U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan:
by Marc W. Herold
Departments of Economics and Women's Studies
Whittemore School of Business & Economics
University of New Hampshire
POSTED OCTOBER 31, 2002 --
"No one wants them there. They don't talk to anyone. They drive around maybe six or seven vehicles together in a convoy stopping to search houses. Everyone is afraid of them."
-- Abdul Ahmed Safi, official of the provincial Konar government.(1)
U.S. Special Forces and Afghan Militia Force [AMF] mercenaries confront villagers during a raid upon Narizah in late August [Wally Santana, AP photo]. More photos can be found here: http://www4.aixgaming.com/opend/album08
The Americans are no different from the Russians, one hears in Uruzgan and Kandahar.
U.S. Army Special Forces were first deployed in Afghanistan on October 19 in northern Afghanistan to serve primarily as spotters for U.S. bombing missions. On that same day, in a very embarrassing start to their Afghan ground campaign, the elite Delta Force suffered 12 casualties when ambushed by Taliban troops using machine guns and RPGs.(3) The Delta team had landed by helicopter on Mullah Omar's summer retreat in the hills above Kandahar. According to The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh, several of those who participated in the raid called it a "total goat fuck" - which, we are told, is "military slang meaning that everything that could go wrong did go wrong."(4) Special Forces units played a key role in directing deadly U.S. airstrikes [using lasers and GPS coordinates] upon Taliban front lines around Mazar and Taloquan between Nov. 5 and 10.(5) By mid-November a couple hundred such elite troops had been inserted into the battlefields around Mazar and Kunduz working with Dostum's and Mohammad Atta's Northern Alliance troops. On November 14, a U.S. Special Forces team is sent into Tarin Kot to protect Hamid Karzai. In late November, they participated in the slaughter of prisoners in the Qala-i-Janghi prison fort in Mazar-i-Sharif. Recent evidence reveals that also they were involved at least as passive observers, in the infamous container convoys of death bringing prisoners from Mazar to Sheberghan.(6) Luke Harding recently noted, "Dostum has been on the US payroll for nearly a year."(7) An elite team from the 5th Special Forces Group first met up with Dostum last October, when its members were dropped by Chinook helicopter at his mountain redoubt. The 595 A-team coordinated the Northern Alliance assaults upon Mazar and later Kunduz. Harding reports that this unit paid repeated visits to Sheberghen prison. Reportedly, a dust-covered Special Forces vehicle pulled up 500 meters away from where Dostum's bulldozers were burying the Taliban prisoners who had been executed.
A US Army Special Forces soldier stands guard as Afghan civilians and Northern Alliance militia members look on in Khwaja Bahuaddin, Afghanistan. [Brennan Linsely, AP]
The Special Forces teams were then heavily used in the Tora Bora campaign from about November 15 to December 15, both as spotters and as ground assault units. Other teams were inserted into the Kandahar area. One such team was assigned to protect Hamid Karzai after he narrowly escaped capture by the Taliban in early November. The Kandahar-based unit participated in the killing of Taliban/Al-Qaeda remnants who had barricaded themselves in Kandahar's Mir Wais Hospital. Another team was assigned to protect Gul Agha Sherzai, 'warlord of the year,' who had regained his position as governor of Kandahar after the Taliban vacated the city on December 7.(8) U.S. Special Forces remain closely befriended with one of Afghanistan's most brutal and rapacious warlords, General Rashid Dostum in Mazar, who serves as Karzai's deputy defense minister. When Dostum's luxurious indoor swimming pool was recently completed, he took his first swim in it with a few U.S. Special Forces according to CNN.(9) Dostum's "men" in his 3,000-strong army, Junbish-e-Millie, rule much of the north and are accused of committing widespread rape against Pashtun women remaining in the area.(10)
With the demise of the Taliban as a fighting force holding territory, the role of the U.S. Special Forces changed. The new role was to carry out commando-style raids usually under the cover of night, upon suspected villages harboring Al-Qaeda or Taliban personnel. The aims are interdiction, kill or abduct, search and destroy. The Special Forces units hired Afghan mercenaries - at $200 a month - which formed the Afghan Militia Forces [or AMF]. Tribal chiefs were paid large sums to remain loyal and to supply men to the AMF.
