The U.S. military in Afghanistan has nearly tripled since 2009 the frequency of commando raids launched against Taliban or insurgent groups, according to NATO figures.
This year, from Jan. 1 through this week, the U.S. -- with Afghanistan and NATO assistance -- has launched 1,879 missions, with 916 “targets” killed or captured, according to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
That compares with 1,780 missions for all of last year, with 825 targets killed or captured, and 675 missions in 2009, when 306 adversaries were killed or captured, according to a NATO spokesman, U.S. Army Major Jason Waggoner.
“Even if the primary target is not killed or captured on these missions, 35% of those times, the next closest associate or another individual directly linked to the target is killed or captured,” he said in an e-mailed statement.
Roughly 7,000 of the 61,000 personnel under the U.S. Special Operations Command are in Afghanistan today.
Special operations forces “continue to apply steady pressure throughout the entire country from the north down to Helmand, with a majority of the focus on the eastern beltway,” Waggoner said.
They target senior leaders, fighters and facilitators in both the Taliban and Haqqani insurgent network within Afghanistan, he said. The network has attacked U.S. forces in at least six Afghan provinces, including the capital, Kabul.
Interest in the size and scope of U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan has escalated since a U.S. CH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down Aug. 6, killing the 30 U.S. personnel aboard -- 17 Navy SEALS, five sailors assigned to SEAL units, five Army pilots and three Air Force special tactics commandos. The crash also killed an interpreter and seven Afghan troops who were working with the Americans.
Those fatalities brought to 44 the number of U.S. special operations troops killed in Afghanistan this year, up from 40 last year, 33 in 2009 and 220 overall since late 2001, when small teams of U.S. Army Green Berets landed in Afghanistan and worked with CIA paramilitary teams to temporarily rout the Taliban, according to figures.
The increased raids reflect a greater number of commandos in Afghanistan as Iraq operations wind down, following the increased use of conventional forces for securing the population under President Barack Obama’s troop “surge.”
“With the surge, it made sense to have the general-purpose forces assume more responsibility for securing the population and to have more SOF released for these missions,” said Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington-based policy research group.
“The missions have been generally successful -- so we keep conducting them,” he said.
Inside the Pentagon, Michael Vickers, an advocate of strikes by special operations forces, has risen in influence from a 1980s-era Green Beret and CIA paramilitary specialist to an analyst at the CSBA to assistant secretary of defense for special operations to his current position as the Defense Department’s undersecretary for intelligence.
“Strikes by special forces are absolutely critical” if the U.S.-lead coalition is going to defeat the Taliban or force their more moderate elements to reach a lasting political accommodation, said Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Destroying or weakening the Taliban’s key leadership “simply can’t be done by defeating their forces in the field or through drone attacks in Pakistan,” he said.
The near-tripling of missions, combined with conventional military successes and drone strikes, “has to have had a major impact on leaders and key fighters,” Cordesman said.
The increased missions are also the product of better coordination between the intelligence and commando communities highlighted by the May 1 raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
U.S. intelligence agencies and elite special-operations units in Afghanistan work in small groups that consolidate and analyze real-time information from informants, satellites and eavesdropping on top Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives.
Post-9/11 “tactical cooperation grew and was expanded and refined” under U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal, “whose hunter-killer” teams in Iraq were replicated when he took over in 2009 command of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, New York Times reporters Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker write in a new book, “Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda.”
The pace of the “intelligence-driven operations skyrocketed” with more than 12 raids a night supported by the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, they write.
“That kind of seamless operational cooperation became common on a smaller scale in Yemen, Pakistan and other shadowy battlegrounds,” they write in their book, to be published Aug. 16.
Brian Katulis, a national security specialist at the Center for American Progress, a policy group in Washington, said “the targeted strikes, combined with increased drone attacks across the border in Pakistan, demonstrate the Obama administration’s attempts to marginalize the insurgency.”
“It’s a much more aggressive approach than you saw in the first eight years of the war,” Katulis said in an Aug. 10 interview. “The question is whether this leads to greater overall stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Civilian deaths haven’t decreased this year, Katulis said. While the vast majority are caused by insurgents and not the U.S.-led coalition, they reflect on the fragility of security overall, he said.
“Despite the increase in operations, the insurgency seems not to relent,” said Brookings Institution defense analyst Michael O’Hanlon. “On balance I think we are weakening them, but less so than I would have expected given their resilience and ability to regenerate.”