Sunday, August 7, 2011

The tip of the iceberg: what yesterday's shooting down of an American helicopter reveals about executive power and militarism

Yesterday, 31 US marines were killed in Afghanistan. That is a tragedy of war. But read carefully, the story reveals the secret Presidential imperialism of this and many other operations.

There were only 7 Afghans who accompanied these raiders and died. 13 of the Marines were in the same unit as those - I had thought these were "Navy Seals" - who took out Bin Laden. What links them? The radio broadcasts yesterday indicated over and over - from the same unit, but not any of the 70 who actually carried out this operation. See here, here, here and here. These Marines were probably under the control of the Special Operations Command (SOCOM), a previously hidden, largely secret and increasingly prominent part of the war complex, described by Nick Turse below.

Afghan President Karzai has objected to these night raids because they routinely kill civilians, notably children. Last week, there were pictures in American papers of Afghan families mourning two such children. This spring, an American helicopter (not a special forces operation) murdered 9 little boys gathering wood on a hillside for their mothers. This all zooms in and out - mainly out - of American consciousness, even though 66% of the population, according to recent opinion polls, wisely wants the troops out. What Karzai is rightly pointing to is the horror of most of the American operations - throw in drones which kill mostly civilians halfway around the world from where they are fired - from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada - and you get the picture...All of this sophisticated American butchery - differing from and probably more than large-scale invasions - creates large numbers of people, not directly party to the fight, who have the most profound reasons to detest the United States and those who run it. Consider the big crowds in Pakistan in May, where drones have murdered some 30,000 civilians according to the Pakistan government (h/t Rifaat Hussain), who chant "Death to Obama!" If this is "defeating Al-Qaida" as Leon Panetta and others brag, what would be motivating more people to act against the United States?

But yesterday's report itself indicates that in this tenth year of occupation, the seven Afghan soldiers are afterthoughts (less than a quarter of the "mission"). Beyond this, the Americans are not mainly soldiers fighting in Afghanistan; they are better than half elite special operations troops. Night provides the cover; these forces strike, all over the world, in the dark. It was a good thing when they hit Bin Laden. But it is not so good that they are routinely ordered to go after others, often misidentified by US intelligence. The careful operation against Bin Laden reflects Obama, but is out of character for much of what the declared and undeclared US wars of aggression all over the world, particularly in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, ordinarily practice.

Nick Turse has been long working on supplementing the account of American militarism in Chalmers Johnson. He has discovered now some 1280 American bases all over the world compared to Johnson's estimate, in Sorrows of Empire, ch. 6 of perhaps 750-800. Other powers, for instance, France in former French colonial Africa have 5 (Russia has one, near the US base in Kyrgyzstan). American militarism, as the sign of American imperium, dwarfs the activities not only of any other power, but of all military rivals combined. Yet the gravity of militarism is mainly beneath the radar, as Chalmers Johnson's and the CIA's concept of blowback indicates, of bipartisan Congressional investigation and corporate media discussion.

But the war apparatus has two powerful, further features which are at the control of the executive and beyond the reach, so far, of democratic discussion or evaluation. The first is the privatization of the military. As Deborah Avant taught many of us at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, Bush escalated in early 2004 in Iraq, sending 80,000 Xe Corporation (formerly Blackwater) mercenaries there to fight without any public discussion. That made the ratio of mercenaries to soldiers 1 to 1 (the mercenaries are often paid as much as 10 times what the soldiers are, contributing to the much larger military budget than at the height of the Cold War - somewhere between formally 2 1/2 times and, in real terms, 4 times as large). In Obama's escalation in Afghanistan, he sent 7 secret mercenaries for every three soldiers - a news media-reported "surge" of 30,000 troops but actually a further invasion of 100,000.

Currently, Obama is drawing down the number of soldiers in Iraq - 55,000 according to the press, but there is no whisper of the 72,000 mercenaries who continue there as well (the actual number of current forces is 127,000). As Avant has rightly argued, these practices are remarkably anti-democratic and unconstitutional. There was no Congressional discussion or approval of these features of the escalations under either Bush or Obama.

