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Behind the strike that killed Osama bin Laden on May 1st was one of the U.S. military's best kept secrets: an extraordinary campaign by elite U.S. soldiers to take out thousands of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. A six-month investigation by FRONTLINE has gone inside the "kill/capture" program to discover new evidence of the program's impact -- and its costs.
Gen. David Petraeus, since he took command of troops last year, has ordered a major expansion of these "manhunt" missions that rely on highly classified intelligence, cutting-edge technology and Special Operations forces.
In Kill/Capture, FRONTLINE producers Dan Edge (The Wounded Platoon) and Stephen Grey (Extraordinary Rendition) explore the logic behind the kill/capture policy, and ask if this unremitting pursuit of the enemy will help end the war in Afghanistan. "If you are trying to take down an industrial-strength insurgency, you take away its safe havens, you take away its leaders, by detaining them or in some cases killing them," Gen. Petraeus tells FRONTLINE of his decision to step up kill/capture missions after he took command in Afghanistan last summer. The military say these operations have led to the death or detention of more than 12,000 Taliban insurgents over the last 12 months.
Petraeus and his advisers argue that a ruthless, accurate and relentless campaign against enemy leaders will paralyze the insurgency and force them to the negotiating table. "The intent is to do so much damage to the network that it becomes more viable for the enemy to negotiate than to continue to fight," says David Kilcullen, an influential military advisor and counterinsurgency expert.
On the ground in Afghanistan's Baghlan province, U.S. raids have put the Taliban on the run. But FRONTLINE makes contact with a young Taliban commander who says that, after the targeted killings of two of his seniors, he was simply promoted up the ranks to take their place. Khalid Amin speaks to FRONTLINE at the grave of his dead predecessor: "These night raids cannot annihilate us," he says. "We want to die anyway. So those destined for martyrdom will die in the raids. And the rest will continue to fight without fear."
"We're killing a lot of midlevel commanders, but they get replaced by other midlevel commanders," claims Matthew Hoh, who resigned from the Foreign Service in 2009 because he felt that U.S. tactics were fuelling the insurgency.
FRONTLINE finds more evidence of the complexity of kill/capture raids as it joins soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division on an air assault targeting a suspected Taliban insurgent in the dangerous province of Khost. Owing to faulty intelligence, the soldiers end up raiding the home of a wealthy pro-government elder instead: "This is why people are so upset," the man tells the troops, as they lead him away in restraints. "So now I'll join the Taliban and fight against you!"
The military points to hundreds of Taliban fighters who have switched sides since the ramping up of the kill/capture campaign, and they concede that, in the short run, the campaign may lead to a rising level of Taliban violence: This is what happened with the surge in Iraq in the months before the tide turned, they say. But among a group of some 40 Taliban in Kunduz province who changed sides earlier this year, FRONTLINE tracks down a former Taliban commander named Abdul Aziz, who now says he's reluctant to take up arms against his former comrades on behalf of an Afghan government that has yet to pay him or his men.
"I joined the government side about a month ago," Abdul Aziz explains to a villager he meets while FRONTLINE's cameras were rolling. "But the Taliban are still my brothers. Look, we all hate the Americans. They are infidels, they are the enemies of our religion, they are the enemies of this nation."
As one part of a broader counterinsurgency campaign, the military says kill/capture raids win time and space to allow regular troops to seize territory from the Taliban. "By maintaining the initiative against the enemy, that enables the majority of the force to focus on securing the population," said Maj. Gen. John Nicholson, a senior U.S. commander.
In Ghazni province, FRONTLINE witnesses how, after more than 40 such raids by Special Operations forces, soldiers of the 101st Airborne have managed to secure the town of Miri from the Taliban, and re-opened the school and market. The biggest challenge ahead, though: to transfer power to the Afghan government and allow U.S. soldiers to start coming home. "Honestly, I think if we left I think the Taliban would take it over again," warns Sgt. Gavin Erickson.