GERESHK: Viewed through a heat-seeking telescope, three blurry silver spots pierce the darkness outside Gereshk in southern Afghanistan, creeping across the desert like slow-motion tracer fire. On a high watchtower outside the town an American sentry huddles into the black fleece jacket and thick beard that US special forces uniformly wear in Afghanistan. “Probably just shepherds, but, hell, you never know,” he murmured. “We can’t even tell who’s the enemy in daylight.”
The silvery spots move on, away from the tiny military base, and enter Gereshk, a sandy cluster of war-wrecked warehouses and whitewashed mosques three miles to the east. The US base’s 36 elite Green Berets responsible for hunting the Taliban and Al Qaeda across the vast province of Helmand are sometimes less fortunate. Not that their black-bearded commander, Captain Ed Croot, would admit it.
“Helmand is the Taliban’s logistics centre, they’ve got a lot of drugs, a lot of money here, so it’s not surprising if we’re seeing a fair amount of enemy movement,” Croot said. “But, knock on wood, we’ve not been ambushed or taken any casualties in the past couple of months … things are pretty calm.”
But, according to his soldiers and the local militiamen the US hires to fight alongside them, Croot was not quite telling the truth. Last month a special force operative, Special Sergeant Paul Sweeney, was killed and his interpreter was wounded in a Taliban ambush at Musa Qaleh, 30 miles north of Gereshk. More than 150 American special forces, including CIA paramilitaries, are now combing the area “to settle the score”, as one soldier in Gereshk put it.
Three days earlier the corpses of two Afghan informers were brought to the US special force base, with bullet wounds to the head. The killing followed a battle between America’s local allies and Gereshk’s police force in which around 40 civilians were killed, according to officials in the town.
The battle began after Gereshk’s police chief shot dead the militia’s leader, Mohamed Edris. The militiamen said he had been killed because he had captured 22 suspected Taliban members for the Americans in the past six months.
Jalil Ahmed, a militiaman, said: “Ninety per cent of the people here used to work in the Taliban government. Of course they tell the Americans they’re glad that they’re here, but it’s not true. They are not happy; they don’t want the Americans here.”
America’s elite soldiers also know this. “As soon as we leave the base, we see lights flashing down the highway for miles,” one senior officer said. “Whenever we enter the town the horns start hooting. The enemy intelligence network is on top of every move we make.”
Across impoverished southern and eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban’s tribal homeland, the same desperate pattern is emerging. Military analysts and aid agency bosses in Kabul say America’s two-year military campaign has failed to root out the Taliban or to bring peace.
“The Taliban are getting stronger; they’re regrouping, reorganizing, and we’re getting a lot of fire right now,” said Sergeant Ken Green, a National Guardsman seconded to US special forces. “We’ve racked up over 1,000 kills in just the last five weeks, mostly by air, putting B-52s over those insurgents and bombing the hell out of them.”
This week the US launched its biggest ground attack yet against the Taliban, into the mountains of south-eastern Afghanistan. Codenamed Operation Avalanche, the attack is expected to involve 2,000 of the 10,000 US troops stationed in the country.
According to Pentagon officials in Kabul the 10,000 US forces in Afghanistan, and their 170 international allies, have been attacked more times in the past three months than in the previous 12.
Officially, 18 American soldiers have been killed this year and 20 wounded, mostly along the border with Pakistan, where the Taliban’s shadowy leaders are believed to have found refuge.
That toll may be lower than the number of Americans killed in Iraq. But, compared with the number of Iraqis being killed, the death toll among Afghans is much higher. Officially, US troops killed nearly 400 Afghan fighters in September alone.
“We’re trying to get the country to a stable point, and part of that is you have to kill the bad guys,” Croot said. Yet the “bad guys” keep coming. And American troops are also killing civilians, including 15 children in air strikes in southern Afghanistan in the past week.
The problem, say the same analysts in Kabul, is twofold. First, driven by the US department of defence, America has concentrated on killing and capturing its enemies to the cost of delivering order and development. Washington’s offer of $1.2 billion in aid looks less generous when set against the annual $10 billion cost of its military campaign.
And with few aid agencies now operating in southern Afghanistan, after 15 aid workers were killed in Taliban attacks, little aid money is likely to be spent there. The UN has withdrawn foreign staff to Kabul and forbidden them from walking in the city or even eating in its restaurants.
Second, analysts say Washington’s military campaign is failing. To seek out its enemies the US relies heavily on local allies such as the unruly militiamen in Gereshk. “The truth is, are a bunch of Americans, or Brits or French, going to catch the bad guys? No, their intelligence network is amazing,” Croot said. “Almost every contact we have with them is a chance contact, and it’s usually started by them.”
Many analysts suggest that America’s local allies are not impartial professionals. “US forces in the field have a very sketchy understanding of the political environment they’re operating in,” said Vikram Parekh of the International Crisis Group, a thinktank. “They’ve relied on some extremely compromised intelligence from their local allies, and in the process exacerbated existing rivalries that have nothing to do with the Taliban.”
“You have good days and bad days, but in the end you have good days: what we’re doing here isn’t a complete waste,” said Chief Warrant Officer Gary Borrowdale, a thoughtful, well-mannered soldier, like most of the special forces men in Gereshk.
Asked whether he expected to defeat the Taliban, he said: “Probably not, but that goes for most of these terrorist groups – you can’t defeat them.” -Dawn/The Guardian News Service.