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."
Both Afghan and foreign observers have expressed concerns that ANA troops are scattered too thinly in the south and are too vulnerable to attack. Some critics suggest that the United States is retreating from a commitment to build the ANA, noting that the original U.S. goal to create a fighting force of 70,000 men has been scaled back to 50,000.
American military officers said that their goal had shifted from recruiting large numbers of troops to training a smaller, more professional force and that as a result the desertion rate had fallen from 25 to 13 percent. They said they were assessing whether to consolidate the ANA's presence in southern Afghanistan, where the troops are currently scattered among 25 operating bases.
"A few years ago, our priority was a national presence; now we are focusing on putting quality soldiers in a quality force," said Col. Tyrone Brown, a senior U.S. officer in the ANA development program. He said Raufi's troops, deployed across the "Taliban hotbed," are facing far more combat than other corps, and may need more help. "We are fairly satisfied, but we do need to beef things up," Brown said.
Afghan Col. Lawan Dadan, 45, recently commanded a two-week mission in Helmand, where the worst recent fighting has occurred. He said his troops were attacked once, while ferrying supplies to a U.S. forward operating base, but a quick U.S. airstrike killed most of the assailants. Only one Afghan soldier was injured.
Taliban militiamen tend to "hide in holes like mice," waiting for an opportunity to strike, Dadan said. "They can't fight us face-to-face, and they are afraid of the planes," he said. "They know these are their last days."
He said some local farmers are forced to fight for the Taliban if they owe money to drug traders, but added, "The people don't want more fighting. They want this to stop."
Dadan spoke during lunch in the huge mess hall at Camp Shir Zai, whose shiny, modular buildings have been erected near the remains of barracks built by the Soviet Union a generation ago.
Many in the room asserted vehemently that officials or other groups in neighboring Pakistan were promoting and assisting the insurgents. Pakistani officials deny such claims, noting that more than 70,000 Pakistani troops have been deployed along the border.
Several soldiers expressed anger over the increasing use of what they called un-Islamic tactics by Taliban fighters: suicide bombings, desecration of corpses and the use of civilians as cover. They expressed pride and enthusiasm in their mission, but also concern about the impending withdrawal of U.S. forces from the south.
"These enemies are Taliban in name only. What they want is to destroy the country and keep us from having a good future," said Sgt. Mahmad Ibrahim, 28. "We are ready to fight them, and we want to bring security to our country, but we need more help, from the smallest things to the heaviest weapons. Once the Americans leave, we can do nothing."
According to the Associated Press, officials said Friday that suspected Taliban militants attacked an Afghan army convoy, sparking hours of fighting that killed 13 rebels, part of a wave of violence that claimed at least 26 lives.
In a separate incident, gunmen on a motorcycle killed two Afghan aid workers.