A R C H I V E S
Madinat al-Muslimeen Islamic Message Board
|‘I Yelled at Them to Stop’|
|09/30/02 at 15:22:55|
|‘I Yelled at Them to Stop’ |
U.S. Special Forces are frustrated. Kicking down doors and frisking women, they say, is no way to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan. A report from the front.
Oct. 7 issue — One afternoon in August, a U.S. Special Forces A team knocked at the door of a half-ruined mud compound in the Shahikot Valley. The servicemen were taking part in Operation Mountain Sweep, a weeklong hunt for Qaeda and Taliban fugitives in eastern Afghanistan.
THE MAN OF THE HOUSE, an elderly farmer, let the Americans in as soon as his female relatives had gone to a back room, out of the gaze of strange men. Asked if there were any weapons in the house, the farmer proudly showed them his only firearm, a hunting rifle nearly a century old. When the team had finished searching, carefully letting the women stay out of sight, the farmer served tea. The Americans thanked him and walked toward the next house.
They didn’t get far before the team’s captain looked back. Six paratroopers from the 82d Airborne, also part of Mountain Sweep, were lined up outside the farmer’s house, preparing to force their way in. “I yelled at them to stop,” says the captain, “but they went ahead and kicked in the door.” The farmer panicked and tried to run, and one of the paratroopers slammed him to the ground. The captain raced back to the house. Inside, he says, other helmeted soldiers from the 82d were attempting to frisk the women. By the time the captain could order the soldiers to leave, the family was in a state of shock. “The women were screaming bloody murder,” recalled the captain, asking to be identified simply as Mike. “The guy was in tears. He had been completely dishonored.”
The official story from both the 82d Airborne and the regular Army command is that Operation Mountain Sweep was a resounding success. Several arms caches were found and destroyed, and at least a dozen suspected Taliban members or supporters were detained for questioning. But according to Special Forces, Afghan villagers and local officials living in or near the valley, the mission was a disaster. The witnesses claim that American soldiers succeeded mainly in terrorizing innocent villagers and ruining the rapport that Special Forces had built up with local communities. “After Mountain Sweep, for the first time since we got here, we’re getting rocks thrown at us on the road in Khowst,” says Jim, a Green Beret who has been operating in the area for the past six months. Special Forces members say that Mountain Sweep has probably set back their counterinsurgency and intelligence operations by at least six months.
Officers in the 82d insist their men did nothing wrong. In response to NEWSWEEK queries, public-affairs officers characterized the Special Forces involved in Mountain Sweep as “prima donnas” who were damaging the war effort by complaining to the press. Yet at a time when Washington is talking about expanding the mission in Afghanistan and increasing the number of large-scale operations like Mountain Sweep—and when Qaeda allies are stepping up terrorist attacks against the fragile government in Kabul—the criticism raises serious questions about the best strategy for fighting the low-intensity war.
Shahikot is where Al Qaeda and Taliban forces fought their last major battle against the Americans back in March. Some 50 soldiers from several Special Forces A teams have been operating in eastern Afghanistan’s Paktia and Khowst provinces ever since. They’ve been working to win the villagers’ trust and cooperation—and largely succeeding, as NEWSWEEK found while accompanying some of them for two weeks on operations shortly before Mountain Sweep began. “The Americans in Gardez who have Toyota trucks, they are good guys,” says Jan Baz Sadiqi, 46, district administrator in Zormat, the valley’s population center. “They don’t break into houses, and they don’t terrorize people.”
‘THOSE GUYS WERE CRAZY’
Then on Aug. 19, American commanders sent some 600 action-hungry members of the Army’s 82d Airborne Division, Third Battalion, charging into Zormat and the Shahikot area. “Those guys were crazy,” said one Special Forces NCO who was there. “We just couldn’t believe they were acting that way. Every time we turned around they were doing something stupid. We’d be like, ‘Holy s—t, look at that! Can you believe this!’ ” Another said: “They were acting like bin Laden was hiding behind every door. That just wasn’t the way to be acting with civilians.” Special Forces working in the region say that since Mountain Sweep, the stream of friendly intelligence on weapons caches, mines and terrorist activity has dried up.