But the second feature, which Turse emphasizes below, is that the CIA has been displaced for covert operations, by a military command: the Special Operations Command (SOCOM). This force is, by itself, larger than the army of Canada, and growing rapidly. One of its components is the Joint Special Operations Command (joint - hence Navy seals and marines together in yesterday's mission and in offing Bin Laden): "One of its key components is the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, a clandestine sub-command whose primary mission is tracking and killing suspected terrorists. Reporting to the president and acting under his authority, JSOC maintains a global hit list that includes American citizens [going beyond Bush, the President has claimed the authority to murder American citizens without trial - Awlaki in Yemen - and these are the forces who will carry that out]. It has been operating an extra-legal 'kill/capture' campaign that John Nagl, a past counterinsurgency adviser to four-star general and soon-to-be CIA Director David Petraeus, calls 'an almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine.'" Perhaps it is worth underlining Nagl's phrase, "an almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine." And lots of civilians - that is, innocents - get ground up in the works. JSOC mounts perhaps 70 missions every night. One of those was the helicopter shot down in Afghanistan.

Obama won the campaign against Hilary as the anti-"dumb Iraq War" candidate. He has chosen - it is possibly the most reprehensible feature of his Presidency - to proceed against the Taliban in Pakistan, a country on which the US has declared no war and whose leaders scream for the cessation of wanton killing with drones, with drones. Between the drones and these special operations - visible justly in offing the mass murderer Bin Laden but not otherwise - the US wages shadow wars in the dark, against barely visible enemies. It often kills civilians - dismissed as "collateral damage" by military and neo-con thugs. Consider this kind of war and the Company in "Avatar" - see here - and one will have the character of today's American militarism and political elite pretty exactly...

Obama, the first black President, whose election, as Andrew Sullivan has emphasized, was celebrated around the world, is today less popular in the Middle East than Bush (Bush was approved of by 4% of people in Egypt and the like, according to the most recent Pew Research polls, so it is hard for Barack to get underneath W...). This result is partly driven by American arming of the Israeli government's occupation of the territories, its support of Netanyahu's (and the elite's) duplicitousness and murderousness toward the Palestinians. But between drones and special forces, the President - and any future President - can wage war off the books, as a completely un- and anti-democratic process.

The vast number of special forces - bigger than other armies - is a new (since the late 1990s), secret, "off the shelf" (William Casey) aspect of what I have named the war complex. The war complex is a military-industrial-Congressional-think tank (and sometimes academic)-corporate media complex, joined with forces in other countries. For instance, to illustrate this international aspect, it pours money and weapons into the Egyptian elite and, hence, is vital to limiting democracy there. This secret or shadow war complex - beyond the reach of American public discussion - and its nightly operations is what Panetta and others refer to as "scaling down wars." The dangers of the "sorcerer's apprentice phenomenon" here - of behemoth militarism going out of control even by the President - are both plain and if one follows out the thought, frightening.

The elite also tries to influence nonviolent movements abroad, for instance, in the much trumpeted by the New York Times, imaginary role of Gene Sharp in Egyptian spring in Tahrir Square (mostly, the influence is both harmful to the movement's democracy and also counterproductive in terms of elite interests; amusingly, however, Egypt was not one of the American government's targets, and so the circulation of his pamphlet, "From Dictatorship to Democracy" there, perhaps vindicates him in a way that the normal American use of his work, say in the color revolutions in Eastern Europe, does not). But as with most of American foreign policy, instruments like the drones quickly take over for the intelligence of the leaders who become subservient, no matter how foolish and expensive, to them; the offing of Bin Laden was a rare, perhaps unique exception.

Turse's account below gives a good introduction to how extensive the special forces army is - how it is something quite different from the CIA of old. That so large an organization, several months after the offing of Bin Laden, needs an introduction shows how metastasizing militarism is.

