Archive for the 'High Value Targets' Category



Drones and the War Against Militant Islam: Useful Tool or Game Changer?

BY Glen Tschirgi
2 years, 10 months ago

One of my favorite historians and conservative thinkers, Victor Davis Hanson, published a provocative article over at NRO, “The Predator-in-Chief.”

In this article, Hanson basically observes the irony that President Obama, who roundly criticized Bush 43 for his resort to force of arms, has turned out to be the unquestioned champion of UAV/drone strikes against high-value targets in both Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and even Somalia.

But Hanson attempts to do far more than merely observe Obama’s unbridled use of drones.   He argues that the development, use and continuing refinement of drones has “turned the tide” in the war against militant Islam.

For example:

Even when [the United States] adjusted well to the 9/11 tactics, there were new threats, such as suicide bombers and roadside improvised explosive devices that seemed to nullify American technological and material advantages.

But America is once again getting the upper hand in this long war against Middle Eastern terrorists, with the use of Predator-drone targeted assassinations to which the terrorists have not yet developed an answer. In systematically deadly fashion, Predators are picking off the top echelon of al-Qaeda and its affiliates from the Hindu Kush to Yemen to the Horn of Africa.

New models of drones seem almost unstoppable. They are uncannily accurate in delivering missiles in a way even precision aircraft-bombing cannot. Compared to the cost of a new jet or infantry division, Predators are incredibly cheap. And they do not endanger American lives — at least as long as terrorists cannot get at hidden runaways abroad or video-control consoles at home.

The pilotless aircraft are nearly invisible and, without warning, can deliver instant death from thousands of feet away in the airspace above. Foreign governments often give us permission to cross borders with Predators in a way they would not with loud, manned aircraft.

Moreover, drones are constantly evolving. They now stay in the air far longer and are far more accurate and far more deadly than when they first appeared in force shortly after 9/11. Suddenly it is a lot harder for a terrorist to bomb a train station in the West than it is for a Predator to target that same would-be terrorist’s home in South Waziristan.

Notwithstanding my admiration for his work, I cannot sign onto this particular piece.  Perhaps I am once again blinded by my antipathy for the current Administration, leading me to reject anything that reflects well on Obama, a kind of cognitive dissonance that finds fault where there is none.  On the other hand, it may be that Herschel Smith (and other folks like Tim Lynch, Michael Ledeen and Michael Yon) educated me too well to fall into facile thinking about a war won with drone attacks.   I am surprised to hear Professor Hanson saying anything to this effect.

What support is there for Hanson’s statement that drones have facilitated “getting the upper hand in the long war against Middle Eastern terrorists” ?

I certainly do not deny that drones have proven to be exceedingly useful tools on the battlefield and adept at decapitation operations, but Hanson seems to make way too much out of the effect of drones.  Yes, many al-Qaeda and affiliated terror group leaders have been killed and their accumulated expertise, leadership and inspiration denied to their followers.   But, as we have seen again and again in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Gaza, Lebanon, Iran and Somalia, merely ridding terror groups of their top leadership provides at best a respite until new leadership fills in the vacated posts.   Capabilities can be blunted at times with this tactic but the larger struggle continues unabated.   In short, no one has yet proven that decapitation operations are winning the war.

And I posit that no one can prove this point because to argue this is to mistake the very nature of the war itself.

Has the killing of Bin Laden and others really “turned the tide” in our favor as Hanson claims?  It could be argued that Al Qaeda as an organization was already dead or dying, discredited by their humiliating defeat in Iraq and their failure to launch any new attacks against the U.S. homeland.  In this sense, Al Qaeda leadership has been sitting around waiting to be picked off.   Very simply put, the game has changed dramatically since 9-11 and Al Qaeda and its cohorts are no longer all that relevant.   The ball has been taken up by other larger forces and by events that no one could foresee in 2001 or even 2009.   The Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the so-called Arab Spring.   These are all actors and events that are well beyond the reach of Drones and will have the most to say about winning or losing the war against militant Islam.

This is the problem with incorrectly identifying the enemy and the nature of our war.  It is far larger than any one terror group or 2,200 disembodied radicals.  The enemy is an ideology that is antithetical to Western civilization.  Like it or not, we are in a civlizational war with militant Islam.  If it makes us feel better to kill off 2,200 bad guys in Pakistan or Yemen or wherever, fine.

This explains, by the way, the strange attraction of Drones for Obama.  It is a cheap, easy and politically potent tool, giving him something concrete he can point to and say, “See what I’ve done to defeat terror?”

