Shown here in 1998, Jalaluddin Haqqani talks to reporters in Miram Shah, Waziristan, Pakistan. Special operators in Afghanistan place Haqqani insurgents closest to the leaders of al-Qaida and are pursuing them doggedly. (MOHAMMAD RIAZ / ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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Boosted by a shift of forces from Iraq and a flood of new intelligence, the most secretive U.S. special operations task force in Afghanistan is taking aim at that country's deadliest insurgent network, say several senior military officials.
The task force, part of the Joint Special Operations Command, based at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., has made its priority the disruption and dismantlement of the Haqqani network, a Pashtun insurgent group active in eastern Afghanistan led by Jalaluddin Haqqani — who rose to prominence as a mujahedeen commander during the 1980s — and his sons. The network has been linked to a series of high-profile attacks on military and civilian targets, including the January 2008 attack on the Serena hotel in Kabul that killed seven guests.
Although the JSOC task force has also increased the number of missions in southern Afghanistan against the Taliban led by Mullah Omar, sometimes called the "Quetta Shura Taliban," the task force has focused on the Haqqani network because "the Haqqanis ... [are] the more deadly right now," said a senior NATO official in Kabul.
But there is another reason the JSOC task force is prioritizing the Haqqani network: Coalition leaders hope that pitting the task force against the Haqqanis will eventually open a trail that leads to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the senior NATO official said. The Haqqanis are "definitely" thought to be closer than the Quetta Shura leaders are to the al-Qaida figureheads, "particularly because of where we know the Arabs operate and live in Pakistan, up in the ... Haqqani neighborhood," the NATO official said.
Since the 1980s, the Haqqanis have been based in North Waziristan in Pakistan's lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas. But the task force is "not yet" launching cross-border missions to attack the group in its Pakistani bases, said a senior special operations officer with recent Afghanistan experience. "We still haven't made that decision again," he said, referring to a September 2008 cross-border raid by JSOC elements that created such a strong Pakistani backlash that plans for any similar missions were scrapped.
The U.S. is instead relying on Central Intelligence Agency unmanned aerial vehicle strikes to keep the Haqqani network off-balance in Pakistan, "and that's proving quite effective in its own vein of disruption," the senior special ops officer said.
Task force composition
The JSOC task force includes elements of some of the military's most elite units, including: the Navy's SEAL Team 6, sometimes called Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or DEVGRU; the Army's 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, or Delta Force; the 75th Ranger Regiment; the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment; the Air Force's 24th Special Tactics Squadron; plus elements from other even more secret units and intelligence organizations.
Sometimes referred to as "the National Mission Force," the JSOC task force has been a constant presence in Afghanistan since late 2001. It has used several code names, including Task Force 11 and Task Force 373. A senior coalition officer requested its current numerical name not be published.
The task force is led by JSOC commander Vice Adm. Bill McRaven, and the chain of command goes straight from him to U.S. Central Command head Marine Gen. Jim Mattis rather than through Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top coalition officer in Afghanistan, the senior NATO military official in Kabul said. This arrangement isn't causing any problems, the senior NATO official said, adding that "there's no light between any of the command and control structures that we have."
Underneath McRaven in the task force's command structure is the 75th Ranger Regiment commander, Col. Michael Kurilla, who usually runs operations on a day-to-day basis with a staff built around his regimental headquarters, said the senior special operations officer with recent Afghanistan experience. The Navy's DEVGRU continues to rotate most of its forces, along with its various squadron headquarters through Afghanistan as well, he said.
McRaven and Kurilla are normally located at the task force's headquarters at Bagram Airfield. The force has another modern, hardstand facility at Kandahar and smaller facilities at other bases around Afghanistan, some of which are left unmanned until the task force requires their use for a mission, the senior special ops officer said.
As a result of JSOC's shift in emphasis from Iraq to Afghanistan, the task force has increased by 50 to 60 percent during the past year, and now has about 5,000 personnel, said the senior special ops officer. That surge has driven a 40 to 50 percent increase in missions conducted, he said. Most of the additional troops have gone to southern and northern Afghanistan, the JSOC elements in the east having benefited from an increase about 18 months ago, he said. In the 90 days preceding Aug. 30, the task force conducted "a little over 500" missions, said a coalition official.
