One Hundred U.S. Soldiers


by Sune Engel Rasmussen

in Kabul for The Guardian

22 August 2016


More than a hundred US troops have been sent to Lashkar Gah to help prevent the Taliban from overrunning the capital of Afghanistan’s Helmand province, in what is thought to be the first US deployment to the embattled city since foreign troops withdrew in 2014.

Since late July, the Taliban have seized new territory across Helmand, defying a series of about 30 US airstrikes, and raising concern of an attack on the capital. The militants have also stepped up attacks in the country’s north, closing in on Kunduz, which they briefly captured last year.

“This is a big effort by the Taliban. This is probably the most serious push we’ve seen of the season,” Brig Gen Charles Cleveland, spokesman for the coalition forces in Afghanistan, told reporters on Monday.

Cleveland called the US reinforcement in Helmand a “temporary effort” to advise the Afghan police, though he declined to say how long it was expected to last, citing “security reasons”.

“They’re not about to go out and conduct operations or something like that,” Cleveland said.

Neither did he specify the exact number of troops, but said they numbered “about a hundred”. Sources in Helmand believe about 130 US troops have arrived at the airport where they will be based.

The most significant Taliban advances have been Nawa and Nad Ali districts, a stone’s throw west of Lashkar Gah, where the government retain control of only a few administrative buildings.

The situation has become so bad that civilian elders of Nawa, traditionally one of Helmand’s most peaceful districts, have asked the provincial governor for weapons to join the fight, said Wali Mohammad, a villager from that district.

The Taliban also continue to block parts of the main highway leading north from Lashkar Gah, said Mohammad Rasoul Zazai, spokesman of the Afghan army’s 215th Corps. He said the road would take days to clear because it had been heavily mined.

In recent days, the Taliban have also closed in on Baghlan province, as well as Kunduz, the northern city they seized for two weeks last year, where a US airstrike destroyed a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) trauma centre.

On Saturday, government forces were briefly pushed out of the nearby Khanabad district. Fighting has already forced families to flee, as they did barely one year ago.

In Helmand, MSF has relocated part of its international staff from Lashkar Gah.

The uptick in violence has caused the Afghan army to send senior commanders around the country in a flurry to boost morale. Efforts have concentrated on Helmand, where government forces have reportedly fled the battlefield when faced with attacks, despite vastly outnumbering the Taliban.

Meanwhile, as soldiers and police are looking to commanders for military guidance, the political leadership in Kabul is on the brink of disaster as well.

In a rare public outburst, President Ashraf Ghani’s government partner, chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, recently lashed out at the president for neglecting him, calling him “unfit” to rule the country.



House-to-House Fighting In Kunduz


by Josh Smith

Stars & Stripes

October 7, 2015


KUNDUZ, Afghanistan — Police and soldiers lined key intersections and manned checkpoints in Kunduz city Wednesday, but few civilians ventured into the glass-strewn streets after more than a week of sometimes fierce fighting to reclaim the city from Taliban insurgents.

Fighting continued Wednesday, and heavy gunfire could be heard as troops went house to house trying to root out entrenched insurgents, six days after President Ashraf Ghani declared the city secure.

Many shops and houses appeared damaged by bullet strikes, with a few burned-out vehicles left in the streets, which were littered with broken glass from shop windows. Among the abandoned vehicles in the middle of one road was a shiny new city fire engine, riddled with bullet holes.

The government, backed by U.S. special operations forces and airstrikes, launched an offensive Thursday to retake the city from insurgents who overran it in a surprise, complex strike three days earlier. Since, then, control of the central square has repeatedly changed hands, with each side tearing down the other’s flag and hoisting its own. On Wednesday, the government flag was flying over the main square.

A large poster of Taliban nemesis Ahmed Shah Massoud, Afghanistan’s national hero, had been torn down and vandalized, the eyes gouged out. Massoud led resistance against the Taliban for years until he was assassinated by al-Qaida on Sept. 9, 2001, two days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Power was out in many parts of the city, with some entrepreneurs setting up mobile phone-charging stations connected to generators. Residents described a worsening humanitarian situation, especially after most aid organizations were forced to pull out.