In the meantime, the ideology is not defeated.  To the contrary, it grows and metastasizes throughout the Middle East.  Iran.  The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Gaza (and Syria?).  Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Islamists in Libya.  The U.S. has done nothing to counter the Islamist ideology or strengthen the hands of those in the Middle East who share our values but need strong support to make their case to the people.  We blandly ignore the protests in Iran and Syria as internal matters, allowing the Islamists to gain the upper hand.  We have wasted 10 years in Afghanistan with futile attempts to impose an 18th century notion of democratic rule on a 9th century nation that sees little need to change.  But let’s celebrate those drone strikes.  The ground in the entire Middle East is shifting right under our feet, but, boy, did we blast those bad guys to bits in those remote villages and caves.

Drones are not the answer to any of this.   If only they were.   We cannot win this war with technology.   We have to defeat militant Islam the same way that we defeated fascism and communism:  by showing that they are bankrupt and evil ideologies.   Drones cannot save us.    Sorry Professor Hanson.

If the CIA built an intelligence network, SOF could do the job

BY Herschel Smith
2 years, 10 months ago

From The Tennessean:

They were the first Americans into Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks and will probably be the last U.S. forces to leave.

As most American troops prepare to withdraw in 2014, the CIA and military special operations forces to be left behind are girding for the next great pivot of the campaign, one that could stretch their war up to another decade.

The war’s 10th anniversary Friday recalled the beginnings of a conflict that drove the Taliban from power and lasted far longer than was imagined.

“We put a CIA guy in first,” scant weeks after the twin towers in New York fell, said Lt. Gen. John Mulholland, then a colonel with U.S. special operations forces, in charge of the military side of the operation. U.S. Special Forces Green Berets, together with CIA officers, helped coordinate anti-Taliban forces on the ground with U.S. firepower from the air, to topple the Taliban and close in on al-Qaida.

Recent remarks from the White House suggest the CIA and special operations forces will be hunting al-Qaida and working with local forces long after most U.S. troops have left.

When Afghan troops take the lead in 2014, “the U.S. remaining force will be basically an enduring presence force focused on counterterrorism,” said National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, in remarks in Washington in mid-September. That will be augmented by teams that will continue to train Afghan forces, added White House spokesman Tommy Vietor.

The White House insists this does not mean abandoning the strategy of counterinsurgency, in which large numbers of troops are needed to keep the population safe. It simply means replacing the surge of 33,000 U.S. troops, as it withdraws over the next year, with newly trained Afghan ones, according to senior White House Afghan war adviser Doug Lute.

It also means U.S. special operators and CIA officers will be there for the next turn in the campaign. That’s the moment when Afghans will either prove themselves able to withstand a promised Taliban resurgence, or find themselves overwhelmed by seasoned Taliban fighters.

“We’re moving toward an increased special operations role,” together with U.S. intelligence, Mulholland said, “whether it’s counterterrorism-centric, or counterterrorism blended with counterinsurgency.”

[ ... ]

Senior U.S. officials have spoken of keeping a mix of 10,000 of both raiding and training special operations forces in Afghanistan, and drawing down to between 20,000 and 30,000 conventional forces to provide logistics and support. But at this point, the figures are as fuzzy as the future strategy.

Whatever happens with U.S. troops, intelligence officers know they will be a key component.

“If the CIA built an intelligence network that could provide special operations forces with targets, we could do the job,” said Maj. Gen. Bennet S. Sacolick, who runs the U.S. Army’s Special Warfare Center and School.

This is a glowing report about the progress in Afghanistan coupled with a report card on what the SOF and SF are able to do – right up until Sacolick mentions those pesky little issues of logistics and intelligence networks.

20,000 – 30,000 troops won’t even be able to provide force protection for the SOF troopers, much less protection for the lines of logistics, protection for intelligence assets, or presence on the ground in the RC South or RC East to prevent virtually the entirety of Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for the Taliban again.  The Taliban haven’t retreated far beyond the outskirts the urban areas anyway.

But take careful note of what Sacolick says about his directions for high value target hits: “If the CIA built an intelligence network that could provide special operations forces with targets, we could do the job.”  What job?  The job of HVT raids.  First off, there is no discussion as to the [in]effectiveness of said program.  But just as important, as to the intelligence that under-girds the existence of the program, Sacolick says “it’s not my shop!”

We just do raids.  The CIA has to provide the intelligence, and they must do it without the troops necessary to squeeze the information out of the population, or protect the ones who do give up information.  The most incredible thing about this report is that the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Pentagon are even contemplating this as a viable option.  It shows the desperation of the campaign that this idea has even been floated.

One final note.  How is that plan going for turnover to ANA forces?

Late one evening, soon after a bomb planted in the road was blown up by the vigilant engineers, another large explosion rocked the Afghan patrol based called Hamid where the troops were camped for the night.

Insurgents had accidentally triggered a large IED placed where we had patrolled just an hour before.

“An own goal,” gloated the Diggers as they settled in for a night.

The Mirabad Valley clearance had been billed as an “ANA planned and led” operation.

