It was mid-afternoon when a tribal elder invited a U.S. military commander for a quiet chat in a garden. His village was surrounded by foreign troops, hunting around the mountain valley in search of infiltrators from Pakistan rumoured to be lurking in the barren hills.
Thirty soldiers from a French airborne platoon wandered farthest from the village, exploring a steep slope covered with rocks and scrubby vegetation under a high ridge.
That hill would soon become a killing ground, scene of the deadliest ambush against international forces since 2001, and the latest troubling sign that the insurgents are mastering the art of guerrilla war.
A NATO report on the incident obtained by The Globe and Mail provides the most in-depth account so far of an attack on Aug. 18 that shook the countries involved in the increasingly bloody campaign. The NATO report, marked “secret,” reveals woefully unprepared French troops surprised by well-armed insurgents in a valley east of Kabul. Ten soldiers were killed, the report concludes, but the other soldiers were lucky to escape without more deaths.
The French did not have enough bullets, radios and other equipment, the report said. The troops were forced to abandon a counterattack when the weapons on their vehicles ran out of ammunition only 90 minutes into a battle that stretched over two days. One French platoon had only a single radio and it was quickly disabled, leaving them unable to call for help. Chillingly, in an indication that the French troopers may have been at the mercy of their attackers, the dead soldiers from that platoon “showed signs of being killed at close range,” the report said.
By contrast, the insurgents were dangerously well prepared. The investigation found evidence of well-trained snipers among the guerrillas – highly unusual, because the Taliban are frequently mocked for their poor marksmanship – and indications they were supplied with incendiary bullets designed to punch holes in armour.
Insurgents have spread rumours in recent weeks that they captured French soldiers during the ambush, perhaps even videotaping their executions. “Maybe I will make her my wife,” said Mullah Rahmatullah, a local commander, describing a captive female soldier in a boastful conversation with a researcher for The Globe and Mail. Other rumours described French soldiers dying of stab wounds.
But senior Western officials say this was a disinformation campaign by the Taliban, who notoriously exaggerate their victories. The classified military review concludes that all French dead were killed by insurgent fire, except one soldier who died in a vehicle accident.
The French military declined to comment for this article, but French officers have previously spoken about the ambush in fatalistic tones, as if the insurgents inevitably score an occasional success.
“Our comrades fell during an ambush. They couldn’t have done anything. It’s a tactic as old as Herod,” a French officer told Le Figaro, a daily newspaper in Paris.
But only a swift rescue mission by other international forces prevented more serious losses, the report said, also crediting a heroic performance by a French intelligence officer who was wounded in the leg but did not stop leading his troops.
“This contact could have been much worse,” the report said.
Military forces routinely conduct so-called “after-action” reviews in the wake of major incidents; in keeping with the usual practice, the report on the French ambush examines only the battle itself, on Aug. 18 and 19, in the Uzbin valley about 40 kilometres east of Kabul.
But other analysts have looked at the incident in a broader context, speculating that trends in the Uzbin valley, and beyond, may have contributed to the deadly incident. Some observers connect the French ambush with attacks that killed nine American soldiers in July and another that killed three Canadians earlier this month, all of them examples of bold strikes against international forces by insurgents who seem increasingly skilled at guerrilla warfare.Unlike the crude tactics witnessed by Canadian troops in 2006, when the insurgents dug trenches and bunkers, camping out in groups of several hundred and making themselves easy targets for aerial bombing, insurgents in the recent high-profile attacks have gathered ad-hoc units by pulling together many small bands of fighters for specific missions.
A similar, temporary grouping of fighters assembled before the French ambush, two Western security officials said, adding that the attackers cannot be described as purely Taliban; they likely included fighters from the Taliban movement, but also from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami network, and perhaps from other groups.
Senior officials said they suspect the involvement of Hazrat Noor, an extremist leader from South Waziristan, in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan. A report in the French magazine Paris Match suggested a local commander named Farouki may be responsible. Yet another insurgent leader, Mullah Rahmatullah, has also taken credit for the ambush. Originally a commander for Hizb-i-Islami in the Uzbin valley, Mr. Rahmatullah now reputedly gets funding for his activities from both the Taliban and Mr. Hekmatyar. All reports may be correct, observers say, assuming that many groups co-operated on the attack.
