How to fight the Taliban

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Lieutenant Colonel Patrick J. Mahaney (left) participates in a change of command ceremony on August 22, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • One Hundred Victories is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the war in Afghanistan and the evolution of SOF

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  • A crucial lesson of One Hundred Victories is that killing enemies is an essential part of making friends.

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  • Military leaders and civilian policymakers should conceive of conventional forces and SOF as complements, not rivals

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Lieutenant Colonel Patrick J. Mahaney mastered the art of killing insurgents. According to an official count, Mahaney’s Special Operations Force (SOF) battalion killed 3,407 Taliban fighters during its nine-month tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2007. This battalion killed more insurgents than all other Coalition units combined. In 287 combat engagements, Mahaney’s team suffered only twelve dead and 24 wounded. But Mahaney knew that something was missing from the war effort. Coalition forces had to clear the same ground again and again, because they focused on winning battles, not securing the population.

In May 2011, the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of SEAL Team Six amplified the reputation of America’s SOF as lethal commando units. However, Linda Robinson’s new book, One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare, details how, more than a year before the raid on Abbottabad, American SOFs embarked on an ambitious campaign to prevent terrorism and insurgency, not by eliminating high-value targets but by teaching Afghan villagers how to protect themselves.

One Hundred Victories is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the war in Afghanistan and the evolution of SOF. It is already on the selective list of recommended works distributed by the admiral in charge of all American SOF.

In 2009, Brigadier General Edward M. Reeder returned to Afghanistan to command the village-security mission. On his previous tour, as a colonel, Reeder had marveled at Pat Mahaney’s ability to cut down Taliban forces. Yet, like Mahaney, he had observed that despite the SOF’s military successes, the Taliban’s influence continued to grow.

The problem was not that the Taliban were winning hearts and minds; their pervasive brutality made that highly improbable. Rather, Reeder came to the conclusion that the SOF had focused narrowly on offensive operations at the expense of protecting the population. Also, the Taliban had considerable skill at exploiting tribal grievances; thus, they could bring some factions onto their side while intimidating the rest.

The solution to this problem was to teach the villagers to defend themselves. By the time Reeder returned to Kabul, an experimental self-defense force was already in action, but it had soon devolved into a front for bribery and extortion. Reeder believed he could do better. By the end of his tour in March 2010, seven new self-defense projects had been launched.

Reeder’s successor, Brigadier General Austin Scott Miller, pushed hard to expand the program. When David Petraeus assumed command of Coalition forces, he quickly embraced Miller’s proposals and secured the support of Hamid Karzai. In August 2011, a formal decree by Karzai gave official sanction to the force that became known as the Afghan Local Police (ALP).

Robinson’s book has eight chapters, each devoted to events in a single province or a pair of neighboring provinces in Afghanistan. Most chapters tell the story of a single SOF “A-team,” or twelve-man detachment. The depth and breadth of Robinson’s knowledge is extremely impressive. She interviewed more than 300 special-ops men and visited units in the field numerous times. Robinson capably distills her extensive research into a set of crisp narratives, which are compelling both because of the stories they tell and because of the military lessons they impart.

To Robinson’s credit, the book remains fully accessible to the general reader even though its detail and sophistication will earn it a place on experts’ bookshelves (or Kindles). Military life is awash in a sea of acronyms, many of them long and nearly indecipherable, such as CFSOCC-A (Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command — Afghanistan), which must not be confused with CJSOTF-A (Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force — Afghanistan). Robinson skillfully navigates this nomenclature, imparting its significance without letting it become a burden to the reader.

For readers with an interest in counterinsurgency (or COIN), One Hundred Victories provides valuable insights into the perennially controversial issue of what balance to strike between making friends and killing enemies. A mantra of General Petraeus and other COINdinistas is that you can’t kill your way out of an insurgency. Critics such as Bing West respond that this amounts to a delusional substitution of welfare for warfare. West’s criticism is excessive; anyone familiar with Petraeus’s campaigns knows that killing insurgents was an essential component. Even so, there is a real debate about how much is enough.

Although Robinson remains above the fray by focusing on the stories of individual A-teams, those stories illustrate the two sides of this running debate. A crucial lesson of One Hundred Victories is that killing enemies is an essential part of making friends.

Captain Michael “Hutch” Hutchinson, commander of detachment 3325, deployed with his team to Paktika province in January 2010. The team spent its first two months surveying the eastern reaches of the province, learning the culture and sitting through endless meetings with locals. Hutch’s team also met Aziz, an Afghan who had been fighting alongside the Americans since 2002 and now commanded an irregular unit of 35 men known as the Special Squad. Aziz quickly impressed Hutch with both his tactical proficiency and his strict discipline of subordinates. Aziz also wore a patch that said “Taliban Hunting Club.”

