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Afghanistan: I Yelled at Them to Stop? - Newsweek (MSNBC)

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  • Zafar Khan
    I Yelled at Them to Stop? U.S. Special Forces are frustrated. Kicking down doors and frisking women, they say, is no way to win hearts and minds in
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 30, 2002
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      I Yelled at Them to Stop?
      U.S. Special Forces are frustrated. Kicking down doors
      and frisking women, they say, is no way to win hearts
      and minds in Afghanistan. A report from the front

      By Colin Soloway


      Oct. 7 issue ? One afternoon in August, a U.S.
      Special Forces A team knocked at the door of a
      half-ruined mud compound in the Shahikot Valley. The
      servicemen were taking part in Operation Mountain
      Sweep, a weeklong hunt for Qaeda and Taliban fugitives
      in eastern Afghanistan.

      THE MAN OF THE HOUSE, an elderly farmer, let the
      Americans in as soon as his female relatives had gone
      to a back room, out of the gaze of strange men. Asked
      if there were any weapons in the house, the farmer
      proudly showed them his only firearm, a hunting rifle
      nearly a century old. When the team had finished
      searching, carefully letting the women stay out of
      sight, the farmer served tea. The Americans thanked
      him and walked toward the next house.
      They didn?t get far before the team?s captain
      looked back. Six paratroopers from the 82d Airborne,
      also part of Mountain Sweep, were lined up outside the
      farmer?s house, preparing to force their way in. ?I
      yelled at them to stop,? says the captain, ?but they
      went ahead and kicked in the door.? The farmer
      panicked and tried to run, and one of the paratroopers
      slammed him to the ground. The captain raced back to
      the house. Inside, he says, other helmeted soldiers
      from the 82d were attempting to frisk the women. By
      the time the captain could order the soldiers to
      leave, the family was in a state of shock. ?The women
      were screaming bloody murder,? recalled the captain,
      asking to be identified simply as Mike. ?The guy was
      in tears. He had been completely dishonored.?

      The official story from both the 82d Airborne
      and the regular Army command is that Operation
      Mountain Sweep was a resounding success. Several arms
      caches were found and destroyed, and at least a dozen
      suspected Taliban members or supporters were detained
      for questioning. But according to Special Forces,
      Afghan villagers and local officials living in or near
      the valley, the mission was a disaster. The witnesses
      claim that American soldiers succeeded mainly in
      terrorizing innocent villagers and ruining the rapport
      that Special Forces had built up with local
      communities. ?After Mountain Sweep, for the first time
      since we got here, we?re getting rocks thrown at us on
      the road in Khowst,? says Jim, a Green Beret who has
      been operating in the area for the past six months.
      Special Forces members say that Mountain Sweep has
      probably set back their counterinsurgency and
      intelligence operations by at least six months.

      Officers in the 82d insist their men did
      nothing wrong. In response to NEWSWEEK queries,
      public-affairs officers characterized the Special
      Forces involved in Mountain Sweep as ?prima donnas?
      who were damaging the war effort by complaining to the
      press. Yet at a time when Washington is talking about
      expanding the mission in Afghanistan and increasing
      the number of large-scale operations like Mountain
      Sweep?and when Qaeda allies are stepping up terrorist
      attacks against the fragile government in Kabul?the
      criticism raises serious questions about the best
      strategy for fighting the low-intensity war.
      Shahikot is where Al Qaeda and Taliban forces
      fought their last major battle against the Americans
      back in March. Some 50 soldiers from several Special
      Forces A teams have been operating in eastern
      Afghanistan?s Paktia and Khowst provinces ever since.
      They?ve been working to win the villagers? trust and
      cooperation?and largely succeeding, as NEWSWEEK found
      while accompanying some of them for two weeks on
      operations shortly before Mountain Sweep began. ?The
      Americans in Gardez who have Toyota trucks, they are
      good guys,? says Jan Baz Sadiqi, 46, district
      administrator in Zormat, the valley?s population
      center. ?They don?t break into houses, and they don?t
      terrorize people.?

