A shorter version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times on June 5, 2011.
BY STEPHEN GREY:
BY the light of a full moon, a team of America’s most elite Special Forces fast-roped from helicopters into the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.
Creeping through the pine nut groves of Qalandar district, Khost province, they approached a hide-out of bunkers, tents and make-shift buildings that was now used as a training camp for suicide bombers.
Their target, tracked to this location from Pakistan, was a senior leader of the Haqqani Network – a ruthless branch of the Taliban.
In the fire fight that ensued, the special force operators faced counter-fire from machine guns and RPG rockets, and even a suicide bomber that attempted to creep up on them. But at the end, they had killed both their target and 18 of his fighters.
Michael Waltz, a reserve officer with US special forces, was deployed to the region. And he recalled the attack won support from local people: “The elders were thrilled, even though we had destroyed some of their crop. There was an actual procession that came down from the mountains, down to our base to thank us.”
The raid that night was the work of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the same force that last month killed Osama bin Laden and includes some America’s most feared operatives like the Navy Seals or Delta Force.
In Afghanistan, I’ve learned, they are now leading an extraordinary blitz of what the military calls its “Kill Capture” mission.
After killing more than 3000 enemy leaders and fighters in the last 12 months, and capturing over 8000 — in raids mounted both by JSOC and by Britain’s own SAS and Special Boat Squadron, and also by wider teams from NATO conventional and special forces, – the military believes the Taliban is now, almost ten years into the war, finally on the back foot.
But there is a downside. A relentless pace of these operations can risk killing or injuring or simply angering Afghan civilians, particularly if they believe that innocent have been wrongly targeted.
When I travelled un-embedded to Khost to investigate the attack in the pine nut forest, a local elder, Khan Afzal, confirmed he supported the raid. “Yes, that was a Taliban training centre. After the Americans wiped them out, things got better for us. We felt safe. We felt secure.”
And yet almost in the same breath he condemned other operations, including air strikes and the manhunt missions that raid Afghan homes under cover of darkness – so-called “night raids”.
Last week, after 12 children and two women were said to be killed in air strike in Helmand, Afghan president Hamid Karzai reacted furiously. Issuing what he called his “final warning”, he ordered that night raids come under Afghan control – and banned airstrikes on Afghan homes.
If his warning was ignored, he threatened, then foreign troops would become “an occupying force. And in that case, Afghan history is witness to how the Afghans deal with occupying forces.”
For all the protests, is this Kill-Capture strategy working? Can it be decisive in helping end the war?
OVER the last six months, I’ve had significant access to the US and NATO command in Afghanistan now led by General David Petraeus — and to those involved in the closed and ultra secret world of special forces.
Researching a television documentary for the PBS series Frontline and the UK’s Channel 4, I learned of some of the dazzling intelligence techniques now being used not just to hunt down the world’s most wanted terrorists like Osama bin Laden but also employed in the bigger war against the Taliban.
It is the nerve centre of JSOC’s forward headquarters at Bagram, the former Soviet airbase north of Kabul, where everything comes together: CIA intelligence, “debriefs” from Taliban prisoners, video feeds from pilotless drone aircraft or spy satellites, intercepts from mobile phones and radios used by the Taliban, analysts who piece it together, lawyers who authorise mission, and finally the “direct-action” teams of soldiers who get to pull the trigger.
This “fusion” approach was invented by a former JSOC commander, General Stan McChrystal, who declared in the Iraq war “it takes a network to fight a network.” When McChrystal became commander in Afghanistan, he asked for JSOC to move its effort across from Iraq.
And, since replacing McChrystal last July, Petraeus has doubled the pace of “Kill-Capture” missions from all military units – an astonishing shift in a campaign sold publicly as a “counter-insurgency” aimed at protecting the Afghan population, not at wiping out the enemy.
John Nagl, a Pentagon adviser and a historian of counter-insurgency, said the combination of JSOC’s accuracy and ruthlessness had created something without parallel in the history of warfare. “JSOC is this extraordinary machine, an almost industrial scale counter terrorism killing machine.”
Nagl said that many misunderstood counter-insurgency. “The doctrine believes in killing people. It just believes in killing the right people.”
Most of JSOC’s attacks take place at night. It provides surprise and helps reduce casualties on all sides. And despite the vehement protest of many Afghans, who say a night raid violates local culture, its soldiers are conducting night-raids at the rate of 200 a month, we can reveal — more than six times more than two years ago.
The aim usually is to ‘capture’ not kill, and often their targets, known as ‘jackpots’, will surrender without a shot. “We are not Team America – we don’t want to obliterate everything in our path to get to some guy.” said one senior US special forces officer.
But plenty do get killed.
