With Swagger, Afghan Army Takes the Lead
Through the crackle of the hand radio, the Taliban fighter could be heard screaming at his comrades, berating them to strike from their mountain hide-outs and kill the infidel forces gathered nearby. A burly Afghan Border Police commander, eavesdropping on the enemy’s open-channel communication, chuckled and decided to stir things up. “If you are a man, you don’t need to yell,” the commander spoke into his radio, as a circle of Afghan Army soldiers giggled. “Why don’t you come out, you thief, and fight us face to face? What cave are you hiding in?” Startled, the insurgent on the other end blurted: “I’m strong with the love of God! I’m going to heaven.” “Donkeys don’t go to heaven, usually,” the commander replied, stroking his henna-dyed beard, eliciting another round of laughs.
As Afghans begin taking the lead from American forces this year, each mission the new Afghan National Army takes on will be a step toward answering critical questions about the country’s fate. Can Afghan forces effectively fight the Taliban after the Americans are gone? And can they gain the support of local leaders and populations who are so critical to that fight? The challenges were highlighted over the weekend by a sprawling and drawn-out battle between Afghan forces and a Taliban stronghold, an indication that the fighting season had begun again in earnest. The battle ended only after nearby American forces called in an airstrike on the Taliban commander’s home, killing him and a number of civilians, including at least 10 children.
A recent week with a well-regarded Afghan Army unit in Kunar Province showed marked differences from the American way of war. While the unit generally acquitted itself well in combat, logistical and political challenges were evident. The operation in Kunar was characterized by Afghan and American military commanders as one of the biggest of its kind in the area: a search-and-clear mission centered on the village of Damdara in Ganjgal Valley, a notorious Taliban stronghold where an insurgent ambush killed nine Afghans and four of their American Marine advisers in 2009. This time, no Americans would be in sight at any stage.
Instead, the Second Brigade of the Afghan 201st Corps, considered one of the army’s best units, was leading the charge. Army commanders coordinated with multiple police and intelligence agencies, as well as Afghan civilian officials, spending nearly a week conducting reconnaissance and drawing up elaborate terrain models to prepare for the mission.
The terrain would play a major role this day. Ganjgal Valley is picturesque, but treacherous, with high ridges arrayed in a horseshoe around the village, perfect for shielding ambushes. Cut into the hills that lead up to the mountains are terraced fields, dry and brittle with small green shoots peeking through the soil. Stones cover the base of the valley like the bed of a river.
More than 350 Afghan security force members gathered around the perimeter, some given the task of searching the village for fighters and weapons, other assigned to the ridges to confront any ambushes at eye level.
They did not have to wait long. The forces in the heights came under fire almost immediately from an opposing ridgeline northwest of the village — the one vantage point the army did not control. Dozens of fighters were firing. Soldiers responded with vehicle-mounted guns. A team shot artillery onto the insurgent mountainside with mixed accuracy, sending up plumes of smoke into the clear sky. The rhythm of a long-range battle took hold, the shots less frequent as each side squinted to find enemies on ridges about a half-mile apart.
It was during this impasse that the war of words erupted into the Taliban’s radio patter. As Afghan soldiers drew around to listen, the conversation between the two enemies grew even more insulting and acrimonious. The insurgent called the commander “a slave of the infidels.”
“You didn’t even have pants on when I was a good Muslim and mujahid,” the commander replied. “You are a slave of the Punjabis,” he added, referencing Pakistani support for the Taliban. “Where did you get your ammunition, you donkey? Do you have a bullet factory up there?”
As the day wore on, a line of villagers snaked through the valley toward a meeting with assembled Afghan government officials. The district governor, Mohammad Hanif Khairkhwa, apologized for bothering them and asked whether the Afghan forces had mistreated anyone. The villagers, resting on their haunches and wrapped in earth-tone shawls, said they had not.
The government had tried before to draw support away from the Taliban here, with only modest success. Now, in making his case, Mr. Khairkhwa drew on their similarities, speaking Afghan to Afghan while turning the absence of American forces into a new chance for cooperation. “We are from the same country, the same region, we speak the same language and share the same faith,” he said. “Do you see any foreigners here? It’s just us.”
Promising that Afghan forces would be visiting the valley again, the governor left them with a warning: “Tell the insurgents, ‘Don’t shoot from my house.’ Tell them, ‘Don’t lay mines near my house.’ If you do not, then next time, you cannot complain about what happens.” The villagers trekked back to the village, a series of mud homes seemingly carved into the earth. An old man with deep blue eyes and a wispy white beard began muttering under his breath as he hobbled off. “If the government people bother us, they will be held accountable by God,” he said.
Overhearing the comment, one intelligence official shouted back: “You think we are bothering you? Who do you think is shooting at us every day? If you shoot one of us, God will send you to hell.”
Farther down the valley, a row of Homes near the front of the fight belted streams of bullets into the enemy-held mountainside. A Taliban sniper hiding in the dense forest above fired single shots back at the troops on the valley’s floor. The village remained dormant. “They shoot at us like thieves, so we have to shoot back with force,” said Sgt. Hedyatullah Tanha, 22, a platoon commander. “If we don’t return fire they will have a long period of time to line up another shot.” Capt. Wahidullah Atifi, a company commander, said constant fighting had sharpened his men, while armored vehicles and extra training had bolstered their confidence. “The only bad habit my unit has is that they respond to a single shot with a volley of bullets,” he said. Amid the clamor of gunshots, Captain Atifi’s cellphone rang. A senior commander urged him to keep his men from shooting so much. Captain Atifi shrugged and then sounded a note growing more common among Afghan commanders as they ponder future battles without American air support: “If we had an attack helicopter,” he said, “the fight would be over.”
In reality, if things had gone smoothly, the fight may never have happened in the first place. The army battalion commander had squashed earlier plans for a special unit to take the ridge that later became the Taliban stronghold.
Communication proved to be an obstacle, too. The patchwork of Afghan forces, including border, national and local police, were using different radios, inhibiting communication. To compensate, everyone used cell phones. By 1:30 p.m., the search of the village concluded, turning up a handful of .50-caliber shells plucked from the floor of an old man’s home.
Soldiers began to trail down from the village. As planned, those along the ridgeline began to collapse their positions and make their way down the mountain, covering one another’s exits. After hours of sporadic fighting, all were alive and accounted for, officers said. Then, a stutter of gunfire erupted as the Taliban exploited their vulnerability.
Soon after the soldiers abandoned high ground, insurgents slipped into the vacated positions and began firing down at a pocket of soldiers, now pinned by two lines of fire.
A dozen men piled into four Homes and raced down the rugged dirt path to the base of the mountain, hoping to ease the enemy assault long enough to break the soldiers free. The frequency of the gunfire intensified, echoing across the valley in tidy snaps.
Twenty minutes later, the convoy reappeared, bringing with it the trapped soldiers, all alive. Taliban bullets whizzed through nearby fields, kicking up small clouds of dust.
As the men began loading into their vehicles to leave, the dormant village awakened. Muzzle flashes began to light up the dark mud windows, winging shots at the departing convoy until it was clear of the valley and on the road back to base.
New York Times DAMDARA, Afghanistan