High Value Target Campaign is Failing in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
12 years, 11 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.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks


  1. On October 27, 2010 at 8:18 pm, Paul Edson said:

    Perhaps the strategy and tactics will make it around the circle again and SOF will live in the villages, organize resistance and provide the kind of intell that the Marines et al can react to efficiently. Yarborough, 1962. And then, perhaps you might think that attrition of leadership does not affect the enemy? That is a stretch.

  2. On October 27, 2010 at 9:17 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    Stretch to you or not, the insurgency in Iraq wasn’t effected with Zarqawi’s death. It hasn’t worked in Afghanistan, and all I can tell you is again that this approach will not work. It hasn’t worked. The data shows it. We now have a mountain of data that screams out against an insurgency like this being significantly effected by the killing or capturing of mid-level commanders. We can wish it to be otherwise all we want, but wishing it doesn’t make it real.

    That’s really the problem, isn’t it? Data notwithstanding, if it runs against the assumptions (or axioms), then it must be mistaken, right? Surely our pre-conceptions can’t be wrong, can they?

  3. On October 27, 2010 at 10:59 pm, kenny komodo said:

    The Afghans, a tribal warrior caste society, has been fighting wars of one kind or another for centuries. They’re certainly accustomed to experiencing some setbacks, laying back for short or maybe extended periods of time, regrouping and going at it again. Why is it a surprise to our military commanders that the Taliban are willing to concede some territory or even mostly lay down their arms except for some isolated attacks when they think they can pull it off and of course the ever present war with IED’s. The Taliban leaders have apparently taken the measure of our current resident in chief at the WH and have found him lacking in backbone. Barry does not have the long term commitment gene that will enable him to risk ordering our military to stay the course in Afghanistan until the Taliban are soundly defeated. He’s too interested in his domestic political agenda which, by the way, is also failing. We should get out of Afghanistan now, why wait until next summer? It’s not worth one more dead or injured American.

  4. On October 27, 2010 at 11:33 pm, three chord sloth said:

    Echoes of Vietnam. Whenever the “best and brightest” get their manicured hands on the levers of power in DC, the results are the same… theory and narrative in sweet harmony, yet failure on-the-ground.

    Too many in Washington are overly credentialed, overly flattered, and overly insulated. They conflate narrow stacks of knowledge with wisdom… mere cleverness with genius. And they underestimate the enemy… boy, do they ever.

    Afghanistan is never gonna be an antiseptic “theater of operations” and we’re not going to win with surgical air campaigns and set of ROE written by lawyers. But that’s all they know, so I doubt they’re capable of seeing it any other way. They’ll end up losing this thing and never really know why.

  5. On October 27, 2010 at 11:44 pm, David said:

    What is “direct action kinetics”?

  6. On October 28, 2010 at 12:14 am, David said:

    I wonder if a lack of intel from a lack of prisoners and limits on interrogations are contributing to the lack of success.

  7. On October 28, 2010 at 12:49 am, Rich Vail said:

    The only way this could work…is if they prosecute it vigourously…which under this administration won’t happen. Mr. Obama has chosen the weakest of all approaches…too few troops with an announced withdrawal date…our enemies merely have to hold out…after all they can point to Vietnam.

    Rich Vail,
    Pikesville, MD

  8. On October 28, 2010 at 12:03 pm, Buzz said:


    “Direct action kinetics” is simply military euphemism. Anything “kinetic” involves lead or steel flying down range and blowing the hell out of someone or something.

    Direct action is one of the missions of special operations forces. It’s a fancy way of saying “raid.” (Yes, for all you afficianados, I realize I oversimply a bit, but for David’s purposes, it’s the correct answer.)

  9. On October 28, 2010 at 12:47 pm, luagha said:

    Like General Petraeus put out in his ‘anaconda’ strategy; you have to squeeze them everywhere. Even if that means you don’t squeeze as hard in certain spots, you still have to squeeze everywhere. Kill the high value targets, kill the footsoldiers, motivate them in both directions.

  10. On October 28, 2010 at 1:08 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    I don’t necessarily disagree, but I think that the bang for the buck is hitting the fighters. The best way to get to the HVTs is to marginalize them because the fighters desert them. This was done in the Anbar Province 2005 – 2007. A leader is only a leader because people follow him. If people no longer follow, his leadership status disappears.

  11. On October 29, 2010 at 8:34 pm, KG Peterson said:

    No disrespect intended to any of my superiors – or future leaders, but the way you stop people who want to do you harm is to make it very very painful for them to continue to try to hurt you. Kill more of them than they can send to hurt you.

    Take out a “leader” in any organization from the United States of America down to a street gang, and another leader will emerge or be appointed, depending on the structure of the organization. By taking out the HVT’s, all we do is speed up the sucession of the next victim to be designated as a HVT. But that is a one at a time thing. And the resources required to make it happen are not unlimited, as we know. Plus, allahs’ misfits have time on their side, along with the home field advantage.

    My call, although not in command at the moment is to stand and fight. Let them attack in force; we can repel with greater force and call to bear death from above in the form of B52s, F/A18s, A10s, AH64s and/or whatever else is needed. If they choose to fight in populated areas, they have signed the death warrants for the civilian populace. And good communications can carry that message to the locals – that AQ and taliban are NOT their friends because they have caused this destruction and death to be visited upon them.

    We make a mistake and play into their hands allowing them to use the population for cover. We can never win this way. Hit them hard, hit them often, and hit them again.

