Chasing Taliban ghosts

The Sunday Times

Two Taliban fighters crept into the middle of a dirt road near Kandahar city. Unaware that an American spy plane had spotted them, they began to dig a hole as the sun beat down on their heads.

American soldiers at Forward Operating Base Wilson little more than a mile away watched the drone’s grainy video feed on a large flatscreen monitor as the insurgents planted an improvised explosive device (IED) in the hole.

Soon an A-10 tankbuster growled overhead. The aircraft dropped a laser-guided bomb that thudded into the ground and exploded with a loud crump as earth, smoke and rocks mushroomed into the air.

As the cloud settled and the video feed flickered back into life, soldiers positioned 300 yards down the road pushed out a patrol to look for the bodies.

American ground commanders in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar province are hellbent on eradicating the IED teams, which have killed and wounded dozens of troops since the end of August.

Ridding the districts surrounding Kandahar city of insurgents is the key objective for the commanding officer of 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Squadron, 75th Cavalry Regiment (1-75) whose men have the task of seizing land in Zhari, a district to the west of the city.

Colonel Thomas McFayden is determined to kill as many fighters as possible before they withdraw for the winter to their sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan. Governance, the Americans believe, can wait for now.

McFayden’s men say they have wiped out scores of Taliban in the past month since launching operations to flush the militants from Zhari.

They rarely find the bodies. The Taliban are quick to remove their dead from the battlefield, making it difficult to verify how successful the targeted killing campaign has been.

A reminder of how brutally effective the Taliban’s tactics can be came last Monday.

American soldiers from Chaos Company, stationed at a patrol base close to Highway One, the main road that bisects Kandahar province, were busy loading a trailer with rubbish to take back to the forward operating base.

As the soldiers milled around in the courtyard of the compound, an ear-piercing explosion shook the ground. I turned to face the noise and saw an Afghan soldier cartwheeling through the air in a ball of smoke and dust before disappearing behind a wall.

“IED,” screamed one of the American soldiers. “It’s the ANA [Afghan National Army].”

The soldiers scattered as they picked up weapons and helmets before rushing through the compound’s entrance. The Afghan, Mohammad Zubai, lay at the foot of the mud wall. His body armour had been blown upwards in the blast so it covered his head, giving the impression he had been decapitated.

His right arm was twisted back on itself. It jutted out from his side at an abnormal angle. His right leg had been blown off above the knee save for a knot of muscle that had been stripped of flesh.

The Americans thought Zubai was dead and pulled a black body bag from the back of one of their armoured vehicles. But 10 minutes after the blast, the stump of the Afghan’s right leg began to lift and then gently lower to the floor.

“It’s just nerves,” said one soldier. But the leg continued to move. Then an arm twitched. The soldiers stripped him of his body armour, revealing his blood-drenched face. They cut off his clothes and wrapped his leg in bandage.

There was little blood — the heat from the blast had apparently cauterised the arteries. A medic stuck a tube into his mouth, opening his airway and resuscitating him. They rolled him onto a stretcher, then loaded it onto the medical evacuation helicopter. Zubai died on board as it headed to a nearby field hospital.

The airstrike on the Taliban’s IED team had happened the previous day. Soldiers from Apache Company who went to look for the bodies also ran into mortal danger. On their way into the village of Mullyan, about a mile from their patrol base, they passed a mosque pocked with scorch marks from the impact of rocket-propelled grenades. American special forces had already entered the village and found the place booby-trapped with homemade bombs.

As Apache Company’s men entered a narrow alleyway with tall mud walls on either side, the hairs on the backs of the soldiers’ necks stood on end. They knew it provided the Taliban with an ideal killing ground — a confined space with one route in and one route out.

The Sunday Times’s photographer, Lucian Read, cautiously sidestepped a patch of soft dirt that he noticed in front of him — a sign that an IED may lie underneath.

Read was just a few feet further on when a bomb exploded behind him. As the dust settled, the soldiers saw their Afghan interpreter, identified only as Saidullah, writhing on the ground. He had been blown into the air by the force of the blast before falling to the ground with a thud. Saidullah survived with a broken leg. Fortunately for him, and the soldiers on patrol, the main charge failed to detonate.

IEDs are a daily threat to American troops on the front line of Nato operations to break the insurgency in southern Afghanistan.

The Taliban use the rural districts to mount attacks inside Kandahar. Bloodletting in the city is an almost daily occurrence as they step up a vicious campaign to assassinate government officials and Afghans who support Nato.

Last week, hitmen on motorcycles gunned down the city’s deputy mayor as he drove home from his office. He had only recently taken the job. His predecessor was killed while praying at a mosque.

American commanders say privately that one objective of the Kandahar operations is to batter the Taliban so hard that their leaders in Pakistan are left with no option but to sue for peace.

“First we are going to eliminate the enemy here. Every day we are seizing a little bit more of their territory. We will kill them so they never return,” McFayden said.

