U.S. military leaders have concluded that their war effort in Afghanistan has been too focused on hunting Al Qaeda, and have begun to shift Predator drone aircraft to the fight against the Taliban and other militants in order to prevent the country from slipping deeper into anarchy.
The move, described by government and Defense Department officials, represents a major change in the military’s use of one of its most precious intelligence assets. It also illustrates the hard choices that must be made because the drones are in short supply.
Senior government officials say that defeating Al Qaeda remains the overriding U.S. objective. However, they have determined that the best way to do that is by strengthening and stabilizing Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, rather than endlessly looking for important Al Qaeda figures.
But a shortage of drone aircraft could limit the effectiveness of the thousands of additional troops being sent as part of the Obama administration’s new focus on Afghanistan, officials say. A preliminary review has concluded that the command in Afghanistan requires up to four times as many Predators as it currently has.
To try to meet the demand, the military has shifted about eight Predator drones assigned to special operations forces in Afghanistan to conventional forces. It is refocusing them on major insurgent strongholds rather than on scouring remote mountain ranges for suspected terrorists.
In addition, the U.S. military’s Central Command is planning to send about a dozen more drones to Afghanistan, representing about a 25% increase. Among them are aircraft being reassigned from Iraq, despite resistance from the U.S. command there.
The sweeping redeployment means that insurgent groups that have carried out ambushes and roadside bombings will for the first time be tracked by dozens of drones capable of remaining over a target for hours undetected, identifying key individuals, and firing missiles within a matter of seconds.
A focus on hunting Al Qaeda reflected priorities set early in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. A move away from that strategy could invite protest from U.S. politicians and experts who believe that it could allow the organization to rebuild strength.
Osama bin Laden and the most senior Al Qaeda leadership planned the Sept. 11 attacks from Afghanistan, which was ruled by the Taliban until a U.S.-led invasion ousted it. The Al Qaeda leadership is believed to have reestablished itself across the border in Pakistan. U.S. military and intelligence services are also using drones to attack Al Qaeda figures and their Taliban allies there.
U.S. military officials believe mid-level Al Qaeda figures remain in Afghanistan, where special operations forces have been directed to hunt them down. The military also has long hoped it could learn clues to Bin Laden’s whereabouts by spying on his former associates.
Despite the shift, the special operations forces retain a substantial amount of Predators. But officials say they are working to ensure that unconventional missions are more closely aligned with the new counterinsurgency strategy of the overall force.
But top military officials have concluded that they need to keep Afghanistan from sliding further into chaos in order to keep Al Qaeda from rebuilding there. Doing so will require a campaign to build confidence in the government and make the population feel more secure.
“We have been overly counter-terrorism-focused and not counter-insurgency-focused,” said one U.S. official.
Senior government officials said Bin Laden remained a prime target but that they needed to focus on fighting the Taliban.
“We might still be too focused on Bin Laden,” the official said. “We should probably reassess our priorities.”
Although military officials emphasize that the drones will be used primarily as spy planes, the aircraft are armed. Predators carry two Hellfire missiles. Reaper drones, which are also being sent, are armed with Hellfires and precision-guided bombs.
Airborne attacks carry their own set of risks for the war effort. Afghan officials have repeatedly complained about civilian deaths resulting from airstrikes, and the Taliban seeks to make maximum use of such incidents’ propaganda value.
A new directive from the top commander in Afghanistan is forcing the military to be more careful about airstrikes. But with up to 20 more drones dedicated to the task, the military may have more chances to attack key Taliban leaders.
Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, made it clear in a recent interview that protecting the Afghan population, not hunting suspected terrorists, was his priority.
“I don’t think there is enough focus on counter-insurgency. I am not in a position to criticize counter-terrorism,” he said. “But at this point in the war, in Afghanistan, it is most important to focus on almost classic counter-insurgency.”
Under McChrystal’s order, the command has been doing an extensive review of how it uses its reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft. Rather than spread the drones throughout the country so that all regional commands get the use of the planes for a little while each day, McChrystal wants to use the predators in a more concentrated fashion.
Top commanders are ending the practice of blindly trolling for information with the Predators. McChrystal said the best way to use intelligence aircraft is to watch a single target for days, even weeks.
The preliminary review found that the command in Afghanistan could use as many as 40 to 45 combat air patrols of Predators -- as many as 180 individual drones. That total is more than the military has in its inventory.
The shift of assets from Iraq is sensitive. Military officials said that U.S. generals in Iraq resisted, arguing that intelligence assets will be needed even after the U.S. drawdown speeds up next year.
But the Obama administration’s primary military effort is now clearly Afghanistan. And a senior Defense official said Central Command, which has operational control over both wars, made its moves to shift Predator drones in consultation with McChrystal and the commander in Iraq, Army Gen. Ray Odierno.
In addition to the drones, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of Central Command, has ordered combat engineer units, road-clearance teams, helicopters and other equipment to move from Iraq to Afghanistan.
The military also plans to increase the number of U2 flights.
The advanced camera on the U2 is useful in spotting locations where roadside bombs have been placed, but only if the planes fly over the same area every 24 hours.
In addition, all of the Air Force’s unmanned Global Hawks are going to be shifted to Afghanistan, officials said.
Times staff writer Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.