A large number of assaults by U.S. Special Forces with AMF mercenaries has been carried out. Other nation's Special Forces have also been involved. An American Seal unit called Task Force K-Bar led by a Navy commodore includes German, Canadian, Danish and Norwegian special forces personnel, involved in raids and surveillance in southern Afghanistan.(11) British SAS Forces were involved in operations along the Kwaja Amran mountain range in Ghazni and the Hada Hills near Spin Boldak.(12) Some raids have been reported and many have not. The pattern is the same: helicopters descend out of the sky in the middle of the night, troops rush into a village, knocking down doors, firing M-4 assault rifles, lobbing Flash-Bang grenades, yelling, searching women, arresting people, tying up suspects with plastic handcuffs, and abducting a group of people to major U.S. bases either in Kandahar or Bagram. The terror perpetrated upon mostly innocent villagers creates lasting fear and resentment towards Americans.
The list of such egregious 'incidents' is very long : Hazar Qadam, Char Chine, Bandi Temur, Sangesar, Maiwand, Kakarak, Alatai, Zani Khel, Surwipan, Narizah, etc. The typical treatment at the U.S. military facility in Kandahar involves kicking, beating and abusing the detainees.(13)
Often raids turn up next to nothing as in cases with Bandi Temur and Narizah. Wally Santana wrote of the Narizah operation,
"flying huge American flags atop their Humvees, U.S. Army Special Forces swept through villages in southeastern Afghanistan last week in search of al-Qaeda and Taliban. In most cases, however, the people and weapons the troops expected to find were gone..."(14)
A week after the conclusion of Operation Mountain Sweep, reports surfaced that some U.S. Special Forces commanders wanted to quit the futile search for Bin Laden.(15) A similar tale is made of a recent U.S. Special Forces sweep of a village, Rebate Jali, in Nimruz province on the Iranian border. Special forces from their new base near Zaranj along with 40 Afghans raided the village. A local official summarized,
"along with the governor, we took the US commanders there because we had reports of the Taliban and Al Qaeda regrouping, but when we arrived they had already fled." (16)
The ferocity and effectiveness of the U.S. bombing campaign were completely misjudged by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, who believed that the mujahideen successes against Soviet air power in the 80s would be repeated. For about half a year after the fall of Kandahar, the Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces scattered and sought merely to escape and hide, into Pakistan's tribal areas and major cities.(17) After the battles of Tora Bora and Shah-i-Kot, the Taliban/Al-Qaeda forces adjusted tactics away from concentrating troops in favor of hit-and-run attacks by small units of 10-12 men and a protracted guerrilla war of attrition. They will rely upon sympathy of the Pashtun population, their knowledge of local terrain, and their much greater ease of movement. It was only in June that a regrouping began to emerge. Attacks started being mounted upon U.S. forces, first in the Pakistani tribal region and later in the eastern and southern provinces of Afghanistan.(18)
The commander of Operation Mountain Lion [in May] said,
"it's a frustrating war. The reason it's so frustrating and aggravating is because the enemy is not fighting. We're trying to find him and he's trying to avoid us. So any time we go out, he fades away. It's just like Vietnam. Any time he finds a weak spot, he flows in like water."(19)
Today, many of the forward bases of the U.S. Special Forces are under intermittent guerrilla attack. Rockets, rocket-propelled grenades, mortar fire hit the bases at night. U.S. troops scamper out to search in vain for the attackers. These nightly attacks upon U.S. troops are confirmed by non-governmental organizations,
