U.S. Touts Afghanistan Special-Operations Raids in Rare Detail

(Bloomberg) -- The Pentagon has disclosed the extent of raids by U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan for the first time in years, as the Trump administration boasts of a more aggressive effort against militant groups including the Taliban, the Haqqani network and Islamic State.

From June 1 through through Nov. 24, personnel from the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan conducted 2,175 ground operations “in which they enabled or advised” Afghanistan’s own commando forces, according to the Pentagon’s biannual status report to Congress.

While the statistics may reflect President Donald Trump’s decision to give field commanders more leeway to initiate operations, comparisons are difficult because the military has rarely discussed the size, scope or nature of special operations. In late 2015, for example, the Defense Department said only that it established an “expeditionary targeting group” in Iraq to hunt Islamic State leaders.

Breaking It Down

The latest status report, mandated by Congress and released with little fanfare on Dec. 15, said “limited direct action” missions by U.S. special operations counterterrorism forces in Afghanistan included:

  • 420 ground operations as well as 214 airstrikes against Islamic State forces, resulting in more than 174 killed. One of these was Abu Sayed, the head of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-Khorasan, in a strike on the group’s headquarters in Kunar province on July 11, Dana W. White, the Pentagon’s chief spokeswoman, said in a statement at the time;
  • 1,644 ground operations and 181 airstrikes against the Taliban, resulting in 220 killed;
  • 68 ground operations and 28 airstrikes against members of the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani Network, with 34 killed;
  • 43 ground operations against other insurgent networks with 36 killed.

The report provided no estimate of civilian casualties, which human rights groups have said are sure to increase under Trump’s more aggressive approach.

‘More Active’

The disclosure of the mission numbers in the new report is intended to show that the Trump administration “has taken a more active posture against the insurgency and that the new strategy” is “intended to ‘win’ rather than just ‘hold the line,”’ Kenneth Katzman, Afghanistan analyst for the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, said in an email.

It’s also “a signal to insurgent leaders that there is no military victory for them in sight and that it is time to negotiate a settlement peacefully,” Katzman said.

Katzman said he’s seen similar statistics disclosed in private briefings by U.S. commanders “though not to my recollection with this level of detail or thoroughness.”

The 2,000-member special operations task force includes about 1,200 personnel who have a “special skill, qualification, or assignment,” according to Major Anthony Mayne, a spokesman. The force also includes advisers and logistics and sustainment personnel, Mayne said. It’s part of the 14,000 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan.

The special operations task force’s train-and-assist efforts “remain focused on building” the Afghan commando force’s capacity “in logistics, command and control, fire support, intelligence analysis and sharing, aviation” and working with conventional forces, the report said.

‘Decisive Year’

The statistics were included in the new report to Congress because “this was a decisive year for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, and particularly” its commando branch, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Michael Andrews, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an email. The U.S. commandos carry out operations with or in support of their Afghan counterparts, he said.

The numbers on special operations forces may be the most detailed since 2011, when President Barack Obama’s administration was trying to demonstrate the success of surging 30,000 U.S. troops to take on the Taliban before a drawdown that Trump has reversed.

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