Capturing the Taliban: Afghan covert war

First published on Channel 4 News website, 16 February 2010

The arrest of a Taliban’s commander illustrates Nato’s covert war against the insurgency – but, as the coalition advances, author Stephen Grey writes that Operation Moshtarak must herald a new strategy in Afghanistan.

US Marines, Afghanistan (Getty)

Stephen Grey is the author of Operation Snakebite – a true story about an Afghan desert siege.

A rebellion like the Taliban’s insurgency in Afghanistan is rather like the smouldering embers of a forest fire.

Discontent and grievance are the fuel, and a rebel group’s ideology, organisation and leadership breathe the wind that turns the embers into roaring flames.

The twin strategy of a Nato’s campaign in the region, as explained by top commanders, mirrors that metaphor.

On the one hand are conventional operations led by ground troops and development experts. Their much-publicised campaign – exemplified by this week’s US-led offensive in central Helmand, Operation Moshtarak (“Together” in Dari) – is targeted ultimately at influencing the minds of the people in those war torn districts.

In other words, curbing that discontent and grievance.

But, if the reports are true, today’s disclosure of the stunning capture of the No. 2 of the Afghan Taliban’s Pakistan-based leadership, Mullah Abdul Ghani Berader (or Baradar), is part of the covert but equally important plank of the war now orchestrated by the US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal.

As one US general in Kabul told me a while back: “Don’t be deceived by all the hearts and minds and all the open stuff. As big a part of the war is what we call the manhunt: tracking down and getting the bad guys.”

In an integrated operation with US intelligence outfits – and with the support of UK special forces and intelligence, as well as Australian units – a breathless campaign of raids and strikes is taking place across both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, mirroring the apparent success of a similar secret offensive led by McChrystal when he commanded special forces in Baghdad, Iraq.

The most overt part of this secret war has been the drone strikes launched in tribal areas of north-west Pakistan.

Operated by the CIA, with the co-operation of counter-terrorist officers with Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency, these have been intensified by President Obama.

Until now, those strikes (combined with other more covert activities involving both spies and special forces), have been confined by agreement with Pakistani forces by those tribal areas – as the map below of the drone strikes indicates. Many of the targets have been Pakistani Taliban with little connection to the Afghan revolt or al-Qaida.
View U.S. Drone Attacks in Pakistan in a larger map

But political pressure in Washington has been growing to expand raids and attacks to the province of Baluchistan and the villages around Quetta, its capital, where the leadership of Mullah Omar’s Taliban-based has been long rumoured to be exiled, under the presumed protection of or at least tolerance by the faction of the ISI agency devoted to supporting the Afghan Taliban.

Capturing the commander
The capture of Mullah Baradar in the port city of Karachi gives credence to intelligence reports, described in the Washington press, that, in the face of threats to crack down in Baluchistan, increasing numbers of Taliban leaders, perhaps even Mullah Omar himself, have sought shelter in the more populated cities.

As the military commander and day-to-day leader of the Taliban’s leadership council, the Quetta Shura, Berader’s capture – kept secret for several days – is a grievous blow to the movement, not least because, if he cooperates under interrogation, he may even lead investigators to the door of Mullah Omar, not to mention reveal much of the operational structure of the organisation. No-one as important in the Taliban has ever been brought into captivity.

The last major capture reported publicly was Mullah Abdul Rahim Akhund, the former Taliban shadow governor of Helmand in July 2008, and before that the Taliban commander Mansour Dadullah in December 2007 (although he was reportedly released in a hostage exchange).

A single capture like this will not end the rebellion, nor can all the strikes and captures organised in this secret campaign.

What commanders’ hope, though, is that the sheer tempo of this campaign can – as it did, they argue, against al-Qaida in Iraq – serve to off-balance the Taliban sufficiently so that efforts of more conventional forces, striving to win hearts and minds, can begin to take effect.

As mentioned, Operation Moshtarak aims to be a template for how the rebellion now gripping much of the Pustu-speaking parts of Afghanistan can be gripped.

Despite all the wild hype, the tactical advantage of seizing the district of Marja in Helmand (along with the parts of Nad Ali, Babaji and Malgir districts being taken by UK and Danish forces in related action) is significant but relatively small.

Though described yesterday in one Nato press release as a “city”, the district centre of Marja is little more than a hamlet, and no more than a few hundred families live dispersed across the entire district. It certainly has become, in recent years, a centre for the production and processing of illegal opium.

As an island of “uncleared” territory in central Helmand it had also for at least a year become a centre for the province’s shadow Taliban government and a staging post for attacks elsewhere.

Under present policies, however, opium production will no longer cease after a Nato takeover. And the Taliban have plenty of other territory in the region from which to base their operations.

Operation Moshtarak, if completed successful, will however produce one important tactical gain: it will repair the rather odd spread of Nato troops across Helmand and by thus filling the gaps will establish a single zone of Nato-occupied territory in central Helmand.

This will finally establish the “Afghan Development Zone” (ADZ) that was originally planned when British troops first entered Helmand four years ago. (They were diverted up to fight in northern Helmand and it never went past the drawing board).

The aftermath of Moshtarak
Provided troops stay true to their aim of avoiding wanton civilian death, what happens next in this ADZ is what matters strategically.

It is on the aftermath to the offensive, and the example of progress he hopes to fashion in central Helmand, that McChrystal rests his hopes for turning this war. The seizure of “Taliban strongholds” with great force and big battle and many promises of future development has been done before.

It was done in the battle of Musa Qala I witnessed in December 2007.

