February 12, 2015
Data From Seized Computer Fuels a Surge in U.S. Raids on Al Qaeda
WASHINGTON — As an October chill fell on the mountain passes that separate the militant havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a small team of Afghan intelligence commandos and American Special Operations forces descended on a village where they believed a leader of Al Qaeda was hiding.
That night the Afghans and Americans got their man, Abu Bara al-Kuwaiti. They also came away with what officials from both countries say was an even bigger prize: a laptop computer and files detailing Qaeda operations on both sides of the border.
American military officials said the intelligence seized in the raid was possibly as significant as the information found in the computer and documents of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, after members of the Navy SEALs killed him in 2011.
In the months since, the trove of intelligence has helped fuel a significant increase in night raids by American Special Operations forces and Afghan intelligence commandos, Afghan and American officials said.
The spike in raids is at odds with policy declarations in Washington, where the Obama administration has deemed the American role in the war essentially over. But the increase reflects the reality in Afghanistan, where fierce fighting in the past year killed record numbers of Afghan soldiers, police officers and civilians.
American and Afghan officials, who spoke on the condition
of anonymity because they were discussing operations that are largely classified, said that American forces were playing direct combat roles in many of the raids and were not simply going along as advisers.
“We’ve been clear that counterterrorism operations remain a part of our mission in Afghanistan,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said on Thursday. “We’ve also been clear that we will conduct these operations in partnership with the Afghans to eliminate threats to our forces, our partners and our interests.”
The raids appear to have targeted a broad cross section of Islamist militants. They have hit both Qaeda and Taliban operatives, going beyond the narrow counterterrorism mission that Obama administration officials had said would continue after the formal end of American-led combat operations last December.
The tempo of operations is “unprecedented for this time of year” — that is, the traditional winter lull in fighting, an American military official said. No official would provide exact figures, because the data is classified. The Afghan and American governments have also sought to keep quiet the surge in night raids to avoid political fallout in both countries.
“It’s all in the shadows now,” said a former Afghan security official who informally advises his former colleagues. “The official war for the Americans — the part of the war that you could go see — that’s over. It’s only the secret war that’s still going. But it’s going hard.”
American and Afghan officials said the intelligence gleaned from the October mission was not the sole factor behind the uptick in raids. Around the same time that Afghan and American intelligence analysts were poring over the seized laptop and files, Afghanistan’s newly elected president, Ashraf Ghani, signed a security agreement with the United States and eased restrictions on night raids by American and Afghan forces that had been put in place by his predecessor, Hamid Karzai. Mr. Karzai had also sought to limit the use of American air power, even to support Afghan forces.
American commanders welcomed the new freedom. Afghan forces were overwhelmed fighting the Taliban in some parts of the country during last year’s fighting season, which typically runs from the spring into the autumn. Many Western officials fear that this year’s fighting season could be even worse for the Afghans without the air power and logistical support from the American-led coalition, and without joint Afghan-American night raids to keep up pressure on insurgent commanders.
Gen. John F. Campbell, the American commander of coalition forces, appears to have interpreted his mandate to directly target Afghan insurgents who pose an immediate threat to coalition troops or are plotting attacks against them. He is not targeting Afghans simply for being part of the insurgency. But one criterion used to determine whether an individual is a danger to the force, an American military official said, is whether the person has in the past been associated with attacks or attempted attacks on American forces — a large group, given that the United States was at war with the Taliban for more than a decade.
Since the start of the year, the rationale of protecting American forces has been readily used by the coalition to justify operations, including in two instances in the past week.
On Saturday, coalition officials announced that a “precision strike resulted in the death of two individuals threatening the force” in the Achin district of eastern Afghanistan.
Two days later, the coalition carried out what it described as another precision strike that killed “eight individuals threatening the force” in Helmand Province, in southern Afghanistan. Although the coalition would not say who exactly was killed, Afghan and American officials and tribal elders in Helmand said that the dead included Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, a former Taliban commander and Guantánamo Bay detainee who recently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, the terrorist group also known as ISIS or ISIL.
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