To fight insurgents, US turns to targeted killings
Shift could force Taliban leaders to negotiate
WASHINGTON — When President Obama announced his new war plan for Afghanistan last year, the centerpiece of the strategy — and a big part of the rationale for sending 30,000 additional troops — was to safeguard the Afghan people, provide them with a competent government, and win their allegiance.
Eight months later, that counterinsurgency strategy has shown little success, as demonstrated by the flagging military and civilian operations in Marjah and Kandahar and the spread of Taliban influence elsewhere.
Instead, what has turned out to work well is an approach American officials have talked much less about: counterterrorism, military-speak for the targeted killings of insurgents from Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Faced with that reality, and the pressure of a self-imposed deadline to begin withdrawing troops by July 2011, the Obama administration is starting to count more heavily on the strategy of hunting down insurgents. The shift could change the nature of the war and hasten a political settlement with the Taliban.
Based on the US military experience in Iraq as well as Afghanistan, it is not clear that killing enemy fighters is sufficient by itself to cripple an insurgency. Still, commando raids over the past five months have taken more than 130 significant insurgents out of action, while interrogations of captured fighters have led to a fuller picture of the enemy, according to administration officials and diplomats.
American intelligence reporting has recently revealed growing examples of Taliban fighters who are fearful of moving into higher-level command positions because of these lethal operations, according to a senior American military officer who follows Afghanistan closely.
Judging that they have gained some leverage over the Taliban, US officials are now debating when to try to bring them to the negotiating table to end the fighting. Rattling the Taliban, officials said, may open the door to reconciling with them more quickly, even if the officials caution that the outreach is still uncertain.
The Taliban have been stiffening their resistance as NATO and Afghan forces challenge the insurgents in their southern strongholds.
In the latest insurgent attack, a suicide bombing in northern Afghanistan yesterday killed three people, including a former militia commander who supported the Afghan government. The bomb, which went off at a football game in Kunduz, injured 19 others.
US military officials and Afghan President Hamid Karzai have begun a robust discussion about to what degree the Taliban are brought into the political process, one military official said.
The evolving thinking in Washington comes at a time when the lack of apparent progress in the nearly nine-year war is making it harder for Obama to hold his own party together on the issue. And it raises questions about whether the administration is seeking a rationale for reducing troop levels next summer even if the counterinsurgency strategy does not show significant progress.
A senior White House official said the administration hoped that its targeted killings, along with contacts between Karzai and General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s army chief, would combine to pressure Taliban leaders to come to the negotiating table.
A long-awaited campaign to convert lower- and mid-level Taliban fighters has finally begun in earnest, with Karzai signing a decree authorizing the reintegration program. With $200 million from Japan and other allies, and $100 million in Pentagon money, US military officers will soon be handing out money to lure people away from the insurgency.
Obama’s timetable calls for an assessment in December of how his strategy is faring.
Despite deep American concerns about Pakistan’s trustworthiness as an ally, Pakistan has also emerged in recent months as a potential agent for reconciliation. Karzai has held at least two meetings with Kayani. US officials believe their talks have not yet delved into the details of negotiations with insurgent leaders, but Pakistan is eager to play a role in talks with the Haqqani network, an insurgent group that has ties to its intelligence service.