Intelligence plucked from bin Laden raid will have 'tremendous impact,' Marine general says
WASHINGTON — The intelligence cache found in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound could lead to more targeted killings this year and throw the Afghanistan War insurgency into disarray, said Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, recent commander of the southwest region.
“If I were Mullah Omar, I would certainly be worried,” Mills said Wednesday.
The Navy SEAL team that stormed the Abbottabad, Pakistan, hideout recovered several computers and other items — reportedly up to 10 hard drives and more than 100 storage devices — that could expose al-Qaida leaders and networks.
“I think the intelligence gathered off the site of the [bin Laden] hit will have a tremendous impact.” Mills said. “I think it will identify people who are providing, again, material support to the insurgency in Afghanistan. I think it will provide targets to be worked. And I think it’ll have a tremendous impact a little bit later in the year as the loss of that leadership begins to take place and they lose those capabilities”
Mills spoke to reporters during a Washington media blitz, one day after President Barack Obama nominated him to be deputy commandant of the Marine Corps, taking on several new portfolios, including the Corps’ cyber command.
Capturing that al-Qaida information, he said, will cause distrust among insurgent leaders and fighters, while bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. forces will have a “tremendous” impact financially and psychologically on the Afghanistan battlefield this year.
“It shows that the Americans are focused,” Mills said, “... that we don’t leave our missions, we’re not going to depart, in that sense. Once we’ve targeted you, we’re going to maintain our focus on you until mission’s accomplished. And I think it shows that regardless of how long it takes, how hard it is, that they’re going to continue to track those men down and find them.”
On the battlefield, he said, “It’s a great psychological victory for us. I think it will have tremendous impact to show that we’re able to reach out and get what might have been perceived as a completely safe target, someone who was untouchable by the Western forces.”
While there are “very few al-Qaida fighters” in the southwest region — some estimates have put the numbers in the low hundreds nationwide — the organization supports other fighters with equipment and personnel flowing into the Helmand River valley from Pakistan. Last week, the Taliban announced the start of the spring fighting season, which the U.S. has anticipated for months. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other leaders have called this year’s spring re-emergence the most important time of the Afghanistan war, when the gains of the surge will be tested for the first time.
Now the U.S. heads into that season with a trove of newfound intelligence.
“The enemy has to counterattack,” Mills said. “I’m not sure that he can give up Helmand Province.”
The region is a center of Pashtun culture that the Taliban long controlled for drug revenue and influence. But insurgents will face a different battlefield this year.
“There’s no key terrain that he holds, he’s been kicked out of every village and town of note, he has lost across the board on the battlefield and he’s been pushed into the desert, up into the mountains, into areas away from the population that he no longer controls,” Mills said. “So I think that he’s gotta come back. The question is how he’s going to come back.”
Mills said the U.S. is now determining if the Taliban will return with fighting head on, or if they even have enough ammunition to arm high numbers of troops.
“My thought would be: No,” Mills said.
Already, the Pentagon’s latest official war report to Congress, released last week, predicts an increasingly desperate insurgency would turn to more “spectacular” terrorist-style attacks — similar to what has happened in Iraq.
“I can tell you that we are positioned well to resist that,” Mills said, in part due to expanded Afghan-led human intelligence sources that already have thwarted suicide bomb plots, for example. He would not give more details.
But neither bin Laden’s death nor the expected change in enemy tactics means the U.S. is ready to change its own approach or, more importantly, alter the drawdown timeline that would keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan through 2014.
“I think any acceleration in the timeline incurs risk,” Mills said.