U.S. Is Escalating a Secretive War in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — As an
October chill fell on the
mountain passes that
separate the militant havens
in Afghanistan and Pakistan,
a small team of Afghan
intelligence commandos and
American Special Operations
forces descended on a village
where they believed a leader
of Al Qaeda was hiding.
That night the Afghans and
Americans got their man,
Abu Bara al-Kuwaiti. They
also came away with what
officials from both countries
say was an even bigger prize:
a laptop computer and files
detailing Qaeda operations
on both sides of the border.
American military officials
said the intelligence seized in
the raid was possibly as
significant as the information
found in the computer and
documents of Osama bin
Laden in Abbottabad,
Pakistan, after members of
the Navy SEALs killed him in
2011.
In the months since, the trove
of intelligence has helped
fuel a significant increase in
night raids by American
Special Operations forces and
Afghan intelligence
commandos, Afghan and
American officials said.
The spike in raids is at odds
with policy declarations in
Washington, where the
Obama administration has
deemed the American role in
the war essentially over. But
the increase reflects the
reality in Afghanistan, where
fierce fighting in the past
year killed record numbers
of Afghan soldiers, police
officers and civilians.
American and Afghan
officials, who spoke on the
condition of anonymity
because they were discussing
operations that are largely
classified, said that American
forces were playing direct
combat roles in many of the
raids and were not simply
going along as advisers.
“We’ve been clear that
counterterrorism operations
remain a part of our mission
in Afghanistan,” Rear Adm.
John Kirby, the Pentagon
press secretary, said on
Thursday. “We’ve also been
clear that we will conduct
these operations in
partnership with the Afghans
to eliminate threats to our
forces, our partners and our
interests.”
The raids appear to have
targeted a broad cross
section of Islamist militants.
They have hit both Qaeda
and Taliban operatives, going
beyond the narrow
counterterrorism mission
that Obama administration
officials had said would
continue after the formal end
of American-led combat
operations last December.
The tempo of operations is
“unprecedented for this time
of year” — that is, the
traditional winter lull in
fighting, an American
military official said. No
official would provide exact
figures, because the data is
classified. The Afghan and
American governments have
also sought to keep quiet the
surge in night raids to avoid
political fallout in both
countries.
“It’s all in the shadows now,”
said a former Afghan security
official who informally
advises his former
colleagues. “The official war
for the Americans — the part
of the war that you could go
see — that’s over. It’s only the
secret war that’s still going.
But it’s going hard.”
American and Afghan
officials said the intelligence
gleaned from the October
mission was not the sole
factor behind the uptick in
raids. Around the same time
that Afghan and American
intelligence analysts were
poring over the seized laptop
and files, Afghanistan’s newly
elected president, Ashraf
Ghani, signed a security
agreement with the United
States and eased restrictions
on night raids by American
and Afghan forces that had
been put in place by his
predecessor, Hamid Karzai.
Mr. Karzai had also sought to
limit the use of American air
power, even to support
Afghan forces.
Mr. Karzai’s open antipathy
to the United States helped
push the Obama
administration toward
ordering a more rapid
drawdown than American
military commanders had
wanted. And while the
timetable for the withdrawal
of most American troops by
the end of 2016 remains in
place, the improving
relations under Mr. Ghani
pushed the Obama
administration to grant
American commanders
greater latitude in military
operations, American and
Afghan officials said.
American commanders
welcomed the new freedom.
Afghan forces were
overwhelmed fighting the
Taliban in some parts of the
country during last year’s
fighting season, which
typically runs from the
spring into the autumn. Many
Western officials fear that
this year’s fighting season
could be even worse for the
Afghans without the air
power and logistical support
from the American-led
coalition, and without joint
Afghan-American night raids
to keep up pressure on
insurgent commanders.
Gen. John F. Campbell, the
American commander of
coalition forces, appears to
have interpreted his
mandate to directly target
Afghan insurgents who pose
an immediate threat to
coalition troops or are
plotting attacks against them.
He is not targeting Afghans
simply for being part of the
insurgency. But one criterion
used to determine whether
an individual is a danger to
the force, an American
military official said, is
whether the person has in
the past been associated with
attacks or attempted attacks
on American forces — a large
group, given that the United
States was at war with the
Taliban for more than a
decade.
Since the start of the year,
the rationale of protecting
American forces has been
readily used by the coalition
to justify operations,
including in two instances in
the past week.
On Saturday, coalition
officials announced that a
“precision strike resulted in
the death of two individuals
threatening the force” in the
Achin district of eastern
Afghanistan.
Two days later, the coalition
carried out what it described
as another precision strike
that killed “eight individuals
threatening the force” in
Helmand Province, in
southern Afghanistan.
Although the coalition would
not say who exactly was
killed, Afghan and American
officials and tribal elders in
Helmand said that the dead
included Mullah Abdul Rauf
Khadim, a former Taliban
commander and Guantánamo
Bay detainee who recently
pledged allegiance to the
Islamic State, the terrorist
group also known as ISIS or
ISIL.
In interviews conducted
before Mullah Rauf’s death,
Afghan and American
officials said they had
targeted him and his fighters
in multiple night raids since
November.
American officials said that
Mullah Rauf’s Islamic State
affiliation, which they
described as little more than
symbolic, was ancillary.
Rather, they said in recent
days, he was being targeted
because of intelligence
gleaned from the laptop
seized in the raid in October.
The officials would not
discuss the precise nature of
the intelligence that led them
to target Mullah Rauf, or
whether there had been a list
in the laptop that helped
them with targeting specific
individuals. They said that
revealing the nature of the
intelligence could
compromise future
operations.
Afghan and American
officials said the raids over
the past few months had
been carried out by the elite
commandos of the National
Directorate of Security,
Afghanistan’s main spy
agency, and members of a
mix of American military
Special Operations units,
such as Navy SEALs and
Army Rangers, and
paramilitary officers from
the C.I.A.
The National Directorate of
Security said it had killed Mr.
Kuwaiti, the man in the
mountain village in October,
and claimed credit for seizing
the laptop. The C.I.A., which
trains and bankrolls the
Afghan spy agency, declined
to comment.
Mr. Kuwaiti himself may
have unintentionally
provided some clues about
the nature of the intelligence
in a eulogy he wrote three
years ago for another senior
Qaeda operative, who was
killed in an American drone
strike in Pakistan.
Writing in Vanguards of
Khorasan, a Qaeda magazine,
Mr. Kuwaiti said he had been
a “student” and “comrade” of
Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, who,
before his death, was
described as Al Qaeda’s
general manager, according
to The Long War Journal, a
website that tracks militants.
In the eulogy, Mr. Kuwaiti
repeatedly noted that he had
access to Mr. Rahman’s
documents, and that he had
been informed of the details
of numerous operations,
including a suicide attack in
eastern Afghanistan in 2009
that killed seven C.I.A.
officers.
A former American military
official said that Mr. Kuwaiti
was believed to have taken
on some of Mr. Rahman’s
duties within Al Qaeda; that
he was close with Ayman al-
Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s leader;
and that “he would have had
a lot of the nuts and bolts
about what they were up to
in that computer.”