Rocket-propelled grenades streaked through the fading light and exploded behind the US convoy patrolling in eastern Afghanistan. Muzzle flashes flared in the gloom as Taleban insurgents opened up with heavy machineguns and AK47s. Delta company was caught in an ambush.
Foul-mouthed soldiers swung their weapons towards a complex of mud-walled buildings 800 yards away. “Get some!” roared the gunner of an M19 grenade launcher. The thud of return fire from the Americans’ vehicle-mounted weapons began.
Soldiers inside their Humvees opened bullet-proof windows and slid their rifles through. Those on the right side of the convoy scrambled out and brought their weapons to bear on the sparks flashing in the distance. Red tracer flew towards the buildings.
“Three o’clock,” someone shouted. Grey smoke trails lingered in the air where the rocket-propelled grenades had exploded. Under orders to “shoot conservative”, combat veterans tried to calm adrenalin-pumped novices. “Take your time,” one shouted. “One burst every ten seconds.”
The slew of hot shell casings from the gunners’ turrets that had cascaded into the vehicles began to ease. A foot patrol cut around the insurgents’ flank as darkness fell, running hard through wheatfields, ducking every 50 yards. No one spoke. Everyone sucked in air.
Afghan National Police went with them as they pushed through the mud compounds. Breaking down doors by torchlight they found terrified women and children inside who said that they knew nothing. Some shielded their dignity by facing walls. The only man there of fighting age was blind.
Attack helicopters and F15 jets growled somewhere in the skies above and confirmation came through of two kills. The rest of the attackers had vanished. “They’re so much lighter than us,” 3rd Platoon’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Adam Novak, said. “They break faster.”
Part of the first ripple in the US troop surge to Afghanistan, Delta company and its sister units are securing a 67-mile stretch of the Kabul to Kandahar highway, the country’s main north-south road. Sixty per cent of Afghanistan’s population live within 30 miles (50km) of one of the country’s main highways, collectively known as the “ring road”.
“The single biggest measure the Afghan people have in their mind of whether or not there is security is their ability to travel with freedom,” Lieutenant-General Jim Dutton, Nato’s deputy commander in Afghanistan, told The Times. Reclaiming the ring road is a key plank of US and Nato strategy.
Delta company’s 3rd platoon had set out that morning for Chak district, a Taleban stronghold 40 miles southwest of Kabul. The American military says that until recently Taleban and foreign fighters walked the streets of Chak with impunity.
From a deep system of mountain valleys, insurgents have been able to threaten the highway and impose their own form of governance on the local population, creating a public relations disaster for President Karzai’s Government.
Only a few hours into the mission, in a district called Sayed Abad, a soldier drove a 33-ton armoured vehicle off a narrow mountain road. It tilted precipitously towards a 50-foot drop. Attempts to drive it on to firmer ground collapsed more of the road.
Lieutenant Novak radioed for a recovery vehicle and gave a wry grin. “This just increased our chances of an ambush,” he said. Minutes later the insurgents opened fire.
One bullet skimmed so close to Private James Radovic, 20, from San Diego, that it popped the pressure inside his ear. Another passed between two soldiers’ heads. More rounds zinged off rocks and Humvees.
The echo in the valley made it hard to tell where the fire was coming from. Unaware that they were being attacked from two directions, several soldiers crouched in open view of the insurgents. The attackers melted away as quickly as they had arrived.
“Four months of bulls**t for five minutes of fun,” Private Nick Benitez said. “We might be here a while ‘cos of that truck being down,” Private Andrew Jones said. “They’re probably doing a little intel and come back later.”
The mission to Chak by 3rd Platoon came two weeks after a patrol by a sister unit in the area. On that occasion US troops say that they fought insurgents for six hours, killing at least 12. To their surprise, the militants fought on even after heavily armed Apache gunships arrived to tilt the battle in the Americans’ favour. “They want ownership” of the area, Lieutenant Novak told The Times. “Their big focus is trying to break American will.”
Nine hours after it began going over the edge, the armoured vehicle was recovered and drove out of the gully it had eventually been lowered into. The vehicle had escaped with nothing more than a broken headlamp and a flat tyre.
AFGHANISTAN: Losing the battle for Afghan hearts and minds.
THEY fled in the dead of night, taking what belongings they could, and telling no-one they were leaving for fear of ambush.