In reality following two fatalities and seven destroyed vehicles, the ANA commander said, “Let’s clear the Mirabad Valley before winter sets in.” He then left the planning and details to Alpha Company led by Major Tony Bennett whose men are mentoring the 3rd Kandak of the ANA’s 4th Brigade working with local police and their American mentors.

“They are picking some of it up, but they will not be able to do this (clearance) without us,” Major Bennett said.

“They will sit in the patrol bases and be a deterrent and hopefully the police in the valleys will be enough to stop the insurgents.”

“Sit in patrol bases and be a deterrent.”  Such is the state of the plan.

Anwar al-Awlaki, U.S. Citizen, Killed in Yemen?

BY Herschel Smith
2 years, 11 months ago

So apparently al Qaeda propagandist, Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed in Yemen by a CIA-led strike.  So this raises some important questions.

First off, while my friend Michael Ledeen wants to support the Green movement in Iran, I want to do this along with (a) reversing the executive order on assassinations issued by President Ford, (b) assassinating General Suleimani, Hassan Nasrallah, and a whole host of other unsavory characters, and fomenting an insurgency inside of Iran.  I pleaded for killing Baitullah Mehsud before his name became a household word, and toasted his demise when it happened (Edit: And now that I think back on this event, quite literally I laughed out loud and celebrated his death, just as I did Zarqawi).  I haven’t changed any of my views.  So let’s not level silly charges that I’m going soft or becoming a leftist.

But we have just rained ordnance down on a U.S. citizen by executive order.  Does anyone see any problems with this?  I (think I) have divorced myself from the fact that Mr. Obama approved this; as my readers know, I am no supporter of Mr. Obama.  But while I think less highly of the high value target program’s effectiveness than he does, I  supported his approval of the mission against UBL.  UBL wasn’t a U.S. citizen.

In this case, though, things are different.  The constitution affords certain protections to U.S. citizens.  I discussed this with co-writer Glen Tschirgi and he suggested some alternative solutions to the dilemma.  For example, Congress could have issued a bill that strips U.S. citizens of their citizenship when a person identifies with a formally designated terrorist entity.  There might be a set of other reasons that a person must relinquish their citizenship.  Now, to be sure, I can think of problematic aspects of such a solution, such as the fact that we would be relying on the accuracy and viability of the U.S. State Department’s program of identification of terrorists, or possibly corruption of the process.

But the fact of the matter is that we didn’t pursue any of these approaches.  Awlaki was still a U.S. citizen when we executed him under executive order.  For some odd reason, that little thing called “due process” keeps coming to mind.

UPDATE: Kevin Williamson weighs in a bit at NRO.  David French responds at NRO with what I consider to be an uncompelling argument.  The issue doesn’t focus on the term “assassination.”  The issue focuses on the protections afforded by the constutition to U.S. citizens.  If it’s legal to execute U.S. citizens without due process, then queue the argument up.  I’ll listen.  And this isn’t analogous to stumbling upon a shooter on the field of battle who happens to be a U.S. citizen.  This is the premeditated targeting of a U.S. citizen without due process.  Again, queue up the argument for this.  Tell me how this fits within our legal framework?

The HVT Campaign and New Breed of Taliban Commanders

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 8 months ago

From The Telegraph:

The special forces onslaught hailed by Nato as helping turn the momentum against the Taliban was in fact making peace more remote he claimed.

Mullah Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a deputy leader of Hamid Karzai’s peace council tasked with finding a political settlement, said the attempt to wipe out the Taliban hierarchy was “in vain”.

The comments by the former Taliban ambassador to the United Nations contradict buoyant Nato commanders who have boasted the raids by troops including the SAS have rattled the insurgency.

By driving Taliban from their heartlands with Barack Obama’s surge reinforcements, while targeting the command, Nato believes it can drive insurgents to the negotiating table.

Mullah Mujahid however said an older more pragmatic generation of Taliban leaders was being replaced by zealots opposed to any reconciliation.

He said: “Any older commanders that have been killed, the fanatical ones have come in their place.

“In that way we are losing a lot of politically-minded Taliban. The new ones have a more religious mentality. They are only fighters.” Mullah Abdul Qayum Zakir, a hardliner and former Guantánamo Bay prisoner who rose to become deputy leader this year, typified the new breed he said.

While regular readers know all about my lack of advocacy for the HVT campaign, I don’t want to read too much into this report.  Mujahid’s account isn’t reason enough to abandon the HVT campaign if it’s working.  My claim isn’t (and has never been) that we are replacing bad actors with worse actors, or that the SOF operators aren’t highly qualified and useful warriors, or that it wouldn’t be a good thing to have more Taliban commanders dead.  My claim has heretofore been that it is a mostly ineffective strategy and misuse of highly skilled operators who should be matrixed to infantry Battalions (as in the Marine Corps, i.e., Force Recon and Scout Sniper).

