Afghan Corps Faces A Resurgent Taliban

Sgt. Mahmad Ibrahim of the Afghan National Army dreads the pullout of U.S. forces. Thousands of NATO troops are to arrive soon in the south.
Sgt. Mahmad Ibrahim of the Afghan National Army dreads the pullout of U.S. forces. Thousands of NATO troops are to arrive soon in the south. (By Pamela Constable -- The Washington Post)
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 10, 2006

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- Nine of Gen. Rahmatullah Raufi's men, surprised by a Taliban attack on their outpost in Helmand province last month, fought the insurgents for 10 hours. Three of the Afghan troops were wounded and six were killed. When the bodies were retrieved, Raufi said, they had been mutilated and their eyes gouged out by insurgents.

"These people are trained very cruelly. We gave them a chance to reconcile, but now they are killing our children, our elders, our mullahs," he said. "They are burning schools. They killed an Indian engineer and a Canadian captain. They have no sympathy for humanity, and their actions have nothing to do with Islam. We have to defeat them."

Raufi's determination is tempered by realism, however. As commander of the new Afghan National Army's 205th Corps, which operates in much of southern Afghanistan, he knows his force of about 5,000 troops is spread thinly across the region's vast, rugged and increasingly hostile terrain.

He also knows that their adversaries are not just a few hundred Islamic fighters in tunics and turbans. Since early May, a resurgent Taliban militia has launched attack after attack in which more than 300 insurgents, soldiers and civilians have died. Their offensive has coincided with a major effort to eradicate opium poppy crops in the south, resulting in an alliance between wealthy drug traders and anti-government Taliban forces.

"The whole world knows the Taliban are making a lot of money from poppies, and the traffickers have a hand in it," said Raufi, 60, a veteran of 36 years in the former Afghan army. He spoke in his office at Camp Shir Zai, a new U.S.-built base near this southern provincial capital.

The general also faces a problem of timing. Over the next two months, thousands of NATO troops are scheduled to arrive here and fan out across the south, bringing the largest-ever international military presence to the region as they replace a U.S.-led coalition.

The smaller U.S.-led contingent is beginning its pullout from the region just as Taliban forces and their allies are staging their repeated assaults in unexpected places. In late May, they occupied a village 20 miles from Kandahar city, leading to U.S. airstrikes that killed at least 15 civilians.

"A change is happening and the Taliban are taking advantage of it," Raufi said. "The British are coming in but their arrival is not complete, and it will take another month and a half. In the meantime, some areas are empty. We cannot put forces in every village, so the Taliban go places we are not and threaten to harm people if they do not cooperate."

The Afghan National Army, recruited from scratch and trained by U.S. and NATO advisers since 2002, consists of about 30,000 troops. They conduct joint operations with U.S.-led foreign ground troops, search for insurgents with U.S. Special Forces, and defend local government offices and small population centers on their own.

Both Raufi and several senior ANA commanders here said the U.S. military generally provided them with quick backup, including airstrikes, if a unit was attacked. But some officers said they also suffered from a serious lack of equipment.

The 205th Corps has lost 17 soldiers in recent combat and also suffered some embarrassments. Last week, Taliban forces attacked and held a district headquarters in Uruzgan province for more than 24 hours before reinforcements repelled them. The week before that, Raufi mistakenly announced the capture of a senior Taliban commander, Mullah Dadullah, who subsequently appeared on al-Jazeera TV and announced he had 35,000 men waiting to fight at his command.

"We need more heavy equipment and weapons. AK-47s are not enough," said one ANA commander here. "A lot of money has been spent on this base, but some of it was not worth it," he added. "Our soldiers are well trained and disciplined, and they are ready for the fight. We don't need new uniforms, or even more food. We just need better weapons."

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