But there is now a breach within the formerly solid Republican front, urged on by Bill Kristol, about militarism. Ron Paul as I have noted, though weird to the point of illness about the domestic economy (he and his son strive to make the unreconstructed Scrooge look humane... ), is right about American militarism. And some cutbacks of the one trillion or more spent on the military every year would be a good way to pump some money into the American economy (supposing the elite wishes to act intelligently about the new recession on top of the great recession - that is, the second great depression - which is upon America and Europe even as politicians go on, ridiculously, about austerity and the "debt ceiling"). As Pentagon Secretary Panetta indicated two days ago with Obama's approval, the administration will work to preserve major features of militarism, especially drones and SOCOM. So now is a time that a democratic movement for the physical and moral security of the world and ourselves could perhaps put some major pressure on the elite to draw down militarism. We might follow the example of the protestors about the torture of Bradley Manning in which after a broad campaign started by Glenn Greenwald and others, some people confronted Obama at a fundraiser in San Francisco. Obama then transferred Manning to Leavenworth where his treatment has been somewhat more civilized. Since must of American militarism is counterproductive and murderous as well as endlessly expensive, one might even suppose that such pressure could accomplish a good deal, perhaps with mass civil disobedience, far short of revolution.

A Secret War in 120 Countries
The Pentagon’s New Power Elite
By Nick Turse

Somewhere on this planet an American commando is carrying out a mission. Now, say that 70 times and you’re done... for the day. Without the knowledge of the American public, a secret force within the U.S. military is undertaking operations in a majority of the world’s countries. This new Pentagon power elite is waging a global war whose size and scope has never been revealed, until now.

After a U.S. Navy SEAL put a bullet in Osama bin Laden’s chest and another in his head, one of the most secretive black-ops units in the American military suddenly found its mission in the public spotlight. It was atypical. While it’s well known that U.S. Special Operations forces are deployed in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, and it’s increasingly apparent that such units operate in murkier conflict zones like Yemen and Somalia, the full extent of their worldwide war has remained deeply in the shadows.

Last year, Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post reported that U.S. Special Operations forces were deployed in 75 countries, up from 60 at the end of the Bush presidency. By the end of this year, U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told me, that number will likely reach 120. “We do a lot of traveling -- a lot more than Afghanistan or Iraq,” he said recently. This global presence -- in about 60% of the world’s nations and far larger than previously acknowledged -- provides striking new evidence of a rising clandestine Pentagon power elite waging a secret war in all corners of the world.

The Rise of the Military’s Secret Military

Born of a failed 1980 raid to rescue American hostages in Iran, in which eight U.S. service members died, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) was established in 1987. Having spent the post-Vietnam years distrusted and starved for money by the regular military, special operations forces suddenly had a single home, a stable budget, and a four-star commander as their advocate. Since then, SOCOM has grown into a combined force of startling proportions. Made up of units from all the service branches, including the Army’s “Green Berets” and Rangers, Navy SEALs, Air Force Air Commandos, and Marine Corps Special Operations teams, in addition to specialized helicopter crews, boat teams, civil affairs personnel, para-rescuemen, and even battlefield air-traffic controllers and special operations weathermen, SOCOM carries out the United States’ most specialized and secret missions. These include assassinations, counterterrorist raids, long-range reconnaissance, intelligence analysis, foreign troop training, and weapons of mass destruction counter-proliferation operations.

One of its key components is the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, a clandestine sub-command whose primary mission is tracking and killing suspected terrorists. Reporting to the president and acting under his authority, JSOC maintains a global hit list that includes American citizens. It has been operating an extra-legal “kill/capture” campaign that John Nagl, a past counterinsurgency adviser to four-star general and soon-to-be CIA Director David Petraeus, calls "an almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine."

This assassination program has been carried out by commando units like the Navy SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force as well as via drone strikes as part of covert wars in which the CIA is also involved in countries like Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen. In addition, the command operates a network of secret prisons, perhaps as many as 20 black sites in Afghanistan alone, used for interrogating high-value targets.

Growth Industry

From a force of about 37,000 in the early 1990s, Special Operations Command personnel have grown to almost 60,000, about a third of whom are career members of SOCOM; the rest have other military occupational specialties, but periodically cycle through the command. Growth has been exponential since September 11, 2001, as SOCOM’s baseline budget almost tripled from $2.3 billion to $6.3 billion. If you add in funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has actually more than quadrupled to $9.8 billion in these years. Not surprisingly, the number of its personnel deployed abroad has also jumped four-fold. Further increases, and expanded operations, are on the horizon.

Lieutenant General Dennis Hejlik, the former head of the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command -- the last of the service branches to be incorporated into SOCOM in 2006 -- indicated, for instance, that he foresees a doubling of his former unit of 2,600. “I see them as a force someday of about 5,000, like equivalent to the number of SEALs that we have on the battlefield. Between [5,000] and 6,000,” he said at a June breakfast with defense reporters in Washington. Long-term plans already call for the force to increase by 1,000.