Nor have I been a proponent of the ridiculous reconciliation program.  There is absolutely no point of similarity between the Sons of Iraq program – implemented when the Iraqi insurgents were losing badly – and the supposed Taliban reconciliation program.

However, there is an interesting revelation that comports with a theme I have been following, that is, the increased religious radicalization of the Afghan Taliban given the protracted nature of the campaign and the prolonged exposure to foreign (Arabic) religious influences.  The longer this thing draws out, the more we are facing (what was once) a national insurgency that has now become a transnational insurgency.

Hamid Karzai: Defeater of the High Value Target Program

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 9 months ago

Regular readers know that I am no proponent of the high value target program.  The middle of the night raids by SOF operators, the temporary stays in prison, the quick release, the lack of embedded of SOF with infantry and thus the lack of participation in the holistic counterinsurgency effort, etc.

While I am not opposed to making life hard for insurgents, I believe that the program is just generally ineffective.  Now comes Hamid Karzai to ensure its complete failure (edited for brevity).

Afghan security forces are freeing captured senior Taliban for payment or political motives, with President Hamid Karzai and his powerful brother among those authorizing and requesting releases.

The practice is so systemic that the Taliban have a committee focused on getting their fighters out of jail. It undermines the deterrent effect of arrest and the potential of the prisoner population as a card to play in peace talks, analysts say.

The releases, which were confirmed to Reuters by several sources familiar with a range of cases, also raise questions about the capacity and political will of Afghan security forces meant to be taking over from foreign troops starting next year.

But cases uncovered by Reuters including that of Ghulam Haidar, a top insurgent in the southern Taliban heartland of Kandahar, suggest that a web of complex loyalties and widespread corruption are undermining the fight against the insurgency.

Ghulam Haidar, meaning “servant of God”, is a common name in Afghanistan so when Canadian forces turned one of the most dangerous men in Kandahar city over to their Afghan counterparts in March, they may not have realized who he was.

Days later he was walking free again, according to three sources who have investigated prisoner releases or have seen documents about Haidar’s capture. They asked not to be named because they are not authorized to release information.

“They took this guy into custody in mid-March, but he was out again in a few days. This is a classic example of what has been happening,” one former Western official told Reuters.

A Kabul-based source with links to Western intelligence services confirmed Haidar was a Taliban leader known to have a major role in the insurgency around the city.

Yet his freedom was requested by Karzai’s younger brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, head of the Kandahar provincial council.

Dubbed “AWK” by Westerners working in Kandahar, he has an iron grip on the city but his loyalties are considered less solid. A U.S. government cable dated 2009, released by WikiLeaks, described him as a corrupt drug trafficker.

“When Ghulam Haidar was in (Afghan) custody AWK asked for his release,” said a second source, who rejected the idea that Haidar could have been set free because he was a double agent.

“If the Afghan government had good agents within the Taliban things should have gotten better — but that is obviously not the case,” the source added.

Ahmad Wali Karzai said he had never asked for the release of a Taliban prisoner and had not heard of Ghulam Haidar.

“I am the person most wanted by the Taliban, with nine suicide attacks against me,” he told Reuters by telephone.

“I would be the last person to release the Taliban — my position is for more tough measures against them.”

The Defence Ministry and National Directorate of Security, President Karzai’s office and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force all declined to respond to questions on Ghulam Haidar’s case or the wider issue of Taliban releases.

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which controls the police, said it had not been involved in release of any Taliban.

“We have no evidence and no examples that detained Taliban were released by government officials,” Zemarai Bashary said.

Haidar was one of the most high-profile insurgents in recent years to slip through prisoner release mechanisms that are designed to prevent innocent men from languishing in prison but are regularly exploited by the Taliban to free key commanders.

“The Taliban operate a commission for prisoners affairs and effecting releases is among its responsibilities,” said Michael Semple, a Harvard University fellow with over 20 years experience in Afghanistan and extensive contacts with the Taliban.

“It’s systemic. It is well beyond the level of having the occasional success,” he added.

Another source also confirmed the committee’s existence, although in practical terms most release operations were conceived and directed at the local level.

In cases like Ghulam Haidar, political connections are key.

One of the most high-profile examples in recent years was the 2007 release of Dastagir, a Taliban leader from northwestern Badghis province. President Karzai himself ordered the commander freed after village elders promised he would renounce violence.

His return to battle united feuding Taliban factions and he was personally responsible for the deaths of at least 32 Afghan policemen in attacks he organized before he was killed in 2009, said a government source from western Afghanistan.

Sometimes cash is more effective.

One source told Reuters Ahmad Wali Karzai had paid tens of thousands of dollars to secure the release of another Taliban commander, Anwar Shah Agha, who operates in the area to the west of Kandahar city and was captured in May 2009.

He was released by Afghan security forces in Kabul in March 2010, and has since returned to the battlefield.

