The AfPak Reader

September 11, 2009

Mainlining Bill Roggio – Summer 2009 – Week 11 – Volume 7

Mainlining Bill Roggio – Summer 2009 – Week 11 – Volume 7

NATO airstrike in Kunduz kills scores
By Bill Roggio
September 4, 2009 7:42 AM
More than 90 Taliban fighters and civilians are reported to have been killed in a NATO airstrike in a region under the control of the Taliban in northern Afghanistan. Germany insists no civilians were killed in the attack, however.

NATO fighter-bombers attacked two fuel trucks after the Taliban hijacked the vehicles in Kunduz province and beheaded the drivers. The trucks stalled while crossing a riverbed in the Taliban-controlled Ali Abad district and were reportedly hit just as local villagers swarmed the tankers to siphon fuel. The Taliban reportedly encouraged the villagers to take the fuel just before the airstrike.

Casualty reports on the number of Taliban and civilians killed have varied, but 93 people have been reported killed. Kunduz Governor Engineer Mohammad Omar claimed 45 Taliban fighters as well as their commander, Mullah Abdul Rahman, were killed during the attack. Razaq Yaqoobi, the provincial chief of police, said 65 Taliban fighters were among those killed.

Haji Habibullah, the district governor of the Ali Abad district, said that “some of the dead were civilians and some were Taliban fighters.” More than a hundred people were reported to have suffered serious injuries, including burns. Civilians have been seen burying their dead and have taken the wounded to local hospitals; some are being transported to Kabul for treatment.

The Germans, who make up the biggest NATO contingent in Kunduz, said the strike occurred at 2:30 AM local time and that civilians were not present.

“According to the information available to us there have been no civilian casualties,” ministry spokesman Christian Dienst said. “Had civilians been present, the air strikes could not have been called in.”
The strike was ordered by the Kunduz Operational Command Center after the fuel tankers were reported stolen and the local commander assessed that civilians were not in the area.

“After ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] observed the insurgent activity and assessed civilians were not in the area, a local ISAF commander authorized an air strike,” the initial ISAF press release on the incident stated. “A large number of insurgents were reported killed or injured and the fuel trucks were destroyed in the attack.”

ISAF later stated that it was investigating the attack to determine exactly what happened. “While the air strike was clearly directed at the insurgents, ISAF will do whatever is necessary to help the community including medical assistance and evacuation as requested,” Brigadier General Eric Tremblay, the ISAF spokesperson, said in a press release. “ISAF regrets any unnecessary loss of human life and is deeply concerned for the suffering that this action may have caused to our Afghan friends.”

The strike takes place as NATO is seeking to limit civilian casualties and has tightened the rules of engagement when confronting the Taliban. Coalition aircraft are not to fire on Taliban targets if civilians are thought to be present.

Kunduz the new northern battleground

Today’s airstrike in Kunduz highlights the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the northern province, as well as in neighboring Bahglan province.

Of the seven districts in Kunduz province, only two are considered under government control; the rest of the districts – Chahara Dara, Dashti Archi, Ali Abab, Khan Abad, and Iman Sahib – are considered contested or under Taliban control, according to a map produced by Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry. Two districts in neighboring Baghlan province – Baghlan-i-Jadid and Burka – are under the control of the Taliban [see LWJ report, Afghan forces and Taliban clash in Kunduz, and Threat Matrix report, Afghanistan’s wild-wild North].

Fighting in Kunduz has intensified over the past month despite a series of operations launched in the spring and summer to drive out the Taliban.

The Taliban have conducted assaults against police checkpoints, killed senior political and military leaders, and kidnapped civilians sending their daughters to school.

Just yesterday, Afghan security forces claimed they killed 15 Taliban fighters, including Mullah Abdul Salam, the Taliban’s shadow governor for the province. The Taliban denied Salam was killed.

The Taliban, along with the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, have sought to put pressure on the Afghan government in the north while opening a corridor into the Central Asian countries.