During his recent Senate confirmation hearings, Navy Vice Admiral William McRaven, the incoming SOCOM chief and outgoing head of JSOC (which he commanded during the bin Laden raid) endorsed a steady manpower growth rate of 3% to 5% a year, while also making a pitch for even more resources, including additional drones and the construction of new special operations facilities.

A former SEAL who still sometimes accompanies troops into the field, McRaven expressed a belief that, as conventional forces are drawn down in Afghanistan, special ops troops will take on an ever greater role. Iraq, he added, would benefit if elite U.S forces continued to conduct missions there past the December 2011 deadline for a total American troop withdrawal. He also assured the Senate Armed Services Committee that “as a former JSOC commander, I can tell you we were looking very hard at Yemen and at Somalia.”

During a speech at the National Defense Industrial Association's annual Special Operations and Low-intensity Conflict Symposium earlier this year, Navy Admiral Eric Olson, the outgoing chief of Special Operations Command, pointed to a composite satellite image of the world at night. Before September 11, 2001, the lit portions of the planet -- mostly the industrialized nations of the global north -- were considered the key areas. "But the world changed over the last decade," he said. "Our strategic focus has shifted largely to the south... certainly within the special operations community, as we deal with the emerging threats from the places where the lights aren't."

To that end, Olson launched "Project Lawrence," an effort to increase cultural proficiencies -- like advanced language training and better knowledge of local history and customs -- for overseas operations. The program is, of course, named after the British officer, Thomas Edward Lawrence (better known as "Lawrence of Arabia"), who teamed up with Arab fighters to wage a guerrilla war in the Middle East during World War I. Mentioning Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mali, and Indonesia, Olson added that SOCOM now needed "Lawrences of Wherever."

While Olson made reference to only 51 countries of top concern to SOCOM, Col. Nye told me that on any given day, Special Operations forces are deployed in approximately 70 nations around the world. All of them, he hastened to add, at the request of the host government. According to testimony by Olson before the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year, approximately 85% of special operations troops deployed overseas are in 20 countries in the CENTCOM area of operations in the Greater Middle East: Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, and Yemen. The others are scattered across the globe from South America to Southeast Asia, some in small numbers, others as larger contingents.

Special Operations Command won’t disclose exactly which countries its forces operate in. “We’re obviously going to have some places where it’s not advantageous for us to list where we’re at,” says Nye. “Not all host nations want it known, for whatever reasons they have -- it may be internal, it may be regional.”

But it’s no secret (or at least a poorly kept one) that so-called black special operations troops, like the SEALs and Delta Force, are conducting kill/capture missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen, while “white” forces like the Green Berets and Rangers are training indigenous partners as part of a worldwide secret war against al-Qaeda and other militant groups. In the Philippines, for instance, the U.S. spends $50 million a year on a 600-person contingent of Army Special Operations forces, Navy Seals, Air Force special operators, and others that carries out counterterrorist operations with Filipino allies against insurgent groups like Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf.

Last year, as an analysis of SOCOM documents, open-source Pentagon information, and a database of Special Operations missions compiled by investigative journalist Tara McKelvey (for the Medill School of Journalism’s National Security Journalism Initiative) reveals, America’s most elite troops carried out joint-training exercises in Belize, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Germany, Indonesia, Mali, Norway, Panama, and Poland. So far in 2011, similar training missions have been conducted in the Dominican Republic, Jordan, Romania, Senegal, South Korea, and Thailand, among other nations. In reality, Nye told me, training actually went on in almost every nation where Special Operations forces are deployed. “Of the 120 countries we visit by the end of the year, I would say the vast majority are training exercises in one fashion or another. They would be classified as training exercises.”

The Pentagon’s Power Elite

Once the neglected stepchildren of the military establishment, Special Operations forces have been growing exponentially not just in size and budget, but also in power and influence. Since 2002, SOCOM has been authorized to create its own Joint Task Forces -- like Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines -- a prerogative normally limited to larger combatant commands like CENTCOM. This year, without much fanfare, SOCOM also established its own Joint Acquisition Task Force, a cadre of equipment designers and acquisition specialists.

