Wednesday, November 9, 2011

special units do the dirty work in Afghanistan

Insurgents prowling the steep mountains and narrow valleys of this remote land have a name for the U.S. Special Forces: "Bearded Bastards."

Growing facial hair is one way U.S. Green Berets blend in among the locals here along the Pakistan border. Their specialty is what the military calls the "self-sustaining element," a force able to fight for long periods in extreme conditions.

"We operate in the seams and gaps where conventional forces can't go," says Maj. Eric Wright, a Special Forces advance operational base commander in nearby Khost Province.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks more than a decade ago, U.S. Special Forces have been embedded here — and in conflict areas such as the Philippines, Yemen and Somalia — in an attempt to quash insurgent Islamists and train locals to take up the fight against them.

In Afghanistan, military officers and analysts say Special Forces have boosted security in areas once held by the Taliban. They are getting increased cooperation from locals to repel insurgents in what former U.S. commander David Petraeus calls a potential "game changer" for the country.

Army Brig. Gen. Jefforey Smith, assistant commanding general at the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, says the Taliban "is not re-emerging" in areas where locals have been fully trained. But some analysts worry that despite years of effort from Special Forces and others, such gains may not last beyond NATO's planned withdrawal in December 2014.

"It is unlikely that these indigenous forces — military, police, and militia — will be capable of independently securing the country against the wide range of terrorist and insurgent groups that will still be present in the region in 2014," said Ashley Tellis, a senior associate for the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In Afghanistan, commanders say, Special Forces have become an indispensable component of a strategy that involves killing the enemy in places where no one else can, and acting as ambassadors, protectors and instructors to Afghans who have expressed a desire to free themselves of militants and overlords. Chamkani is a rugged world.

Villagers here live in valleys and steep hills that can rise to 9,500 feet. Dark clouds blot out the sun, which makes it difficult for helicopters to fly here. That leaves the U.S. troops without transport, supplies and, more important, air support during dangerous operations.

It's the kind of place where regular Army does not go, and Green Berets often are sent. The mission is to clear out insurgents and create local defense groups who can keep them out.

"We embed in territories that aren't enforceable by 'Big Army' (conventional U.S. troops)," says a 41-year-old master sergeant here who has deployed to Afghanistan several times. Like all Special Forces members on the battlefield, he is prohibited from disclosing his name.

Created in the early 1950s, the Green Berets saw their first major action in Vietnam, where they honed counterinsurgency tactics and trained small groups of Vietnamese soldiers to fight Viet Cong guerrillas. They later trained troops in Latin America who were fighting communist insurgencies in places such as El Salvador and Colombia.

Training for Green Berets involves grueling physical and psychological challenges that three out of four candidates fail in training.

In Afghanistan, there are about 10,000 such U.S. special operations troops, which can include Navy SEALs and others, according to NATO. The latest figures from April to July indicate that 2,832 special operations raids captured 2,941 insurgents and killed another 834.

The Green Berets in Chamkani often hike for several miles on some missions into areas inhabited by insurgents who use the twisting mountain passes to move arms, explosives and fighters from Pakistan.

On one recent day, troops operating out of a small base surrounded by jagged peaks were conducting "village stability operations," in which Afghans are trained in law enforcement techniques and then asked to visit with local leaders.

The aim is to bridge these remote villages to the U.S.-allied federal Afghan government, whose influence is virtually non-existent. So far, the village stability operations (VSO) in the area have had "mixed" results, says Lt. Col. Bob Wilson, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group.

"We've done very well in Chamkani proper (the district's largest town), in the village and the bazaar," he says. "But as you move further away, there is a significant increase in Taliban influence from across the border. The people are intimidated by the Taliban's presence and their communities are hesitant to support VSO."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants Afghans to handle all security by the end of 2014, when all foreign troops are scheduled to depart Afghanistan. NATO is training hundreds of thousands of Afghans at less-remote bases across the country. However, it is the police officers in smaller villages all over Afghanistan who are expected to be the first line of defense against a Taliban retaking of territory won by coalition forces.

In the past, 1,555 Afghan police officers have been killed according to NATO figures. That's about double the number of Afghan soldiers killed during the same period.

Before he retired this summer, Petraeus stressed that the local defense forces in the thousands of rural villages where most Afghans live is the key to defeating the Taliban. Special Forces commanders here agree, saying the flow of foreign fighters from Pakistan must be stopped by those who live here if peace is to prevail.

There have been several attacks on the Chamkani military base. Since this Green Beret unit's arrival in the spring, the base has been hit with at least 120 rockets and mortars, making it one of the most targeted military outposts in Afghanistan. There were five attacks here in October, Garcia says.

On the last day of Ramadan in late August, three rockets hit nearby. Two exploded, scorching the outside of a perimeter wall and setting ablaze a nearby hillside.

"It's almost like shooting fish in a fish bowl … and we're the fish," said the Special Forces sergeant.

The Green Berets do get out. Working with Afghan commandos they conduct regular missions throughout the valley here. In one recent battle the Special Forces say they killed 25 insurgents, a toll rarely achieved by conventional forces in one fight.


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