List of major incidents in Kunduz since Aug. 3
Sept. 4, 2009: A NATO airstrike in the Ali Abad district killed 93 people after the Taliban hijacked two oil tankers and beheaded the drivers.
Sept. 3, 2009: Afghan security forces killed 15 Taliban fighters, and claimed the Taliban’s Shadow governor was also killed.
Sept. 1, 2009: Afghan police killed a Taliban commander and wounded his driver in the Qala-i-Zal district.
Aug. 28, 2009: Afghan forces killed seven Taliban fighters and captured four members of the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in Kunduz province.
Aug. 26, 2009: A director of the justice department was killed in a bomb attack on his car in Kunduz province.
Aug. 26, 2009: Security forces killed seven Taliban fighters during an operation in the Hazrat-e-Sultan area of Kunduz.
Aug. 25, 2009: The Taliban killed a policeman in Kunduz.
Aug. 18, 2009: A Taliban commander and nine fighters were killed during a joint operation of Afghan and US forces in Kunduz province.
Aug. 16, 2009: One Afghan Army soldier was killed and four more were wounded during a Taliban ambush.
Aug. 13, 2009: Former President Rabbani survived an ambush on his convoy in Kunduz. Also, police killed and wounded more than 20 Taliban fighters after the Taliban attacked a police station.
Aug. 13, 2009: Eight Taliban fighters and two Afghan security personnel were killed and more than a dozen more fighters and four security men were wounded during an operation in Kunduz province.
Aug. 12, 2009: Taliban fighters attacked the Dashti Archi district headquarters and killed the district police chief and three other policemen.
Aug. 10, 2009: A suicide bomber detonated his explosives-filled car close to an ISAF convoy in Kunduz City.
Aug. 3, 2009: The Taliban kidnapped a woman as she took her daughter to a school in the Bagh Shirkat area of Kunduz province. The Taliban warned families not to send their daughters to schools.

Extended Notes (Roggio’s Links)

Scores perish in Kunduz air strike
Abdul Matin Sarfaraz – Sep 4, 2009 – 12:31

KUNDUZ CITY (PAN): Ninety-five people including dozens of civilians were killed and many others injured on Friday when NATO aircraft struck oil tankers hijacked by Taliban insurgents in Chahar Dara district of northern Kunduz province.

Kunduz Governor Eng. Mohammad Omar told Pajhwok Afghan News a Taliban commander, Mullah Abdul Rahman, was among 45 insurgents killed in the incident that occurred in Haji Aman village of the restive district.

The International Security Assistance Force confirmed the air strike was carried out early this morning against a large number of insurgents after the Kunduz Operational Command Centre reported that two fuel trucks were stolen by insurgents.

Addressing a news conference, the provincial police chief said 65 guerrillas were killed in a huge explosion at the tanker after the NATO strike. The bombing came as militants and villagers emptied oil from the tanker into jerry canes.

Brig. Gen. Abdul Razaq Yaqubi told journalists more than a dozen Taliban were wounded in the massive blast. He acknowledged ordinary residents were among the dead and injured. However, the police chief explained the exact civilian toll was yet to be ascertained.

In response to a query, Gen. Abdul Rehman said drivers of the tankers — belonging to a private firm — were beheaded. Residents of Panjsher and Ghorband (Parwan), their headless bodies have been handed over to their kin, according to the police chief.

In a statement on its website, the NATO-led force said a local ISAF commander allowed the air raid after observing the insurgent activity and assessing civilians were not in the area. “A large number of insurgents were reported killed or injured and the fuel trucks were destroyed in the attack.”

However, the 42-nation force later received reports that civilians were killed and injured in the air strike and “in conjunction with Afghan officials is now conducting an investigation into the claims.”

The governor said the Taliban fighters hijacked two oil tankers carrying aircraft fuel for NATO forces from the Kunduz-Baghlan Highway. The militants were distributing fuel for free when the raid took place.

