America's most elite troops are largely ignoring the Afghan militants who once sheltered al Qaeda.
- By Seán D. NaylorSeán D. Naylor is the intelligence and counterterrorism senior staff writer for Foreign Policy. He previously spent 23 years at Army Times, where his principal beat was special operations forces. He is the author of Not A Good Day To Die – The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda and the forthcoming Relentless Strike – The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command.
Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, and other elite American troops spent almost nine years hunting down Taliban fighters throughout Afghanistan. Late last year, that mission changed: Except in a narrow set of circumstances, they were told that the Taliban were effectively off-limits. Afghan civilian casualties from high-profile Taliban attacks promptly skyrocketed.
With the United States gradually winnowing its presence in Afghanistan, the sharp increase in the number of high-profile mass casualty Taliban attacks, like the wave of bombings that rocked Kabul last week and killed at least 70 people, highlights one of the toughest policy choices facing a White House eager to close the door on America’s longest war.
Put simply, the question boils down to whether the Taliban, which sheltered al Qaeda in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks but have never struck Western targets outside Afghanistan, should be considered a terrorist organization on par with the other groups that troops from the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, work to track and kill. With the U.S.-backed Afghan government trying to restart stalled peace talks with the Taliban, the answer, for the moment, is no.
“The end of our combat mission means that we no longer target belligerents solely because they are members of the Taliban,” said a U.S. military official in Afghanistan. “To the extent that Taliban members directly threaten the United States and coalition forces in Afghanistan, provide direct support to al Qaeda, or pose a strategic threat to the [Afghan national security forces], we will take appropriate measures to keep Americans safe and assist the Afghans.”
The policy directive taking Taliban fighters who don’t fit into those three vague categories off JSOC’s target list went into effect Jan. 1, according to two military officials familiar with the matter. In many ways, it effectively turned back the clock to the early days of the Afghan war.
For the first five years after the 9/11 attacks, JSOC’s task force in Afghanistan focused solely on pursuing al Qaeda targets. But in 2006 that target set expanded to include the Taliban, allowing JSOC to fit its lethal efforts into the wider framework of the coalition’s counterinsurgency campaign. In the years that followed, operators from SEAL Team 6 — the unit that killed Osama bin Laden — and the 75th Ranger Regiment relentlessly hammered the Taliban, killing hundreds of militants, though never eradicating the insurgent group as a fighting force.
Late last year, however, orders came down from Washington that the task force was to revert to a purely counterterrorist focus by Jan. 1, according to the two military officials. This meant its targeting authorities would extend only to “al Qaeda and its affiliates,” said an Army officer familiar with special operations in Afghanistan. “The Taliban came off the list.”
Military officials said it was impossible to gauge how much the policy change has impacted the overall level of Taliban violence. Taliban attacks for the first seven months of 2015 are down about 9 percent compared with the same period last year, said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Wilson A. Shoffner, a spokesman for the American-led NATO mission in Afghanistan. But the number of civilians killed or wounded in suicide and complex attacks by Afghan insurgents during the first half of 2015 is up 78 percent compared to the first six months of last year, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
Shoffner declined to comment on any aspect of American counterterrorism efforts in the country.
At least one Taliban affiliate continues to be targeted by elite U.S. forces. The Haqqani Network, which operates in eastern Afghanistan from its haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas, has long been linked with al Qaeda. JSOC has continued to hunt members of the group, albeit only when the task force can lay out a “painstakingly detailed” case that the targeted individual falls within JSOC’s counterterrorism authorities, said a Special Forces officer who is briefed regularly on operations in Afghanistan. Whether the recent naming of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the network, as the Taliban’s new deputy commander, will further complicate JSOC’s ability to target the group remains to be seen. Meanwhile, as a nascent Islamic State presence has emerged in Afghanistan this year, it has also been added to JSOC’s target list, said a U.S. special operations official.
Because al Qaeda targets are most likely to be found in eastern Afghanistan, or across the border in Pakistan’s tribal areas, “the change in those [targeting] authorities … in turn changed the footprint” of JSOC forces in Afghanistan, said the Army officer familiar with special operations in Afghanistan. The task force, which had never had a significant presence in western Afghanistan, pulled out of its facility at Mazar-i-Sharif airfield in northern Afghanistan and scaled back significantly at Kandahar airfield in the country’s south. It retained a presence in the east, albeit on a smaller number of outposts than before.
The redistribution of the elite JSOC forces and the changes in who they focused on killing came against the backdrop of a steep drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama has promised that only 1,000 troops will remain when he leaves office in January 2017; at the height of the war, in 2011, there were 101,000.