One source formally attached to JSOC explained there was little hope of defeating the Taliban but the raids could keep it suppressed. “It’s like hitting a boxer with body blows; its’ not a knockout but you stop them from breathing; you’re keeping them off-balance.”
I investigated these raids by speaking to all sides – the US military, to the Afghan government and to villagers in many parts of the country, and to the Taliban.
Few disagree these “targeted raids” are mostly on target. They are removing hundreds of Taliban fighters. But how the JSOC methods sometimes go wrong – and cause political harm – was illustrated by an airstrike in a remote part of Takhar province, Northern Afghanistan.
Early one morning last September, a convoy of six vehicles drove across a mountain range and was beginning its descent to a fertile plateau. As the vehicles entered a gorge, an American F16 jet roared overhead and dropped two bombs. Helicopters swooped down with machine guns firing. When a silence returned to the valley, ten men lay dead.
After the strike, in which ten people died, the military said they had killed a senior Taliban commander and his fighters. But survivors, local Afghan officials and the government in Kabul said the dead were all innocent. The attack had struck a convoy of campaign workers in the national elections, they said.
Three months later, we visited the scene of the strike together with several survivors and local officials. Among them was schoolteacher, Ihsanullah, who was in the convoy but survived. “That day was like a party,” he recalled. “We were campaigning for the elections. Altogether there were six vehicles. Our vehicle was at the end. Then there was a huge bang.”
The first explosion overturned one of the cars – but didn’t kill anyone. Ihsanullah got out of his car. “As soon as I took a few steps . . . the second bomb hit. I hurled myself to the ground. I heard helicopters. I thought the government was coming to help us. I thought the helicopters were coming to help the wounded.”
In fact, the helicopters had been sent to finish the job. “They only left when body parts and blood were all over the ground,” said Ihsanullah.
After doubts were raised over who had been killed, JSOC conducted a review of the evidence. Petraeus challenges the account of witnesses like Ihsanullah and insists the military struck the right target.
He told me: “This was a very significant figure, a very precisely targeted operation, and those who were killed, were bad guys.” He said the target had been tracked for days. “So again, there is not a question about this one.”
The US military named the man they killed as Mohamed Amin, the deputy Taliban “shadow governor” of the province and also a member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which works with Al Qaeda.
However, our research revealed a different story. The most prominent man actually killed was called Zabet Amanullah, a former Taliban commander who had reconciled and now supported the Government. Known as “The Ant” for his distinctive small stature, he had been living in Kabul and had travelled to his former home province, after a gap of more than a decade, to campaign publicly and support the US-backed election. When we visited the scene, local police showed us the charred remains of election posters near his wrecked car.
Kate Clark, a former BBC Kabul correspondent, has investigated the case independently for months and knew Amanullah before he was killed.
Briefed on the case by US Special Forces, Clark said she got the impression the US military were so dazzled by their own high-tech intelligence. They appeared un-interested in common sense details from the real world. “Somehow they mixed up this man. If they just had just turned on the television or listened to the radio they would have realized they were killing a public figure, someone who everyone knew. It’s like they are in a parallel world.”
And then it emerged that Mohamed Amin, the man JSOC supposedly killed, was also alive and well. A former EU diplomat and expert on the Taliban, Michael Semple, tracked him down in Pakistan. “Mohammad Amin is alive,” said Semple. “He’s flesh and blood, he’s real, he’s got an identity that can be checked out and that we have checked out and he’s still alive”
Asked about his apparent resurrection, senior US officials insisted this man must be an imposter, and that very specific secret intelligence confirmed “beyond all doubt” they had struck the correct target and that he was dead. They said the name “Zabet Amanullah” was just “an alias used by the Mohamed Amin.”
For all the military’s self-belief, all our evidence suggests that, in this case, JSOC killed the wrong man. Interviews with Afghan pro-NATO and pro-Government officials all suggested these were two different men from two different places with two different families.
US military sources, for instance, disclosed that Mohamed Amin had a nephew called Abdul Rahman whose arrest in January last year had helped to locate Amin. And in Amin’s home district, Kalafghan, a former Mujehedin fighter against the Russians, Haji Khair Mohammad, confirmed he knew the family and its connections to the Taliban. He said he knew that Abdul Rahman had been arrested and knew his uncle “is now in Pakistan and is the deputy [shadow] governor for Takhar province.”
The family that Mohamed described was a completely different family from that of Zabet Amanullah, the man targeted in the JSOC air strike. “What’s disturbing about this case is not that special forces made a mistake,” said Clark. “It’s that they won’t admit a mistake and learn the lessons.”
General Daud Daud, a former commander with Mujahidin leader, Ahmad Shah Masood, and now police commander for all northern Afghanistan, praised US special forces for its Kill-Capture campaign and urged them to be even more ruthless.
But Daud was also adamant they got it wrong in Takhar. He blamed political rivals for feeding the Americans with bogus intelligence. “All of those killed that day including Zabet Amanullah were innocent,” he insisted.