But a security official, seeking anonymity, said the death toll was more than 200. He claimed warplanes struck the people who had gathered to receive free oil distributed by the hijackers. The official would not give further details.

A dweller of the village, Noorullah, said one of his relatives was killed and another injured in the bombardment. Without giving evidence, he claimed the bombardment left 400 dead and wounded. Most of the injured were badly burnt, he said.

Meanwhile, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid rejected the gubernatorial assertion as false. The rebels suffered no casualties in the raid, he insisted, suggesting the dead were ordinary residents.

Director of Kunduz Civil Hospital, Humayun Khamosh said 15 wounded people were brought to hospital. Some of those hospitalised were writhing in pain, their skin peeling off as a result of the burns.



93 people killed in NATO airstrike in N Afghanistan: officials  2009-09-04 19:38:40

KABUL, Sept. 4 (Xinhua) — A NATO air strike Friday killed 93 people, some of them civilians, in Kunduz province of northern Afghanistan, said the provincial governor Mohammad Omar.

It occurred at around 1:45 a.m. when Taliban militants hijacked two fuel trucks and wanted to take them to a far-flung area in Aliabad district, police chief of the district, Bariali Basharyar told Xinhua.

The trucks stuck in a river in Aliabad district and villagers nearby rushed to the site to pick up fuel when the two trucks exploded in a NATO air strike, according to Basharyar.
Mohammad Omar said the incident also caused over a hundred people injured and some of them have been taken to Kabul for treatment.

A NATO statement said it launched the air strike, destroying the two fuel trucks and killing a large number of insurgents.

“Some of the dead were civilians and some were Taliban fighters,” said the governor of Aliabad district, Haji Habibullah.

The police chief of Kunduz Province, Razaq Yaqoobi, confirmed 56 Taliban militants were among the dead, but he gave no figures on civilian casualties.

The International Security Assistance Force, the NATO-led military alliance in Afghanistan said: “after the ISAF observed the insurgent activity and assessed civilians were not in the area, a local ISAF commander authorized an air strike.”

The ISAF said it “has received reports that civilians were killed and injured in this attack and in conjunction with Afghan officials is now conducting an investigation into the claims.”

Continuous civilian casualties during the battle against militants have become a sensitive issue in Afghanistan as NATO chief Commander Stanely McChrystal has vowed to avoid non-combatant casualties in military operations.



Germany Says No Civilians Died in NATO Afghanistan Air Strike

By Andreas Cremer

Sept. 4 (Bloomberg) — Germany’s Defense Ministry said that civilians were not among the dead after NATO warplanes carried out the most deadly attack yet in northern Afghanistan.

German commanders called in air support from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s ISAF force at about 2:30 a.m. local time today after Taliban insurgents seized two tanker trucks filled with fuel near the town of Kunduz, ministry spokesman Christian Dienst said.

More than 50 militants were killed, Dienst said. The attack left 60 people killed and dozens injured, Mohammadreza Yaghoubi, deputy chief of security for Kunduz, said in a phone interview. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen ordered an inquiry into the incident.

“According to the information available to us there have been no civilian casualties,” Dienst told reporters in Berlin. “Had civilians been present, the air strikes could not have been called in.”

The incident comes at a sensitive time for Germany, less than four weeks before Chancellor Angela Merkel contests national elections on Sept. 27. Oskar Lafontaine, co-leader of the opposition Left Party, said the attack underlined the need to withdraw German troops from Afghanistan.
‘Strengthens the Taliban’

“Every civilian victim of NATO and the German military’s war conduct further strengthens the Taliban and brings terror to our own country,” Lafontaine said in a statement.