Some Taliban are freed legally but with a worrying lack of transparency, said Kate Clark, senior analyst at Afghanistan Analysts Network who has studied Taliban releases. She cited the case of Akbar Agha freed late last year by Karzai.

“He was pardoned secretly and is now living under semi-house arrest. He was quite senior, and put away for kidnapping UN staff including a British woman,” Clark said.

“Pardoning criminals is a constitutional right of the president’s, but the lack of transparency, the fact that he does not necessarily announce the pardons, is concerning for anyone looking at it from a rule-of-law perspective.”

“What are we really fighting for? We risk our lives to catch them and bring them in and then they just release them,” said a Kabul-based source who followed the Ghulam Haidar case.

The releases attracted the notice, and anger, of Karzai’s Western backers, according to a cable released by WikiLeaks.

“Both (Karzai and the attorney general) authorize the release of detainees pre-trial and allow dangerous individuals to go free or re-enter the battlefield without ever facing an Afghan court,” the August 2009 cable from the embassy in Kabul said.

It goes on to list 150 pre-trial releases from one Afghan detention facility since 2007, including 27 prisoners who had been held at Guantanamo Bay by the United States.

The complex lines of the Afghan conflict also mean today’s enemy can be tomorrow’s friend. Ghulam Haidar, for example, is from the Popalzai tribe like the Karzais. Tribal loyalties run deep in Afghanistan.

I predicted that prisons would be problematic in Afghanistan, and they are.  As for the bastard Wali Karzai, it’s no surprise that his name comes up.  We have discussed this man before.

It isn’t just that the high value target campaign is generally ineffective and a misuse of highly skilled SOF troopers, and it is both.  No, it’s more than that.  The Afghanis are conspiring to ensure that what little to moderate effectiveness it could have has been neutered.

Prisons are generally problematic for counterinsurgency.  As I have argued before, there is no replacement for killing the enemy on the field of battle.

Taliban Turning the Tables on Special Operations Forces Night Raids

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 10 months ago

From The Guardian:

Taliban commanders claim they are foiling intensified night-time attacks by elite troops that Nato officials hoped would bring the insurgents to the negotiating table in Afghanistan.

Officials say a fivefold increase in “kill or capture” raids and escalating airstrikes are putting the Taliban under unprecedented pressure and prompting some rebel groups to seek a ceasefire.

Insurgent commanders from Helmand and Kandahar, interviewed in Kabul, say the effectiveness of Nato special operations forces has diminished.

“In the past year they have had a lot of successes with these operations, but now we have got used to it and changed our tactics,” said the commander of a group of 50 men in Dand, Kandahar province.

“At night we have two people in every village who do not go to sleep – if they hear the helicopters, we contact each other before they arrive.”

Another commander, now based in Marjah, a rural area of Helmand that US marines are struggling to subdue, had a similar story.

“In spring they came to try to arrest me, but when the helicopters landed we were called by other bases and we quickly ran away from the house,” he said. “They took two men but two days later they were released.”

Coalition officers concede their targets often get away. A senior officer from Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) said in 25% to 50% of raids the soldiers found their prey had escaped.

“We know they have tippers: you go to a place and you get three guys but the real guy has snuck out the back door,” the Isaf officer said.

Analysis & Commentary

The Taliban have stolen a page from the U.S. Marines with guardian angels watching over their people.  They can do this ad infinitum.  Sleep rotation doesn’t harm anyone in the group, and if the Taliban can thwart half of the raids with a technique as simple as this, they will keep doing it while they also develop other solutions to their problem.

Recall from High Value Target Campaign is Failing in Afghanistan, NCO DirtyMick observed:

When I was recalled from IRR to active duty in Kunar Province for 10 months this year with a PRT as an 11Bravo NCO, “Big Army” caused major problems when 2/12 Infantry pulling out of the Korengal right when the spring offensive kicked off and combined with cherry Battalions (1st and 2nd Battalion 327 Infantry 101st Airborne) conducting a RIP caused needless deaths. Sigacts in the Pech River Valley went through the roof and pretty much everything north of Asadabad was a nightmare because the Taliban believed this was a victory. In my opinion as an NCO in order to conduct a proper counter insurgency you need to kill taliban, hunt them down where they congregate and lock down areas. There should be no reason every time a patrol goes through Matin Village in the Pech it gets into a firefight. You take a rifle company and clear that village by going door to door. When we had an IED problem you establish a curfew and nobody is allowed on the MSRs past 2100. If you are you get detained or killed. You can have ODA do raids all you want on HVTs but until you start having line platoons go out actively killing scores of Taliban it’s not going to matter. You can kill a senior Taliban leader in Kunar but in the end you’re still going to have platoon or two platoon plus size elements of Taliban attacking army convoys. The 327 did that over the summer when a battalion went in and cleared out the Marawara district but more needs to be done.

