The Pentagon has increased its use of the military's most elite special operations teams in Afghanistan, more than doubling the number of the highly trained teams assigned to hunt down Taliban leaders, according to senior officials.
The secretive buildup reflects the view of the Obama administration and senior military leaders that the U.S. has only a limited amount of time to degrade the capabilities of the Taliban. U.S. forces are in the midst of an overall increase that will add 30,000 troops this year and plan to begin reducing the force in mid-2011.
Operations aimed at Taliban leaders have intensified as the military also gears up for an expected offensive this summer in Kandahar, the southern Afghan city that is the Taliban's spiritual heartland. Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants to negotiate with the Taliban, and U.S. and allied forces are trying to lure rank-and-file fighters away from extremist leaders. By hunting Taliban leaders, the specialized units hope to increase pressure on foot soldiers to switch sides.
With such an abbreviated timeline, the elite manhunt teams are the most effective weapon for disrupting the insurgent leadership, senior officials said. The officials contend that stepped-up operations by teams inserted in recent months already have eroded the Taliban leadership. Defense officials specifically single out the work of special operations forces in eliminating mid-level Taliban leaders before the February offensive in the Helmand province town of Marja. They say the forces have begun similar operations in nearby Kandahar province.
"You can't kill your way out of these things, but you can remove a lot of the negative influences," said a senior Defense official. "A significant portion of the leadership has fled over the border, been captured or removed from the equation."
But the buildup carries risks. Special operations forces have been involved in some botched strikes that ended up killing civilians, mistakes that Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, has said could undermine the overall mission. For years, Karzai and other officials have complained bitterly about civilian deaths in military actions by the U.S. and its allies.
A raid Feb. 10 in the Gardez district in southeastern Afghanistan, led by a unit assigned to the Joint Special Operations Command, left two Afghan officials and three women dead.
The Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, encompasses special mission units such as the Army's Delta Force and the Navy's SEAL Team Six, as well as troops temporarily assigned to the command, such as Army Ranger units.
Neither Delta Force nor SEAL Team Six were involved in the Gardez raid, according to one government official, suggesting that Army Rangers or another unit temporarily assigned to the command was responsible.
Some Afghan investigators have accused U.S. forces of covering up evidence of the attack, a charge the military disputes.
The size of the military's Joint Special Operations Command is a highly classified secret. Officials would not discuss the number of covert teams or troops sent to Afghanistan.
Villagers fear special operations forces, who often strike in the dead of night, and speak of them in whispers. But special operations forces pride themselves on knowing and respecting local customs. And some units have developed close ties with Afghans.
The special SEAL and Delta Force units and others work in teams of as few as three. They operate in secret, often out of uniform and without regard to the military's strict regulations regarding hair length and beards.
Army Ranger units, working in larger numbers, often provide security for the special mission units, but also conduct their own capture-or-kill operations.
In the past, critics have charged that special operations forces were responsible for a preponderance of the civilian deaths caused by Western forces. Although officials concede that the number of civilian deaths caused by the teams has been damaging, the military command in Afghanistan does not believe that the elite forces are "running amok," said a Defense official.
Some of the incidents, according to officials, are a result of the high operational tempo. Special operations forces, including the JSOC teams, account for half or more of the missions being carried out by military forces in Afghanistan.
The secretive Joint Special Operations Command task force is a classified subgroup of the military's overall United States Special Operations Command. The overall command has 5,800 troops in Afghanistan on a mission to train Afghan security forces and conduct joint missions with Afghan commandos.
It is not clear whether that number includes the more highly specialized teams, which by some estimates number only in the dozens and were described last month by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, as a handful of troops compared with the overall U.S. and allied force, which is increasing to more than 140,000.
McChrystal, a former head of JSOC, has supported the secret buildup, even while imposing restrictions on the use of air power as well as new rules on night raids. He was not given direct control of the teams, but as their former commander, he retains a large amount of influence over them.
Pentagon officials recently have realigned the command structure to give McChrystal control of the U.S. Marines and special operations forces that are mainly involved in training.
The Defense official said that with the new buildup, there will be more of the special operations forces in Afghanistan than there were in Iraq at the height of the U.S. troop buildup there in 2007.
"Although we will have less general purpose forces than we had in Iraq, we will have more special forces," the official said.
Within the military, some consider the work of the Joint Special Operations Command units in Iraq to have been key to calming the violence at the time.
Some of the additional JSOC teams sent to Afghanistan have been shifted from Iraq, where they worked to root out extremist cells aligned with Al Qaeda. Despite the recent flare-up in violence, officials say the number of extremists being sought in the Mideast nation has declined precipitously. Describing the change in the idiom of the secret units, a senior official said: "Hunting season is over in Iraq."
In Afghanistan, the special units have been following a playbook similar to the one they used in Iraq, and Defense officials hope the elite teams will have a similar effect on the overall level of security.
Defense officials emphasize that even the teams not under McChrystal's direct control are bound by his tactical directives.
"Rules are rules for everybody," said the Defense official.
"McChrystal holds them to a higher standard than conventional forces. When things go wrong, he is extremely aware of what the costs are."