Sixty-one percent of Germans want the country’s military involvement in Afghanistan to end, a Forsa poll of 1,000 people for Stern magazine showed in July. Thirty-three percent backed the mission.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Merkel’s Social Democratic Party election challenger, called for a German troop withdrawal in an interview with the Hanover-based Neue Presse newspaper conducted before today’s air strike. As chancellor, he would “push for working out a binding timetable with the new Afghan government for ending our engagement,” the newspaper cited Steinmeier as saying in the interview published today.

Germany, while the third-biggest contributor to NATO’s Afghan operations, has kept its 4,200 troops to reconstruction, aid and police training efforts in the relatively quieter north of the country, leaving the U.S., U.K. and Canada to bear much of the fight against Taliban insurgents in the south.

Germany’s provincial reconstruction team, based in Kunduz, called for airborne support after the two tanker trucks were intercepted by militants on their way to Kunduz and later got stuck in the mud, Dienst said. A local ISAF commander ordered the strikes, he said. Dienst refused to say which nations were involved in the air attack, citing confidentiality of NATO operations.

Security Deteriorating

“A military attack of this magnitude hasn’t occurred before in northern Afghanistan,” he said, adding that the incident underscores the deteriorating security conditions in and around Kunduz.

“Please understand, this is being investigated right now,” Deputy Foreign Minister Guenter Gloser said of the attack. “I cannot say anything about this,” he told reporters in Stockholm before a meeting of European Union foreign ministers.

Germany has stringent checks on army operations to prevent any recurrence of its militaristic past. When German Tornado jets join NATO-led air strikes against military targets in Yugoslavia in 1999, it was Germany’s first involvement in military combat since World War II. The Afghan mission must be reaffirmed by parliamentary vote every year.

“Election politicking mustn’t be allowed to set the timetable for the German army’s withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Eckart von Klaeden, foreign affairs spokesman for Merkel’s Christian Democrats, said in a statement.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andreas Cremer in Berlin at

Last Updated: September 4, 2009 09:43 EDT



Afghan forces and Taliban clash in Kunduz
By Bill Roggio
September 3, 2009 2:44 PM

The Afghan government claimed that a senior Taliban leader was one of 15 Taliban fighters killed during an operation in the restive north.

Engineer Mohammed Omar, the governor of Kunduz province, claimed that Mullah Abdul Salam, the Taliban’s shadow governor for the province, was killed during an operation that was launched in the Qala-i-Zal district yesterday.

But the Taliban denied that Salam was killed during the fighting. A Taliban leader identifying himself as Salam contacted Pajhwok Afghan News and said that the government’s reports were false and that he would continue to fight Afghan and Coalition forces.

Salam is currently number one on the Coalition’s 10-most-wanted list for Kunduz province. He takes direct orders from the Quetta Shura. Earlier this spring, Salam was thought to have fled to Kandahar after ISAF and Afghan forces launched a series of offensives in the province.

Kunduz has been the hub of Taliban activity in the north as the group seeks to pressure the Afghan government from a region previously thought to be secure. Three districts in Kunduz – Chahara Dara, Dashti Archi, and Iman Sahib – are currently contested between the Taliban, and Afghan and Coalition forces. Two districts in neighboring Baghlan province – Baghlan-i-Jadid and Burka – are under the control of the Taliban [see Threat Matrix report, Afghanistan’s wild-wild North].

A strong Taliban presence in Kunduz also puts the Taliban on the border with the Central Asian nations. Control of Kunduz opens up access to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to the North. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a grouping of al Qaeda-backed Central Asia extremists, is known to operate in Kunduz with the local Taliban. Four IMU fighters were killed in fighting Aug. 28, while as many as 80 al Qaeda-linked militants, including Uzbeks and Chechens, are operating in areas southwest of Kunduz City.

The IMU, under the command of Mullah Abdullah, sent a force of 300 fighters into the town of Tavil-Dara in Tajikistan and attacked a police station on July 9. Abdullah is thought to have crossed from Kunduz into Tajikistan several weeks before the attack. Eleven days later, the IMU attacked a remote military checkpoint in Tajikistan near the Afghan border. Five IMU fighters were killed during the assault.