The reason that the SOF troopers have to drive so far to work is that … ahem … they don’t live among the people.  I think I’ve heard something before about having to commute to the fight and how, you know, it’s a bad thing.  Yes.  I’m sure that I have.  We are misusing our resources, and we cannot possibly win this way.

High Value Target Campaign is Failing in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 10 months ago

From Greg Miller with The Washington Post:

An intense military campaign aimed at crippling the Taliban has so far failed to inflict more than fleeting setbacks on the insurgency or put meaningful pressure on its leaders to seek peace, according to U.S. military and intelligence officials citing the latest assessments of the war in Afghanistan.

Escalated airstrikes and special operations raids have disrupted Taliban movements and damaged local cells. But officials said that insurgents have been adept at absorbing the blows and that they appear confident that they can outlast an American troop buildup set to subside beginning next July.

“The insurgency seems to be maintaining its resilience,” said a senior Defense Department official involved in assessments of the war. Taliban elements have consistently shown an ability to “reestablish and rejuvenate,” often within days of routed by U.S. forces, the official said, adding that if there is a sign that momentum has shifted, “I don’t see it.”

One of the military objectives in targeting mid-level commanders is to compel the Taliban to pursue peace talks with the Afghan government, a nascent effort that NATO officials have helped to facilitate.

The blunt intelligence assessments are consistent across the main spy agencies responsible for analyzing the conflict, including the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, and come at a critical juncture. Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has touted the success of recent operations and indicated that the military thinks it will be able to show meaningful progress by the December review. He said last week that progress is occurring “more rapidly than was anticipated” but acknowledged that major obstacles remain.

U.S. intelligence officials present a similar, but inverted, view – noting tactical successes but warning that well into a major escalation of the conflict, there is little indication that the direction of the war has changed.

Among the troubling findings is that Taliban commanders who are captured or killed are often replaced in a matter of days. Insurgent groups that have ceded territory in Kandahar and elsewhere seem content to melt away temporarily, leaving behind operatives to carry out assassinations or to intimidate villagers while waiting for an opportunity to return.

Analysis & Commentary

Say it ain’t so?  The high value target campaign conducted by special operations forces is failing in Afghanistan?

Ten months ago I said:

SOF troops come in the middle of the night and kill high value targets (always members of some one’s family), disappear into the night, and leave the GPF to explain the next day why it all occurred.  It’s horrible for the campaign, bad for morale within the GPF, bad for maintenance of capabilities within the GPF, and bad for the overall qualifications of SOF and SF.

Three months ago I gave the counterexample to this bad policy:

The same people who ordered the strike were there to explain it in the morning, just as I suggested should happen.  The same people who fight by night are there for the locals to look at in the morning.  And look into their eyes.  If they see cut and run, they will side with the insurgents, or someone else, whomever that may be.  If they see victory and determination, they will side with the stronger horse.  We need to be the stronger horse.

Seven months ago I said:

Ending the silly high value target campaign (capturing mid-level Taliban commanders, only to release them 96 hours later) won’t end unintended noncombatant casualties.

Four months ago I said:

We have discussed the issue of a campaign against high value targets conducted by SOF.  I don’t believe in it.  I don’t think it works to curtail the insurgency.  But besides considerations of the utility of the strategy (and it is a strategy, not a tactic), there is the issue of maintenance of troop morale.  McChrystal set up a military cultural milieu in which direct action kinetics was relegated (or reserved) to SOF, while the so-called general purpose forces were essentially told to be policemen, and given rules of engagement that are more restrictive than those for police departments in the U.S.  Nothing McChrystal could have done would have worked so thoroughly to bust troop morale.  McChrystal’s vision is why he worked so poorly with the Marines and within the context of the MAGTF.  The Corps doesn’t buy into McChrystal’s bifurcation, and (properly) wants more control of goings-on within their battle space than McChrystal was willing to give them.

And finally, six weeks ago I said:

I continue to advocate reassignment of SOF to be matrixed directly to infantry (their skills could be put to good use), and I continue to advocate the ideas that the HVT campaign did not work in Iraq, is not working in Afghanistan, and will not work anywhere. You may disagree, but you must give me data that shows the effectiveness of this strategy.  I have yet to see any such evidence.  And as for the use of the term “strategy” to define this approach, it’s exactly in line with the facts.  Our strategy in Afghanistan at the present seems to be use of the GPF for force protection for logistics, medical personnel and air power, while the SOF boys take out leaders.  Pitiful strategy, this is.  If we cannot do any better than that we need to come home.

In fact, some two years ago I received a communication from a SOF commander who told me that the high value target campaign wasn’t working.  He told me, with some chagrin, that killing a mid- or even high-level Taliban commander only had an effect on the insurgency for a few days to a few weeks, and then only locally, and that it took only days for them to appoint new commanders.