    To borrow from Sir Winston:

    “You ask, What is our policy? I will say; “It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us: to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.” You ask, What is our aim? I can answer with one word: Victory—victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival.”

    Remember too: “The whole history of the world is summed up in the fact that, when nations are strong, they are not always just, and when they wish to be just, they are no longer strong.”

    To my Marine Brothers and Sisters, I say “Semper Fidelis!”

    And as the SAS motto says “Who Dares Wins” We must dare to take victory despite the feel good, touchy feely policies of the current leadership.


  12. On October 30, 2010 at 2:40 am, DirtyMick said:

    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.
    I’ve been following Uncle Jimbo for years on Blackfive and for a period of time I respected his opinion but he has become an unprofessional blowhard and a loudmouth. Everytime somebody challenges him he acts like a child by saying things “Well I was in special forces STFU.” Well the fact is he got out before GWOT kicked off and served in a peace time army and is a cherry.

  13. On October 30, 2010 at 2:23 pm, KG Peterson said:


    I understand your point wrt Jimbo and action, but even peacetime soldiers are soldiers; SF folks (that I worked with and knew/know well) train hard, and do things we don’t hear about. Not taking one thing away from your 11B leg experience, knowledge or training, but we are what we are, we do what we do. What we become is a bit trickier, because there are so many influences upon up. Does Jimbo need to shop for a larger beret? I don’t know; we all have our opinions. Some of us have forums and an audience who read/listen; some not so much.

    As for the rest of your post, I think we are pretty much in agreement. Taking out the leader is not going to eliminate the group. Au contraire, it may have the opposite effect my martyring him for the cause. Better to kill them all and let their god sort them out. Will there be collateral damage and casualties? Of course. Should we minimize them? Of course, but only to the point that it does not endanger our people.

    When we find the taliban or AQ hiding in a cave, I still think we should shout in that they can surrender, and if that fails, back a 8kgal tanker full of gasoline up, open the dump valve, drive off and pop a flare.

    allah calls. I think we should do all we can to provide the ticket home for those folks who answer.


  14. On October 30, 2010 at 5:01 pm, DirtyMick said:

    I agree with what you’re saying on Jimbo and I apologize. He’s just frustrating sometimes

  15. On October 30, 2010 at 10:37 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    I appreciate all of my military readers, and thanks KGP and DirtyMick for your perspectives.

    Concerning Jim Hanson, I posted his e-mail to me because it displays in full color his exaggerated emotions. None of this concerned him. I didn’t say anything about him in this article / commentary. I didn’t link to anything B5 has up on its site. I didn’t invite his response. I didn’t solicit his views.

    Yet he attempts to tell me – someone he doesn’t know – what to do. Unrelated, unsolicited, and uninvited.

    I am sitting here attempting to think if I actually know anyone else in all of my life who would have done this. I cannot think of a single one. Frustrating isn’t exactly my word(s) for him. Bizarre and creepy comes to mind.

    Something’s got to be wrong with that guy. And he is the one who attempted – uninvited, again – to perform an internet intervention on Michael Yon because, ahem, it was Michael who had PTSD according to Jim.

    And to top it all off, he wrote again and said he wanted to kick me in the tits. Yes, you read it right.

    Well, I lift weights, have a dog and guns, and I’m not sure he would succeed, but that’s not really the point. I cannot imagine myself writing someone I don’t know and telling them I want to “kick them in the tits.”

  16. On October 31, 2010 at 10:55 am, Paul Edson said:

    It has been interesting reading through the responses to the original put by Herschel Smith. They are a testament to our frustration.
    If you ignore all constraints of time and space, nothing puny man does have much effect.
    At some point in time, we will impose our will or they will impose theirs. I am hopeful that we will reach the consensus that killing is a lesser evil than subjugation by a group such as militant Islam. Then we will seek them out where ever they are, whatever “friendly” government we offend, whatever cost of PTSD those that act pay, whatever abuse by those who do not comprehend the nature of the situation heap upon us, and kill them along with anyone remotely connected with their activities.

  17. On November 1, 2010 at 9:43 pm, KG Peterson said:


    One of the many problems with internet comms and blogs is that so much is said “off net” and the personna we see is not what someone else sees.

    I am not necessarily defending Jim; he is capable of doing that if he chooses to do so. If he has overstepped a line, an honorable man will give an apology and ask forgiveness.

    The relative anonimity of the internet, even when people “give their name and address” realistically means that not like many will take up the challenge – unless there is a severe mental/emotional issue on someones’ part. The offer to do harm to you may have come in an intoxicated moment, a bad moment or just one where someone wants to try to back you down with a bluff.

    On thing I learned from my Marines was to never come to a gun fight with a knife. I am not advocating violence, because there must be more to the story. As an officer, I think I have seen and heard most of the reasons and excuses for just about anything. As a former enlisted guy, I probably used most of them.

    One thing stays in my mind – a quote in fact: “With reasonable men, I will reason; with humane men I will plead; but to tyrants I will give no quarter, nor waste arguments where they will certainly be lost.”

    William Lloyd Garrison

    I have tried to keep it in mind when dealing with people. Maybe we all should.


  18. On November 1, 2010 at 9:45 pm, KG Peterson said:

    Oh, and thank you for allowing me to comment on your forum. I will always try to remember it is yours, and as the host, you make the rules.


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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,High Value Targets,Special Forces and was published October 27th, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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