The Afghan military, backed by US and German troops, have launched multiple operations to clear the Taliban from contested districts in Kunduz since the spring, but with little effect. Several senior Taliban commanders have been killed during the clashes, however.

Fighting in Kunduz is at a peak, and the month of August saw an exceptional number of clashes between Taliban fighters and Afghan and Coalition forces.
The Taliban have conducted assaults against police checkpoints, killed senior political and military leaders, and kidnapped civilians sending their daughters to school.
***Compiler’s Supplemental Link***

Taliban governor among 15 killed
Abdul Matin Sarfaraz – Sep 3, 2009 – 14:56

KUNDUZ CITY (PAN): The governor of Kunduz province says 15 Taliban militants including a senior figure have been killed and 20 others wounded in new operations.
Governor Eng. Muhammad Omar told a news conference on Thursday the fighters were eliminated in fresh crackdowns by government forces.

During an operation in Qala-i-Zal district on Wednesday, Taliban commander and their governor for Kunduz Mullah Abdul Salam was killed.

But a man, introducing himself as Mullah Salam, poured scorn over the gubernatorial assertion. He told Pajhwok Afghan News reports of his death were propaganda. The commander vowed to continue fighting against government and coalition forces.
At the news conference, Omar said more Afghan National Army (ANA) troops had been sent to Qala-i-Zal district to clear it of insurgents.

District chief Moalim Nazir said eight Taliban were killed and five wounded in in Wednesday’s operation that also left a policeman dead.

However, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed five policemen were killed in the fighting. He did not go into the details.

The governor added armed Taliban had killed 14 civilians including a teacher and a doctor over the last two weeks in Khanabad, Char Dara and the provincial capital.

But Mujahid denied Taliban had killed civilians. The governor viewed local tribal militiamen as civilians, he explained.


Afghanistan’s wild-wild North
By Matt Dupee
September 2, 2009 9:34 AM

As policymakers and analysts continue to examine the ever-evolving insurgency in Afghanistan, the Taliban infiltration into northern Afghanistan is finally receiving some much needed attention. Often billed as “the stable and secure” northern areas, Afghanistan’s northern provinces have been the target of a burgeoning Taliban insurgency since 2004. When analyzing the northern conundrum it is imperative to view the situation as the Taliban do: a two-pronged approach that includes establishing a stronghold in the northwest province of Badghis and severing the resupply routes available through the Herat-Badghis Sabzak Pass, the sole entry into northwestern Afghanistan, while establishing a northeastern jump-off point in northern Baghlan and Kunduz Provinces.

Given the recent security events, it is Kunduz Province that certainly warrants a closer inspection. Violence levels in Kunduz have peaked over the past 18 months, and German intelligence reports, as well as Afghan government and tribal elder testimony, suggest that as many as 80 al Qaeda-linked militants, including Uzbeks and Chechens, are operating in areas southwest of Kunduz City. Operations in Kunduz since May confirm the presence of foreign fighters, as nearly a dozen Uzbek fighters have been detained or killed alongside Taliban foot soldiers in various Coalition operations conducted near Kunduz City. Four Uzbeks were nabbed last week, and a suspected Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan compound was raided around the same time.

There are currently 667 German troops stationed at the Kunduz airfield; of which only 340 are combat-ready. Three districts, Chahara Dara, Dashti Archi, and Iman Sahib are currently in contested control of the insurgents. Two districts in neighboring Baghlan, Baghlan-i-Jadid and Burka, remain outside of government control.

Since violence exploded there this spring and summer, three German troops and four American soldiers have been killed in IED attacks in the province. But it is the German presence in Kunduz, and their lack of operational ability, that has frustrated many in the Afghan government and within ISAF.