“We are already in a nightmare; people started dying of hunger and health problems,” said resident Gul Mohammad.

Near the airport, a few miles south of the city, rocket batteries fired at suspected Taliban positions across the Kunduz River to the west.

In Kabul, a spokesman for Ghani said some “scattered elements of the enemy” remained in residential areas of Kunduz as operations continued to clear the Taliban from the city, The Associated Press reported.

Both security forces and residents described a lightning Taliban offensive on Sept. 28 that met with very little initial resistance from government forces.

By the time troops pushed back into the city of 300,000, Taliban fighters had taken up positions in houses and other buildings. Sherzaman, a 40-year-old militia fighter, said he was wounded in one effort to dislodge two Taliban gunmen from the upper floor of a construction company building. When the militia tried to run up the stairs, Sherzaman was shot in the leg. The enraged militia fighters then doused the building in gasoline, set it on fire and burned the two Taliban to death.

At the headquarters of the Afghan army’s 2nd Brigade, 209th Corps, south of the city, it was apparent that American and coalition advisers remain at the center of government efforts to retake the strategically important city. Troops from the U.S., Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom mixed with Afghan soldiers and police.

The base, which lies just south of the airport that became a government stronghold when the Taliban occupied the city on Sept. 28, is teeming with regular army advisers and special forces soldiers. Afghan military casualties evacuated by helicopter were being transported to an Afghan base in Mazar-e-Sharif, the largest city in northern Afghanistan.

Among the U.S. advisers were troops from the 10th Mountain Division, including Col. Paul Sarat, who commands the coalition’s northern training and advising command.

But it’s the special forces troops who are at the heart of the fighting.

They are also at the center of a controversy over the airstrike last week that killed 22 medical staff and patients at a hospital in the city run by the Doctors Without Borders medical volunteer group. It has been reported that American special operations forces may have been involved in calling in the strike by an AC-130 gunship.

Doctors Without Borders — also known by the group’s French acronym, MSF — has said it believes the bombing was a war crime. The politically influential group is also calling for an independent probe by an international investigative commission.

U.S. officials say they are investigating, but the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell, believes the troops involved may not have followed the rules of engagement, The New York Times reported Wednesday, citing unnamed officials.

A contingent of the elite special forces soldiers has been based permanently at Kunduz airport for about five months, since the Taliban made their first major push on the city, which was unsuccessful.

Nestled among barracks housing Afghan commandos, the special forces compound gives indications that the troops here are involved in more than classroom instruction.

Their camp, which appeared to house both U.S. and German troops, bristles with heavy machine guns, sniper rifles with suppressors, advanced communications equipment, and a variety of sand-colored vehicles, including dune buggies, 4×4 all-terrain vehicles, up-armored Humvees and pickup trucks with Afghan military markings.

Afghan commandos say they are conducting operations nearly every night, especially near the old Bala Hisar fortress, which overlooks the town.

Despite the declared end of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan at the end of last year, Americans have been drawn back into the fighting as the Taliban have made gains during their summer offensive.

U.S. airstrikes were said to have been key to preventing the Taliban from overrunning Kunduz airport, and many Afghan troops here bemoan the fact that there have been no more in the area since the hospital strike early Saturday.

Afghan aircraft have continued airstrikes, however, as government troops continue to struggle to fully clear the city of Taliban resistance.



US Special Forces Fighting Insurgents


by Josh Smith & Zubair Babakarkhail

Stars & Stripes

September 30, 2015


KABUL, Afghanistan — American special operations troops joined the battle around Kunduz on Wednesday, exchanging fire with Taliban fighters near the airport where Afghan forces withdrew after ceding control of the city two days before, the U.S.-led coalition announced.