With control over budgeting, training, and equipping its force, powers usually reserved for departments (like the Department of the Army or the Department of the Navy), dedicated dollars in every Defense Department budget, and influential advocates in Congress, SOCOM is by now an exceptionally powerful player at the Pentagon. With real clout, it can win bureaucratic battles, purchase cutting-edge technology, and pursue fringe research like electronically beaming messages into people’s heads or developing stealth-like cloaking technologies for ground troops. Since 2001, SOCOM’s prime contracts awarded to small businesses -- those that generally produce specialty equipment and weapons -- have jumped six-fold.

Headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, but operating out of theater commands spread out around the globe, including Hawaii, Germany, and South Korea, and active in the majority of countries on the planet, Special Operations Command is now a force unto itself. As outgoing SOCOM chief Olson put it earlier this year, SOCOM “is a microcosm of the Department of Defense, with ground, air, and maritime components, a global presence, and authorities and responsibilities that mirror the Military Departments, Military Services, and Defense Agencies.”

Tasked to coordinate all Pentagon planning against global terrorism networks and, as a result, closely connected to other government agencies, foreign militaries, and intelligence services, and armed with a vast inventory of stealthy helicopters, manned fixed-wing aircraft, heavily-armed drones, high-tech guns-a-go-go speedboats, specialized Humvees and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, as well as other state-of-the-art gear (with more on the way), SOCOM represents something new in the military. Whereas the late scholar of militarism Chalmers Johnson used to refer to the CIA as "the president's private army," today JSOC performs that role, acting as the chief executive’s private assassination squad, and its parent, SOCOM, functions as a new Pentagon power-elite, a secret military within the military possessing domestic power and global reach.

In 120 countries across the globe, troops from Special Operations Command carry out their secret war of high-profile assassinations, low-level targeted killings, capture/kidnap operations, kick-down-the-door night raids, joint operations with foreign forces, and training missions with indigenous partners as part of a shadowy conflict unknown to most Americans. Once “special” for being small, lean, outsider outfits, today they are special for their power, access, influence, and aura.

That aura now benefits from a well-honed public relations campaign which helps them project a superhuman image at home and abroad, even while many of their actual activities remain in the ever-widening shadows. Typical of the vision they are pushing was this statement from Admiral Olson: “I am convinced that the forces… are the most culturally attuned partners, the most lethal hunter-killers, and most responsive, agile, innovative, and efficiently effective advisors, trainers, problem-solvers, and warriors that any nation has to offer.”

Recently at the Aspen Institute’s Security Forum, Olson offered up similarly gilded comments and some misleading information, too, claiming that U.S. Special Operations forces were operating in just 65 countries and engaged in combat in only two of them. When asked about drone strikes in Pakistan, he reportedly replied, “Are you talking about unattributed explosions?”

What he did let slip, however, was telling. He noted, for instance, that black operations like the bin Laden mission, with commandos conducting heliborne night raids, were now exceptionally common. A dozen or so are conducted every night, he said. Perhaps most illuminating, however, was an offhand remark about the size of SOCOM. Right now, he emphasized, U.S. Special Operations forces were approximately as large as Canada’s entire active duty military. In fact, the force is larger than the active duty militaries of many of the nations where America’s elite troops now operate each year, and it’s only set to grow larger.

Americans have yet to grapple with what it means to have a “special” force this large, this active, and this secret -- and they are unlikely to begin to do so until more information is available. It just won’t be coming from Olson or his troops. “Our access [to foreign countries] depends on our ability to not talk about it,” he said in response to questions about SOCOM’s secrecy. When missions are subject to scrutiny like the bin Laden raid, he said, the elite troops object. The military’s secret military, said Olson, wants "to get back into the shadows and do what they came in to do.”