Last month’s Operation Adler (Eagle), a one-week offensive launched by German troops into the Chahara Dara district, had little to no effect against the entrenched Taliban fighters led by Mullah Salaam and Mullah Shamsullah.

“The last operation against the Taliban in Chahar Dara was unsuccessful, because the soldiers were hardly prepared to stage air strikes,” the long-time governor of Kunduz, Engineer Muhammad Omar, told the media shortly after Operation Adler’s conclusion. “They are overly cautious, and they don’t even get out of their vehicles. They should leave, and the Americans should replace them. The Americans would finally provide security.”

By the end of the week following the operation, the Chahar Dara district governor confirmed that as many as 100 Taliban had returned to the district. This development, as well as the litany of assassinations against key Afghan government officials in Kunduz, including the failed attempts against President Hamid Karzai’s running mate General Fahim and presidential candidate Mullah Salaam “Rocketi” in Kunduz and Baghlan respectively, highlights the growing dangers of operating in the “stable and peaceful” northern areas.
***Compiler’s Supplemental Links***

Kunar Attack Raises Questions About Rules of Engagement

Tuesday’s ambush in Gangigal in Kunar that killed four U.S. Marine military advisers, eight Afghan soldiers and policemen, and an Afghan interpreter will surely raise serious question about the current rules of engagement which U.S. forces operate under in Afghanistan. Jonathan S. Landay, a reporter for McClatchy Newspapers, witnessed the ambush and said the Marines and soldiers did not receive air and artillery support to suppress the Taliban firing from the mountains.

According to Landay, the engagement began at 5:30 AM local time. The advisers called for air and artillery support 20 minutes later, at 5:50 AM. No air support was available and artillery support didn’t arrive until another 50 minutes later, at about 6:40 AM. Even then, only white phosphorus rounds were fired. Attack helicopters showed up another half hour later, at about 7:10.

Read the entire account of the battle. If Landay’s account is accurate, U.S. police and military trainers, as well as regular military units, are going to have to swallow a bitter pill each time they step outside the gates to patrol and conduct other missions. Advisers particularly are exposed when leaving their bases. They rely on the local forces for primary security, then Coalition quick reaction forces and air and artillery support to back them up.
In the rural fight in Afghanistan’s mountains, sometimes all these advisers have to back them up is air and artillery. If the air and artillery support is being withheld, their confidence in being able to successfully return from a mission will drop dramatically.

Posted by Bill Roggio on September 10, 2009 12:38 PM

Posted on Tuesday, September 8, 2009

‘We’re pinned down:’ 4 U.S. Marines die in Afghan ambush

GANJGAL, Afghanistan — We walked into a trap, a killing zone of relentless gunfire and rocket barrages from Afghan insurgents hidden in the mountainsides and in a fortress-like village where women and children were replenishing their ammunition.

“We will do to you what we did to the Russians,” the insurgent’s leader boasted over the radio, referring to the failure of Soviet troops to capture Ganjgal during the 1979-89 Soviet occupation.

Dashing from boulder to boulder, diving into trenches and ducking behind stone walls as the insurgents maneuvered to outflank us, we waited more than an hour for U.S. helicopters to arrive, despite earlier assurances that air cover would be five minutes away.
U.S. commanders, citing new rules to avoid civilian casualties, rejected repeated calls to unleash artillery rounds at attackers dug into the slopes and tree lines — despite being told repeatedly that they weren’t near the village.

“We are pinned down. We are running low on ammo. We have no air. We’ve lost today,” Marine Maj. Kevin Williams, 37, said through his translator to his Afghan counterpart, responding to the latter’s repeated demands for helicopters.

Four U.S. Marines were killed Tuesday, the most U.S. service members assigned as trainers to the Afghan National Army to be lost in a single incident since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Eight Afghan troops and police and the Marine commander’s Afghan interpreter also died in the ambush and the subsequent battle that raged from dawn until 2 p.m. around this remote hamlet in eastern Kunar province, close to the Pakistan border.
Three Americans and 19 Afghans were wounded, and U.S. forces later recovered the bodies of two insurgents, although they believe more were killed.

