The international troops in Afghanistan this year, under the command of the United States, have massively stepped up the hunt for top Taliban by special forces. The units, which operate secretly and are kept apart from the normal troops, have conducted hundreds of operations in recent months in an intensity not seen before in an effort to breakdown the Taliban's resistance, weaken its leadership ranks and to eliminate networks of bomb planters.
Insiders have long known about the increased deployment of the special forces, but for the first time in the history of the nine-year war in Afghanistan, concrete figures about the deployments -- which neither NATO nor the US military speaks about publicly -- have been named. During the second week of August, leaders of the NATO troops under ISAF Commander David Petraeus were given a classified briefing on the massive anti-Taliban offensive, which began at the end of 2009, and progress that has been made.
SPIEGEL ONLINE has learned from reliable sources that the four-star general and his staff informed diplomats and top military officials that in the past three months alone, at least 365 high-ranking and mid-level insurgent commanders have been killed -- mostly through targeted operations by the special forces, comprised of heavily armed elite soldiers from all branches of the US military. In addition, 1,395 people, including many Taliban foot soldiers, have been arrested.
The briefing on the latest progress in the war, which covered the period between May 8 and August 8, provides a rare glimpse into an aspect of the Afghanistan war that up until know has only been known by the US government and a few top politicians from other NATO member states. The military officials reported that the commanders and those arrested had been "taken out of the game."
Special Forces Mostly Strike at Night
Since the briefing, the details have driven internal discussions about the future of the mission within the international community present in Kabul. Although the military leadership is speaking in a conspicuously cautious manner about its first small successes in the fight against the Taliban, the special forces' actions could complicate cooperation with the Afghan government. Diplomats are concerned that the elimination of the Taliban hierarchy could conflict with the declared goal of reintegrating some members of these groups.
Above all, the spectacular statistics show one thing: The will of the military leadership to reach a turning point in Afghanstan in the coming months. The sheer number of the operations strikingly underscores that General Petraeus, like his predecessor Stanley McChrystal, wants to use the special forces to gain the upper hand in Afghanistan.
It's the first time in the US military-led invasion of the country in which Taliban leaders have been sought in such a targeted manner. It's also the first time so many insurgents have been arrested or assassinated in targeted killings. Western diplomats who have been briefed in recent days say that the current force of 145,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan is acting "with maximum force" right now.
For their part, military officials are taking a more sober view of the progress. Since US President Barack Obama approved an increase of 30,000 troops and announced a new strategy for the Afghanistan war in December 2009, the number of clandestine troops in the special forces has increased massively. By the summer of 2010, the number of special forces soldiers had tripled, according to the military progress report. Other details in the briefing included:
- the fact that, in almost all instances, 82 percent, the elite soldiers struck at night
- the special forces' main target were Taliban structures in the southern part of the country, Jalaluddin Haqqani's terror network in the east and foreign fighters with connections to al-Qaida
- regional Taliban commanders, heads of so-called IED-cells (who attack alliance troops with explosives) and al-Qaida contact persons, have been the subject of targeted air strikes or they have been killed during arrest attempts.
- the special forces, including the successor to the US military's notorious Task Force 373 , always act together with Afghan soldiers they had trained.
There are differences of opinion over the success of the special forces' offensive. High-ranking US officers and NATO commanders are cautiously stating that they have had their first successes in limiting the freedom of movement of the Taliban leadership ranks. But it is still too early to draw any qualitative conclusions, an intelligence officer on Petreaus' staff said.
In the district of Baghlan in northern Afghanistan, intelligence workers say, no one has been willing to step up into the role of at least one Taliban shadow governor who was targeted and eliminated by the special forces. "The leaders of the Taliban shura had appointed a successor, but the man is remaining in Pakistan," one officer reported.
Karzai Criticizes Hunting of Taliban
But diplomats have expressed doubts over whether the robust military strategy can be reconciled with the one agreed to at a number of international conferences to find a solution through negotiating politically with the Taliban. "In the military leadership, people like to say that the best way to negotiate with the Taliban is when they are at rock bottom," one European diplomat said after a meeting with the ISAF leadership. "But perhaps the operations have the effect of providing additional motivation for the insurgency movement."
Most operations take place in southern and eastern Afghanistan, Taliban strongholds. But another important battleground is the Kunduz area in the north where Germany's armed forces, the Bundeswehr, are in command. In Kunduz, where Germany has a base with 1,400 soldiers, and in Baghlan, the special forces were and continue to be deployed on missions almost every night. Dozens of insurgents have been captured or killed in targeted killings. Military officials recently reported that a senior member of al-Qaida had also been eliminated.
So far, German troops have not taken part in the deadly hunt against top Taliban. Germany's own special elite force, the KSK, has also stayed out of the operations by the American units. But that doesn't mean the Germans aren't aware of what is going on. In Mazar-i-Sharif, an American serves as the deputy head of the regional command for the north. He informs his boss, Brigadier General Hans-Werner Fritz of the Bundeswehr, of his plans and the execution of the missions. German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has also been briefed in detail. So far, the German troops have merely looked on as the US forces have gone into battle.
The aggressive approach has already stirred up resentment at the Presidential Palace in Kabul. In talks with European politicians in recent days, President Hamid Karzai has regularly criticized the robust hunt for Taliban. Karzai has warned that the battle against the Taliban must not be waged in the villages and he claims that he regularly receives reports of dishonorable behavior amongst the units.
But military officials say they are doing everything they can to prevent civilian casualties. According the progress briefing, civilians in the period observed only died in 1 percent of the special forces actions. But that is the kind of collateral damage the Karzai likes to use as an opportunity to criticize the foreign troops and win public support.
The bloody progress made by the special forces could trigger similar reflexes in Karzai.