      Then on Aug. 19, American commanders sent some
      600 action-hungry members of the Army?s 82d Airborne
      Division, Third Battalion, charging into Zormat and
      the Shahikot area. ?Those guys were crazy,? said one
      Special Forces NCO who was there. ?We just couldn?t
      believe they were acting that way. Every time we
      turned around they were doing something stupid. We?d
      be like, ?Holy s?t, look at that! Can you believe
      this!? ? Another said: ?They were acting like bin
      Laden was hiding behind every door. That just wasn?t
      the way to be acting with civilians.? Special Forces
      working in the region say that since Mountain Sweep,
      the stream of friendly intelligence on weapons caches,
      mines and terrorist activity has dried up.
      The Special Forces have often had a stormy
      relationship with the rest of the Army. Conventional
      commanders sometimes regard the elite fighters as
      arrogant cowboys. Special Forces members respond that
      the regular Army is too rigid for the painstaking job
      of fighting a low-intensity conflict. ?The
      conventional military has a conventional mind-set,?
      said an SF officer. ?It does not work when you have
      crooks and terrorists and all kinds of bad guys who
      blend into the population.? In Afghanistan, the A
      teams have been out in the field, cultivating the
      friendship of villagers and tracking down terrorists.
      At the same time, regular soldiers like those of the
      82d were, until August, mostly confined to their
      bases, just itching to get out and do the job for
      which they were trained.
      In Shahikot, that wasn?t the job that needed
      doing. ?The 82d is a great combat unit,? said a
      Special Forces NCO who took part in the mission. ?A
      lot of us on the teams came out of the 82d. But they
      are trained to advance to contact and kill the enemy.
      There was no ?enemy? down there.? The remaining
      Taliban forces melted into the civilian population
      after Operation Anaconda blasted them out of the caves
      of Shahikot in March. Since then, the Afghan war has
      become basically a low-intensity guerrilla conflict,
      with Taliban and Qaeda fighters operating in small
      cells, emerging only to lay land mines and launch
      nighttime rocket attacks against the Americans before
      disappearing once again.

      The Special Forces were created to deal with
      precisely that kind of enemy. Each A team is made up
      of 10 or fewer noncommissioned officers, led by one
      warrant officer and one captain. Armed with M-4 rifles
      and light machine guns, they live, travel and work
      with local troops. They patrol isolated villages in
      ordinary Toyota pickups, talking to the
      inhabitants?and never go anywhere without someone who
      speaks the local language. They have been trained to
      assimilate local customs and sensibilities as
      carefully as possible. Many of them sported full
      beards until a few weeks ago, when a news photo of a
      whiskery Green Beret shook up the brass in Washington.
      A smooth-cheeked adult male is a strange sight for
      rural Afghans, but the generals ordered all troops to
      shave immediately.
      Still, people back home?Pentagon brass and
      civilians alike?are asking why terrorist leaders like
      Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar are still
      running loose. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
      reportedly dressed down Gen. Dan McNeill in July for
      failing to capture more ?high-value targets.? Such
      impatience was likely a factor in launching Mountain
      Sweep. ?It?s the victory of form over substance,
      substituting action for results,? says a Western
      diplomat who is worried about increasing complaints
      and warnings from areas where conventional operations
      are taking place. ?It?s thinking if you do a lot of
      stuff, something will happen. Something will, but it
      might not be what you want. The unhappiness is
      Villagers have made no secret of that
      unhappiness. In the village of Marzak, several
      witnesses say that 82d troops chased down a mentally
      ill man, pushed him to the ground, handcuffed him and
      then took turns taking photos of themselves pointing a
      gun to his head. The office of Zormat administrator
      Sadiqi was flooded with complaints about the actions
      of some 82d units. ?They knocked down doors, pouring
      into the homes, terrifying everybody, beating people,
      mistreating people,? says Sadiqi. He says villagers
      demanded: ?Why do the Americans come here and search
      our women? We don?t need this kind of government!?
      After the mission, the two SF teams submitted
      an ?after-action review.? NEWSWEEK has not seen the
      document, but sources say it describes in detail the
      problems the teams witnessed and suggests ways to
      avoid such problems in the future. The report set off
      a storm of recriminations. Col. James Huggins,
      commander of Task Force Panther, of which the Third
      Battalion is a part, says every platoon and squad
      leader in the battalion was questioned under oath, and
      their statements did not support the teams? charges.
      ?I can?t tell you 100 percent these things didn?t
      happen,? says Huggins. ?All I can tell you is I
      looked, and can?t find any evidence that they did.?
      Officers involved have been accused of leaking
      classified reports to NEWSWEEK, and have been
      subjected to internal investigations.
      Even as he defends his troops, Huggins says
      he?s working to avoid problems in the future by
      increasing ?cultural awareness? training, bringing in
      female military police to search Afghan women and
      keeping supplies of new locks on hand to replace those
      that are cut off during searches. As some Green Berets
      see it, the damage has already been done. Told that
      more operations like Mountain Sweep are being planned,
      one Special Forces NCO says: ?It?s over, then. We
      might as well go home, because we?ll never succeed
      with big ops like that.? Even so, Mike sticks up for
      the conventional Army. ?Some SF guys will tell you we
      don?t need regular forces out here, that we can do it
      all by ourselves,? he said. ?But that?s impossible.
      The question is, how do you use those forces?? He
      recommends a model that has been successful in
      Afghanistan?pairing an A team with a company of
      regular infantry. ?We need their muscle and firepower
      to support us when we go after the bad guys. But they
      need our brains, experience and skills to get the
      mission done,? Mike says. ?If you establish rapport
      with the people?establish you are not an occupying
      army?and prove you are here to support the
      transitional government, they will tell you where to
      find Al Qaeda.? Among the Special Forces, the hope is
      that the U.S. command can learn from the mistakes of
      Mountain Sweep and get the job done right.

      © 2002 Newsweek, Inc.

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