A once relatively peaceful part of the country, anger has grown in Takhar against NATO. Earlier this month, riots in which 11 protestors died were triggered by a US night raid which left four people dead, allegedly including two women. The military said the four were armed insurgents.
Last Saturday, two weeks after I last spoke to him, General Daud was on a visit to the provincial governor in Takhar when a suicide bomber walked in and blew himself up , killing Daud. He was the third Afghan official we interviewed in our research who has died since.
Daud’s killing was a reminder that the Taliban have their own campaign just as ruthless, to assassinate their opponents. And – whatever the rights and wrongs of controversial raids – it raised the wider question of whether, for either side, do they bring peace any closer?
SITTING at the edge of an irrigated field, a Taliban commander showed us a pictures on a mobile phone that explain how the relentless campaign of targeted Kill-Capture raids is shaping NATO’s enemy.
Talking to an Afghan colleague, who filmed the encounter, Khalid Amin and the images he showed of his two dead predecessors, are proof of the effect the US military campaign is having on the Taliban.
“This is Juma Khan. One of our distinguished commanders,” he says of the first casualty. “This is Maulvi Jabar, our district chief,” he says of the second. “He was killed with 30 others in a night raid.
With its leadership in flux, the enemy that American and British troops are fighting this year is being transformed. But is the Darwinian “Survival of the Fittiest” going to make things worse or better?
Amin, for one, is bullish. “When Khan died,” he said, “the enemy said the Taliban was finished here. But three months later our Islamic Emirate is still strong. We have many more fighters than back then.
But is the Taliban really so resilient? Last week, Britain’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles argued they were.. He accused General Petraeus of trying too hard to kill the Taliban – and not hard enough on securing a political settlement to bring peace. “There is no doubt that Petraeus has hammered the Taliban extremely hard,” he said. “I am sure that some of them are more willing to parlay. But, equally, for every dead Pashtun warrior, there will be 10 pledged to revenge.”
And, even if their ranks think, will the new Taloban be more or less dangerous? One great concern is that experienced Taliban leaders will simply be replaced with a generation that is more extreme, less willing to make peace. “Every time a Taliban leader is killed,” questions Andrew Mackay, the retired major general and former British commander in Afghanistan, “my concern are we potentially killing a future Jerry Adams or Martin McGuineess?”
Those close to General Petraeus and JSOC recognize these risks. But, most argue, without Kill Capture operations, the Taliban would be able to impose its will with impunity – and attempts to establish security and restore the legitimate Afghan government would simply flounder.
“On targeting, we’re sort of damned if we do and damned if we don’t”, said one senior officer.
Petraeus told me: “The Taliban had the momentum and when you’re faced with a serious deteriorating situation, you have to do something about it. And the best way to do something about it is to use every tool available to you, and that includes everything from the very soft end of things … all the way to the hardest of the hard end, which is of course, targeted raids.”
Petraeus believes that Kill-Capture and other parts of his campaign are making a difference. “Our assessment is that we have halted, the momentum of the Taliban in much of the country – not all – and that we have reversed the momentum in some important areas,” he told me.
But even those close to Petraeus argue that, without even a mildly effective Afghan government in place, all the efforts of both special forces and conventional troops may still just be temporary. “It’s like spear-fishing.,” said one former JSOC officer. “You’re striking a series of points but you can only expect to have as limited impact on transforming conditions in the pond.”
The former JSOC officer added: “We’re trying to build the 20th floor of the skyscraper while you’re still digging the foundations.”
Whatever its longterm consequences, with President Obama pledged to start “bringing home” troops from next month (July), most in the military feel boxed in with few options.
“A lot of what’s driving what we’re trying to do is the ridiculously truncated timeline,” added David Kilcullen, a retired Australian army officer and a former senior adviser to Petraeus on counter-insurgency. “In a perfect world, given enough time, we might be choosing different approaches, but we don’t have that option.”
All agree that 2011 will be the most violent year in the campaign so far. Petraeus hopes his relentless campaign has wounded the Taliban badly. But if the Taliban are starting to lose they haven’t realized yet.
In an isolated Afghan village– driven far from his own turf to escape JSOC’s clutches – we found Mullah Yunus, one of those new young Taliban commanders that the Kill-Capture campaign has put in power. Special Forces killed his predecessor as shadow governor of Baghlan province in an operation last year.
Rocking back and forth as he fingered his AK47, Yunus boasted: “This war has become like delicious food for us. When a day passes without fighting, we get restless.”
In his eyes, peace talks will never be possible while the Americans remain in Afghanistan. “We will only talk when they compensate us for all our losses. Otherwise we will attack Americans in foreign countries”
Additional reporting: Shoaib Sharifi.