Controversial U.S. drone strikes may be helping rather than hindering the Taliban in Afghanistan, according to a leaked CIA document released by Wikileaks Thursday.
The CIA document appears to be a 2009 internal review of the agency’s "High Value Target" (HVT) assassination program.
The HVT program selected specific insurgent figures for targeted assassination, often by drone strikes.
Despite the report’s secret publication in 2009, drone strikes increased.
Independent estimates suggest U.S. forces have conducted more than 1,000 drone strikes over Afghanistan since invading the country over a decade ago. Human rights groups say hundreds of civilians have been killed or maimed by drones, and that the strikes are widely unpopular on the ground.
“The potential negative effect of (High Level Target) operations include increasing the level of insurgent support ... strengthening an armed group's bonds with the population, radicalizing an insurgent group's remaining leaders, creating a vacuum into which more radical groups can enter, and escalating or de-escalating a conflict in ways that favor the insurgents,” the report stated.
The report did suggest targeted assassinations could weaken an insurgent group, but only when backed up by a “broader counterinsurgency strategy.”
The report’s authors blamed the failure of the CIA’s targeted assassination program on two main factors: a lack of an effective broader counterinsurgency effort, and the Taliban’s resistant organizational structure.
“Afghan government corruption and lack of unity, insufficient strength of Afghan and NATO security forces, and the country’s endemic lawlessness have constrained the effectiveness of these counterinsurgency elements,” the report stated.
Earlier this month an outgoing NATO commander in Afghanistan warned Afghan security forces are “inept,” and facing soaring casualty rates at the hands of the Taliban.
The comments came as NATO forces left the country.
The CIA report also explained, “The Taliban’s military structure blends a top-down command system with an egalitarian Afghan tribal structure that rules by consensus, making the group more able to withstand HVT operations.”
The assassination program also had a limited impact on al-Qaida due to its decentralized command structure. However, the CIA did claim its efforts made it harder for Osama bin Laden to oversee al-Qaida’s operations while he was alive.
Five months after the report was produced behind closed doors, President Barack Obama boosted troop numbers in Afghanistan by 30,000.
The following year, casualties from drone strikes spiked to 751, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ).
Comparatively, the BIJ estimated that in 2009, 471 people were killed by drone strikes in the country.
Despite the White House publicly claiming Afghan forces have the Taliban insurgency under control, earlier this year Obama quietly approved another expansion of U.S. military operations in the country. The move included a decision to boost airstrikes.
Today, vast swathes of territory in Afghanistan remain either contested by the Taliban, or almost entirely under the group’s control.