Our so-called general purpose forces have been relegated to policing the population, while direct action kinetics are being done by the special operations troopers against high value targets.  This is our current strategy – not tactics, but overarching strategy.  It hasn’t worked in Afghanistan.  It didn’t work in Iraq.  It won’t work anywhere, any time.

The Taliban will be corralled when we kill enough of the low level fighters that it makes joining their cause inadvisable and unattractive.  Then, the leaders will be made irrelevent.  This requires counterinsurgency warfare, not policing and counterterrorism by SOF troopers by raiding high value targets.

So why do we have Pentagon strategists still surprised at the fact that this strategy doesn’t work?  Is this all they have in their bag of tricks?  Really?  Have they bet the campaign on this strategyReally?

UPDATE: Thanks to Glenn for the link.  Michael Ledeen responds, quite sensibly, that the HVT program can’t exist and be successful on its own.  It needs all of the other aspects of the campaign.  Ever the thinking man and scholar, Jim Hanson responds: “Dude it is well past time for you to STFU! This is quite possibly the most arrogant bit of garbage from an amateur wannabe I have ever seen. Who the fuck do you think you are? Jesus it is annoying and ridiculous to see someone with a junior high level of understanding opining as if people who actually know what they are talking about ought to listen.  You need a big steaming cup of humility and a new hobby.”

And in the interest of openness and giving all points of view, there you have it.

UPDATE #2: A well meaning reader mentions the notion that my prose might be being used by the Pentagon to convince the Taliban commanders that they are winning rather than us.  She sends this link.  I recommended that she balance her reading with Joshua Foust’s latest piece.

UPDATE #3: Michael Yon drops me a note to point out, correctly, that he was speaking out against exclusive reliance on the HVT program back in 2006 and onward.  Make sure to visit his Facebook page.

Degrading Security in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 11 months ago

In my younger years I trained quarter horses.  Naturally, I was both surprised and excited to see an article about taking rodeos from Texas to Afghanistan.  I expected stories about how the Afghans learned of the utility of the quintessential horse – the quarter horse – in barrel racing, roping, ring riding, and just about everything else.  Lord, I love the quarter horse.  I do.  I was very disappointed and saddened to read the report.

In a place where life can end abruptly or change forever in an instant, Arnold Norman is offering a belt buckle to the best soldier.

Correction: the best roper soldier.

Of all of Norman’s missions as an agricultural adviser at a remote outpost in Afghanistan, organizing a roping competition would not have appeared anywhere.

But Norman, 59, an avid team roper on weekends in Texas, discovered dozens of young American soldiers, and a few Afghans, who found swinging a rope at a dummy steer to be an unexpected salve for the stresses of combat and loneliness.

“I thought it’d be kind of cool to have a little dummy-roping contest,” said Norman, who lives outside Burleson. “It just kept getting bigger. I’ve probably got 50 guys signed up for it now.”

The contest is scheduled for Oct. 1 in the town of Baraki Barak, a couple of weeks after Norman returns from his leave. The best roper will get to take custom-made belt buckles home from deployment. Norman hears that the Stars & Stripes newspaper and Armed Forces Network might cover it.

Norman won’t be winning, though.

“No one was going to enter if I did,” he said, laughing. “But I’m doing this for them anyway.”

More soldiers from other bases would like to participate, but neither Norman nor their commanders are willing to get someone hurt or killed to rope a metal and wood steer. Conditions on the ground have deteriorated significantly just outside his post in recent weeks.

“I’ve told people, ‘If you can’t figure out a way to come on a helicopter, don’t come,’” Norman said. “I don’t travel in [ground] vehicles anymore. That’s what has really changed since I’ve been here. When I came last fall, very seldom was anyone getting blown up. Now it’s common.”

He says this matter-of-factly, as if U.S. Department of Agriculture employees say it all the time.

Used to be, in what feels like a very long time ago, Norman drove to work every morning at the federal complex on Felix Street in south Fort Worth.

He works as a range management specialist for the National Resources Conservation Service, an agency within the USDA. He teaches other USDA employees around the country about methods of restoring land to its pre-farming days.

But last year, the USDA asked for volunteers to go to Afghanistan. Norman didn’t need to volunteer. He could retire whenever he wants after 37 years of service.

Maybe it was the enticement of “danger pay” for a USDA employee.

“It’s been an adventure, for sure,” he said. “You know, I’ve had a very successful career. I’ve been able to teach a lot of people about land and their animals. I thought I had some skills to improve the Afghans’ way of life.”

What I wasn’t expecting to see was such a stark and honest appraisal of the degrading security situation in Afghanistan.  Remember, too, it was during this time that we killed and captured so many high value targets with the ultra-secretive night raids by SOF troopers.  Surely at risk of repeating myself for the millionth time, I guess that strategy isn’t working, huh?

