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Off With Their Heads
by James Dunnigan
November 20, 2009

Attacking the Taliban in Afghanistan is far different than similar operations were in Iraq. For one thing, nearly all the operations are in the countryside, in areas where there are few roads. Thus U.S. troops can¬ít sneak up in quiet vehicles (like hummers and Strykers.) In Afghanistan, the enemy will see you coming, and, literally, head for the hills, before you reach your objective. Even using airborne cell phone and radio jammers (to prevent the sentries from alerting the enemy base) doesn't always work (because flares,  fireworks rockets, flags or signal fires can be used to send the alert). Thus, for most attacks, you come in by air.

Even then, the attack must be planned carefully in order to have the maximum effect. Usually, the objective is to capture or kill leaders, and seize documents, cell phones and computers. A smart bomb can't help much here. Thus you have to get in quick, and be aware of enemy tactics in the face of an attack. The Taliban usually have a retreat plan, with some gunmen assigned to delay the attackers, so the key people can get away along pre-selected routes. So planning the attack calls for some hard thinking, trying to figure out the most likely escape routes, and make provisions for blocking those routes. Most of these attacks take place at night, which provides an edge for the foreign troops, who have night vision equipment, and overhead aircraft and UAVs equipped with night vision cameras.

Some targets cannot escape easily, even in the face of an attack along roads. That is the case when you are going after drug related targets. Starting earlier this year, more attacks were made on drug markets, storage sites and processing labs (where opium is turned into heroin.) Here, you can expect most of the enemy troops to get away, unless some of them attempt to haul some of the heroin (lighter, and much more valuable, than the opium that is scrapped from poppy plants.)

Often, the targets are simply leaders and technical specialists (usually bomb builders. Here, the initial tracking and identifying is done by commandos (U.S. Special Forces and commandoes from many nations). These guys track the terrorist leaders, and also use a network of informants they had developed along the border, on both sides, over the years. The U.S. has also developed electronic and visual surveillance capabilities that provide the commandos with additional eyes, and weapons. The commandos are particularly fond of Predator and Reaper UAVs, which come operators describe as having a full time spy satellite overhead. Commandos, as well as smart bombs and Hellfire missiles. If possible, these key enemy personnel are captured. At the very least, they are killed.

These "decapitation" operations have been on the increase over the past few years. The Taliban and al Qaeda have already figured out what is going on, and are increasingly paranoid when it comes to informers, using their own cell or satellite phones, and the sight of any unidentified aircraft in the area. The terrorists keep changing the way they meet and communicate, yet they keep getting killed. While the terrorists can replace leaders and technical specialists, they cannot replace them with people of equal skill and experience. And as they move into the shallow end of the talent pool, more mistakes are made. Al Qaeda operatives who have fled Iraq to Afghanistan, have noticed, and commented on, the lower level of technical expertise among their Afghan brothers. While most Iraqi terrorists were literate, and some even had formal technical training, most Afghans are illiterate, and any technical training they might have was acquired informally. This has led to more bombs that don't go off on cue, or, worse yet, explode while being worked on, or emplaced. This sort of thing will happen more, as the talent pool gets diluted. The terrorists have a nearly inexhaustible supply of gunmen and suicide bombers from the hundreds of pro-terror religious schools in Pakistan.

Plenty of cash is available from contributions and criminal activities (particularly working for the heroin gangs in Afghanistan). But leadership cannot be bought, nor can you hire technical people to work the high risk (and high death rate) border areas. You have to develop your own leaders and technical people. And if the enemy kills off those leaders and techies too rapidly, the terror operations will collapse. That's how the Israelis crippled Palestinian terrorist operations several years ago, and how the Americans crushed al Qaeda in Iraq, and throughout the rest of the world. Now that solution is being applied to the terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the addition of another 40,000 U.S. troops will accelerate the process. While there is always someone willing to step up and replace leaders, the quality of the people in charge declines, and that causes enemy operations to become less effective. Casualties increase, and revenue decreases.

 


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