Ahmed Rashid is the author of the oft-quoted book Descent Into Chaos: How the War Against Islamic Extremism Is Being Lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia. In an August op-ed piece in the Financial Times, Rashid argued that in order for talks to go forward with the Taliban, U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) must cease their highly effective night assassination raids against Taliban commanders (this was before the recent Taliban hit on a SOF-filled Chinook arriving at a combat LZ).
Rashid states that cessation of the gently termed “night raids” will, in turn, create an environment in which Taliban operators will halt their highly professional “hits” on major targets. The problem with that theory is that the Taliban assassins are not responding to actions by U.S. and U.K. spec ops units, but are simply attacking high value targets as the opportunity presents itself.
The Taliban does not need provocation to pursue their normal methods of political intimidation. These are the same tactics they used (with U.S. assistance) when the mujahidin — the Taliban forefathers — were fighting the Soviets. The Taliban are the ones on the offensive and the allied SOF responds by taking down their local commanders. Should SOF direct action operations to cease, there would be nothing left to deter the Taliban’s political targeting.
American special operations troops are particularly deadly, and deter many Taliban leaders from launching personal assassination attempts. But U.S. politicians find this fact too indelicate. It is not acceptable in many American circles to suggest that their special forces are very good at one-on-one killing of enemies. The Obama Administration said it wants to pull regular forces out of Afghanistan and leave behind SOF to assist the Afghan National Army in creating “security” in key areas. Ahmed Rashid agrees that instead of battling it out in tit-for-tat killing, both special ops and the Taliban should be encouraged to sit down for nice, polite little talks.
The concept of withdrawing the major ISAF (read: American) line units and leaving SOF to babysit the now more-numerous Afghan regulars is unworkable for many reasons. But, most importantly, leaving behind SOF as training cadre and local enforcers is just politically unrealistic. The job could be taken on, of course, though it would be a waste of time and personnel. The Taliban are far more effective in local organization and control in their primarily Pushtun areas than the central government and its representatives. The special operations units would soon find themselves hung out to dry.
Spec ops forces, except when utilized in protected training environments, must maintain their initiative and own force-protection through aggressive action and close logistical, communication and air support. They just can’t hang about looking good for visiting politicians, local and foreign. Pressure must be kept on the insurgents in such a manner as to channel and obstruct their ambitions. Only that way can the Taliban leaders be forced into building a cooperative rule — if such a thing can be done at all. And that so far has not shown progress.
If the program of selective removal of key Taliban leaders continues — so the argument goes — it could result in destruction of the existing Karzai government and security structure by Taliban counter-targeting. The logic of this argument is based on the flawed idea that the Taliban in the past have been holding back their ability to kill key Afghan officials and that only now would they unleash it. To prevent this we are told we should restrict our own counter operations. Don’t shoot the bad guys because they might shoot back is not much of a strategy. And that’s the kernel of Rashid’s position.
The fact is that the killing of various Taliban commanders has been a very discriminating operation. Covert activities in Afghanistan are quite arcane and chances are that some of the more important targets were selected with the assistance of self-interested Taliban with competitive interests. This, after all, is Afghanistan and the good guys and bad guys not only are very difficult to distinguish, but they have the ability to change their colors mid-op!
The ultimate decision that President Obama and the next POTUS will have to make is whether to keep SOF in an active combat role at all in Afghanistan. If the answer to that is affirmative, there will continue to be Taliban leaders who die; that is what special ops forces do. If the answer is to withdraw SOF from everything except a basically non-lethal role such as intelligence reconnaissance and training, it’s only a matter of time before the Taliban will gain the initiative and return triumphantly to an influential and eventually controlling role in the Afghan future.
Yes, an aggressive participation of Allied Special Operations Forces remains the key to maintaining any form of even a marginally democratic government in Kabul. SOF and fully coordinated covert intelligence activity has the ability to co-opt key elements of the Taliban. Only that combination can do the job. SOF is not merely a force multiplier; it truly is the point of the spear.
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