The colonel, nicknamed “the Silver Fox” for his greying hair, has pursued this approach ruthlessly since launching operations in early September. He admits that more fighters will try to reinfiltrate Zhari after the winter, but he believes his men will own the battle space by then.

“We’ll have separated the insurgents from the population,” he said. “We’ll bring in the Afghan government and help the Afghan army to secure the population so the Taliban can’t continue to harass and intimidate them.”

But the Afghan army remains a motley force. Soldiers lag behind on patrols, often ignoring American advice to stay off mined trails as they trudge through fields.

American soldiers are frequently frustrated by their Afghan comrades’ poor timekeeping. They turn up late for missions, fail to bring enough water on patrol and overheat in the searing midday sun because they insist on wearing fleeces and berets beneath their uniforms and helmets.

“Strip him if he refuses to take the damn thing off,” one American soldier ordered during a patrol to probe Taliban positions. “He’ll go down with heat exhaustion and everything will be slowed down.”

Many Americans avoid standing behind Afghan soldiers clutching rocket-propelled grenade launchers in case they fire them accidentally. Negligent discharges are common.

Americans’ missions are often only loosely co-ordinated with their Afghan counterparts. To add to Afghan woes, the ANA’s brigade commander was recently dismissed for skimming money from contracts in Kandahar. A lot of soldiers sell their fuel ration on the black market.

For their part, Afghan officers complain that their men have no night-vision goggles, no decent means to communicate between platoons and only a handful of metal detectors.

Many Afghan soldiers are fierce, if erratic, fighters. On one patrol, I watched as the Afghans raced into the Taliban’s line of fire to loose off rocket-propelled grenades after an enemy ambush.

A few Afghan soldiers are extremely dedicated. One helped save the life of an American soldier badly wounded by an IED blast a few weeks ago.

McFayden’s men and the battalions to his east and west believe they will eventually squeeze the Taliban south to the edge of the Arghandab River, pushing them beyond range of Highway One. Here, they will prepare the final onslaught that they hope will rout the militants.

The soldiers manning the artillery guns at FOB Wilson — the main American base in Zhari — have fired so many rounds that at least one has asked the chaplain if he will go to hell for the deaths he has caused. A placard on a signpost near the gun line, which shows the distance to American hometowns, includes an arrow pointing to the ground accompanied by the words: “Hell: zero kilometres.”

So elusive are the Taliban that American soldiers have adopted the Soviet army’s nickname for the mujaheddin — “dukhi”, the Russian for ghosts.

When troops come into direct contact with the enemy, artillery shells immediately whistle over the soldiers’ heads as they hunker down along ditch lines before the rounds smash into Taliban positions.

Any “squirters”, as the soldiers call the militants, who flee the aerial bombardments are then thumped with more rounds or laser-guided bombs.

After three years of continuous military presence in districts such as Zhari, the Americans believe they have built up a strong intelligence picture. “We’ve started to fit the pieces of the puzzle together and we are seeing the results,” said 1-75’s intelligence officer, Captain Matt Crawford. “We’re flipping the switch on the enemy and hitting their soft targets.”

But the American tactics are not flawless. Zhari district is ideal guerrilla country. Thick tree lines, hedgerows, fields of tall marijuana bushes and rabbit-warren hamlets allow the Taliban to slip away effortlessly.

“We as an organisation are becoming good at disrupting the insurgents,” said Major Chess Lamm, the second-in-command of 1-75. “Now we need to get to the stage where we are better at killing the enemy.”

Soviet troops who occupied this patch of irrigated land in the 1980s nicknamed it “the Green Hell” after suffering heavy losses. The Americans call it “the Heart of Darkness”.

Day and night, soldiers at FOB Wilson man the drone’s video feeds, watching footage of insurgents fleeing beneath tree lines and into compounds to dodge the “eyes in the sky”.

If an insurgent slips the net, senior officers lambast their men. “It’s coming down to seconds that we’re missing these guys,” Lamm told his staff at headquarters after they lost sight of three fighters who had just shot at Chaos Company. “We need to be the eyes of the troops on the ground. We’re there to protect them.”

In villages caught between American troops and Taliban fighters, local support — which will be key to the success of Nato’s operations in Kandahar — has been slow to emerge. Many villagers fear that America’s awesome firepower will destroy their homes and kill their relatives.

They remain reluctant to point out where the Taliban have laid their mines. Soldiers have been killed and wounded in the middle of hamlets recently “liberated” by American troops.

When a heavily bearded villager from Payandai, a rundown hamlet near Combat Outpost JFM, complained that troops had demolished one of his mud walls to clear a path for their vehicles, the American soldiers were furious.

“That wall had a bomb in it that cut off my soldier’s legs and one of his arms,” Bret Matzenbacher, Bone Crusher Company’s commanding officer, told the villager. “I paid for that wall in blood.”

The handful of Afghans who remain in Zhari fear that they, too, will be forced to pay in blood for the Americans’ presence. “It will be our sons and daughters who are killed if you bring war to our villages,” said a white-bearded village elder.

“We don’t care who is in control here — you or the Taliban. All we want is someone in charge.”

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