"With the increase in assets, we're able to keep the pressure on in a way that we weren't able to before," the senior special ops officer said. In the east, "each element is probably doing three, four, five ops per week," he said.
The group is taking a toll on insurgents, according to a senior coalition officer, who said that in June, July and August special operations forces killed or captured 235 insurgent leaders, killed 1,066 insurgents and captured another 1,673. These figures cover the JSOC task force as well as the multi-national International Security and Assistance special ops task force and Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan, a Special Forces-dominated task force more focused on village stability operations and training Afghan forces than on direct action missions.
But the JSOC task force is doing most of the killing. The group has become "the instrument of choice for kinetic activity," a Defense Department official said.
However, despite figures that say special ops forces are killing about a dozen insurgents a day, "on two-thirds of our targets, there [are] no shots fired," said the senior special ops officer, who added that the figure had not changed much over the previous five years. "In most cases, it's over and done with without any real opposition, which is obviously what we prefer."
Most cases, but not all. "You try to set it up to minimize the casualties on both sides, you try to set it up to surprise and overwhelm the target, but sometimes things get dynamic," the senior special ops officer said. "Unfortunately, sometimes you come up against a concentrated, dedicated enemy."
At those times, the killing can go both ways. Chief Special Warfare Operator (SEAL) Collin Thomas, a DEVGRU operator, died Aug. 18 during a combat operation in eastern Afghanistan, and two Rangers were killed in separate firefights Aug. 19, also in eastern Afghanistan: Spc. Christopher Shane Wright, of C Company, 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, who was mortally wounded in Kunar province, and Sgt. Martin Anthony Lugo, also of 1/75's C Company, who died of wounds sustained in Logar province.
In Army Special Operations Command press releases announcing the deaths, comments by Kurilla, the Ranger commander, give a sense of the ferocity of some JSOC task force missions.
"Sgt. Lugo was a true warrior who died leading his Rangers in a fierce firefight that killed a Taliban commander and 13 other Taliban fighters," Kurilla said. "Spc. Wright died in a firefight that ultimately killed three Taliban who were reportedly responsible for the death of two other U.S. servicemen."
In battling the Haqqanis, the task force is using the same approach that its counterpart in Iraq took to dismantling the al-Qaida in Iraq network of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: going after low-level insurgent leaders, using intelligence gained from those raids to target higher ranking commanders, launching multiple raids a night and always peeling away the layers of insurgent leadership with the aim of ultimately exposing the senior commanders.
"We need to put pressure on the Haqqani network inside of Afghanistan, we need the Pakistanis to put pressure on the Haqqani network inside of Pakistan," said the senior NATO official in Kabul. "Not allowing them to have one night of rest would certainly be my goal, so that they have to sleep in a different bed every night, or sleep outside every night."
"If you hit a network hard enough, you'll wind up taking out the mid-level leaders," the senior special ops officer said. "The senior leaders who are sitting across the border [in Pakistan] are now faced with a choice: how do they reconstruct what's been taken apart and motivate those who are left?"
There are signs the task force has already pushed the Haqqani network to this stage. Some mid-level Haqqani leaders are abandoning what had been their Pakistani safe haven and returning to Afghanistan, in part out of a desire to throw the CIA and its lethal drones off their trail but also "because their networks are taking a battering over in Afghanistan, and other folks need to come in and start fixing that or dealing with gaps that have been created by folks that have been detained or folks that have been killed," the senior special ops officer said.
The mid-level leaders' arrival in Afghanistan "presents us with targets ... obviously," he added. "What you really want to do is you want the network to start eating itself from within, you want the dissension, you want folks deciding, ‘Hey, this just isn't worth it.' That's the tool that we provide. Then what you need is a combination of the coalition and the Afghan government work to show folks that there is another way."
"There is a tremendous amount of pressure being put on the Haqqani network right now," said the senior special ops officer. "They're going to have to do something one way or the other. They've got to decide how much fight [they] really want to put into those areas in the central east portion where their strongholds have been."
