When the counterinsurgent becomes the insurgent
Last week I wondered whether U.S. and Afghan forces would mount an organized campaign targeting the Taliban's "shadow government" inside Afghanistan. According to a Dec. 16 Los Angeles Times article, the answer is "yes." The article reports that U.S. special operations teams conducted 90 direct action raids in Afghanistan in November compared to 20 raids in May. General Stanley McChrystal is clearly not waiting for 30,000 additional U.S. soldiers to arrive to begin the U.S. counterattack against the Taliban.
Before he was selected to command in Afghanistan, McChrystal spent many years commanding the secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the U.S. military unit that specializes in the most challenging direct action raids. McChrystal personally directed JSOC operations in Iraq. While it remains a subject of debate, many credit McChrystal's teams with a significant portion of the credit for the reduction of violence in Iraq.
It appears that McChrystal is directing a similar campaign in Afghanistan, at least while he waits for the reinforcements required to protect some of Afghanistan's cities. According to the Times article, the Taliban's mid-ranking leadership is the target of McChrystal's raiders. The intent is to leave the bottom-rung Taliban foot soldiers leaderless and susceptible to offers of reintegration.
Many analysts have noted the irony of the U.S. government's long involvement in Afghanistan. During the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, Michael Vickers, then a young CIA operations officer, helped design and implement a classic unconventional warfare campaign, assisting indigenous Afghan forces to resist the Soviet army and overthrow the Moscow-backed government in Kabul. Today Vickers is assistant secretary of defense for special operation/low intensity conflict implementing a massive security assistance program to build up Afghanistan's forces -- the mirror image of his duties two decades ago.
The current situation actually requires more than just counterinsurgency and assistance for Afghanistan's security forces. Today there are two governments in Afghanistan; the Karzai government, deemed to be the legitimate power, and the Taliban shadow government, deemed to be illegitimate. U.S. and Afghan forces must simultaneously conduct a security assistance effort supporting the Karzai government and an unconventional warfare campaign attacking the Taliban shadow government.
McChrystal seems to be kicking off his campaign with some plays out of the JSOC playbook he used in Iraq. But the game in Afghanistan will be tougher. The Taliban can always fall back on its sanctuary in Pakistan, and its top-ranking leaders in Quetta and North Waziristan remain untouchable. It also has a well-demonstrated ability to replace its losses, even in its leadership ranks. Vickers's war in the 1980s and McChrystal's battles on the streets of Iraq were not easy. But when compared to today's multi-level war in Afghanistan, they seem simple.