"who add that increased restrictions have been placed on the movements of off-duty U.S. forces. U.S. troops reportedly control only the towns where they have bases, and then only in daylight, while the Karzai government reportedly controls only parts of Kabul."(20)
The following chart lists some of the U.S. Special Forces' forward bases, as well as some of the days when they were attacked.(21) The two U.S. bases in Khost - at the airport southeast of the city and at Sarabagh [where U.S. Special Forces train their AMY mercenaries] 5 kms. northeast of the city - have been under more or less constant bombardment since March. On March 4 at 3:20 a.m. two rockets fell on one base and again just after midnight on March 20.(22) By mid-May, reportedly six rocket attacks had been made at Orgun-e, Khost and Miran Shah.(23)
|Lwara base||65 kms. so. of Gardez, in Paktika||May 31, June 22, Aug. 3 and 19, Sept. 20|
|base at Chapman Air Field||1 km from Khost's airfield, in Paktia||March 4 and 20, April 14, June 25, Sept. 2, 11, 15/16 and 17|
|base near Gardez||5 kms. east of Gardez||Aug. 28, Sept. 12 and 21|
|Tarin Kot base||In Uruzgan||July 11|
|Orgun-e [Orgun] base near Shkin||In Paktika||Aug. 11, Sept. 17|
|Kunduz city(24)||Special forces A-team based in safe house in Kunduz|
|base near Asadabad||In Konar||Aug. 23 and 24|
|Herat base||Base on hill above Herat|
|Kandahar base||Base next to huge military camp||April 13/14, June 4, July 11|
|near Zaranj||A Green Beret base 5 kms. from Iran border in Nimruz|
|Miran Shah, Pakistan Camp in vocational schoolhouse||Camp in schoolhouse||May 1, 10 and 11, June 11|
Sources: numerous sources including the Center for Defense Intelligence and Intellnet. The Intelligence Network, at http://www.intellnet.org/news/?type=category&value=Rocket . A report published by Jihad Unspun lists a large number of [questionable] attacks upon U.S. troops, see http://www.jihadunspun.net/articles/08212002-Casualty.Report/casualty03.html . I have not included data from this source.
A U.S. Special Forces soldier was killed while on patrol in Paktia on May 19. On June 17, a Special Forces patrol was fired-upon near Tarin Kot. The same day, another team of 20 U.S. Special Forces troops and 40 Afghan soldiers came under small arms fire near Shkin in the Birmal region of Paktika.(25) In addition, the day after the U.S. attack on the wedding party, a U.S. military convoy was fired upon in Kandahar as troops were returning from the hospital in Kandahar. All assailants escaped. On June 22, a rocket landed near U.S. Special Forces in Khost.(26) On July 11, a U.S. soldier of the 82nd Airborne was hit by a sniper while on patrol near Kandahar. A U.S. convoy en route between Bagram and Kabul was hit by sniper fire on July 13. On July 28, 5 U.S. troops were wounded in a raid upon the village of Ayub Khel in Paktia,(27) On August 28, six rockets landed upon Jalalabad airport and the regional commander's office, having been fired from the old Al-Qaeda camp of Farmada Farms.(28) Before dawn on September 3, four 107mm rockets landed close to U.S. Special Forces operating in southeastern Afghanistan.(29) The worst attack to-date occurred at 11 p.m. on September 15/16 and lasted until the early morning, when at least ten rockets fell upon the Khost bases where over 1,000 U.S. troops are located.(30)
Karzai's contingent of 46 U.S. Special Forces bodyguards swung into less-than-glorious action in early September when an ex-Taliban soldier sought to assassinate him in Kandahar. The U.S. guards responded belatedly to the shooting and killed two innocent Afghans who were wrestling one of the two attackers to the ground. A member of this contingent is pictured below in dress decorum rather unbefitting of a presidential guard. Soon thereafter, orders were given to members of the Special Forces to clean-up their appearance.
