General Petraeus says killing or capturing bin Laden not enough


General plans to adapt lessons learned in Iraq to combat the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. (Editor)

Incoming Central Command head Gen. David Petraeus questioned whether al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden continues to play a significant operational role in the terrorist network and said that even if bin Laden were killed, his lieutenants would ensure al-Qaida stayed in business.

“You have to ask what bin Laden is actually doing these days, besides hiding,” Petraeus said in an Oct. 15 interview with Army Times. “To say that he has been reclusive would be a bit of an understatement. To question what impact his leadership has is reasonable, given his very limited public pronouncements [and] very limited communications with subordinate leaders.”

Bin Laden remains “a hugely symbolic figure,” but it is those subordinates who now seem to be exercising operational control over al-Qaida, according to Petraeus, who takes command of CentCom on Oct. 31.

“While it would be very, very, very important to kill or capture bin Laden, there are numerous other leaders who are … giving directions, who are determining the flow of resources, providing spiritual guidance and so forth,” Petraeus said. “So while we clearly have devoted considerable assets to finding and killing or capturing him, we have to recognize that even were we to do that, al-Qaida would by no means cease operations.”

He cited the lessons learned from Joint Special Operations Command’s pursuit of al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

“What we have learned over the years is that the killing of a leader does not decapitate an organization in the way that perhaps one might think,” Petraeus said. “It’s an important blow, but let’s recall that Zarqawi was killed in Iraq, and al-Qaida in Iraq recovered from that. Someone else — [Abu Ayyub] al-Masri — stepped up in his place and in fact the level of violence carried out by al-Qaida in Iraq actually went up.”

Leaders in hiding
Bin Laden and other senior al-Qaida leaders are assumed by most experts to be hiding in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. A lawless stretch of territory that borders Afghanistan, the tribal areas have become a sanctuary for al-Qaida, the Taliban and associated Islamist militant groups, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and guerrilla organizations led by two veterans of the 1980s war against the Soviets — Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

The leaders of these groups are all “very important targets,” Petraeus said.

In the U.S. military, the job of hunting down and killing or capturing those leaders falls to Joint Special Operations Command, which has operational control over “special mission units” such as the Army’s 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta and the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, as well as the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment and 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.

In Iraq, “JSOC played a hugely significant role” by killing or capturing many “high-value targets” as well as collecting valuable intelligence, Petraeus said. JSOC’s task forces in Iraq have conducted many hundreds of missions grinding away at the insurgent networks of al-Qaida in Iraq and firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army.

Intelligence breakthroughs
A panoply of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets has enabled these operations.

“There have been breakthroughs in the disciplines of human intelligence, signals intelligence, imagery intelligence [and] measurement intelligence … and each is supported by the proliferation of computer applications, intelligence platforms and growth in various capabilities,” Petraeus said. “But the real breakthrough has been in the fusion of all this … and in the coordination and cooperation of all elements.”

While Delta Force has been at the heart of JSOC’s operations in Iraq, SEAL Team 6 has taken the lead in Afghanistan. But the JSOC task force fighting in Afghanistan and in the Pakistani tribal areas might be getting larger in the near future.

“They have conducted some very important operations,” Petraeus said. “As additional resources are provided to Afghanistan, one would assume that there would be an increase in special mission elements and in regular Special Forces.”

Ties to the Taliban
JSOC has launched at least one mission by ground troops into Pakistan’s tribal areas in recent weeks, a Sept. 3 raid by helicopter-borne SEALs into Angor Adda in the South Waziristan tribal region that provoked protests from the Pakistani government. Since then, new questions have been raised about whether the Pakistani government publicly supporting the U.S. and its allies while secretly backing the Taliban, who are essentially a creation of Pakistan’s powerful military intelligence agency, the Directorate for Inter-services Intelligence, which is also a longtime patron of Haqqani and Hekmatyar.

Britain’s Sunday Times reported Oct. 12 that a Taliban commander killed by British Special Air Service commandos last year was in fact a Pakistani military officer, and Marine Lt. Col. Chris Nash told Army Times that Pakistani military helicopters flew repeated cross-border resupply missions for the Taliban during a June 2007 battle.

Petraeus said that in preparing to take command of CentCom, he had heard nothing about Pakistani helicopters flying across the border to support the Taliban. On the larger question of whether the ISI continues to support the Taliban and other Islamist guerrilla organizations, he said it was “difficult to tell right now.”

“There are undoubtedly ties that still exist, but the recent changes in leadership we think are reflections of a growing Pakistani awareness that the extremist elements in the FATA pose a truly existential threat to Pakistan,” Petraeus said.

Pakistan army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani installed a new ISI director in September. Pakistani leaders now realize that “this threat certainly rivals — if not exceeds — any existential threat posed by India,” Pakistan’s traditional enemy, Petraeus said.

This realization represents “a very significant shift in terms of the thinking, the threat analysis, of Pakistani forces and Pakistani leaders,” he added.

This understanding exists “certainly at high levels” of the Pakistani government, Petraeus said.

Afghanistan elections
Across the border in Afghanistan, the focus will soon turn to presidential elections scheduled for late next summer. The Taliban have vowed to use violence to disrupt the elections.

The Afghan government and its coalition allies are determined to achieve the level of security necessary to hold the elections on time, Petraeus said. “There’s a cooperative shoulder to the wheel on this,” he said.

But coalition forces will be challenged to deliver that security.

Since Petraeus was nominated to become the next CentCom commander, pundits have speculated over whether he can replicate in Afghanistan his success as commander of coalition forces in Iraq, where he presided over a significant reduction of violence which appeared to be spiraling out of control when he took over in January 2007.

Petraeus himself remains cautious about drawing too many parallels between the two counterinsurgency campaigns.

“One has to be very careful” in trying to overlay the counterinsurgency guidance that Petraeus employed in Iraq onto the war in Afghanistan, he said. Nevertheless, the strategy that worked against al-Qaida in Iraq “has some merit for consideration when dealing with other elements as well,” he said.

“Certainly there are some principles of counterinsurgency that are likely relevant … and among those are the need to secure the population, an awareness that this can only be done by living with the population, a recognition that when you’re dealing with a large insurgency, not just small numbers of extremists, that you want to try to determine which elements are irreconcilable and then isolate the population from them, because they have to be killed, captured or run off, and then, where possible, to reconcile with other elements and to make as many as possible part of the solution for the future, rather than a continuing part of the problem.”

Petraeus said it is “conceivable” that the Taliban and the Haqqani and Hekmatyar groups might include elements open to such reconciliation, and that the U.S. and its allies might support — in very close coordination with the Afghan government — the establishment of local anti-extremist militias similar to the “Sons of Iraq” Sunni groups who helped turn the tide in Anbar province against al-Qaida in Iraq.

“There should be a keen awareness that you cannot kill or capture your way out of large insurgencies,” he said. “And so that informs you right off the bat that you want to try to reduce the number of those you have to kill or capture.”

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, success will require a long-term commitment from the U.S., said Petraeus, who noted that Afghanistan was already one of the world’s poorest countries before it was devastated by 30 years of war.

“You’re not rebuilding in Afghanistan — you’re building,” he said. “And the support to Pakistan will also have to be sustained — i.e. multiyear — substantial support.”

By Sean D. Naylor – Staff writer
Posted : Monday Oct 20, 2008 21:43:20 EDT

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