The Special Forces have often had a stormy relationship with the rest of the Army. Conventional commanders sometimes regard the elite fighters as arrogant cowboys. Special Forces members respond that the regular Army is too rigid for the painstaking job of fighting a low-intensity conflict. “The conventional military has a conventional mind-set,” said an SF officer. “It does not work when you have crooks and terrorists and all kinds of bad guys who blend into the population.” In Afghanistan, the A teams have been out in the field, cultivating the friendship of villagers and tracking down terrorists. At the same time, regular soldiers like those of the 82d were, until August, mostly confined to their bases, just itching to get out and do the job for which they were trained.
In Shahikot, that wasn’t the job that needed doing. “The 82d is a great combat unit,” said a Special Forces NCO who took part in the mission. “A lot of us on the teams came out of the 82d. But they are trained to advance to contact and kill the enemy. There was no ‘enemy’ down there.” The remaining Taliban forces melted into the civilian population after Operation Anaconda blasted them out of the caves of Shahikot in March. Since then, the Afghan war has become basically a low-intensity guerrilla conflict, with Taliban and Qaeda fighters operating in small cells, emerging only to lay land mines and launch nighttime rocket attacks against the Americans before disappearing once again.
• The units that go in first
MAKING THE A TEAM
The Special Forces were created to deal with precisely that kind of enemy. Each A team is made up of 10 or fewer noncommissioned officers, led by one warrant officer and one captain. Armed with M-4 rifles and light machine guns, they live, travel and work with local troops. They patrol isolated villages in ordinary Toyota pickups, talking to the inhabitants—and never go anywhere without someone who speaks the local language. They have been trained to assimilate local customs and sensibilities as carefully as possible. Many of them sported full beards until a few weeks ago, when a news photo of a whiskery Green Beret shook up the brass in Washington. A smooth-cheeked adult male is a strange sight for rural Afghans, but the generals ordered all troops to shave immediately.
Still, people back home—Pentagon brass and civilians alike—are asking why terrorist leaders like Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar are still running loose. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reportedly dressed down Gen. Dan McNeill in July for failing to capture more “high-value targets.” Such impatience was likely a factor in launching Mountain Sweep. “It’s the victory of form over substance, substituting action for results,” says a Western diplomat who is worried about increasing complaints and warnings from areas where conventional operations are taking place. “It’s thinking if you do a lot of stuff, something will happen. Something will, but it might not be what you want. The unhappiness is building.”
Villagers have made no secret of that unhappiness. In the village of Marzak, several witnesses say that 82d troops chased down a mentally ill man, pushed him to the ground, handcuffed him and then took turns taking photos of themselves pointing a gun to his head. The office of Zormat administrator Sadiqi was flooded with complaints about the actions of some 82d units. “They knocked down doors, pouring into the homes, terrifying everybody, beating people, mistreating people,” says Sadiqi. He says villagers demanded: “Why do the Americans come here and search our women? We don’t need this kind of government!”
After the mission, the two SF teams submitted an “after-action review.” NEWSWEEK has not seen the document, but sources say it describes in detail the problems the teams witnessed and suggests ways to avoid such problems in the future. The report set off a storm of recriminations. Col. James Huggins, commander of Task Force Panther, of which the Third Battalion is a part, says every platoon and squad leader in the battalion was questioned under oath, and their statements did not support the teams’ charges. “I can’t tell you 100 percent these things didn’t happen,” says Huggins. “All I can tell you is I looked, and can’t find any evidence that they did.” Officers involved have been accused of leaking classified reports to NEWSWEEK, and have been subjected to internal investigations.
Even as he defends his troops, Huggins says he’s working to avoid problems in the future by increasing “cultural awareness” training, bringing in female military police to search Afghan women and keeping supplies of new locks on hand to replace those that are cut off during searches. As some Green Berets see it, the damage has already been done. Told that more operations like Mountain Sweep are being planned, one Special Forces NCO says: “It’s over, then. We might as well go home, because we’ll never succeed with big ops like that.” Even so, Mike sticks up for the conventional Army. “Some SF guys will tell you we don’t need regular forces out here, that we can do it all by ourselves,” he said. “But that’s impossible. The question is, how do you use those forces?” He recommends a model that has been successful in Afghanistan—pairing an A team with a company of regular infantry. “We need their muscle and firepower to support us when we go after the bad guys. But they need our brains, experience and skills to get the mission done,” Mike says. “If you establish rapport with the people—establish you are not an occupying army—and prove you are here to support the transitional government, they will tell you where to find Al Qaeda.” Among the Special Forces, the hope is that the U.S. command can learn from the mistakes of Mountain Sweep and get the job done right.
© 2002 Newsweek, Inc.
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