[A-List] Afghanistan: the blowback continues
Michael.Keaney at mbs.fi
Wed Mar 6 03:33:51 MST 2002
Friends and foes
The failure of a US-led assault on al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan
demonstrates its lack of understanding of power struggles among
warlords, says Charles Clover and Richard Wolffe
Financial Times: March 6 2002
Commander Abdul Mateen Hassankheil sips from a glass of green tea and
smiles wryly behind his mirrored sunglasses. "There is a typical Afghan
tradition," he says. "Afghanistan is a country where your best friend
can become your worst enemy. And vice versa. This is our Afghan
He is well placed to understand. Ten years ago, he, Padshah Khan and
Saifurahman - three army division commanders in Gardez, Afghanistan -
visited each other often as colleagues. Today, Mr Hassankheil sits in
Saifurahman's former office, while the latter, one of the last remaining
Taliban commanders, is 30km away in the Shahi-kot mountains, battling
against Mr Hassankheil's troops and their US allies.
Eight American servicemen have lost their lives there, most of them
dying when a Chinook helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade as
it attempted to set down a reconnaissance team this week. Afghan
government forces are estimated to have lost seven men.
Commander Hassankheil thinks that he knows why: bad intelligence, bad
co-ordination and reliance on untrustworthy local commanders. In all, he
says, "the US does not understand our local politics. It does not know
whom to trust, and trusts the wrong people."
The battle for Shahi-kot looks like a turning point in the Afghan
conflict, as critical as the initial battle for the northern town of
Mazar-e-Sharif, which led to the collapse of the Taliban regime last
year. Depending on its outcome, the deadly firefight will either
encourage other al-Qaeda fighters to mount guerrilla assaults or break
the back of the foreign fighters and help to establish the authority of
Kabul's new government.
Operation Anaconda - involving more than 1,000 US and coalition troops
alongside a similar number of Afghan fighters - has already proved the
biggest and bloodiest Afghan ground assault led by US forces to date.
Their enemies are up to 1,000 al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters fighting to
the death in one of Afghanistan's notorious cave and tunnel complexes in
a region close to the Pakistani border that has not been secured.
The perilous assault underscores how the politics and military tactics
have shifted in Afghanistan. Planned for several weeks, the operation's
reliance on such large numbers of American lives reflects the
realisation that the combination of US air strikes and Afghan ground
troops is not enough to clear the remaining enemy fighters.
But it is also a recognition that the enemies at Shahi-kot are mounting
a challenge to the new government in Kabul, led by Hamid Karzai, whom
the US and its allies are determined to defend. Abdullah Abdullah, the
Afghan foreign minister, said on CBS television yesterday that the goal
of the al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters at Shahi-kot was simple. "It is to
destabilise the interim government and to create hopes for smaller
pockets of al-Qaeda and Taliban which are in the other parts of the
country, that they can resist."
Faulty intelligence has already proved deadly in Afghanistan. US forces
killed at least 16 fighters loyal to the new government in the village
of Hazar Qadam, north of Kandahar, in January. While the Pentagon
insists that the US forces were merely returning hostile fire, Afghan
officials have suggested the US was duped by local warlords.
As the Pentagon investigates what went wrong in Shahi-kot this week, Mr
Hassankheil says Padshah Khan, his former military ally, is to blame. It
all began a few weeks ago, when Saifurahman, the fearsome Taliban
commander, and his men moved into some villages near Shahi-kot,
according to Taj Mohammed, the provincial governor.
Saifurahman was paralysed in both hands as a result of an injury, and
told the governor that his men could not go back to their village
because they were fugitives. He had promised the governor, through an
emissary, that his men meant no harm. "I wish now that the bullet had
hit his heart and not his hands," the governor said on Monday.
A short time before, the US military had become aware that some 1,000
al-Qaeda troops were massing in the area. On Friday, the coaliation
force, led by 60 American troops, a mix of special forces and the 101st
Airborne Division, and the Afghan troops, moved into the area.
Khyal Mohammed, a 22-year-old who started working for the Americans a
month ago for $200 a month, was one of Afghan soldiers who set out at
11pm on Friday night in trucks, snaking up the treacherous mountain
roads towards Shahi-kot with their lights off. "They didn't tell us
anything about what we would be doing," he said from his hospital bed in
Before the assault even started, the truck Mr Mohammed was in overturned
and he and three others were taken to a local hospital for injuries.
Later on Saturday, three other members of his unit were brought in with
shrapnel wounds and told the story. They had been ambushed and beaten
back. One American was killed, another injured. They had all fled for
their lives, says Mr Mohammed.
Based on a number of interviews on the ground in Gardez and Kabul, it
appears that the US may have fallen into a trap of relying for
information on a few local militia commanders, who led them astray.
According to Mr Hassankheil, this information on Saifurahman's
whereabouts and numbers was provided to the US by his old friend, Mr
Khan. He says Mr Khan had told the Americans that his forces had already
attacked Saifurahman's, and the US-led contingent was to move up a
different mountain pass, in a flanking movement. This would explain the
lack of bombing by the US.
In reality, he says, Mr Khan's troops were not even in the area. Taliban
and Al-Qaeda forces, led by Saifurahman, ambushed them. Saifurahman and
his men number perhaps double the original estimate of 400-500,
according to most of the Afghans who have been at the front. US
officials say they are well dug into a network of natural and artificial
caves. The US and its Afghan allies have surrounded the area, and
aircraft have been hammering Shahi-kot since Saturday with a variety of
bunker-busting bombs. Yesterday the US-led force appeared to be
regrouping, as hundreds of soldiers were moved back from the front and
pick-up trucks full of reinforcements arrived from the town of Joji.
Commander Hassankheil's former friend, Mr Khan, previously provided
misleading information to the US, according to many people in Gardez,
including the new Kabul-appointed governor Taj Mohammed. "The US used to
rely on Padshah Khan for information," he said. "But I doubt they will
any more." On December 20, the US bombed a convoy of tribal elders who
locals say were on their way to Kabul, to attend a ceremony in Kabul
honoring the new government. Mr Khan had told the US that the group were
Taliban and al-Qaeda. This was never proved either way, but the
certainly belonged to a clan that had become an enemy of Mr Khan.
Mr Khan has many of those. He was appointed governor of the local
province in January, but lost the post after protests. Mr Khan, reached
by satellite telephone yesterday, denied that he had misled the US, and
insisted that everyone in Gardez making accusations against him was a
member of al-Qaeda. He said the current US campaign in Shahi-kot had
vindicated him. "I was the one and only person insisting that that there
are al-Qaeda members over there. Finally the Americans understood. No
one would believe me. Now I have been proved right."
As the US becomes increasingly engaged in anti-terrorist operations
around the world - including the remote Philippine island of Basilan and
the Pankisi Gorge amid the Caucasus mountains of Georgia - a familiar
ghost is emerging from the conflicting reports in hostile territory. A
slip of the tongue by Tommy Franks, the commander of US forces in
Afghanistan, gave an unwitting glimpse of what has been uppermost in the
minds of military planners.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, he said: "First let me say that our
thoughts and prayers go out to the families and the friends of the
service members who have lost their lives in our ongoing operations in
Full article at:
Mercuria Business School
michael.keaney at mbs.fi
More information about the A-List