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Failure of the 82nd airborne
As the US prepares for war on Iraq, its troops in Afghanistan are coming under increasing attack from the forces they were sent to dig out
Thursday December 19, 2002
American forces in Afghanistan have suffered a series of setbacks during 2002, and a year after the fall of the Taliban the US army is under almost daily attack in its bases in eastern Afghanistan. In the latest incident, in Kabul yesterday, two American soldiers were seriously injured in a grenade attack.
The main US force in the country is the 82nd airborne division, which is based at Bagram near Kabul. There are secondary bases at and around Khost in eastern Afghanistan, some 20 miles from the Pakistan border. Since mid-September US forces based in this area have been increased to more than 2,000, from just a few hundred earlier in the year, with a full battalion of parachute infantry at the new base of Camp Salerno outside Khost.
Several US-led attacks, using hundreds and even thousands of troops, have been ineffective, suffered outright defeat, or resulted in disaster. These failures have led the US to keep its forces mostly inside their bases: at Khost and Kandahar they are under attack almost daily from missiles and machine guns.
When it was launched in March, the US gave Operation Anaconda maximum publicity. It was supposed to crush remaining al-Qaida forces. Locally recruited Afghans were trained to act as "beaters", driving al-Qaida from its high mountain caves on to the guns of US soldiers lying in ambush. The reality was that it was the US army that was ambushed.
According to the Washington Post and other US reports, the plan was betrayed to the enemy through the Afghan militias. At a dozen mountain passes, al-Qaida attacked US and allied forces as they jumped from their helicopters to take up what they thought would be their own ambush positions. So intense was the enemy fire that for two days the US could not fly in helicopters to support its own troops, who remained pinned down in vicious fighting. The US had eight men killed and 100 wounded before al-Qaida pulled back.
After proclaiming the operation a complete success, the US announced that no more operations of this kind would be undertaken. During the summer, the units involved - the 101st air assault and 10th mountain - were replaced by the 82nd airborne. This is the most highly trained infantry unit in the US army, and one Pentagon planners would prefer to have available for Iraq.
It began operations intended to dig out enemy forces from the villages of eastern Afghanistan. Newsweek described as "a disaster" its first high-profile mission, quoting other US troops and civilian witnesses. They said that 600 soldiers had gone on the rampage in Operation Mountain Sweep, undoing in minutes six months of community building. They went through villages "as if Bin Laden was in every house", said one of the US army's own special forces soldiers. So serious were the complaints from other units about the conduct of the 82nd airborne that the army took sworn statements from all the officers and senior NCOs involved. The civilian casualties have not been accounted for. The 82nd is continuing to conduct cordon and search operations and has reduced media access.
One senior US editor told me he had been prevented by his own organisation from filing reports on the futility and brutality of US operations. He said the only comparison in US military history was with a punitive expedition into Mexico conducted by General Pershing in 1915. This produced virtually no results after months searching the desolate Mexican countryside in search of Pancho Villa, chasing up false leads provided by the local population.
Former British officers well informed on the Afghan operations are concerned at the US approach. British troops are trained to operate according to rules of engagement governing when it is considered acceptable to shoot to kill. This approach is designed to ensure that force is used to help achieve wider political goals. In the US army this kind of fine-tuning is not regarded as relevant.
Despite its power, the US has not been able to prevent its bases in Afghanistan from coming under frequent attack. Mostly, these achieve little more than keeping the troops in their dugouts. From time to time, as yesterday, a few soldiers are wounded and trucks blown up.
Containing the violence at this relatively low level could be considered a victory in itself but it will be hard to keep the lid on indefinitely. At the same time, the vaunted claim not to have once more left Afghanistan in the lurch is looking increasingly hollow. Some aid has been delivered, but its impact has been negated by the actions of US forces in alienating the population.
US strategy appears to be limited to continuing to pay local warlords to keep the peace, but these efforts have not even been enough to get control of the opium crop, which has this year produced some 2,000 tons of heroin destined for our streets.
A fresh brigade of the 82nd airborne arrives in Afghanistan this month, and early next year the Germans and Dutch, with Nato help, will take over in Kabul. Under pressure from President Karzai, the Pentagon is now considering setting up a dozen new bases around Afghanistan to liaise with local warlords and assist in delivering aid. A B52 strike was called in to support US soldiers as they prepared one of the first of these new operations in the Herat region.
The risk is that, given the US's negative reputation, these new outposts will also come under attack, destabilising rather than stabilising the country.
· Dan Plesch is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies
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