“Coalition special forces advisers, to include U.S. servicemembers, while advising and assisting elements of the Afghan security forces, encountered an insurgent threat in the vicinity of the Kunduz airport,” U.S. military spokesman Col. Brian Tribus said in a statement.

Tribus acknowledged the special operations troops are in Afghanistan to “advise and assist,” but that “servicemembers have the right to protect themselves if necessary.”

He did not specify what other nationalities may have been involved in the firefight but the French news agency Agence France-Presse, citing a Western official, said special operations advisers in Kunduz come from several countries, including Britain, Germany and the United States.

The Reuters news agency quoted a senior Afghan security official as saying about 100 U.S. special operations troops fought off Taliban attackers threatening to breach the airport early Wednesday.

The American troops, wearing night-vision goggles, left the airport and killed the assailants before returning, the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief media about the fighting.

Fighting around Kunduz, a city of about 300,000, has centered around the airport, where Afghan forces are trying to launch a counteroffensive to recapture the city. Reports from the scene said the counteroffensive faltered Tuesday because of stiff Taliban resistance including improvised explosive devices along the road into the town about 6.5 miles to the north of the airport.

The U.S. has carried out at least three airstrikes in the airport area, coalition officials have reported.

U.S. aircraft also launched a failed attempt to airdrop supplies to a force of besieged Afghans who were later forced to surrender, an Afghan official told The New York Times. Coalition officials did not immediately respond to requests for information on airdrops.

The coalition said one of its servicemembers died of a “nonbattle cause” on Tuesday in northern Afghanistan, but that the incident was not connected to the situation in Kunduz.

Kunduz is the first major urban center the insurgents have occupied since the American invasion that ousted them from power in 2001 following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. During the past year, the guerrillas succeeded in seizing several small district centers but only held them briefly before being chased out by government reinforcements.

Convoys of reinforcements spent all day trying to force their way through Taliban roadblocks, ambushes, and roadside bombs to try to reach the beleaguered security forces, who are relying mostly on the airport for resupply.

The Defense Ministry claimed that one of the airstrikes on Tuesday night, guided by Afghan intelligence, had killed the Taliban shadow governor of Kunduz, Maulavi Abdul Salaam, along with his deputy and 15 fighters. Salaam was one of the top commanders of the forces that seized Kunduz in Monday’s stunning offensive, according to the ministry.

The claim was rejected by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, who insisted Salaam is still alive.

Afghan leaders say their plans to retake the city are complicated by trying to protect civilians, many of whom have been prevented from leaving by the militants.

On Wednesday, the United Nations warned that the crisis is leading to civilian deaths and abuses.

“The reports of extrajudicial executions, including of health care workers; abductions; denial of medical care; and restrictions on movement out of the city are particularly disturbing,” Nicholas Haysom, head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, said in a statement.

More than 100 civilians are reported to have died and at least 6,000 residents have fled the fighting, adding to an already strained refugee situation in the area, the U.N. reported.

Beyond the outskirts where security forces claimed to have made some progress, the streets in the center of Kunduz were largely empty except for roving Taliban gunmen, according to residents.

“It is very quiet outside today, you can hear shooting in the distance, but the streets inside the city are quiet, shops are closed, and people barely walk,” said Najib, who, like many Afghans, goes by only one name.

“No one wants to go outside now, because we are scared of the bombardment,” he said, referring to expected fighting as government forces try to dislodge the insurgents from neighborhoods.

Witnesses also described food shortages as shops and bakeries remained closed, house-to-house searches by gunmen and rumors of executions. Meanwhile, Taliban vehicles flying the group’s white banner continued to patrol the streets.

The loss of Kunduz has struck a major blow to the coalition-trained Afghan forces, who until now had been lauded by coalition officials for their ability to hold their own against the insurgents during this year’s fighting season, the first since the coalition ended its combat mission.

In Washington on Tuesday, Defense Department spokesman Peter Cook acknowledged the loss of Kunduz was a “setback” but said security forces are up to the challenge.