Hutch’s months of glad-handing and tea-drinking led him to the conclusion that strength and honor were what the tribes of Paktika valued most. To win their respect, his team would have to display its raw power, but also its fairness. Hutch chose to begin operations near a critical mountain pass held by the Taliban, which sat astride eastern Paktika’s main transportation route and population corridor. The insurgents’ local leader, Chamtu, was known to locals as a torturer, murderer, and rapist. In June, Hutch’s team was caught in an ambush and counterattacked ferociously. The team even fought hand-to-hand, wielding their rarely used knives. Hutch’s truck took out one insurgent by running him over. Among the dead was Chamtu, but this only signaled the beginning of the real showdown.

Hutch and Aziz then made an unorthodox decision: to surrender the element of surprise. The next day, with loudspeaker in hand, Aziz walked into the bazaar in the district center and issued a public challenge to the Taliban’s shadow governor for the district. Aziz offered to fight the Taliban anywhere, any time. Not surprisingly, the shadow governor chose to fight near a village known as a Taliban stronghold. Hutch also negotiated an extremely unorthodox deal, whereby he would not call in airstrikes if the Taliban agreed not to use the roadside bombs known as IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

Even without IEDs, the battle amounted to Hutch and Aziz leading their men into a well-laid ambush. Two special-ops men were wounded, and the team quickly ran through most of its ammunition. With no helicopter available to bring more, Hutch ordered the team to pull back before it was trapped. When they returned to the district center, Robinson writes, “Their trucks were limping, full of bullet holes, windows shot out.”

While the result initially looked like a defeat, Aziz publicly taunted the shadow governor, accusing him of hiding on the day of the fight. The next day, Hutch and Aziz took their men back to the site of the duel to see if the Taliban were willing to continue the battle. They were not. This psychological victory had an immediate impact. “Men lined up to join the local defense group and began helping to construct [a] fort.” Self-defense groups mushroomed across the district.

After a brief rotation stateside, Hutch’s team returned to continue its work. A string of fortified observation posts along the main thoroughfare, manned by local forces, had demonstrated its ability to deter Taliban attacks. Radio intercepts revealed that Taliban leaders were berating local commanders for refusing to fight even when they had numerical superiority. Although building self-defense forces tends to be a gradual process, Hutch and Aziz won over “twenty-five subtribes with a population of more than 100,000 in a 1,200-square-kilometer area.”

After killing enemies and making friends, Hutch and Aziz turned their attention to improving the district’s welfare, especially addressing the need for paved roads. The bazaar in the district center “grew from 5 shops to 1,500. The complaints that used to revolve around shootouts in the bazaar were suddenly about sewage and lack of parking.” The local highway came to feature motels, gas stations, and traffic jams.

The achievements of Hutch, Aziz, and their men point the way beyond fruitless debates about how much killing is too little or too much. The better question is how to ensure that combat engagements have the desired political and psychological effects.

If there Fmeanis one subject that deserves more attention in this meticulous book, it is the relationship between SOFs and the conventional Army and Marine Corps units that provided the overwhelming majority of land forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq. It is difficult to find any examples in the book of conventional forces doing something useful other than supporting SOF initiatives with supplies or air power. On the other hand, Robinson provides a surfeit of anecdotes that portray the leaders of (right?)conventional forces as narrow-minded and incompetent.

Even though special-ops forces are, by definition, quite special, a book whose subtitle promises to address “the future of American warfare” ought to give more consideration to the main body of American warriors. Alongside Hutch’s small team in Paktika, there was an entire battalion of infantry — about 1,000 soldiers — who belonged to the 101st Airborne Division. What was the battalion doing while Hutch focused on building local self-defense forces? Did it help? Did it hurt? Robinson praises one of the battalion’s commanders, who brought together conventional forces, SOF, and civilians for a weekly planning meeting. Yet the reader never finds out what was being planned.

Given the intensity of debate surrounding President Obama’s decision to surge conventional forces in Afghanistan, it is natural to wonder whether Robinson considers the surge to have been a waste of time and lives. She hints at the answer, writing that the U.S. military became preoccupied with hunting down insurgents and terrorists. As a result, “the essential fact of supporting the locals was forgotten [and] ideas of employing ever greater numbers of U.S. troops gained traction.”

Yet the Iraqi surge, on which its Afghan successor was modeled, placed considerable emphasis on supporting the self-defense movement known as the Awakening or, later, the Sons of Iraq. At the same time, the Iraqi surge employed conventional forces to secure key elements of the population and launch a devastating series of offensives against the insurgents. Meanwhile, Robinson notes, SOFs “had deservedly earned a bad rap early in both Iraq and Afghanistan as the guys who came in the night, caused civilian casualties, and messed up relations with the government and the locals.”

For maximum effectiveness, both military leaders and civilian policymakers should conceive of conventional forces and Special Operations Forces as complements, not rivals. Each one has much to learn from the other. Finally, as Robinson shows, more important even than deploying the right units is having the mindset and doctrine suited to the conflict at hand.

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