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 U.S. special operations forces descended on a village where they believed a leader of al-Qaida 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 al-Qaida operations on both sides of the border.
U.S. 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 U.S. special operations forces and Afghan intelligence commandos, Afghan and U.S. officials said.
The spike in raids is at odds with policy declarations in Washington, where the Obama administration has deemed the U.S. 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.
U.S. and Afghan officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing operations that are largely classified, said U.S. 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 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 al-Qaida and Taliban operatives, going beyond the narrow counterterrorism mission that Obama administration officials had said would continue after the formal end of U.S.-led combat operations last December.
The tempo of operations is “unprecedented for this time of year” — that is, the traditional winter lull in fighting, a U.S. military official said. No official would provide exact figures because the data is classified. The Afghan and U.S. 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.”
U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. and Afghan forces that had been put in place by his predecessor, Hamid Karzai. Karzai had also sought to limit the use of U.S. air power, even to support Afghan forces.
Karzai’s open antipathy to the United States helped push the Obama administration toward ordering a more rapid drawdown than U.S. military commanders had wanted. And while the timetable for the withdrawal of most U.S. troops by the end of 2016 remains in place, the improving relations under Ghani pushed the Obama administration to grant U.S. commanders greater latitude in military operations, U.S. and Afghan officials said.
U.S. 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 U.S.-led coalition, and without joint Afghan-American night raids to keep up pressure on insurgent commanders.
Gen. John F. Campbell, the U.S. 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, a U.S. military official said, is whether the person has in the past been associated with attacks or attempted attacks on U.S. 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 U.S. forces has been readily used by the coalition to justify operations, including in two instances in the past week. The coalition is largely made up of U.S. forces.
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 U.S. 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 terrorist group the Islamic State.
In interviews conducted before Rauf’s death, Afghan and U.S. officials said they had targeted him and his fighters in multiple night raids since November.
U.S. officials said 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 Rauf, or whether there had been a list of names of insurgents 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 U.S. officials said the raids during 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 U.S. military special operations units, such as Navy SEALs and Army Rangers, and paramilitary officers from the CIA.
The National Directorate of Security claimed credit for killing al-Kuwaiti, the man in the mountain village in October, and for seizing the laptop. The operation occurred in the Nazyan district of eastern Afghanistan, which borders the Khyber tribal agency in Pakistan, an area thick with militants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East and other parts of the world.
The NDS offered few other details about the operation, and it declined to comment on the raids that have occurred since. The CIA, which trains, supplies and bankrolls the Afghan spy agency, also declined to comment.
Al-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 al-Qaida operative, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan.
Writing in Vanguards of Khorasan, an al-Qaida magazine, al-Kuwaiti said he had been a “student” and “comrade” of Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, who, before his death, was described as al-Qaida’s general manager, according to The Long War Journal, a website that tracks militants.
In the eulogy, al-Kuwaiti repeatedly noted that he had access to al-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 CIA officers.
A former U.S. military official said that al-Kuwaiti was believed to have taken on some of al-Rahman’s duties within al-Qaida; that he was close with Ayman al-Zawahri, al-Qaida’s leader; and that “he would have had a lot of the nuts and bolts about what they were up to in that computer.”