Taliban.
    Afghan Ambassador Shaida M Abdali, briefing newspersons ahead of Karzai’s third visit in a year to India, indicated that matters were in progress over the wish list that is believed to include battle tanks, field guns, mortars, military aircraft and trucks needed for the Afghan security forces.
    To a question on the wish list that Karzai had handed over to India during his last trip to India in May, the ambassador said that “discussions in pursuit of our list is an ongoing process”.
    New Delhi has been reluctant to supply arms in the past, because of India’s belief that its own security could be compromised if the Taliban come to power in the foreseeable future and take control of these weapons.
    Abdali also said India and Russia have decided to collaborate in reviving an arms maintenance factory in Afghanistan, as the war-torn country gets ready for the security transition in 2014 in the wake of US-led coalition’s troop withdrawal. “India and Russia will jointly help revive the maintenance factory. Experts have already met and are discussing the details,” he said.
    India and Afghanistan have a Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) in place since 2011, under which India has been providing military training to Afghan military officers and non-lethal aid.
    Abdali added that India and Afghanistan “have to protect our shared national interests… It is imperative to cooperate in all areas, including in defense, and expedite the process under SPA, including our request for expansion in cooperation in equipment”.
    Abdali emphasized that Afghanistan’s relations with India would remain unaffected irrespective of who heads the nation after the presidential elections in April next year, when Karzai is to step down after more than a decade at the helm.
    “Regardless of who rules, our deep ties will remain and will be strengthened,” he said.
    Abdali also said that 350 Afghan army officers are currently undergoing training in India, while 1,400 have been trained so far since 2003.
    Afghan army officers are trained at the National Defence Academy (NDA) Khadakvasla, the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun and the Officers Training Academy (OTA) in Chennai.
    Abdali, who was deputy national security adviser in Hamid Karzai government, said Indians will also be needed for training officers in a new institute in Afghanistan.
    “We will need about 120 officers for the training facility, and Indians can pitch in,” he said.
    In addition, the draft of Iran’s Chabahar port trilateral transit agreement involving India, Iran and Afghanistan is ready and is expected to be finalized soon, the Afghan envoy said on Monday. India held discussions with Iran on the Chabahar port during External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid’s visit to Tehran.
    The Chabahar port is strategically crucial as it gives sea-access to Afghanistan. The port, which is surrounded by a free trade zone, is vital particularly since Pakistan does not allow transit from India to Afghanistan.
    Earlier this year, India committed $100 million to upgrading facilities at Chabahar after spending $100 million on building a 220-km (140-mile) road in a dangerous stretch of western Afghanistan to link up with the Iranian port.
    And with Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council + Germany clinching an interim agreement last month on capping Iran’s controversial nuclear program, India has decided to accelerate the venture. Indian operators plan to set up a special mechanism to finance part of the port’s infrastructure and they want the Iranians to give it long-term rights to operate it.

  • Bill S. says:

    The Afghan
    Taliban seems never to have read Chairman Mao, either “On Protracted Warfare” or “On Guerilla Warfare”. Although it’s doubtful whether Mao ever fired a bullet in anger in his entire life, he wrote what may be some of the most acute interpretations of guerilla warfare ever put to paper. Basically he holds that there are three stages to guerilla warfare: the strategic defensive, the strategic stalemate and the strategic offensive. NATO force have thoroughly beat back Taliban attempts to move from the strategic defensive to the strategic stalemate. They can not routinely operate in units of several hundred men, hold large areas of country and usurp government functions over vast areas of Afghanistan. They can operate in small units, be a ghost government in some area and cause serious incidents in others. In short, as guerillas, they are on the strategic defensive. This means that the Command and Control structure is loose and irregular, and relies to a great deal on the personal abilities of a few individuals. It has not by any means reached the level of military bureaucracy where company and regimental commands can be easily replaced if needed, nor is there any real national command that embraces all of Afghanistan. Drone warfare, with the objective of killing front line and second tier leaders–top leaders remain taboo hidden deeper in Pakistan–has an extremely disruptive influence on attempts by the Taliban to build military forces of the cohesion one sees, for example in Yemen.The leadership structure to bring them into being, and the military bureaucracy–the Command and control–is not allowed to survive. This whole Taliban article is sour grapes. Drones have deeply hurt and influenced the organizational ability of the Taliban, and while it may not look like they are on the defensive, the truth is that they do not have the leaders or ability to move beyond a warfare of scattered bands which they are practicing now. In part, thank the Drones for that.

  • Luca says:

    Would just like to say that the paper tiger ended up mauling OBL, so a clear case of “last famous words”. US decline, Western decline, all relative innit?

  • Some Guy says:

    The US is no more interested in fighting AQ or other terrorist groups. Soon they will pull out of Afghanistan, citing Karzai as the reason.
    They just want to go home, or maybe head over to Asia and cause trouble for China.
    The Taliban have made a correct observation.

  • Gerald says:

    America has a bad habit of picking allies that are not willing to fight for their own damn freedom and they blame us for deserting them.

  • popseal says:

    Pathetic. Religiously insane cave dwellers making moral judgments against anybody else is absolutely pathetic.


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