What is happening in Afghanistan is essentially a replay of the Soviet experience of the 1980s [with the only difference being that the Soviets could not pursue the mujahideen into Pakistan]. Just as in the Soviet case, it took a year for the mujahideen opposition to regroup and coalesce - this is now happening as the forces of Hekmatyar, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban cooperate.(31) The gradual strengthening of the mujahideen was followed by attacks on the Soviets' Afghan allies, who were easier targets. These attacks then forced the Soviets to take charge of security operations themselves, undermining the illusion of a partnership with a local regime. Precisely this has been happening as the U.S. provides protection to Karzai and as it moves the 82nd Airborne Division units into southeastern and western Afghanistan. Philip Smucker reported that
"faced with mounting guerrilla activity inside Afghanistan, the U.S. military has opened a new front in its war on terror by sending troops to the country's porous border with Iran. Senior Afghan security officials said the raids, by hundreds of US troops on smuggling dens and remote villages, were based on US and Afghan intelligence reports that have placed senior al-Qaeda operating along Afghanistan's western border."(32)
Moreover, U.S. Special Forces are now disbanding their mercenary AMF units, encouraging these to merge with the new Afghan national army.(33)
Yet, for all their numerical and technological advantages, the Americans and their allies have not figured out to confront a foe so skilled at concealment. The Soviets referred to their Afghan adversaries as dukhi, the Russian word for ghosts, invisible spirits who attacked out of nowhere only to disappear into nowhere.(34) Russian observers have noted that the United States is at roughly the same stage where they were in 1981, supporting a weak central government, faced with a bubbling opposition.
Ambushes, hit-and-run, rising popular resentment, coalescing opposition forces and an invisible enemy all point to a Vietnam redux.
1. Kathy Gannon, "US Forces Disgruntle Civilians in Remote Province," Associated Press [September 9, 2002]
2. "Wedding Party Bombing. Americans Are No Different From Russians, Say Bereaved Afghans," The Straits Times [July 11, 2002]
3. Severin Carrell and Andrew Gumbel, "US Special Forces Injured in a Night Raid on Kandahar," The Independent [November 4, 2001]
4. Luke Harding, Julian Borger and Richard Norton-Taylor, "British Press Corroborates Hersh Delta Force Report," The Guardian [November 6, 2002]
5. see Agence France-Presse, "Anti-Taleban Forces Make Biggest Push of Afghan Campaign," Hindustan Times [November 7, 2001]
6. Jim Risman, "Slow Death on the Jail Convoys of Misery," Antiwar.com [July 11, 2002], at http://www.antiwar.com/orig/rissman1.html , Stefan Steinberg, "Interview with Jamie Doran, Director of Massacre at Mazar," wsws.org [June 17, 2002], at : http://www.wsws.org/articles/2002/jun2002/dora-j17.shtml , and Luke Harding, "Afghan Massacre Haunts Pentagon," The Guardian [September 14, 2002]
7. Harding, op. cit.
8. Robert Fisk, "Return to Afghanistan: Ladies and Gentlemen, Let's Have a Big Hand for Gul Agha - the UN's Warlord of the Year," The Independent [August 9, 2002] at http://www.independent.co.uk/story.jsp?story=322793
9. "Ornate Pool a Rarity in War-Torn Afghanistan," CNN.com [September 9, 2002 at 0613 GMT], at : http://europe.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/asiapcf/central/09/07/afghan.pool.ap/index.html for more photos too.
10. David Filipov, "Warlord's Men Commit Rape in Revenge Against Taliban," Boston Globe [February 24, 2002]
11. John Armstrong, "Websites Divulge SAS Moves in Afghanistan," New Zealand Herald [September 16, 2002]
12. Kim Sengupta, "British Special Forces Leading Hunt for Mullah Omar," The Independent [March 6, 2002]
13. as for example described in Associated Press, "Freed Afghans Say They Were Abused" [March 23, 2002]
14. Wally Santana, " 'Mountain Sweep' Nets Few Taliban," Los Angeles Times [August 26, 2002]
15. James Risen and Eric Schmitt, "Hunt for Bin Laden is Futile, Some U.S. Commanders Say," New York Times [September 3, 2002]
16. Philip Smucker, " 'War on Terror' Moves Toward Iran," Christian Science Monitor [September 16, 2002]
17. Ed Wray, "Al-Qaeda's Core Scattered But Sympathizers May be Growing in Number," USA Today [September 11, 2002]
18. see STRATFOR.com, "Situation Deteriorating Rapidly in Afghanistan" [August 28, 2002], at : http://no-war.1accesshost.com/stratfor1.html
19. an outstanding article by Peter Baker, "GIs Battle 'Ghosts' in Afghanistan. Search for Elusive Enemy Frustrates Americans," Washington Post [May 16, 2002]: A01.
