...Then send in Task Force 145. As Bill Roggio reported yesterday, the joint special operations unit staged a raid into Pakistan's tribal lands earlier this week and captured a big fish, identified as Mullah Hakimallah Mansub, the Taliban's deputy commander in Waziristan. His capture came less than two weeks after Pakistani forces nabbed the former Taliban defense minister, Mullah Obaidullah Akhund. However, that news was tempered by a subsequent announcement that Islamabad would continue the "peace process" in the tribal lands, indicating that there are limits on how Pakistan will pursue terrorists within its borders.
The common thread in both of these operations is better intelligence. We don't send a gaggle of special forces operators into Pak territory, supported by Air Force Pave Low helicopters, AC-130 gunships, Apache attack choppers and other elements, unless there's a high probability of success, and acceptable risks for the strike force. The capture of several high-ranking Taliban officials (in a relatively short period) indicates that we're getting better information on the whereabouts of key terrorist leaders, allowing Task Force 145 (and other SOF units) to mount effective operations.
While taking nothing away from the accomplishments of our SOF operators, our recent success in Waziristan may also reflect a degree of complacency on the part of Al Qaida and its Taliban allies. With the signing of the initial Waziristan accords last fall, the terrorists believed they had attained a degree of safety and sanctuary that had been lacking since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Recent U.S. intelligence estimates--and credible media reports--suggested that the terrorists had rebuilt their support infrastructure in the tribal lands, and that senior Al Qaida leaders (including Osama bin Laden) were again taking an active role in the network's operations. Those steps would not occur unless the terrorists believed they could operate with relative impunity in Waziristan.
But Al Qaida's efforts to regroup also present a (slightly) easier target set for our SOF teams and the spooks that support them. Assembling--and training--more fighters requires larger, more formal facilities, along the lines of Danda Saidgai, the major Al Qaida and Taliban camp in North Waziristan, struck by Task Force 145 last March. The raid reportedly inflicted numerous casualties among members of bin Laden's personal protection detail (the "Black Guards"), and SOF operators also killed the camp commander, a senior Chechen Al Qaida leader. The Danda Saidgai camp was described as a "sprawling" complex, with eight large barracks for housing terrorist fighters and recruits. It's still unclear if this week's raid targeted a similar-sized complex, but whenever the terrorists mass in Waziristan, the job of identifying and targeting them grows less complex.
What happens in the coming weeks will give us some idea of Al Qaida's relative "comfort level" in Waziristan. If the terrorists are truly concerned with the threat posed by TF 145 (and they should be), Al Qaida's leaders could choose to again disperse their operations, utilizing smaller training camps and support facilities. Decentralized operations would be more difficult to detect, but it would also slow terrorist efforts to train more fighters for upcoming operations--and respond to increased NATO pressure in southern Afghanistan. On the other hand, if the terrorists view these cross-border raids as only an occasional nuisance, they may continue to mass, and sustain a more overt infrastructure.
Regardless of the path chosen by Al Qaida (and the Taliban), the continued flow of timely, actionable intelligence will be essential for keeping pressure on the terrorists, and impeding their ability to operate.