By summer 2014 the downsizing had already required the task force to change its tactical approach. The helicopter raids that had characterized many of its missions in Afghanistan had fallen out of favor, in part because there were no longer as many troops to conduct them or enough helicopters to carry them to the targets, the Army officer said. Another limiting factor was the requirement to take a certain number of Afghan special operations forces on each raid, as there was a very limited supply of those troops.
In place of the night raids that had become its hallmark, JSOC upped its use of airstrikes, or “kinetic strikes,” as JSOC personnel call them. “Kinetic strikes went through the roof,” the Army officer said. “There’d be days we’d do four to six kinetic strikes.”
That tempo has not let up. The task force is on pace to double the rate at which it kills “high-value individuals” using kinetic strikes, compared to how many it was killing that way five years ago, said the U.S. special operations official. But while a greater reliance on airstrikes avoids risking American lives on dangerous raids, the tactical shift also brings disadvantages: The task force doesn’t get the opportunity to capture and interrogate its targets, nor to collect items of intelligence value, such as laptops, phones, or written records.
There are also far fewer troops left to interrogate captives or to examine items seized in such missions. The overall number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has shrunk from 30,000 in July 2014 to 9,800 today. The numbers of both conventional and JSOC troops will remain at roughly their current levels for the rest of 2015, with the withdrawal resuming next year. The drawdown will resume in 2016, but no decision has yet been made on its pace, said Shoffner.
Army Special Forces — non-JSOC troops whose mission is to train their Afghan counterparts — have also seen their numbers slashed, from five battalions in 2012 to less than a battalion’s worth of soldiers now, said the Special Forces officer who is briefed regularly on current operations in Afghanistan. “The bottom line is it’s a dramatic, dramatic difference in numbers,” he added.
Although Special Forces units remain in southern Afghanistan, the gradual effect has been to pull back from the provinces. “The plan was to focus everything on Kabul,” the officer said.
The war has been coming to the Afghan capital all the same. Over the past three months, there has been a 40 percent increase in improvised explosive device attacks and a 6 percent increase in “high-profile attacks” in Kabul compared to the same period last year, Shoffner told Foreign Policy. This trend was punctuated by a series of major insurgent attacks this past week, including a truck bomb that exploded in the Shah Shahid neighborhood, a suicide bomber who struck at the police academy, and, on Monday, an assault on Kabul’s airport. Dozens died, and hundreds more were wounded.
The capital’s exceptionally bloody few days also included a strike at the heart of U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan: Camp Integrity, a base near Kabul’s airport that houses the headquarters of the Special Operations Joint Task Force – Afghanistan. That attack began at 10:15 p.m. Friday, when several insurgents assaulted the base using bombs, grenades, and small arms. Coalition forces eventually beat back the attack, killing four insurgents, but not without significant loss. In addition to eight Afghan contractors who died, a Special Forces soldier, Master Sgt. Peter A. McKenna Jr., was killed by small arms fire. His death handed the Taliban a propaganda coup.
“They managed to kill a special operations force serviceman in active combat,” said Kate Clark, the country director for the Afghanistan Analysts Network. “That’s really difficult to do in Afghanistan.”
The attack on Camp Integrity should not have come as a surprise, said the Special Forces officer. “Everybody said it was so vulnerable,” he said. “It was in a horrible location. It was probably just a matter of time.”
Shoffner preferred to accentuate the positive. While the Taliban are increasingly turning to high-profile attacks, “what the public doesn’t hear about in the media is for every attack that occurs, the number of attacks that the Afghan security forces have prevented,” he said.
The American Special Forces in Afghanistan who are not part of JSOC are focused on training Afghan commandos rather than conducting raids themselves. Shoffner said they work with smaller units of Afghan troops than their counterparts from the American military’s conventional forces. And in sharp contrast to JSOC’s counterparts in Iraq and Syria, Special Forces troops in Afghanistan can accompany the units they train on missions.
Still, Shoffner said they are forbidden from accompanying them on their objectives, meaning they must hang back when the commandos conduct their final assault. While the U.S. troops can call in airstrikes if required, the Afghan forces now have their own machine gun and rocket-equipped Mi-17 and MD-530 helicopters for such missions, as well as their own intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft, said Shoffner. “We are very, very encouraged by what we see of the Afghan special operations forces,” he said. “In fact, we believe that they are the best in the region.”
Many members of the special operations community are far less sanguine. The Special Forces officer briefed regularly on operations in Afghanistan described the situation as “a house of cards” likely to crumble when the last U.S. troops withdraw.
Perhaps ironically, it is the dark clouds on the horizon — the rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan coupled with the uncertainty over the future of the on-again, off-again peace talks with the Taliban — that raises the possibility that the SEALs, Delta Force personnel, and other elite troops might remain in Afghanistan beyond 2017.
“I think our decision-makers are going to want to keep our people there to avoid a repeat of what happened in Iraq,” the U.S. special operations official said.
Photo credit: SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images