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
?THOSE GUYS WERE CRAZY?
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.
MAKING THE A TEAM
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
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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