HVTs and the Taliban Decapitation Campaign

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 11 months ago

From Strategy Page:

Between April and July of this year, U.S. and allied (including Afghan) special operations forces killed nearly 400 Taliban leaders, and arrested another 1,400 Taliban. All this was mostly done via night operations by commandos (mainly U.S. Special Forces and SEALs) and missile attacks by American UAVs. This is part of a trend.

In the past two years, SOCOM has been shifting forces from Iraq (where it had 5,500 personnel two years ago) to Afghanistan (where it had 3,000 troops two years ago). The ratio is now largely reversed. Most American allies have moved all their commando forces from Iraq to Afghanistan, where they not only do what they were trained for, but also train Afghans for special operations tasks. This has already been done in Iraq, where it worked quite well. As a result, there are now nearly 10,000 special operations troops in Afghanistan. The SOCOM troops in Iraq and Afghanistan account for about 80 percent of American special operations forces overseas. The rest are in places like Colombia, the Philippines and Djibouti (adjacent to Somalia).

Special operations troops not only participate in most of the attacks on the Taliban leadership (and key technical people building and placing roadside bombs), but also conduct a lot of the surveillance missions that locate safe houses where Taliban leaders operate from, as well as those used for bomb making workshops. Many Special Forces troops speak the local languages, and can negotiate with village and tribal leaders for information and assistance.

This “decapitation” campaign was successful in Iraq, and earlier, in Israel (where it was developed to deal with the Palestinian terror campaign that began in 2000.) Actually, the Americans have used siimilar tactics many times in the past (in World War II, 1960s Vietnam, the Philippines over a century ago and in 18th century colonial America.) But the Israelis developed decapitation tactics customized for use against Islamic terrorists.

In some cases, the Special Forces efforts have been so successful that the Taliban has been unable to get anyone to take the place of dead leaders. In some cases, the Taliban have called on friend and kin in the Afghan government, to try and get the Americans to stop. This puts these Afghan officials in a tight spot. While they are officially on board with this campaign against the Taliban, they also have members of their tribe, or even close relatives, who are in the Taliban. That’s not unusual in Afghanistan, where even the most pro-Taliban tribes have members who are not only pro-government, but actually work (most of the time) for the government. That’s how politics works in Afghanistan.

Ooooo.  Wow.  I’m sure this will end the insurgency in Afghanistan just like killing Zarqawi brought an abrupt end to the insurgency in Iraq.  Uh … er … nevermind, maybe not.  Maybe it’s not really killing several hundred “leaders” of what is already a disaggregated and decentralized insurgency that ends it.  Maybe, like Iraq, it’s operations against the insurgents themselves, thereby rendering the “leaders” embarrassed, irrelevant and powerless when they can’t get fighters to join their cause because they are seen as the losing side.

I continue to advocate reassignment of SOF to be matrixed directly to infantry (their skills could be put to good use), and I continue to advocate the ideas that the HVT campaign did not work in Iraq, is not working in Afghanistan, and will not work anywhere. You may disagree, but you must give me data that shows the effectiveness of this strategy.  I have yet to see any such evidence.  And as for the use of the term “strategy” to define this approach, it’s exactly in line with the facts.  Our strategy in Afghanistan at the present seems to be use of the GPF for force protection for logistics, medical personnel and air power, while the SOF boys take out leaders.  Pitiful strategy, this is.  If we cannot do any better than that we need to come home.

So how is Afghanistan now that we have killed or captured (and then released) all of those leaders?  Well, this doesn’t speak so well of things.

Even as more American troops flow into the country, Afghanistan  is more dangerous than it has ever been during this war, with security deteriorating in recent months, according to international organizations and humanitarian groups.

Large parts of the country that were once completely safe, like most of the northern provinces, now have a substantial Taliban presence — even in areas where there are few Pashtuns, who previously were the Taliban’s only supporters. As NATO forces poured in and shifted to the south to battle the Taliban in their stronghold, the Taliban responded with a surge of their own, greatly increasing their activities in the north and parts of the east.

Unarmed government employees can no longer travel safely in 30 percent of the country’s 368 districts, according to published United Nations estimates, and there are districts deemed too dangerous to visit in all but one of the country’s 34 provinces.

The number of insurgent attacks has increased significantly; in August 2009, insurgents carried out 630 attacks. This August, they initiated at least 1,353, according to the Afghan N.G.O. Safety Office, an independent organization financed by Western governments and agencies to monitor safety for aid workers.

An attack on a Western medical team in northern Afghanistan in early August, which killed 10 people, was the largest massacre in years of aid workers in Afghanistan.

“The humanitarian space is shrinking day by day,” said a CARE Afghanistan official, Abdul Kebar.

And likewise, neither does this.  Maybe we just aren’t killing the right high value targets, or something?  Or maybe we just need to focus on chasing and killing insurgents where they live by troops in contact with them every day.  You know, distributed operations and small unit maneuver warfare.  Some troops are doing that.  All of them should be.


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