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Afghanistan: U.S.-led Commando Teams Fight Taliban With Unconventional Warfare

The U.S.-led coalition's spring offensive in Afghanistan, codenamed Operation Mountain Storm, is using unconventional warfare to target Taliban and Al-Qaeda guerrilla fighters. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports from Kandahar on how one commando team is contributing to the overall strategy.

Kandahar, 15 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- As the U.S.-led spring offensive against Taliban and Al-Qaeda enters its second week, there are still no signs of major conventional ground troop movements.

According to U.S. military officials in southern Afghanistan, Operation Mountain Storm is going to continue that way in the months ahead. That's because the coalition is using unconventional warfare tactics to fight its guerrilla opponent.

In the broad scheme, the mission hasn't accomplished the goal of killing or capturing Taliban or Al-Qaeda fighters.
Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, outlined the counterterrorism tactics designed to keep pressure on the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

"Operation Mountain Storm is a continuation of the operations throughout the east, southeast, and south of the country. Of course, we will continue patrols, vehicle checkpoints, coordinated searches. We have small-scale air assaults. We have air support -- close fire support from the air -- 24 hours a day circling overhead, ready to assist coalition forces," Hilferty said.

Coalition ground forces are not massed together by the thousands, according to the methods of conventional warfare. Instead, Operation Mountain Storm is a series of simultaneous "search and destroy" missions spread across the Afghan interior and along 3,300 kilometers of border with Pakistan.

These rapid-tempo operations are conducted by small groups of specialized commando teams. Some raiding parties coordinate the efforts of U.S. Special Forces, light mountain infantry, and soldiers from the fledgling Afghan National Army. Others include U.S. Marines, Navy SEAL (Sea, Air, or Land) commandos, or CIA paramilitary officers.

What Hilferty calls a "small-scale air assault" is also referred to by military planners as a "heliborne insertion." Twin-rotor Chinook transport helicopters land commando teams deep in the rugged mountains where Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters are thought to be hiding.

Close air support aircraft -- fighter jets, AC-130 Spectre gunships, and A-10 Warthog attack planes -- are on standby to attack any opposition the commandos encounter.

Sometimes the commando teams use ground vehicles to deploy from the U.S. bases that have been established across the south, southeast, and east of Afghanistan.

But unlike the conventional war in Iraq a year ago, there are no Bradley armored personnel carriers or Abrams tanks in Afghanistan.

U.S. officials say such a heavy mechanized force is not suited to the mountainous terrain where the battles are now being fought.

The main ground vehicles of Operation Mountain Storm are armored humvees for U.S. forces and fast-moving military trucks for the Afghan National Army. RFE/RL also has seen Special Forces using all-terrain vehicles in the desert areas of southern Afghanistan.

The unconventional approach means that much of Operation Mountain Storm is reported as a stream of isolated incidents -- like the announcement today by Hilferty that U.S.-led soldiers had killed three suspected Taliban members this weekend while searching a cave in Qalat, in Zabul Province.

Mountain Storm is a coordinated operation stretching across the border provinces of Kandahar, Zabul, Paktika, Paktia, Khost, Nangarhar and Kunar. The operation also is pressuring Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters in interior provinces like Oruzgun, Ghazni, and Langham.

RFE/RL has obtained audio excerpts from a U.S. Department of Defense video documenting a commando team mission last week to search out the Taliban and destroy their weapons caches in the mountains north of Kandahar.

RFE/RL's correspondent saw the team leave the Kandahar Air Field in several camouflaged humvees. The group included five members of the U.S. Special Forces, one Marine, three U.S. Army soldiers who specialize in destroying mines and ammunition, three Afghan-American translators, and the Department of Defense combat cameraman.

Just outside of the airfield's security gates, the team linked up with 25 soldiers in the Afghan National Army.

The video shows the team in the Takhr Ghar mountain range as it encounters a group of fighters from a provincial Afghan militia force. A soldier from the Afghan National Army takes up a position on a rocky ridge while others assess whether the militia fighters are hostile.

Indeed, some provincial Afghan militias include Taliban fighters who have opened fire on the U.S.-led commando teams in the past week. But here in the Takhr Ghar mountain range, the militia force cooperates by providing information about suspected Taliban fighters and leading the team to a cache of weapons and ammunition.

The hoard is near the village of Petaw. It includes a large supply of tank shells, anti-personnel mines, Soviet-era rockets, mortar shells, rocket propelled grenades, and C-4 plastic explosives. The U.S. Army's explosives experts work with the Special Forces and Afghan soldiers to move the cache into a deep trench.

The video captures the Special Forces team leader discussing the munitions with a translator.

Special Forces (SF) leader: Uh, what's in there?
Afghan translator: Those are mines
SF leader: Mines?
Translator: Yeah.
SF team member: Uh, those are bad.

As the work continues, one of the soldiers in the Afghan National Army carelessly drops a metal box of explosives onto the pile of tank shells in the trench.

SF leader: Hey! Tell him to be careful.
Translator: Yeah. Hey, do that carefully.
Afghan National Army soldier: Are there fuses on these?
Afghan soldier: Yes
SF leader: The fuse is on it, so [be careful stacking those up.]

It takes hours for the work to be completed. By the time the army's explosives experts are ready to detonate the cache, it is after sundown. A radio operator announces a warning about the explosion, and the night is lit by a flash of brilliant orange light.

Despite the success in finding weapons and munitions, no direct contact with Taliban fighters was made during the mission in the Takhr Ghar mountains.

During the next two days, the team travels to the village of Darvishan in the Desha Agha Ghar mountain range. Again, no Taliban fighters are encountered. But a village elder provides the team with information about another weapons cache. It is smaller than the cache at Petaw. It includes small arms, rocket propelled grenades, and ammunition for AK-47s.

The village elder says the munitions were left behind by Russian troops more than 15 years ago, but the U.S.-led team is suspicious of the claim. The weapons and ammunition, which were stored in a dusty cave hollowed out of a hillside, appear to be new.

On the fourth day of the mission, before returning to the Kandahar airfield, the commando squad distributes reading materials and the new Afghan national flag at a village school along with soccer balls for the children. The villagers appear genuinely happy about the gifts.

In the broad scheme, the mission hasn't accomplished the goal of killing or capturing Taliban or Al-Qaeda fighters. It certainly hasn't turned up any information in the hunt for Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden or Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Omar.

But U.S. officials say they hope the scores of similar missions in the coming months will deny the insurgents the ability to regroup in Afghanistan and conduct guerrilla attacks against U.S. forces or the troops of the Afghan National Army.