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Kill/capture missions in Afghanistan: are they working?

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Are the kill/capture missions in Afghanistan effective? That was one of the key focuses of our First Wednesday discussion last night.

The evening began with a short clip from Kill/Capture a film made by investigative journalist and author Stephen Grey about the United States' unprecedented campaign of targeted killing of militants in Afghanistan.

Grey said that the target rate was "by and large" accurate: "But the question is 'how big is the error rate and what is the effect of that, because obviously you are talking about lethal methods." Up to 12,000 raids had been carried out by special forces in the last year, Grey said.

Questions were asked by the audience about the legality and the morality of the campaign, which Emal Pasarly, of the BBC's Afghan section said had made the security situation "far worse" since it was announced five years ago.

Only two major Taleban commanders had been killed since NATO announced its new strategy in 2006: Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Osmani who was rumoured to be on his way from Pakistan to negotiate with the Afghan government and Mullah Dadullah.

"Back in 2006, most of Afghanistan was largely peaceful and you could go from Kabul to Helmand without any problem. Now you have to be mad, or anxious or God knows what," he said.

The suggestion that the strategy had been counter-productive was backed up by Kate Clark, senior analyst for the Afghanistan Analysts Network, who said the strategy was "reckless" at a time when the focus should be on peace. Command and control had broken down as a result of the operations, she claimed:

"The problem is that senior field level commanders are being killed and captured... so you get a much weaker Taleban control of fighters on the ground," she said.

"You get younger, more radical commanders taking their place, who tend to be more abusive and more extreme and  the Taleban can no longer control the foreign forces, who again are more abusive towards the local population and more difficult to control." 

Lieutenant General (Retd) Sir Graeme Lamb, countered that the strategy had brought about change in the Taleban's tactics because they had "headed off to the hills" and were therefore less intimidating to the local people:

"In this case you tend to gauge initiative shift when you see the opposition not pushing back harder but having to a new way of doing business and that is exactly what we're seeing on a multiple series of levels"

Dr Tim Bird, author and lecturer at the Joint Services Command and Staff College and the Defence Studies Department, King's College London, said he was concerned that the tactical temptation to to target those who are effective against you would override the approach of reconciliation and integration:

"An indicator would be if we were leaving alive very effective Taleban commanders who we could talk to. There is a very strong temptation to target those insurgents who are tactically effective against our forces."