Are We Starting To Win?
New weapon systems—and, even more, improved intelligence—may be giving Americans an edge in Afghanistan.
U.S. and Afghan forces are "routing the Taliban in much of Kandahar Province," according to a front-page story by Carlotta Gall in today's New York Times—in large part the result, Gall reports, of "a new mobile rocket that has pinpoint accuracy."
The rocket has destroyed insurgents' hideouts, killed their commanders, and driven many survivors to throw down their arms, abandon their positions, or in some cases retreat to Pakistan.
But the accurate rockets are only a part of the story. More important are the huge advances in intelligence gathering—again, just in the last few months—that have let the U.S. artillery troops know precisely where the bad guys are and, therefore, where to aim their big guns.
The touted weapon is the Guided Multiple-Launch Rocket System, which has a range of 43 miles and is fitted with a GPS guidance system that steers its 200-pound high-explosive warhead to within 1 meter of its target. (Some have called the weapon a "70-kilometer sniper round.")
The GMLRS and the High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System—a 15-ton wheeled vehicle carrying a computerized fire-control system that launches the weapons—have both been around since 2005, though only last year were they deployed with U.S. Army artillery units in significant number.
But accuracy and range mean nothing by themselves. Last February, for instance, 12 Afghan civilians were killed when two GMLRS munitions hit the wrong house. The weapons hit the targets they were aimed at, but the intelligence was mistaken in reporting that insurgents were inside.
It's the intelligence that's changed in recent months—and it has changed dramatically.
Along with the surge of troops and the shift toward much more aggressive attacks on insurgency strongholds (as reported here last week), Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has intensified intelligence-gathering operations to a still greater (though less-reported) extent.
The air over Afghanistan's heavy fighting spots is jammed with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance devices—drones, towers, even blimps filled with various sensors. (One senior officer told me that the number of these blimps has soared from eight to 30 just in the last couple of months and will reach 64 by early spring.) *
All this information is collected and interpreted by a growing number of imaging and intelligence analysts. Still more important, it's coordinated with information gathered on the ground by special-operations officers and—increasingly—by Afghan security forces, who are better able to gain the trust of local Afghans who dislike the Taliban.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of troops in Afghanistan by Scott Olson/Getty Images.