Saturday, March 20, 2004

The Hunt for Ayman al-Zawahri

Recent news coverage of operations on the Pakistani-Afghan border has been principally focused on the multi-battalion Pakistani Army assault on the "mud forts" in Waziristan, with CNN supplying a photograph of a not terribly impressive set of huts set on a flat field with no discernable defensive advantages. In those huts, or near enough, is said to be Ayman al-Zawahiri, if CNN's photograph is reliable. Dan Darling has been following the progress of the engagement at Regnum Crucis. He points out that there are large numbers of civilians admixed with the combatants and that some of them are being held hostage by the Jihadis.

This operation is actually the southeastern half of Operation Mountain Storm with American troops officially on the Afghan side acting as the anvil to Pakistan's hammer along the border. However, that bland fact conceals that Mountain Storm is a tactically unconventional but ambitious operation probably aimed at rooting out the infrastructure of the Jihadis along both sides of the frontier.

Coalition ground forces are not massed together by the thousands, according to the methods of conventional warfare. Instead, Operation Mountain Storm is a series of simultaneous "search and destroy" missions spread across the Afghan interior and along 3,300 kilometers of border with Pakistan.

These rapid-tempo operations are conducted by small groups of specialized commando teams. Some raiding parties coordinate the efforts of U.S. Special Forces, light mountain infantry, and soldiers from the fledgling Afghan National Army. Others include U.S. Marines, Navy SEAL (Sea, Air, or Land) commandos, or CIA paramilitary officers. What Hilferty calls a "small-scale air assault" is also referred to by military planners as a "heliborne insertion." Twin-rotor Chinook transport helicopters land commando teams deep in the rugged mountains where Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters are thought to be hiding. Close air support aircraft -- fighter jets, AC-130 Spectre gunships, and A-10 Warthog attack planes -- are on standby to attack any opposition the commandos encounter. Sometimes the commando teams use ground vehicles to deploy from the U.S. bases that have been established across the south, southeast, and east of Afghanistan.

These nonlinear tactics probably rely on an unprecedented amount of  mobility and near-real time intelligence. These coordinate even the more cumbersome operations on the Pakistani side.

Pakistani forces were joined Friday by "a dozen or so" American intelligence agents in the ongoing operation, Sultan said. The sky was filled with U.S. satellites, Predator drones and other surveillance equipment.

If descriptions of the current engagements are broadly true, the following can be reasonably surmised:

  1. The extensive nature of the Jihadi foritifications and the large amounts of ammunition available to them represent an major military investment. They must have operated on the assumption that Americans would never come for them on the Pakistani side of the border and that the Pakistanis would neither make a serious attempt or move swiftly enough to make escape impossible.
  2. From press accounts, a high value target was almost surprised by the Pakistani vanguard, making only a narrow escape in an armored SUV. The Pakistanis themselves where wholly unprepared for the ferocity of the resistance they encountered. This suggests that the Pakistani forces were pretty much trucked straight into the battle, denying the Al Qaeda any significant advance warning of the onslaught. Against all expectations, the Pakistanis appear to have achieved tactical surprise.
  3. Although media attention has focused on the holdouts in the "mud forts" which apparently contain as many hostages as Jihadis, little has been reported about the Western component of Mountain Storm. The Australian Broadcast Corporation reported the deployment of 100 SAS soldiers into battle. This represents a major part of British SAS strength and can only mean that the Western side of the operation is in a state of extraordinary activity requiring out-of-theater reinforcements. It is entirely probable that the main action is "offstage".
  4. Offstage in this instance, is out of sight. The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is mostly unmarked and follows the high ridge line of the mountain range which demarcates the two countries. For all practical purposes Allied forces could be miles inside the Pakistani border without anyone the wiser.

Even if Zawahri is not captured, the historical military invulnerability of tribal regions on Pakistan's Northwest frontier may have ended forever. Operation Mountain Storm's lethal marriage of mobility, persistent overhead surveillance and networked weapons means that small teams of men can operate effectively over wide areas -- essentially turning the tables on tribal fighters. Never again can terrorist chieftains like Osama Bin Laden invest large sums of money in caves and mountain fortresses on the assumption of their inviolability. The mud forts and honeycomb of caves, their ammunition magazines and hundreds of fighters -- representing an expenditure of terrorist millions -- is going up in smoke.

The real significance of ongoing operations in South Waziristan may be as a template for similar operations in the near future. The same principles used in Mountain Storm can be applied in the open spaces of the Sahara, the Syrian desert or the Zagros mountains deep in Iran. It isn't just the Al Qaeda that evolve. So do their foes.


Go to Winds of Change for more information. Check out this satellite map of the Pakistani operation against the "mud forts". When looking at the satellite imagery, note that:

The red dashed line running along the ridge to the west (left) of Oba Sar is the Afghan border, I think, a distance of about 3,000 meters linear. The map appears to be oriented north to south. That means allied forces are practically looking down on the Oba Sar. No way out north, however, there might be a breakout or escape route south along the valley at the foot of the hills. Twenty clicks will take them to a road network and eventually to Khan Khot in the direction of Baluchistan. -- Wretchard

The Sunday Times UK (registration required) says al-Zawahiri may already be dead.

A senior American official involved in the hunt for Bin Laden said that al-Zawahiri may already be dead. According to his version of events, the Egyptian was in the escaping car and was shot by Taskforce 121, the shadowy rapid reaction force comprising special forces and CIA agents that had helped to capture Saddam Hussein last December.

The body, he said, had been retrieved from the wreckage and was undergoing DNA tests to confirm whether it was that of al-Zawahiri. In deference to the US forces’ hosts, any announcement was being delayed to make it look as if it were a Pakistani-run operation, as well as to have time to use any information garnered to capture other fighters.

Members of Taskforce 121 — whose existence is so secret that their area Camp Vance in the main US base of Bagram is a no-go area to all other US military — were moved to the firebase of Shkin last week, on the Afghan border with Pakistan just a few miles from Wana. Their numbers were boosted by bringing some members back from Iraq.