WASHINGTON — The death of Osama bin Laden, the top name on the U.S. military’s high-value target list, dealt a serious blow to enemy fighters in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. But it’s the systematic elimination of other names on that “capture or kill” list that many are now crediting with turning the region’s terrorists and insurgents into a younger, less experienced and less fanatical group.
More than a just collection of strategically important famous faces, the high-value target list — maintained by International Security Assistance Force headquarters and officially called the Joint Prioritization Effects List — also includes largely unknown low- and mid-level Taliban facilitators directly threatening coalition troops in the field. Those local targets can include the Taliban’s shadow government officials, financiers, gun runners, drug smugglers, bomb makers and recruiters, some of whom are considered more important to the counterinsurgency mission than top insurgent leaders.
“There are different types of high-value targets,” said Defense Department spokesman Col. David Lapan. “There are high-value targets that fall under the strategic level, but down at the battalion level, their high-value targets are the guys that are affecting their operations on a regular basis.”
Officials are finding that when senior leaders are removed, frequently there is someone ready to fill that figurehead role.
It’s become much harder, officials say, for the Taliban to replace experienced mid-level operatives with well-honed skills. Decisions on which mid-level fighters to target begin with recommendations from troops in the field.
“It’s done at the lowest level possible, and it’s a bubble-up process,” said a Western intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic.
That rule was instituted by former ISAF commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who said no targets could be nominated at the four-star headquarters, with rare exceptions. Ultimately, names are vetted “at the three-star level.”
Officials said the intelligence captured at bin Laden’s Pakistan compound has allowed ISAF to harden intelligence perceptions about individuals deemed important enough to target.
“It’s confirmed a lot of suspicions,” the Western intelligence official said.
Officials would not say how many people have been added as a result of the collection. The number of names currently on the list and their identities remain classified.
President Barack Obama, in a congratulatory speech at CIA headquarters on Friday, praised the cache as the largest senior-level intelligence capture ever, and issued a warning: “Today, every terrorist in the al-Qaida network should be watching their back because we’re going to review every video, we are going to examine every photo, we’re going to read every one of those millions of pages, we’re going to pursue every lead. We are going to go wherever it takes us.”
But the targeting of names on list was already producing results. One senior U.S. battlefield commander recently back from Afghanistan said increased efforts to eliminate senior and mid-level commanders has finally put a dent in the Taliban’s ability to fight and recruit.
Maj. Gen. Richard Mills was commander of I Marine Expeditionary Force and coalition troops in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand and Kandahar provinces from June 2010 until last month. When Mills arrived there one year ago, the insurgency was commanded by, he said, an “experienced leadership of pretty savvy guys that had been fighting for a number of years. Good leaders, good tacticians that could operate on the battlefield.”
The average age of an enemy equivalent to a battalion commander was 35 years old and, he said, “a fairly experienced veteran on the battlefield. A man who knew how to allocate resources, knew how to command and control and could inspire.”
But that “hard-core insurgent middle,” he said, was leading younger men fighting for a paycheck or “the romantic appeal.”
Tribal elders told Mills: Turn the tide against those hard-core Taliban, and the foot soldiers will give up.
Then Mills’ troops went to work on the high-value target list.
“They went after the enemy’s command and control to a really devastating effect,” he said. “If you were a battalion commander in Helmand province for the insurgency, your life expectancy was extremely short. Extremely short.”
By the time Mills left, he said, the average age of those commanders had dropped from 35 to 23.
“It meant the promotion of younger, more inexperienced people and it really took away some of the real motivators, if you will, who could come up from Pakistan, deliver a message, and inspire people around them,” he said.
In 2009, pressure plate-triggered roadside bombs in Helmand were hidden so well they were nearly undetectable, an official said. That’s no longer the case.
“They’re not having that skilled expertise that they used to have,” the official said. “That’s being eroded away.”
In the past month, ISAF has announced the capture of targets of varying stature, including a Haqqani network “senior advisor,” described as the brother of the third-ranking Haqqani leader and a recruiter of suicide bombers who was “intimately involved” with command structure and tactical operations; a lower-ranking “Taliban facilitator” in one Afghan district who funded the insurgency with drug money and directed low- and mid-level fighters to attack troops and intimidate elders of a local village; and, far from the top ranks, a deputy official in one district who was a bomb expert and kidnapper. A colonel called the latter “easily the single largest threat” to the police in that region.
Still, many remain skeptical that the U.S. can win the war by killing and capturing its way through the high-value target list.
Maj. Gen. John Campbell, who recently ended a yearlong deployment commanding forces in eastern Afghanistan, said despite killing a steady stream of Haqqani fighters from Pakistan, the network continues be the “most lethal threat” to the region.
“We’ve killed many, many Haqqani,” he said in a May 10 briefing to the Pentagon. “We continue to kill Haqqani. We’ve taken out a lot of the low- and mid-level leadership. But they do have this ability to continue to regenerate fighters. The Haqqani network will not reintegrate. My gut feeling tells me that right now.”
But Mills, awaiting confirmation in Washington to be deputy commandant of the Marine Corps, speaking to the Institute for the Study of War, said, “I think that you can reduce the insurgency to such a level within the frontiers of the boundaries of Afghanistan, that the people that remain outside [in Pakistan] are reduced to a nuisance, as opposed to a direct threat.”
Ultimately, few know whether the high-value target list is truly bottomless, or if those missions will scale back as the larger counterinsurgency winds down toward a 2014 withdrawal deadline.
“While there continues to be a counterinsurgency fight, there will continue to be high-value targets,” Lapan said.