In Kabul, meawhile, top Afghan security ministers faced angry questioning by members of parliament, who summoned the heads of intelligence, and the defense, and interior ministries as well as the national security adviser, to answer for the collapse of security forces in Kunduz.

The first to arrive, intelligence chief Rahmatullah Nabil, publicly apologized for the loss of Kunduz before being ushered into a closed-door session to brief lawmakers on plans to win the city back.

Some lawmakers called for President Ashraf Ghani, who marked one year in office on Tuesday, to resign, Reuters reported.



Taliban Seizing Northern City


By Gul Rahim

Yahoo News

September 28, 2015


Kunduz (Afghanistan) (AFP) – The Taliban Monday seized half of an Afghan provincial capital, sending panicked residents fleeing as the hardline Islamists for the first time breached a major city since being ousted from power in 2001.

 Marauding insurgents hoisted their flag over the main square of the northern city of Kunduz, freed prisoners from the local jail and set fire to the local intelligence agency headquarters, witnesses and officials said.

The Taliban’s incursion into Kunduz barely nine months after the NATO combat mission ended marks a major psychological blow to the country’s Western-trained security forces.

“Half the city has fallen into the hands of Taliban insurgents,” Kunduz police spokesman Sayed Sarwar Hussaini told a news conference, adding local forces had not yet received promised reinforcements from Kabul.

Scores of bodies littered the streets after hours of heavy fighting, Afghan media reported citing local residents, many of whom were making a hasty exit from Kunduz.

The city was swarming with Taliban fighters who were racing police vehicles and had raised the flag of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the group’s official name) over the homes of government officials, according to an AFP reporter.

“Around 3:30pm the Taliban installed their flag in the main square of Kunduz city,” a government official, who requested anonymity, told AFP.

He added that the local headquarters of the National Directorate of Security, the country’s main intelligence agency, had been set on fire, and prisoners had been released from the city jail.

“Only the police headquarters is now resisting,” he said.

Saad Mukhtar, head of a 200-bed government hospital, said the Taliban had control of the building and were hunting for wounded Afghan troops.

This was the group’s third attempt this year to breach the city, which coincides with the first anniversary of President Ashraf Ghani’s national unity government in power.

The Taliban’s ability to penetrate the city is a major setback for Afghan forces who have been battling the militants without the front-line help of NATO forces who ended their combat mission in December 2014.

The Islamist group has been largely absent from cities since being driven from power by the US and its allies, but has maintained often-brutal rule over swathes of the countryside.

A senior tribal elder in Kunduz, 150 miles (250 kilometres) north of Kabul, said the militia had control of one of the city’s districts, while a second elder added his house was now around 100 metres (yards) from their forward line.

Federal government officials had earlier issued strong denials that the Taliban had breached the city, insisting they were repelling the insurgents on the city’s outskirts.

The Taliban have been waging a bloody insurgency since a US-led invasion booted them from power in late 2001, and have stepped up attacks during a summer offensive launched in late April against the Western-backed government in Kabul.

On Sunday 13 people were killed and 33 wounded at a volleyball match in the eastern province of Paktika.

The Taliban denied being behind the attack in Paktika, a volatile frontier region considered a stronghold of their allies the Haqqani network.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s thinly spread security forces are increasingly having to deal with the threat from the self-styled Islamic State group, which is looking to make inroads in the troubled country.

At the weekend, it launched coordinated attacks on police checkpoints in the eastern province of Nangarhar, killing at least three officers.

The two groups — both with their blood-curdling brand of Islamic fundamentalism — are seen as engaged in a contest for influence in Afghanistan.

But after years of costly involvement, Washington and its allies have tired of the blood and treasure they were expending in the country, and have pulled back from frontline combat.

Most NATO troops had left by the end of 2014, although a residual force of around 13,000 remains for training and counter-terrorism operations.

Peace overtures by the government of President Ghani over the summer ended in failure, as civilian casualties soared to a record high in the first half of 2015 according to a UN report.

It said 1,592 civilians were killed, a six percent fall over last year, while the number of injured jumped four percent to 3,329.