20. STRATFOR.com, op. cit.
21. see for example, "Agence France-Presse, "3 Rockets Fired at US Base in Afghanistan: Report" [September 12, 2002 at 11:22 AM], Associated Press, 'U.S. Compound Near Wedding Site Attacked," USA Today [July 12, 2002], Associated Press, "5 U.S. Soldiers Hit in Afghan Ambush" [July 28, 2002], Reuters, "Rocket Hits Near U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan" [August 20, 2002 at 7:31 AM ET]
22. "Rockets Hit U.S. Afghan Base; Ground Attack Resumes," Reuters [March 5, 2002] and "US and Coalition Troops Come Under Attack From Taliban, al-Qaeda," Agence France-Presse [March 20, 2002 at 4:36 PM]
23. Carol J. Williams, "Afghan Force Maintains High Profile Despite Risks," Los Angeles Times [May 16, 2002]:A5
24. the operations of the Kunduz team are described in David Buchbinder, "U,S. Special Forces Struggle to Find Afghan Enemy," Reuters.co.uk [September 18, 2002 at 02:56 BST]
25. Associated Press, "U.S. Patrols Attacked in Afghanistan" [June 18, 2002]
26. Associated Press, "Rocket Fire Near U.S. Troops" [June 24, 2002]
27. One should treat with great skepticism any battle or casualty reports emanating from the U.S Lt. Colonels at Bagram air base. After all, they say only five people died at the wedding party attack [while the Karzai puppet government cites 48, I estimate 64 and the UN says 80]. Thus, the Bagram version of the U.S. 'reconnaissance party ambush' over this past weekend [July 27/28] upon the village of Ayub Khel, some 12 kms. east of Khost, should be taken lightly at best. Other reports suggest, a U.S. raid upon a village suspected of housing a senior Taliban official, Maulvi Abdul Hakim. The U.S. raiding party was resisted and a full-scale four hour battle ensued in which the village was strafed and bombed by F/A-18s, A-10 Warthogs and Apache attack helicopters, resulting in 25 Afghan deaths, many civilian.
28. Associated Press, "Rockets Fired at Afghan Airport" [August 28, 2002]
29. "Rockets Fired Near U.S. Forces," Associated Press [September 4, 2002]
30. "At Least 10 Rockets Fired at U.S. Afghan Bases," Reuters [September 16, 2002]
31. see Syeed Saleem Shahzad, "The New Afghan Jihad is Born," Asia Times [September 2002], at http://www.atimes.com/atimes/printN.html
32. Philip Smucker, "US Sends Troops to Iran Border as Focus Shifts in al-Qa'eda Hunt," The Daily Telegraph [September 7, 2002] and his "'War on Terror' Moves Toward Iran," Christian Science Monitor [September 16, 2002]
33. Charles Clover, "US Disbanding its Afghan Militia Forces," Financial Times [September 14, 2002]
34. Baker, op. cit.
In yet another of a seeming endless list of example where the United States refuses to take responsibility for the consequences of its actions, so-called 'cultural gaps' are now cited as the reason cooling relations between U.S. troops and Afghans.* Rather than pointing to the very concrete actions of the U.S. military - whether strafing, beatings, brutal interrogations, putting people in cages at the Kandahar base, humiliations [e.g., tying up and searching Afghan women] - the apologiists for the U.S. military and political elites' actions in Afghanistan, point to the bland reality of different cultures.
*Kathy Gannon [Associated Press], "Cultural Gap Cools Relations Between U.S. Troops, Afghans," The Miami Herald [September 22, 2002]
36. And as in Vietnam, naturally, the U.S. Special Forces have their cheerleaders in Afghanistan - various hangers-on, opportunists, persons who genuinely feel their future lies with American tutelage, and all those who can make monies from the Americans' spending.*
*on this latter in the village of Orgun-E, see Indira A.R. Lakshmann, "For US Troops, A Changing Mission," Boston Globe [September 22, 2002], at http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/265/nation/For_US_troops_a_changing_missionP.shtml