In going after the Haqqanis, JSOC has had a lot of help from the ISAF special operations task force, which includes elements from at least 18 countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Lithuania and France, said the senior NATO official in Kabul. "The ISAF SOF has ... tripled in their operational capacity, and they have done some phenomenal work against ... the Kabul Attack Network," the NATO official said, referring to a Haqqani element focused on launching attacks in the Afghan capital. "The ISAF SOF has just ripped them apart. There have been very, very few attacks inside of Kabul because of ISAF SOF."
But although the task force is using the same "find, fix, finish, exploit and analyze model" that characterized the relentless pursuit of Zarqawi in Iraq, "it's just tougher" in Afghanistan, the senior NATO official said. "It's just much harder."
In addition to a committed enemy, a lack of infrastructure and an intimidating geography that requires the task force to travel vast distances and cope with a wide range of extreme weather conditions, "the intelligence collection mission is really hard — much harder [than in Iraq]," the senior NATO official said. This is due partly to the fractured, tribal nature of Afghan society as well as the fact that it is harder for an agent to hide in plain sight in Afghanistan's "much more rural" landscape than in Iraq's towns and cities, the official added.
Intelligence has long been a problem for the coalition in Afghanistan. In January, ISAF director of intelligence Army Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn co-authored a paper sharply critical of the U.S. intelligence effort in Afghanistan and recommended a complete overhaul.
During the past year, senior officials say, the intelligence situation has dramatically improved, something they attribute to a significant increase in intelligence personnel and assets, better human intelligence from Pakistan provided by the CIA and the establishment of new intelligence organizational structures.
The coalition has "a much deeper understanding than we've ever had" of the insurgency, said the senior NATO official in Kabul. "Our knowledge of the Haqqanis or the Quetta Shura Taliban, of the HiG [Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin insurgent group], of the Peshawar Shura Taliban, is exceptional. The problem is they still have a sanctuary inside of Pakistan."
A surge of intelligence personnel and assets from Iraq — similar to that of special ops units — has been key in creating that "exceptional" level of knowledge, military sources said.
"Over the past year there's been this incredible build of intelligence assets and a comprehensive reorganization of the assets to do counterinsurgency," said the defense official. The intelligence being fed to JSOC teams now is "better refined ... better located ... [and] better targeted," the official said. "There is just a much denser mosaic of intelligence assets and collection assets that then are being turned around into detailed analysis followed by operational activity."
During the past 12 to 18 months, this intelligence has been "complemented" by "parallel" human intelligence collection operations conducted by "other government agencies" in eastern Afghanistan "that go into western Pakistan," the defense official said. "Other government agencies" is a phrase military personnel often use to refer to the Central Intelligence Agency.
While the military is not "completely" reliant on the CIA for human intelligence from Pakistan, "it's not the military that has the lead in the human intelligence collection requirements across the Afghanistan border," the defense official said. U.S. aircraft also fly along the Afghan side of the Pakistan border collecting intelligence from the Pakistan side, the defense official said. The human and technical intelligence gleaned on the Haqqani network in Pakistan is used to "check the work" of intelligence developed in Afghanistan, the official said.
"The communication [between the CIA and JSOC] has gotten a lot better," said the senior special ops officer. The fact that the CIA's Kabul station chief, an experienced veteran of the Ground Branch of the Agency's Special Activities division, previously held a senior position at JSOC "has certainly been a factor" in fostering closer cooperation, he added. "Having a guy who's mission-focused like that helps quite a bit."
The flow of intelligence people and gear into Afghanistan has yet to peak. "We have not achieved the industrial level of exploitation and analysis that we achieved in Iraq — yet — but we're damn close to it," the senior NATO official in Kabul said, noting that more intel strength — "interrogators, exploiters [and] collection managers" plus intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets — will arrive in Afghanistan over the next four to six months.
But the JSOC campaign will not win the war on its own, military sources cautioned. "It is very aggressive, it is very active, and over time it can be very effective," the defense official said. "Having said that, it cannot succeed alone ... If you're not making progress in terms of securing the population in other ways, then you may be able to show all these wonderful kill or capture raids of the right people but you won't bring down the intimidation level, you won't bring around a skeptical populace and you'll still lose the campaign."