Escalating violence, an acceleration of targeted killings, and deniable attacks by U.S. Special Forces on Taliban strong holds in Pakistan will all be the major results of the administration’s U.S. latest change in command in Afghanistan, according to senior Pentagon officials.
The very public May 11 firing of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, replaced by Special Forces expert, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, portends a much bloodier phase of the war, these sources said.
“McChrystal is an expert killer. That’s what the teams he heads are good at,” said former senior DIA official Pat Lang.
“The idea is to put out the eyes of the insurgency using force,” a Pentagon official said.
McChrystal, who headed U.S. Special Operations forces during the famous troop surge in Iraq in the late spring of 2007, used a whole new array of methods to detect, locate and kill insurgent leaders which many claim was key to the success of the operation.
As McChrystal, then the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command or JSOC, told The Washington Post last year, the surge involved waging “collaborate warfare “ using every available tool ranging from signals intercepts, human intelligence, double agents and other devices that allowed lightning quick and coordinated strikes on targets.
In practice this meant an unprecedented blending of military and intelligence assets, Defense Dept. officials said. One key innovation was something called “fusion cells.” As first reported by the Washington Post and confirmed by U.S. intelligence sources, these consist of small, highly mobile teams of Special Forces and intelligence specialists working together supported by forensic and computer specialists, mapping experts, along with political and tribal analysts.
Some of the intelligence collection techniques involve using GPS devices to locate hostile bands, new space-based surveillance strategies, new methods of infiltrating enemy communications, and the use of tiny, hand-launched miniature drones like the Gnat which is packed in a tube that looks like a rolled-up umbrella. When when the drone is taken out, its spring-powered wings pop open, and it can be tossed into the air and can track targets up to three hours. Larger drones like the Predator can loiter for up to 14 hours.
The sensors and cameras on the Gnat are operated from a lap top computer by a single operator and are so powerful that can relay data to major command centers and even the White House Situation Room in real time, according to former and serving military officials.
Other collection devices include cameras mounted on the helmets of elite troops that relay intelligence such as papers found on dead insurgents to headquarter analysts who can analyze it with such a fast turn-around time, that, once interpreted, it can be used immediately to stage additional raids, sometimes several in one night, sources said.
Where in Iraq, the high-value targets were al-Qaida leaders, but in Afghanistan, the fusion cells will be focusing on Taliban leadership cadres in Afghanistan and in northwestern Pakistan, they said.
As in Iraq, quick, lethal reaction to intelligence is everything, and from now on, U.S. counterterror operations will be small, swift, mobile, based on precise information about targets, they said.
A key factor in the firing of General David McKiernan, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, rested on the perception that the general “was wedded to the old fashioned big unit kind of warfare,” said one former DOD official.
According to this official, McKiernan’s fate was sealed in early May when Secretary of Defense Bob Gates visited Camp Leatherneck, a large military base under construction in the Afghan province of Helmand on the Pakistan border.
Mike O’Hanlon, a top military analyst at the Brookings Institution, disputes this, saying that locating the big logistics hub at Kandahar was inevitable and did not play a part in the removal of Mc Kiernan, adding that the decision had been made “some time before” Mullin’s visit.
Several U.S. officials said that McKiernan’s preference for slow, cumbersome, large-unit sweeps, confined to Afghanistan’s few useable roads, allowed the insurgents to disperse without suffering damage. The elements of surprise that is key to fighting insurgents was never obtained, they said.
These sources argue that Camp Leatherneck also reinforced the propensity for large groups of conventional forces to withdraw after an operation to a fixed strong point at night, a location which is kept under constant surveillance by the jihadis.
But O’Hanlon argued that McKiernan had “an excellent understanding of counterinsurgency warfare,” but that McKiernan’s “implementation” of the strategy was seen by superiors as “lacking in energy.” This perception sealed his fate, O’Hanlon said.
Since the Afghan road system is so poor, any large unit movements are under constant surveillance by the enemy, and even in the case of patrols, U.S. troops use the same routes over and over, and quickly become a target for ambushes, these sources said.
The strategy of McChrystal will be different.
The traditional strategy of using big units to “Find ‘em, fix ‘em, finish ‘em,” searching for main force insurgent units to destroy, will be abandoned since it ignores small bands of jihais in key areas , Pentagon officials said.
Under the new strategy, the chief aim will be to prevent the Taliban infiltration of neighborhoods in Afghanistan’s major cities, with U.S. forces working in close support with Afghan security forces, they said.
In the case of rural areas regarded as strategically valuable, a former CIA official said: “What are needed are swift envelopments of a well-mapped sector – a smothering of the sector that allows no escape for the jihadis.”
To gain that information, Coalition forces are trying to prepare an organizational chart of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, U.S. intelligence officials said.
“We need to know exactly who these bastards are and their weak points,” said one official.
But the chief burden of the new U.S. mission will fall on the Afghan police. According to U.S. Institute of Peace analyst, Alexander Thier, even with 60,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, there will not be sufficient forces to do “an outreach” into remote rural areas.
Several U. S. sources said that the chief aim of U.S. operations will be to ensure the safety of the Afghan population, and this means having U.S. units embedded with Afghan security forces the neighborhoods of the major towns.
There will also be more initiative in U.S. tactics instead of merely reacting to enemy raids and ambushes, U.S. officials said.
A retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson, writing in the Small Wars Journal, stated recently that where past practice in Iraq had been to take State Dept. Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) and post them to areas recaptured from insurgents, the new policy should be to establish such teams in areas still free of the Taliban and before the insurgents can gain a foothold in them. Anderson is currently serving with an embedded PRT in Iraq.
Questioned about Anderson’s suggestion, a former senior DOD official said, “We have all sorts of initiatives under consideration.”
By Richard Sale, Middle East Times Intelligence Correspondent