New weapons systems and improved intelligence may be giving Americans an edge in Afghanistan.

Military analysis.
Oct. 21 2010 5:32 PM

Are We Starting To Win?

New weapon systems—and, even more, improved intelligence—may be giving Americans an edge in Afghanistan.

Troops in Afghanistan. Click image to expand.
Troops 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.

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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.

According to a NATO officer, many of the Taliban's hideouts and strongholds are defended by a ring of improvised explosive devices. Therefore, the only way to take out some of these targets is with "smart bombs" dropped from the air or highly accurate artillery rockets fired from a distance. (Older-style artillery would be out of the question, as the first few rounds would unavoidably explode far from their targets and kill many civilians, since these targets tend to be in the middle of towns or cities.)

Only in the last few months have U.S. forces been able to gather and analyze the intelligence information that has made these attacks possible.

The attacks seem to be taking a toll. The Times story reports that the Taliban "talk with awe" of the rockets, because they're so accurate and seem to come from out of nowhere. Many fighters have abandoned their positions; some Taliban commanders, Gall reports, have disobeyed their leaders' orders to storm Kandahar and resist the NATO onslaught.

So are we turning the tide, gaining momentum, and—the ultimate goal of the military campaign—degrading the Taliban to the point at which their leaders are compelled to stop fighting and hold talks on reconciliation with Afghanistan's constitutional government?

In a tactical sense, maybe we are. President Barack Obama's strategy for Afghanistan has been in effect only since the summer. When he recently said that the strategy was on course and that he anticipates no major changes as a result of the official review this December, he may have had in mind this momentum of the last few months.

As Petraeus did in Iraq, more quickly and to a greater degree than even his supporters expected, he seems to be creating the conditions under which key factions might hammer out a political settlement.

But the big strategic question is whether these factions—including, not least, the government's leaders—have the desire, wherewithal, or ideological flexibility for a settlement. This remains highly uncertain in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan—and, in both countries, will depend on developments and decisions beyond the control of Obama, Petraeus, or any other outsider.

Correction, Oct. 23, 2010: The original article mistakenly reported that there were 64 blimps over Afghanistan now. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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