Intelligence: Going For The Knockout Punch


July 14, 2011: The United States has two different intelligence efforts going on in Afghanistan. One seeks to gain a better understanding of the culture and local politics. This effort is called human topography, and collects large quantities of tribe, family and economic data. Put into databases and analyzed with powerful software, otherwise hidden relationships are discovered. The more data you gather, the more insights you get. In effect, this would give American commanders more knowledge of what is going on inside Afghanistan than national, or even local, Afghan politicians and government officials. This kind of knowledge is necessary if you want to make long-term changes in Afghan society (like eliminating blood feuds and the violence in general.)

The other effort is to concentrate on just the Taliban, to uncover the identities of key people in the organization, and go after them. This is called decapitation, and is what most of the night raids are about. When you catch one of the key people, you often capture cell phones and laptop computers. The prisoners, and the data in their gadgets, provides more valuable information about who does what and where they might be.

The human topography effort, which uses a lot of civilian anthropologists and other culture researchers, is a long term project. The decapitation campaign is more immediate, and recently the order has gone out to shift more resources into picking apart the Taliban. But long term, peace in Afghanistan is more likely if you know the human topography. This would allow you to take advantage of opportunities to identify more tribal, religious, ethnic and political conflicts, and resolve them.

At the moment, decapitation has more supporters. This is largely because of the success of this campaign in Pakistan. There, raids are rare, but opportunities to kill Taliban and other terrorist leaders are more plentiful. There have been other benefits. While the Islamic terrorist groups in Pakistan's tribal territories are not happy with the six year CIA decapitation (kill the leaders) campaign, many of the local tribesmen are. Attacked by Predator and Reaper UAVs, armed with missiles, the terrorists (al Qaeda, Taliban and the Haqqani Network) have lost over 40 senior leaders in the last six years, most of them in the last three years. These losses are not only bad for morale at the top, but are seriously disrupting terrorist activities. The locals love this, because the Islamic radicals have been nothing but trouble. For one thing, the radicals come across as a bunch of self-righteous bullies, and use their weapons to intimidate, or kill, anyone who crosses them. This includes coercing families to provide daughters to be wives of bachelor terrorists. Then there is the terrorist tactic of using civilians as human shields for protection from the missile attacks. Here's where the CIA won hearts and minds, by scrupulously avoiding casualties among the innocent tribesmen. Moreover, the tribes eventually drew the line on human shields, bringing out their own guns and forcing the Islamic radicals to back off on hostages. The locals also abandoned their compounds when the terrorists came by to spend the night. If the CIA hit the compound (after noting how the owners fled), the tribesmen blamed the Islamic radicals, not the CIA, for the damage. The Islamic radicals know that the tribesmen have been cheering, not so much for the CIA, as against the radicals, but don't make an issue of it. On the surface, everyone is a good Moslem. But the local Moslems make no secret of wishing that the super-Moslems would go somewhere else.

The Afghan Taliban have created the same animosities, and American troops have long noted the pleas from local civilians to kill the local Taliban. This was often a matter of life and death for these civilians, because the Taliban would, if they were still alive after foreign troops left the area, come back and kill any civilians they believed had helped the foreign soldiers.

In Pakistan, the terrorist losses to the decapitation campaign have been severe, and include heads of operations, finance and intelligence. Many of the mid-level commanders were bomb making, and terror attack experts. These losses caused additional casualties as less skilled bomb makers died when their imperfect devices blew up while under construction. New bomb makers have been less skilled because of poor instruction. The loss of operations commanders meant operatives were less effectively deployed, and more easily caught or killed. The damage to their intelligence operations meant there was less success in general, especially against the growing American informant network on the ground. The financial leadership losses has meant less income, and more reliance on stealing from locals, which makes the terror groups even more unpopular.

In Afghanistan, the decapitation campaign (carried out mostly through raids, or just catching or killing the leaders during combat or at a road checkpoint) has worked. The damage to the effectiveness of the Taliban has been very visible. In areas where key Taliban people are captured or killed, terrorist activity goes down, often way down. That means less terrorism against civilians and fewer roadside bombs or attacks on police and soldiers.

The Taliban and other terror groups don't like to discuss these attacks, even to score some media points by complaining of civilian casualties. The last bit has to do with most of the civilians being wives and children accompanying their terrorist daddy. Civilian deaths are minimized by trying to catch the terrorists while travelling, or otherwise away from civilians. Journalists visiting the sites of these attacks later, find few locals claiming lots of civilian casualties. Unlike Afghanistan, the Pakistani Pushtuns tend to avoid criticizing their government, for fear of retribution from tribal leaders or the government itself.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close