Nick Turse is a historian, essayist, and investigative journalist. The associate editor of and a new senior editor at, his latest book is The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Verso Books). This article is a collaboration between and

31 US Troops Killed in Afghanistan Helicopter Shootdown
Saturday 6 August 2011
by: Hashim Shukoor and Nancy A. Youssef , McClatchy Newspapers | Report

US Marine Infantrymen from Kilo Company, 3/6 Marines carry their gear out to US Army rotary wing helicopters from the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade prior to an air assault into Marjah Proper, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. (Photo: Expert Infantry / Flickr)

Kabul, Afghanistan - Thirty-one U.S. special forces troops and seven Afghan soldiers died when their helicopter was shot down during an overnight operation against Taliban insurgents in eastern Afghanistan, according to statement issued Saturday by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

It was the worst single-day toll for American forces in Afghanistan since U.S. troops entered that country nearly 10 years ago, and one of the largest tolls in a single incident of either the Afghan war or the fighting in Iraq.

The last time the U.S. military suffered such catastrophic loses was in January 2005, when 30 U.S. Marines and a sailor were killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq's Anbar province; throughout the country, another six U.S. troops died on the ground the same day.

U.S. officials in Afghanistan provided no details, but a senior Pentagon official in Washington confirmed that the helicopter had been shot down, though he said he could not provide details. A villager in the area where the helicopter went down told McClatchy he heard rocket fire. He said he later saw the helicopter burning an orchard about a half-mile from his home.

"Smoke was rising from the helicopter till morning," Mansour Majab said.

In his statement, Karzai said the helicopter went down in Maidan Wardak province, west of Kabul. He expressed his condolences for the deaths to President Barack Obama and the families of the American dead.

The Afghan defense ministry confirmed the death of seven Afghan commandos in the crash. Gen. Zahir Azimy, the Afghan army spokesman, placed the crash in Logar province, however.

The Taliban claimed credit for the attack in a statement. "Last night at 11 p.m. in the Joye Zarin area of Tangi Saybabad district, the invader forces conducted a night raid and faced hard resistance from the Islamic Emirate fighters,” according to the statement, attributed to Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, and posted on the group's website.

Shahidullah Shahid, the spokesman for the provincial governor, largely confirmed the Taliban statement, saying the crash had taken place after an operation by the International Security Assistance Force, as the U.S.-led coalition is known, killed eight insurgents.

“After the operation the ISAF helicopter crashed and there are casualties," Shahid said. "The area has been surrounded by U.S.-led NATO forces."

Maidan Wardak is a volatile province located about 25 miles west of Kabul. It shares a border with Logar, another insecure province.

Majab told McClatchy that night raids by U.S.-led forces happen frequently.

"Every night the helicopters are flying over our house," he said by phone. He said on Thursday U.S. troops conducting a night raid in another village killed three Taliban fighters."

He said Taliban forces fired a rocket at the downed helicopter.

"I was in the house and taking some food for the guests who were in our house. I heard the sound of a rocket firing< Majab said. "Later we saw a helicopter downed in an apple and apricot orchard about a kilometer away. There is a river between our house and the place where the helicopter was downed. Smoke was rising from the helicopter till morning."

Majab said that "most people are awake during night because of night raids" and that the region is dominated by the Taliban. "From each house at least one person is with the Taliban," he said.

Night raids have become a favored tactic of ISAF troops in recent years and have been credited with weakening Taliban forces, though the downing of he helicopter renewed questions about U.S. claims that the security in Afghanistan is gradually improving, in part, because the Taliban is weaker.

Often the U.S. military has noted that the Taliban is on the run from areas in the south and east they once firmly controlled because of an aggressive U.S. campaign in Taliban strongholds. But a string of successful assassinations and high-profile attacks has some asking whether losing such ground has in fact made the Taliban weaker.

Since April, the Taliban has claimed to assassinate Kandahar’s police chief and mayor and Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s brother and power governor of Kandahar. In addition, the Taliban claimed last month to killed a top presidential aide.

In June, insurgents attacked the seemingly secure Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, killing 18 and rattling residents in Kabul about their security.

As recently as Thursday, top military officials said that they expect the Taliban to continue targeted attacks in response to their lost ground. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Thursday that the Taliban is moving to “spectacular assassinations” but “we're working hard to protect certainly our forces and also provide enhanced security for the -- for the senior Afghan officials which are targeted here.“

Regardless, U.S. military officials have said they can safely, albeit gradually, draw down troops. The U.S. is planning to withdraw 10,000 troops in Afghanistan by the end of this year, citing security gains and a more capable Afghan Army and police. There are currently roughly 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

(Special correspondent Shukoor reported from Kabul. Youssef reported from Washington.)

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