Hakimi and his family did not quit the badlands of the south, though, nor the hostile reaches of eastern Afghanistan. They came from Wardak province, less than an hour’s drive from the capital.
But just 30 miles from Kabul, it is Taliban country. Over the past year, the militants have established a stronghold in Wardak, which borders the capital to the south and west. Nine months ago, one of the province’s two hospitals, a German-run clinic, shut down after staff there also received death threats.
The UN evacuated its humanitarian staff from all but one of Wardak’s eight districts in September, citing security concerns. Roshanak Wardak, a member of parliament for the province, has said there are areas she is “100% sure no government worker can go to”.
Not without reason. The head of the attorney-general’s office in one Wardak district was kidnapped and killed by the Taliban three months ago. Days later, Afghan army, police and coalition forces said they had killed or wounded around 60 insurgents in a two-day battle that raged close to the Afghan capital. The number of attacks by Taliban-linked militants in Wardak has increased by 58% since 2007, according to security analyst Sami Kovanen in Kabul.
As it reasserts control over large swathes of countryside, the Taliban has been installing a shadow government to answer civilian needs. In the absence of effective local governance, the militants have been arresting criminals, providing courts, dispensing justice, running prisons and organising public executions – all within an hour’s drive of Kabul.
Hakimi’s fears were borne out just weeks after his family’s escape, when his cousin Naim was hanged by the Taliban for joining the Afghan National Army (ANA). His body swung from a tree for two days with a sign on his chest warning that whoever cut him down would suffer the same fate.
“My cousin was hanging three kilometres from the police district building,” said Hakimi. “But they were not able to retrieve his body.” Eventually, aid workers from the Afghan Red Crescent Society defied the ban and brought the body in.
A series of interviews with people from Wardak told a similar story.
“The police control their own buildings and maybe the 10 metres surrounding them,” said 40-year-old Habibullah Noori, who runs a minibus service between Wardak and Kabul. “There may be police checkpoints but there are also lots of Taliban checkpoints.”
News agency AP reported several days ago that checkpoint police in Wardak sometimes wear traditional robes so they can pass themselves off as civilians at the first sign of trouble. And whereas the government often turns a blind eye to crime – one interviewee said that “the other name for police is robbers” – the Taliban not only fails to tolerate it, but offers swift justice. Hakimi explained that the Taliban likes open and shut cases so its members can concentrate on fighting. “Every village has a Taliban representative and if anything happens, people go to him to say, We have this problem ‘. He doesn’t want to spend much time on it – so decisions are quick.” They can take a little as 24 hours.
But Noori, the minibus driver, said the Taliban’s system is better than the government’s. “If you have a problem the Taliban solves it,” he said. “In the government offices there is only corruption and bribery.
“Last year, the Taliban did not have 80, 90 or 100% control,” he added. “It was a mess. There were robbers, killers, everything. Now, you could walk around with 10kg of gold on your head and no-one would touch you. You can walk around at night without fear.”
As an example of the rough justice meted out, he cited a robbery in late summer when eight trucks of wheat disappeared. The Taliban investigated, found the trucks and returned them to their owners. Militants shot the leader of the robbers in the head, and let the others go with severe beatings and after extracting promises that there would be no repeat offence. Other Taliban punishments include parading criminals with their faces daubed black or amputating the hands of robbers. But cases aren’t limited to theft and murder. Far more frequently, aggrieved parties will seek arbitration of a property dispute – the most common cause of friction between Afghans, according to interviewees.
The procedure, should you have trouble of some sort, is to go to the nearest mosque and find the local Taliban representative. “He will say, Come back tomorrow at 10 o’clock and we will have the man who has done something’ – and he will be there,” Noori told me. “If the problem is small, a mullah will solve it. If it’s bigger, it will be a judge trained more extensively in Sharia law.”
Meanwhile, an uneasy detente is said to exist between the Taliban in Wardak and the local police, with both sides realising that full-scale confrontation is to neither’s advantage.
“If they create problems for us, we can create problems for them,” said 22-year-old Taliban foot soldier Spin Ghel. The failure of the police to drive 3km to retrieve Naim’s hanging corpse would appear to bear out his point. But Ghel, who wore a leather jacket over his salwar kameez and seemed to have joined the Taliban more out of boredom or frustration than for any ideological reason, claimed the relationship went deeper than that.
