WASHINGTON - The commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan said yesterday that the military had adopted new tactics to combat Taliban and al-Qaida members operating in the country.
Army Lt. Gen. David W. Barno said that in the past three months U.S. units - down to the level of 40-soldier platoons - have been dispatched to live in villages and hamlets where they can forge ties with tribal elders and glean better information about the location and activities of guerrillas.
In the past, Barno said, U.S. forces typically gathered intelligence about hostile forces, carried out a specific operation for several days against those targets, and then returned to base to plan and prepare for their next mission.
"What we're doing is moving to a more classic counterinsurgency strategy here in Afghanistan," Barno told reporters at the Pentagon in a two-way video conference from his headquarters in Kabul, the Afghan capital. "That's a fairly significant change in terms of our tactical approach out there on the ground."
The new approach, he said, would give soldiers "great depth of knowledge, understanding, and much better intelligence access to the local people in those areas by 'owning,' as it were, those chunks of territory."
The shift in tactics comes as Barno and other U.S. officials have boasted that Osama bin Laden, the elusive leader of al-Qaida, will be captured this year.
Barno refused to repeat his assertion yesterday, although he said, 'We have a very, very high priority in bringing to justice here the leadership of each of the terrorist organizations that we face."
Barno said that the new strategy had already paid dividends. He said Afghan civilians have reported to U.S. forces more insurgents' weapons caches in the past month than had been turned in over the previous six months.
The shift in tactics comes in response to a growing number of attacks against foreign aid workers, Afghan civilians and others associated with the government of President Hamid Karzai that Barno said were aimed at disrupting the fitful reconstruction efforts throughout the country.
The new tactics are also intended to complement a renewed effort by the United States, NATO and other allies to expand the number of teams of soldiers and civilians that will fan out beyond Kabul and assist local authorities with security and rebuilding.
Barno said that by the end of this week, 12 of these "provincial reconstruction teams" will be operating throughout the country. Britain, Italy, Turkey and Norway agreed this month to head four additional NATO-led teams by this summer.
The teams consist of 60 to 100 personnel, are tailored to the region's specific needs and have become the linchpin of the coalition's efforts to rebuild Afghanistan while staving off guerrilla attacks.
Barno said the allies, in concert with the Karzai government, are creating what he called regional development zones, which are essentially areas that encompass more than one of the provincial reconstruction teams.
More than 13,000 U.S. and other allied troops are now operating in Afghanistan alongside a 5,500-member NATO peacekeeping force in and around Kabul. U.S. forces are also trying to integrate 5,700 members of the new Afghan army and several hundred newly trained Afghan police officers into the security arrangements.
U.S. officials say they believe that bin Laden is hiding somewhere in the mountainous border region with Pakistan.