The U.S. military command has quietly shifted and intensified the mission of clandestine special operations forces in Afghanistan, senior officials said, targeting key figures within the Taliban, rather than almost exclusively hunting Al Qaeda leaders.
As a result of orders from Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and allied commander in Afghanistan, the special operations teams are focusing more on killing militants, capturing them or, whenever possible, persuading them to turn against the Taliban-led insurgency.
The number of raids carried out by such units as the Army’s Delta Force and Navy’s SEAL Team Six in Afghanistan has more than quadrupled in recent months. The teams carried out 90 raids in November, U.S. officials said, compared with 20 in May. U.S. special operations forces primarily conduct missions in eastern and southern Afghanistan.
The numbers reflect the evolving strategy and increased pressure on U.S. military leaders to show swift results against the Taliban.
The move marks the first major change in mission for the nation’s most elite military units since they were sent to Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks. It comes as the Taliban has tightened its grip on key parts of Afghanistan, where only a few dozen Al Qaeda operatives are thought to remain.
The shift could be controversial among some administration officials and lawmakers who want the U.S. military to focus primarily on the long-term fight against terrorism and on eradicating Al Qaeda. Senior military leaders, however, believe that rolling back Taliban gains has become the overriding short-term priority.
“This is Gen. McChrystal’s play,” said a senior U.S. official familiar with the strategy, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They have to show they can reverse momentum. He has to show he is making headway.”
President Obama this month ordered an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, which will bring the U.S. force to about 100,000 next year. But Obama wants military officials to assess progress in a year and to begin reducing troop levels in 2011.
McChrystal previously commanded special operations teams in Afghanistan and Iraq. As the top commander in Afghanistan, he wanted to more closely align the teams’ operations with his larger strategy of protecting the Afghan population and weakening the Taliban insurgency, senior military officials said. As a result, the teams are hunting Taliban leaders, senior members of other insurgent groups and foreign fighters who are leading militant cells of Afghans.
“We’ve refocused their mission and increased their op tempo,” a senior military official said, also speaking anonymously.
A spokesman for the command in Afghanistan, Army Col. Wayne Shanks, declined to discuss specifics of the special forces’ mission, but said their strikes have “increased pressure on the insurgency.”
“We target all insurgent networks who are causing casualties either to our forces or the Afghan people,” Shanks said.
Since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, U.S. special operations forces have worked with the CIA to organize the military campaign against the Taliban. Although much of their activity is secret, special operations teams have remained in Afghanistan working in small teams, sometimes with Afghan commandos.
Some operations resulted in civilian casualties, contributing to anti-U.S. sentiment and Afghan complaints that eventually forced commanders to curtail the use of airstrikes.
Special operations forces on rare occasions also have crossed the border into Pakistan to conduct raids there, angering the government in Islamabad and infuriating the Pakistani public.
Under McChrystal’s new strategy, conventional military units are staying closer to population centers to make ordinary Afghans feel safer and to push Taliban fighters out of the towns and villages.
“The conventional forces need to stay in the population centers -- you can’t lose focus,” the senior U.S. official said.
“We have to do that,” the official said. “It has to be visible, it has to be effective.
“But that is not the only thing we are going to do.”
Because they are not tied to a specific locale, the special operations teams can roam more widely across Afghanistan, tracking insurgent networks and targeting leaders of cells.
They also are applying some of the lessons McChrystal learned in Iraq, where a focus on eliminating mid-level operatives weakened militant groups, frequently leaving foot soldiers leaderless and susceptible to offers to disarm or switch sides.
McChrystal alluded to that tactic in an interview last week on PBS’ “The Charlie Rose Show.”
“What I have come to believe is you take the middle of the network,” McChrystal said. “You attack them, you capture, you kill and you turn as many of them as you can and you cause the network to collapse on itself.”
The senior official said the special operations attacks on the Taliban would help show that the U.S. is serious about preventing intimidation campaigns by militant groups.
The senior military official said the increased number of raids was having an effect. The number of Taliban leaders interested in laying down arms has begun to rise, officials said.
Intelligence intercepts have also shown that the stepped-up attacks are beginning to erode the morale of some Taliban factions in Afghanistan.
“The [special operations forces] are arresting the momentum of the Taliban,” the senior military official said. “The SOF guys can go against the networks. They are losing their leaders.”
Despite stepping up attacks on the Taliban, the special operations teams have not halted all efforts to pursue Al Qaeda, officials said.
Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that counter-terrorism remained an “embedded” part the U.S. strategy.
“Every effort will be made to focus on key leaders of the insurgency, key leaders in the terrorist world,” Mullen said. “Every effort will be made to capture or kill them, and that’s ongoing as we speak. And that’s a very important part of the overall strategic approach here.”