The appearance of well-trained marksmen among the insurgents may point toward the involvement of extremists trained in Pakistani territory, said Brigadier-General Richard Blanchette, a Canadian who serves as chief spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.
“We do have hints that al-Qaeda provides training to some insurgents on the other side of the border,” Brig.-Gen. Blanchette said. “Because it’s close, it would be very reasonable to believe that this could have been an influence of outside training.” He added: “The fact that they have more sophisticated arms is perhaps also a sign there’s a connection to outsiders.”
By one account, the insurgents were preparing for a strike against the government headquarters in Surobi town, but found a ready target when a column of military vehicles snaked up the narrow road among the steeps hills of the valley. They were driving toward a small collection of mud houses known as Spur Kunday, in the valley east of Kabul, investigating reports of 40 Pakistanis sheltering in the village.
“This attack was most likely the result of two things,” the NATO report said. “Either, A) the ISAF forces picked a village that had a great deal of insurgents. The insurgents moved to defensive positions upon the ISAF approach and executed a rehearsed plan.
The report continued: “Or, B) the insurgents had intelligence indicating the route and destination.”
The village initially seemed quiet. A U.S. Special Forces commander and interpreter talked with locals, and got the usual answers supplied by ordinary Afghans when they find themselves surrounded by foreign troops. “All villagers said that they supported the government, there was no trouble here,” the report said.
A tribal elder asked to speak with the U.S. officer alone, and they arranged for a private meeting in a garden, but the elder broke off the conversation when he noticed a local police officer eavesdropping on the exchange. The elder was escorting the soldier back to his vehicle when shooting erupted from a ridge overlooking the village to the east.
In that direction, a French platoon was doing reconnaissance by climbing a hill that sloped upward several hundred metres. Many soldiers were holding positions in the valley, providing security for the meetings at the village, but the platoon of 30 French airborne troops had left their vehicles and hiked more than a kilometre away from the main group, spreading themselves out in an area roughly 300 metres by 300 metres. They were in a vulnerable position, looking up at rocky ridges to the north, south, and east, and that’s where the insurgents struck most fiercely.
Soldiers’ accounts in the French media say the fighting started at 3 p.m. and they endured four hours without reinforcements. The NATO report gives no timeline, but details a bloody struggle for survival as the foreign troops were incapable of retreating.
The stranded French platoon soon lost communication with the rest of the soldiers, making it impossible for them to call for air support. “This was probably due to the fact that the French platoon had only one radio,” the report said.
From high positions overlooking the foreign troops, the insurgents rained down devastatingly effective fire. All three U.S. Humvee jeeps had their windows struck with well-aimed bullets. Large sparks trailed out from the bullet impact sites, suggesting the insurgents were using incendiary rounds.
“The enemy’s accuracy was very good,” the document said.
While praising the performance of U.S. and French troops under the onslaught, the report singled out the Afghan soldiers for criticism.
Fifteen troops from the Afghan National Army had accompanied the patrol in three Ford Ranger pickup trucks, but two of the vehicles were disabled under what the report described as “withering machinegun fire.” Four Afghan soldiers were wounded. Eventually the ANA troops decided to run away on foot.
“The ANA performed very poorly,” the report said. “The ANA force spent much of the time lounging on the battlefield. When they finally dispersed, most left their military equipment [including] weapons ID cards, and other items for the enemy.”
Reinforcements from nearby military bases eventually forced the insurgents to retreat, but some fighting continued through the night and into the next morning. The final tally was 10 French killed and 18 French wounded, with estimates of 15 insurgents killed and 18 wounded.
The French dead were not recovered from the battlefield until midday on Aug. 19, the report said. Some had been stripped of their equipment by the ambushers.
The final sentence of the NATO report suggests the military forces should return to the valley, prepared for another fight.
“Further presence in this denied area is crucial to disrupt the insurgent freedom of movement in what is a long-held and uninterrupted safe haven.”