The Marines were cut down as they sought cover in a trench at the base of the village’s first layer cake-style stone house. Much of their ammunition was gone. One Marine was bending over a second, tending his wounds, when both were killed, said Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer, 21, of Greensburg, Ky., who retrieved their bodies.


A full moon was drenching the mountains in ghostly light as some 60 Afghan soldiers, 20 border police officers, 13 Marine and U.S. Army trainers and I set out for Ganjgal at 3 a.m. from the U.S. base in the Shakani District.

The operation, proposed by the Afghan army and refined by the U.S. trainers, called for the Afghans to search Ganjgal for weapons and hold a meeting with the elders to discuss the establishment of police patrols. The elders had insisted that Afghans perform the sweep. The Americans were there to give advice and call for air and artillery support if required.

Dawn was breaking by the time we alighted for a mile-long walk up a wash of gravel, rock and boulders which winds up to Ganjgal, some 60 rock-walled compounds perched high up the terraced slopes at the eastern end of the valley, six miles from the Pakistani border.
Small teams of Afghan troops and U.S. trainers headed to ridges on the valley’s southern and northern sides, setting up outposts as the main body headed slowly up toward the village and, unbeknownst to us, into the killing zone.

The terrain — craggy ravines and sweeping, tree-studded mountains riddled with boulders and caves — was made for guerrilla warfare. The ethnic Pashtun villagers pride themselves on their rejection of official authority, their history of resistance and their disdain of foreign forces that many regard as occupiers.

A possible clue to what was to come occurred when the lights in Ganjgal suddenly blinked out while our vehicles were still several miles away, crashing slowly through the semi-dark along a rutted track toward the village.


The first shot cracked out at 5:30 a.m., apparently just as the four Marines and the Afghan unit to which they were attached reached the outskirts of the village. It quickly swelled into a furious storm of gunfire that we realized had been prepared for our arrival.

Several U.S. officers said they suspected that the insurgents had been tipped off by sympathizers in the local Afghan security forces or by the village elders, who announced over the weekend that they were accepting the authority of the local government.
“Whatever we do always leaks,” said Marine Lt. Ademola Fabayo, 28, a New Yorker who was born in Nigeria and is the operations officer for the trainers from the 3rd Marine Division. “You can’t trust even some of their soldiers or officers.”

Sniper rounds snapped off rocks and sizzled overhead. Explosions of recoilless rifle rounds echoed through the valley, while bullets inched closer to the rock wall behind which I crouched with a handful U.S. and Afghan officers.

Lt. Fabayo and several other soldiers later said they’d seen women and children in the village shuttling ammunition to fighters positioned in windows and roofs. Across the valley and from their ridgeline outposts, the Afghans and Americans fired back.

At 5:50 a.m., Army Capt. Will Swenson, of Seattle, WA, the trainer of the Afghan Border Police unit in Shakani, began calling for air support or artillery fire from a unit of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. The responses came back: No helicopters were available.
“This is unbelievable. We have a platoon (of Afghan army) out there and we’ve got no Hotel Echo,” Swenson shouted above the din of gunfire, using the military acronym for high explosive artillery shells. “We’re pinned down.”

The insurgents were firing from inside the village and from positions in the hills immediately behind it and to either side. Judging from the angles of the ricochets, several appeared to be trying to outflank us to get better shots.

“What are you going to do?” Maj. Talib, the operations officer of the Afghan army unit, asked Maj. Williams through his translator.

“We are getting air,” Williams replied.

“What are we going to do?” Talib repeated.

“We are getting air,” Williams replied again, perhaps knowing that none was available but hoping to quiet Talib.