“They exchanged powerful commanders for that Italian journalist who was kidnapped,” he said, referring to the abduction in 2007 of Daniele Mastrogiacomo, who was released in exchange for Taliban prisoners. Whatever the extent of the alleged collusion, with a salary of just $65 a month it is hard to see why any police trooper would risk his life to take on the Taliban’s protection racket.
A key part of the Taliban’s success in Wardak is its network of informants. Gulbuddin, another young Taliban fighter, said there were around 70 spies in Kabul on the Taliban’s payroll, providing information about convoy movements, individuals visiting the province, and their families. At roadblocks, which can vary from a handful of militants waving down traffic to as many as 40, the insurgents have the registration numbers of approaching vehicles and descriptions of the passengers they carry.
“When my cousin was arrested, making a visit home, there were 40 men who came to get him,” said Hakimi. “All private taxis to Wardak leave from one specific location. That’s why it’s simple for them to know who is coming. They monitor everyone coming and going. If you’re wearing beautiful, nice, expensive clothing they are suspicious. They think you must be working for the government or UN. If you’re wearing dirty clothes, have a beard, long hair, turban, they think that’s fine.”
How far the Taliban’s services reach is unclear, but they are far from comprehensive. “The Taliban are very poor,” said Noori. “They can’t afford to provide healthcare – most of the time they are asking people to feed them.” Although in some places the Taliban is reported to extort a 10% tax from Afghans at the barrel of a gun, shadow governance of this sort has yet to reach Wardak.
Gulbuddin seemed less than enthusiastic about many of his duties, but reeled them off: searching ANA, aid or government workers, and arresting robbers. “We have district chiefs,” he said, “and we await their orders to see who we should hang. With most of the foreigners we arrest, we have to wait for orders from the Taliban in Pakistan.”
On the subject of prisons, he said the nearest to Kabul was an hour’s drive away. “The prisons are different – they can be residential houses or they can be caves that double as Taliban bases,” he explained, smiling. “Once people complained that maybe the coalition would bomb the houses we were using and kill them so now we try to use abandoned mud houses no-one knows about. We are always moving.”
Gulbuddin smiled a lot, but most of all when he was discussing ambushes on convoys – his chief occupation. Afghanistan’s ring road, the country’s main artery around which the densest population centres are located, runs straight through Wardak and is virtually impassable to Western and government forces. But so vital is control of this road that the US and Nato have made winning it back one of their top priorities for 2009.
“Most of the time, we attack on convoys,” said Gulbuddin. “For example, every time Afghan or coalition forces leave their bases to go somewhere, we have spies who alert our commanders. We gather on the front line with RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), PKM heavy machine guns, and AK-47s as a third resort.”
Four 10-men units set up diagonally opposite each other at the site of the planned ambush, and good cover and escape routes are critical considerations when choosing the site, “especially when battles can last several hours,” said Gulbuddin. The first two units will wait for the convoy to pass before opening fire on the vehicles bringing up the rear. As the convoy accelerates forward the remaining fighters will start shooting at the van.
So precarious is the balance of the fight on Kabul’s doorstep that the “vast majority” of the first wave of US reinforcements to Afghanistan – the 3rd Mountain Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division – will be sent to Wardak and neighbouring Logar province, according to a US army spokeswoman. Outfits such as the UK’s 3rd Commando Brigade, deployed in Helmand province in the volatile south and taking heavy casualties, will have to wait for back-up. Military commanders expect an initial spike in fighting before the extra troops start to quell the violence.
“You will increase the level of incidents and violence when you first put troops into an area, that’s to be expected and indeed in some ways welcomed because that’s the purpose of going there in the first place,” Nato’s deputy commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Jim Dutton, said recently. Wardak locals said that until now foreign troops and ANA patrols had sometimes entered their villages – but never stayed for long. They interpreted this as a precautionary measure against the possibility of a Taliban attack.
“Sometimes they come and talk to previous commanders of the mujahidin, distributing sweets to children for five or 10 minutes. But that’s it,” said Noori.
A spokesman for the coalition forces said: “Help is on its way. The arrival of the 3rd Brigade will certainly help boost the number of forces in the area. The locals will probably see a lot more soldiers.”
“We want the government to take control,” said Noori. “But otherwise they should leave it to the Taliban. We civilians always end up trapped in the middle.”