Timely and Innovative Intelligence Tradecraft Is the Need of the Day to Save the Afghanistan Peace Deal

This article was originally published by “The Geopolitics” on May 6, 2020

While the entire world is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Taliban in Afghanistan has steadily staged more than 4,500 attacks across the war-ravaged country in the 45 days since they signed an agreement for a U.S. troop drawdown, according to a Reuters report.

In a previously secret agreement that was disclosed by a Twitter row between the US military spokesman, Colonel Sonny Leggett, and his Taliban counterpart, Zabihullah Mujahid; the U.S. official warned the militants that “if the violence cannot be reduced – then yes, there will be responses.” The warning comes in the wake of a sharp escalation in militant attacks since the Taliban and the U.S. had struck a deal to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan.

Although more than 100,000 American troops and tens of thousands from about 40 nations in the United States-led NATO coalition forces occupied Afghanistan at the peak of the war, the 18 yearlong entire military campaign has been in many ways, and for many reasons, a “failure,” according to an investigative series entitled “The Afghanistan Papers”  published by The Washington Post in December 2019.

While the United States-led NATO forces have been tackling this debacle in Afghanistan, one major exception that stands out in the war on terror in Sri Lanka, a small South Asian island nation located in the Indian Ocean that has been politically and economically destabilized as a result of an ethnic conflict that has lasted over three decades. What many considered the most innovative and deadliest insurgents in the world, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the “Tamil Tigers”, fought against the Sri Lankan government to establish a separate homeland for the country’s Tamil ethnic minority group in the northern and eastern provinces. This organization was a model for other terrorist groups around the world. Many organizations, including the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and even Daesh have used the Tamil Tigers’ tactics as a template for terrorism.

After more than two decades of intense fighting and four failed attempts at peace talks, including the unsuccessful deployment of the Indian Army, and the Indian Peace-Keeping Force from 1987 to 1990, a lasting negotiated settlement to the conflict appeared possible when a Norwegian-brokered cease-fire was declared in December 2001, and a cease-fire agreement was signed with international mediation in 2002.

It is noteworthy that during the yet another failed peace talks in 2002, to until the government launched several major military offensives against the Tamil Tigers in 2006, the Sri Lankan military intelligence and special forces engaged in painstaking and meticulous planning of innovative intelligence operations that eventually led to the obliteration of the Tamil Tigers, despite calls by human rights groups, including the U.N., for a negotiated settlement.

This military success stands in stark contrast to the conflicts fought by well-funded NATO forces not only in Afghanistan but also in Iraq and Syria over the last decade. In particular, the four failed attempts at peace talks with the Tamil Tigers reinforces the fact that it is abhorrent to negotiate with terrorists because of their uncompromising militant vision. Thus, the United States-led NATO forces’ efforts to negotiate with the Taliban will only be in futility because the Taliban’s ultimate goal is to establish an “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” not a peaceful and centralized Afghanistan government. 

A foremost American scholar in counterterrorism, Dr. Bruce Hoffman notes that “Intelligence is capital…It had to be zealously collected, meticulously analyzed, rapidly disseminated, and efficaciously acted on. Without it, no anti-terrorist operation could succeed… But the experiences of other countries, fighting similar conflicts against similar enemies, suggest that Americans still do not appreciate the enormously difficult—and morally complex—problem that the imperative to gather ‘good intelligence’ entails…” This is important when the United States-led NATO forces confront a multifaceted and multipronged unconventional enemy that needs to be dealt with unconventional warfare tactics including intelligence and psychological warfare.

As such, the most effective overriding strategy of the Sri Lankan security forces was strengthening their military intelligence gathering capacity. They openly recruited former Tamil Tiger cadres and other Tamil militants who were working with security forces as “paramilitary” groups. Besides, the Sri Lankan Army’s Deep Penetration Unit (DPU) and/or Special Force Regiment (SF) also played a vital role in the military intelligence-gathering efforts. By and large, the Directorate of Military Intelligence of Sri Lanka engineered a “break-away” faction within the Tamil Tigers. The military’s signal intelligence infiltrated and analyzed the Tigers’ communication and transmission systems to convince thousands of cadres to surrender. All in all, the fusion of the military’s SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) and the contribution of former Tamil Tiger cadres’ HUMINT (Human Intelligence) was an effective strategy.

In late 2004, the defection of a senior Tamil Tiger military commander, Colonel Karuna, who brought with him some 6,000 Tiger cadres, was a significant blow to the organization. It not only cost the militants several thousand cadres but deprived them of control or influence in significant parts of the support base in Eastern Sri Lanka, as well as a major source of recruits. The perceived weakness of the Tigers overwhelmingly encouraged the Sri Lankan military leadership to believe that major renewed hostilities against the Tigers could lead to significant territorial gains, if not outright victory. The mass defection also provided tactical and actionable intelligence that offered deep insights into the Tamil Tigers as a fighting organization. Most importantly, for the first time, the government intelligence agencies then had the minority Tamils willing to return to Tiger-held areas, collect real-time intelligence, and report back. The scale of the defection also clearly demonstrated that the legitimacy of the Tigers was declining.

For these kinds of grand strategies to unfold in Afghanistan, the United States-led NATO forces must win over the hearts and minds of the people and even of those within the fighting forces of the Taliban. This is where American “soft power” could come into play. Although “hard power” is vital to safeguard a nation’s interests, when we are confronted by an enemy with many different faces, we must explore other tools to combat the enemy through non-military means. As Sun Tzu reminds us, the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting; eliminating the will to fight and destroying the spirit of the enemy’s potential to fight is paramount.

Furthermore, the United States and Indian intelligence communities had also played a key role in ending the war in Sri Lanka. To illustrate, they eradicated terrorism in Sri Lanka by an international intelligence collaboration. They won the bloody war by eliminating the leadership, the “cephalothorax” of the Tamil Tigers. Although it did work in Sri Lanka, when the Americans removed Al Qaeda’s “cephalothorax” in the FATA region, the remnants of Al Qaeda operatives dispersed throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Consequently, they reorganized and formed Daesh. This was only possible because of the geostrategic porous borders, and secret caves and tunnels that spread from Central Asia, Persian Gulf and to Greater Middle East, even some parts of North Africa.

The Tamil Tigers didn’t have this geostrategic advantage since they operated from pockets of a tiny island, and thus their first and foremost Front Defense Line (FDL) happened to be the Indian Ocean. Therefore the Tamil Tigers’ survival essentially depended on their marine unit for logistics. When the Sri Lankan Navy was assisted by the global powers on taking control of the territorial waters and established sea denial, the terrorist organization was paralyzed.

Equally important is that during the last years of the conflict, the Tamil Tigers were isolated from the rest of the world. There was no external support/sponsor for them other than the weak and divided Tamil diaspora; whereas Taliban, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Daesh all have always been sponsored by multiple nation-states, including Russia and to some extent, Iran.

The Japanese Samurai dictum reminds us that “to kill an enemy, shoot his horse first.” In this spirit, we must first eliminate the support bases of all the terrorist organizations to obliterate them. This can only be done through a fusion of soft diplomacy and hard military might. As Roosevelt put it: “speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Featured Image: U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos / Public domain

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