At 6:05 a.m., as our position was becoming increasingly tenuous, Swenson and Fabayo agreed that it was time to pull back and radioed for artillery to fire smoke rounds to mask our retreat.

“They don’t have any smoke. They only have Willy Pete,” Swenson reported, referring to white phosphorus rounds that spew smoke.

Fifty minutes later, as a curtain of white phosphorus smoke roiled across the valley, Swenson and Fabayo unleashed an intense volley of covering fire while the rest of us sprinted back some 20 yards to a series of dirt furrows, weighed down by our flak vests and water carriers.

The two officers raced back to join us. Everyone jumped up and ran for the next stone wall. Everyone but me. Afraid that too many people were jammed together as they raced, offering easy targets, I waited behind for a break in the gunfire, an Afghan border police officer crouched next to me.


We soon noticed that the insurgent snipers were trying to outflank us again. I saw one up on a small rise fire and miss us by several feet. My companion decided that it was time to go and bolted away across the wash, but the gunfire grew too intense, and again I pulled my body into the dirt and rocks.

I wasn’t as terrified as I was angry: angry at the absence of air support, angry that there was no artillery fire, angry that Williams’ interpreter had been killed, angry at the realization that the operation had obviously been betrayed and angry at myself for not bolting with the others.

I knew it was time to move when I saw a gaggle of Afghan soldiers pounding through the boulders past me, their commander, a bright 26-year-old lieutenant named Ruhollah, hopping between two of them, a bullet wound in his groin. Staying put was no longer an option.

Bundling my legs beneath me and grabbing the small bag I use to carry my pad, pens, glasses and other necessities, I sprang and ran, trying to weave as bullets kicked up dust around me.

I reached the next wall and plunged behind it, nearly falling on top of Swenson, Fabayo and several badly wounded U.S. soldiers.

As Fabayo cracked off rounds, Swenson lay flat on his back, clasping a pressure bandage to the shoulder of one soldier with one hand and holding the microphone of his radio in the other, calling out insurgents’ positions to two U.S. helicopters that finally had arrived.
It was now 7:10 a.m., and with the helicopters prowling overhead and firing into the hillsides, the incoming gunfire slackened enough for us to move again.

I stumbled down the valley to safety after I helped one of the injured soldiers into a medivac helicopter. Capt. Swenson and Lt. Fabayo headed off to find vehicles and, together with Cpl. Meyer, crashed back up the way we’d just fled to retrieve the bodies of the dead Marines and any other casualties they could find.

McClatchy’s Jonathan S. Landay, who was ambushed with U.S. Marines in a remote Afghan village Tuesday, is a veteran foreign affairs reporter with long experience in South Asia, Iraq, the Balkans and Washington.

Landay covered South Asia — including Afghanistan — as well as the Balkans from 1985 to 1994 for United Press International and for The Christian Science Monitor. He joined the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau in 1999.

He was part of the Knight Ridder team, with State Department correspondent Warren P. Strobel and Bureau Chief John Walcott, that investigated and disproved the Bush administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program and ties to al Qaida.

The team won a National Headliner Award for “How the Bush Administration Went to War in Iraq,” a 2005 Award of Distinction from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism for “Iraqi Exiles Fed Exaggerated Tips to News Media,” and a 2007 Edward Weintal Prize from Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy for the Iraq coverage.

The McClatchy Co. acquired Knight Ridder in 2006, and Landay is now the senior national security correspondent in the McClatchy Washington Bureau and a regular contributor to the bureau’s Nukes & Spooks blog. He regularly travels to Afghanistan, Pakistan and other trouble spots.


1 Comment »

  1. In war civilian casualties should be expected when the civilians willingly support the combatants or the combatants hide among unwilling civilian human shields. An example of the flawed strategy to place civilian comfort above winning wars is the case when a group of Marines failed to receive air support for fear of hurting civilians. That became a disaster for the Marines.

    Comment by John Houk — September 13, 2009 @ 2:49 pm | Reply

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