The Pentagon is quietly deploying a new detachment of Army Rangers to Afghanistan, increasing the number of elite U.S. commandos on the ground there as the Obama administration prepares to begin withdrawing conventional forces from the country this summer, military officials told National Journal.
The officials said that more than 100 additional Rangers had arrived in Afghanistan recently to begin targeted operations against militants in eastern and southern Afghanistan. The Rangers, highly-trained soldiers from the Pentagon’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command, are being used to raid suspected insurgent safe houses and hunt down specific Taliban leaders.
The new deployment comes at a critical moment for the increasingly unpopular war. The Obama administration deployed 30,000 new U.S. forces to Afghanistan in 2009 as part of the surge and wants to begin bringing some of them home this July. Senior military officials are working to lessen the impact of the looming drawdown by keeping as many elite troops there as possible.
Although it is rarely discussed in Washington, the Afghan conflict has morphed into a shadow war that pits small teams of so-called “hunter-killers” from the Rangers, the Army’s Operational Detachment-Delta, the Navy’s Seal Team Six, and other secretive U.S. units against plain-clothed militants from the Taliban, the Haqqani network, and other Islamist fighting organizations.
“We have stepped up the tempo of precise, intelligence-driven operations to capture or kill insurgent leaders,” Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in late March. “In a typical 90-day period, precision operations by U.S. special-mission units and their Afghan partners alone kill or capture some 360 targeted insurgent leaders.”
Maj. Wesley Ticer, a spokesman for the military’s Special Operations Command, said there were roughly 7,000 Special Operations troops currently operating in Afghanistan, up more than 50 percent from a couple of years earlier. A senior military official said small numbers of Special Operations personnel would continue to flow into Afghanistan even after the surge troops began leaving this summer.
Petraeus sees the elite troops as a critical part of his effort to reverse the Taliban’s battlefield momentum and kill enough of the militants to bring the armed group to the negotiating table. It is an approach modeled on Iraq, where Petraeus worked with then-Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal—who headed the Special Operations Command there—to bring the country back from the brink of civil war by killing or capturing thousands of Shiite and Sunni extremists.
Petraeus and McChrystal, who remain in close contact, helped oversee a revolution in Special Operations tactics that allowed commandos to strike a target, quickly analyze whatever intelligence was recovered on site, and then immediately launch follow-on strikes against other militant havens.
That system has been put in place in Afghanistan as well, allowing Special Operations troops there to conduct what amount to round-the-clock operations against Taliban and Haqqani leaders. An official from the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force in Kabul said there are five times as many targeted raids by Special Operations forces in recent months, with elite commandos mounting nearly more than six strikes per day against insurgent targets.
“The basic concept is that you don’t give these guys an opportunity to rest or bed down for the night in the same place,” said Jeffrey Dressler, a military analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “You constantly pressure them until they start to break down, stop fighting, or disregard commands from their leaders in Pakistan.”
The expanded Special Operations push has had a significant effect on the effectiveness of the Haqqani network, a violent group which operates out of safe havens in eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to U.S. officials.
A senior ISAF official said in a recent interview that American Special Operations personnel had killed hundreds of Haqqani fighters, including several members of the Haqqani family itself, while capturing thousands of others. Those gains were seen as particularly important within the ISAF high command in Kabul because the Haqqani leadership is thought to maintain close ties to al Qaida.
ISAF officials and outside experts said the ongoing strikes on Haqqani targets have made it harder for the group to plan new attacks or resupply its fighters inside Afghanistan. The officials and experts believe the raids are also creating divisions between Haqqani foot soldiers inside Afghanistan and their commanders in Pakistan, who are largely safe from the raids which are killing so many of their compatriots.
“What we’re finding now is that the guys who are doing the fighting on the ground in Afghanistan are questioning the leaders living comfortably in Pakistan,” Dressler said. “You’re seeing tensions emerge between the different echelons of the insurgency, and the Special Operations raids are a key reason why.”