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U.S. strategy in Afghanistan may involve greater use of special operations forces

Elite forces have seized scores of insurgent leaders, rare gains in a war in which progress has been slow. Their success bolsters arguments for a shift away from reliance on conventional forces.

June 29, 2010|By David S. Cloud and Julian E. Barnes, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — U.S. special operations troops in Afghanistan have stepped up a campaign to kill or capture insurgent leaders, senior U.S. officials say, an effort that began in March and is likely to expand as Army Gen. David H. Petraeus looks for ways to show progress.

Senior U.S. military officials said the raids by special operations troops have killed or captured 186 insurgent leaders and detained an additional 925 lower-level fighters in the last 110 days. That would mark a rare success for American troops in a war that has otherwise gone poorly in recent months.

The operations have been most effective in and around the southern city of Kandahar and in eastern Afghanistan, according to American military officials, who requested anonymity in discussing information that had not been released publicly, and outside analysts. Already, they said, there are signs in these areas that roadside bomb attacks have decreased and the Taliban control is weakening, as senior leaders are killed or captured.

A successful effort would support the contention made by Vice President Joe Biden and other administration officials who are skeptical of the military strategy in Afghanistan: Special operations troops, with their small footprint and skill at tracking and killing the enemy, can be more effective than conventional forces in the difficult conflict the U.S. faces in that country.

Biden has argued for shrinking the U.S. effort and relying largely on special operations troops and airstrikes to disrupt the Taliban and Al Qaeda, officials say.

President Obama has sided so far with those who favor using large numbers of U.S. troops as part of a far-reaching counterinsurgency effort, a point that he reiterated last week in naming Petraeus to replace Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as commander of the war in Afghanistan.

But if the special operations effort is the most successful element of the war effort, Biden and those who agree with him could be in a stronger position to argue for shrinking the U.S. military presence when the strategy is reexamined, perhaps as soon as the December review Obama has promised.

Supporters of the more limited strategy advocated by Biden believe special operations should be the main military effort in Afghanistan. Petraeus, however, argues that special operations troops are just one tool, albeit a highly effective one, in fighting an insurgency.

While leading the U.S. military force in Iraq, Petraeus advocated a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy aimed at combating militants with both special and conventional forces. He is expected to utilize the same strategy in Afghanistan.

Current and former Petraeus advisors also said the general will try to quickly reverse the perception that the Afghanistan war is going badly. When he appears before the Senate on Tuesday for a hearing on his nomination to lead the allied war effort in Afghanistan, he is likely to emphasize recent successes by special operations forces.

"Trumpeting the successes of ISAF [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's International Security Assistance Force] operations, Afghan operations, should be part of the strategy," said Peter Mansoor, who served as Petraeus' executive officer in Iraq. "The strategy is clearly to knock the Taliban back, but if you don't show the world that is happening, what is the use?"

A senior military official in Afghanistan said the killings of leaders since March have reduced the effectiveness of the Taliban, making the militant movement less capable of threatening the Afghan population.

Officials did not release the list of 186 insurgent leaders they say have been killed since March. Last week, however, they did name two insurgent leaders slain last month in Kandahar.

In eastern Afghanistan, the U.S. has been trying to take out key commanders in the Haqqani network, a Taliban-aligned insurgency that maintains a safe haven in Pakistan, said Jeffrey Dressler, a researcher at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.

"We have seen over the last four weeks an increase in special operation maneuvers," Dressler said. "And it is having a significant impact on the Haqqani network's ability to operate."

But Haqqani fighters still are able to use their base in Pakistan's North Waziristan region to try and mount suicide bombings across the border in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and has been linked to several recent attacks, including a mortar barrage that disrupted a peace conference convened by Afghan President Hamid Karzai this month.

U.S. officials hope that continued special operations raids against insurgent leaders will encourage lower-level followers to lay down their arms and reconcile with the government in Kabul.

Skeptics of the administration's overall strategy see the results of the special operations campaign as a powerful argument for shifting away from the counterinsurgency campaign crafted by McChrystal toward the strategy advocated by Biden.

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