In fact, despite all the talk of counter-insurgency, consolidation and “hearts and minds”, no British commander on a six-month tour of Helmand has been able to resist conducting that one big offensive during his time.

But as McChrystal and his soldiers are now well aware, endlessly ‘mowing the grass’ will not quell this rebellion. He hopes this operation can be different because, in contrast to previous offensives in Helmand, some of the key lessons may have been learned.

First and foremost, President Obama’s surge gives McChrystal the resources both to take these Taliban-ruled districts in strength, but, more importantly, to stay in strength – giving the population greater confidence that the Taliban can be held at bay.

Secondly, the green light for Moshtarak only came after President Karzai’s government finally made good on promises to send additional Afghan security forces into Helmand, not only making Nato troops far more effective in their efforts but also providing a force that might ultimately take over security.

After bringing war to their farm fields, US and British commanders know it will be a lengthy campaign to win the population.

The crux will be to provide evidence that the Afghan government is as capable as the Taliban in providing people what they want – be it security, justice, dispute-resolution, livelihoods and jobs for the many unemployed young people.

As British troops have found in mostly stalemated northern Helmand (where the countryside is mostly still dominated by the Taliban despite more than three years of fighting and sacrifice north of the town of Gereshk and around the Nato outposts in Sangin, Kajaki and Musa Qala), all this kind of confidence-building is incredibly hard, particularly as so far the Afghan government has been unable to provide any kind of competent officials able to match the Taliban’s ability to engage with local tribes and their grievances, nor to deliver on all the promises of development.

Despite the influx of newly trained Afghan troops – and all the tributes paid to them (in public) by military commanders – it is still far from clear that either the police or the Afghans are up to the job, or are even the right force, to restore rule among these unruly tribes.

Mostarak and Marja may have the attention of President Karzai now – as Musa Qala did two years ago – but success in the long term will require a sustained political effort – and will require Karzai to tear up the script for how he has ruled this country.

Mystery over ‘closure’ of defence ministry’s ‘brains trust’

TB Peacekeepers_barracks_Ossetia_2008

IT most famously predicted the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, and had a team of multi-lingual analysts dedicated to the study of future threats to security across the globe, and new ways of solving them.

But, strangely, to save 1.5m the UK’s Ministry of Defence has decided to close the Army Research & Assessment Branch, (more recently called the Defence and Assessments Branch, the D&AB), and which traces its history back over 50 years. Or has it? While sources close to the unit contact me to complain the 30-strong team has received its marching orders — with contractors axed, military staff transferred, and civil servants told to go job-hunting — the ministry insists the unit is not being closed at all.

Based at the UK’s Defence Academy in Shrivenham, the D&AB employed/employs among them analysts (and fluent native speakers) on Iran, Russia, the Caucausus, Arab states, the Horn of Africa, and the Georgian analyst who predicted the invasion, not to mention specialists in strategic communications, research managers, and librarians.

“It’s completely barking to close this down in the middle of active conflict and a strategic defence review,” said a former member of the unit.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman however said that, although the D&AB’s role is to be reviewed over the next six months, its work is continuing and will continue. “The bottom line is that it is not closing”,” he said.

Picture: © Dmitrij Steshin 2008.

Operation Snakebite

OUT IN PAPERBACK updated edition, OPERATION SNAKEBITE (UK) and INTO THE VIPER's NEST (USA edition) is the story of British and American involvement in the conflict in Helmand, Afghanistan Frontline combat, strategic chaos, political intrigues, the truth about the enemy, and a tale of true heroes .... in the most dangerous place on earth.

The Latest Reviews

"Devastating … It explains why the world's most sophisticated armed forces are being defeated by the world's least sophisticated"- Simon Jenkins, Books of the Year 2009, The Times Literary Supplement

"One of the most courageous and important pieces of reporting of the Afghanistan campaign"- General Sir Richard Dannatt

"Grey tells the story with immediacy, drama and sometimes anger. A gripping and moving narrative"- Soldier Magazine

"magnificent ... a meticulously reconstructed account of the battle for Musa Qala ... frequently more vivid than any film .... confers immense authority ... "- Misha Glenny in the Mail on Sunday

"exemplary...an uncommonly vivid portrait of battle, matched by sharp investigation of purposes, intrigues and cock-ups... " - Max Hastings in the Sunday Times

"superb .... captures the grit and the gore, the exhaustion and emotion, the killing and the dying, the horrors and the heroism... a fine piece of war reporting ..."- Raymond Bonnner in the The Guardian.

"Excellent" - (Daily Telegraph)

"Exceptional"- (New Statesman)

"Fascinating"- (Financial Times)

"enthralling and unvarnished .... a persuasive and thoughtful account of an unwon war" -Glasgow Herald

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Synopsis

In December, 2007, Stephen Grey, reporting for the Sunday Times, was under fire in Afghanistan, ambushed by the Taliban. He was amidst the biggest UK-led operation fought on Afghan soil since 9/11: the liberation of a Taliban stronghold called Musa Qala. Taking shelter behind an American armoured Humvee, Grey turned his head to witness scenes of carnage. Two cars were riddled with gunfire. Their occupants, including several children, had died. Taliban positions were pounded by bullets and bombs dropped on their compounds. A day later, as the operation continued, a mine exploded just yards from Grey, killing a British soldier.

Who, he wondered in the days that followed, was responsible for the bloodshed? And what purpose did it serve A compelling story of one military venture that lasted several days, Operation Snakebite draws on Grey's exclusive interviews with everyone from private soldiers to NATO commanders. The result is a thrilling and at times horrifying story of a war which has gone largely unnoticed back home.