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Hard fight remains for Afghanistan's Nangarhar province

Jun. 30, 2013 - 12:05PM   |  
A soldier with the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division greets a young Afghan girl while patrolling a village in Khogyani District, Nangarhar province. Later this same day, soldiers from FOB Connolly sustained an attack led by members of the Afghan Local Police, who claimed it was an accident.
A soldier with the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division greets a young Afghan girl while patrolling a village in Khogyani District, Nangarhar province. Later this same day, soldiers from FOB Connolly sustained an attack led by members of the Afghan Local Police, who claimed it was an accident. (Carmen Gentile/Special for USA Today)
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KHOGYANI, NANGARHAR PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN — The platoon sets out on a moonless night to patrol a nearby village where Taliban gunmen are known to lurk.

Though normally accompanied by their Afghan counterparts, U.S. forces operate alone on this night. An insider attack that killed two U.S. officers just a day earlier in a nearby province prompts forces at Forward Operation Base (FOB) Connolly to take extra precautions. Because of the threat of follow-up attacks, patrols with Afghan soldiers and police are temporarily suspended.

Operating alone, troops approach a high-walled compound and halt. Through their interpreter, they alert anyone inside that U.S. forces are in their midst. Moments later, gunfire erupts from the compound. Hundreds of rounds are fired from both sides and several grenades tossed. No one is killed or wounded.

In the aftermath of the fight, U.S. forces learn that a member of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) are inside, along with several others including women and and elderly man. The men are taken away for questioning. ALP leaders insist it was a case of mistaken identity and that their man meant no harm.

Sgt. 1st Class Danny Del Castillo disagrees. “We called out to them four times,” says Del Castillo, recalling how they yelled to the men inside, in several languages, to make sure they knew that American forces were outside. “And they still shot at us.”

As their deployment winds down, and U.S. forces hand over FOB Connolly to Afghan forces, soldiers here in Khogyani District contend that there have been vast improvements to security in the area with the help of the Afghan National Army and the Uniformed Police. Yet the insurgency in Nangarhar province persists, as do questions about the loyalties of the ALP and whether Afghan forces can keep the Taliban from reclaiming the province.

“I’m hard-pressed to believe it was confusion and not an opportunity for unsavory individuals” to harms U.S. troops, says 1st Lt. Josiah Spinelli about the attack on his platoon, noting several similar experiences during their deployment to Nangarhar, where opium production continues and Taliban fighters are ever-present.

Just to the south of FOB Connolly are the infamous Tora Bora mountains where Osama bin Laden during the initial invasion of Afghanistan. Through those mountains runs the Wazir Pass, a natural conduit to Pakistan for readily resupplying Taliban with fighters and arms. Khogyani is said to be the home of several senior Taliban leaders and 200-300 gunmen from various factions of the Taliban and other militant groups.

FRUSTRATION AND SUCCESS

Afghan forces throughout the country like those in Khogyani recently took the final steps toward assuming full security responsibility for all of Afghanistan. Many smaller bases like Connolly have already been turned over to the Afghans or shut down and destroyed. The turnovers are precursors to the end of 2014 drawdown if U.S. combat forces from the country.

But before handing over FOB Connolly to the Afghans, soldiers here, along with other from the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, joined Afghan forces in an operation to the west in Nangarhar’s Hezerak District. The area is a known haven for the Taliban that borders two other militant strongholds: Logar province and Kabul province’s Surobi District. The operation in May — led by Afghan troops — was touted by U.S. officials as a success “clearing operation” that robbed the Taliban a foothold in the region to launch attacks on other parts of Nangarhar, including provincial capital and one of Afghanistan’s largest cities, Jalalabad.

“It was a big setback for the insurgents in the area,” Maj. Drew Davies says.

However, several officers at FOB Connolly noted that just weeks after the operation the Taliban had returned to Hezerak.

The Taliban’s return to Hezerak illustrates the difficulty of the fight in the part of eastern Afghanistan. Company commander Capt. Justin Liesen says some of the village elders surrounding Connolly remain on the fence when it comes to choosing between the Taliban and Afghanistan’s central government, which some resent for destroying opium poppy crops, an essential to the survival of many Afghans in this area.

“A large contingent of the population aren’t supporters of GIROA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) because they lost their livelihood” to opium eradication operations conducted by Afghan Uniformed Police, Liesen says.

Still, the captain says his forces made significant progress in their corner of Nangarhar, having improved the efficacy of the Afghan forces, particularly its commanders, through constant training. Liesen notes that at the beginning their deployment some nine months ago, Afghan forces weren’t particularly eager to join their American counterparts on patrols. Now, he says, those same Afghan forces are planning their own missions and executing them without U.S. soldiers. And despite the recent altercation with the ALP, who are trained by a small U.S. Special Forces unit, he says that relations between the Americans and Afghan forces here have improved during their recently completed tenure at Connolly.

“There are plenty of success,” says Liesen. “There are some frustrations, sure, but there are successes too.”

IMPROVED RELATIONS

Relations between U.S. and Afghan forces at Connolly have not always been strong. Last year, an Afghan soldier turned his weapon on two U.S. soldiers here killing them in what has become commonly known as “Green on Blue” attacks, which have increased in recent years throughout Afghanistan. The Taliban often takes responsibility for these attacks and attribute them to their success in infiltrating the Afghan National Security Forces.

According to several officers, residents of Khogyani District have been tied to several insider attacks in other parts of Afghanistan, saddling the region with a dubious reputation.

Since then, relations between the Afghan and American soldiers at Connolly have improved, leaders from both side maintain.

Liesen notes that the Afghan Army unit that was posted at Connolly during last year’s insider attack was replaced by the current Kandak (equivalent of a U.S. Army battalion) and its leaders take seriously the threat of potential insider attacks.

Shortly after the fatal Green-on-Blue killings in nearby Paktika province, U.S. and Afghan officers at Connolly met to discuss the incident, which helps restore a sense of normalcy to relations.

“I promise you guys it won’t happen here,” says Afghan Maj. Shafiullah Kohstani to a group of American soldier advisers known as Security Forces Advise and Assist Team, or SFAAT, which over the past year has spearheaded the training of Afghan forces throughout the country in anticipation of the 2014 drawdown.

The SFAAT at Connolly expresses confidence in the current commander here but notes previous Afghan officers they considered substandard. “Over our time here, we’re been able to remove some (Afghan) leaders that weren’t very good and replace them with much better officers,” Capt. John Irivine says.

SAFETY CONCERNS

Amid the praise for the Afghan Army and Uniformed Police, concerns about the reliability and allegiances of ALP in Khogyani and throughout Afghanistan persist. While the local police force is touted by U.S. military commanders as the first line of defense against Taliban incursions into small villages, the ALP have also been criticized for human rights abuses and corruption rackets that extort rural Afghans for protection money.

After the ALP was established in Khogyani, they were regularly targeted by the Taliban, whose senior leaders, including Mullah Omar, have accused the force of being traitors to Afghanistan. One of the local police was recently discovered murdered. “There is a legitimate concern for ALP’s safety,” Spinelli says.

Concerns for their safety, allegiance and the ethics of the ALP has some wondering whether it will eventually break down once U.S. troops leave Afghanistan. Some contend that the ALP will be absorbed by the Taliban, as some of its ranks are reconciled militants. Anthony Cordesman, a security expert for the Strategic Center for International Studies, says the ALP are not integrated into the rest of the Afghan National Security Forces and are “serving their own special interests.”

“They’ll hold some areas (of Afghanistan) and lose others,” Cordesman says. “The question is: Can they be effective enough?”

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