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B Company, 1-4 Infantry, on recon patrol in the mountains near FOB Baylough in remote central Zabul province, Afghanistan. (Chris Maddaloni / Staff)
FORWARD OPERATING BASE LAGMAN, QALAT, Afghanistan U.S. troops reported a fierce firefight May 28 against Farsi-speaking insurgents who wore body armor and "Kevlar helmets" and used smoke grenades. The U.S. soldiers killed an estimated 35 insurgents and suffered no casualties, but say the battle demonstrated the increasing sophistication of some guerrilla groups here.
The battle, in northern Zabul province's Deh Chopan district, marked the first time that insurgents have been reported speaking Farsi and using such protective gear in this part of Afghanistan and indicated the presence of a large, well-trained foreign force in the area, according to U.S. troops. It was the largest engagement of the most violent month in Zabul since at least 2004, they said.
The firefight erupted when a company-size force that combined infantry platoons from B Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, and Special Forces A-teams moved north from Forward Operating Base Baylough, a tiny position that represents the only coalition or Afghan government presence in Deh Chopan.
"We were doing reconnaissance," said Maj. Greg Cannata, who as the senior 1-4 Infantry officer in Afghanistan monitored the battle from Task Force Zabul headquarters at this base about 60 kilometers south of Baylough.
"We had reporting of enemy activity to the north of Baylough in a fairly large size, so we massed forces into Baylough to basically conduct reconnaissance of the area and confirm or deny the intelligence that we had," he said.
Cannata said the U.S. troops reported coming under fire within six kilometers north of Baylough from insurgents who wore body armor and "Kevlar helmets" and used smoke grenades to conceal their movement as they broke.
an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter broke off from escorting a supply helicopter run to Baylough to support the U.S. troops in contact and fired off almost all its ammunition.
Cannata expressed disappointment that although U.S. forces killed about three dozen insurgents without taking any casualties, neither the 1-4 troops nor the SF soldiers had moved forward to conduct any "exploitation" of the bodies to determine the type and origin of their equipment.
"It would have been great ... to actually have a body that has the body armor and the Kevlar on it, but we trust these men to lead soldiers into combat," he said. "I'm going to trust what they say when they get there about what they see, and I'll coach them on the exploitation phase, which is generally kind of new at that level for most of the Army.
But in a May 17 interview B Company's 2nd Platoon leader, 1st Lt. Jason Basilides, who is the senior U.S. officer permanently stationed at Baylough, said the insurgents typically made it difficult to conduct any sort of assessment of their casualties.
"After they break contact they usually take their dead and their wounded away," he said.
Based on the estimated number of insurgents killed in action, the fact that some enemy fighters withdrew at the end of the fight, and intelligence reports of up to 300 insurgents in the area, Cannata guessed that U.S. forces faced perhaps 100 insurgents in the May 28 fight. One U.S. soldier was saved by the bulletproof chest plate in his protective vest, while another insurgent bullet fired at several hundred meters range put a 60mm mortar tube out of action, Cannata said.
The insurgents' modern gear and the relative sophistication of their tactics and marksmanship indicated that these were not local guerrillas. The use of body armor, helmets and smoke grenades is "fairly rare" anywhere in Afghanistan, and "most likely indicates a skilled group [of] … foreign fighters with funding and previous experience [and] training," an Army source in Afghanistan said.
This view was supported by the fact that coalition interpreters monitoring the guerrillas' communications said they heard two non-Afghan languages. One was Farsi, Cannata said, adding that the interpreters had specifically identified the language as such, rather than Dari, a language spoken in northern and western Afghanistan that is closely related to Farsi but is not usually spoken by the Pashtuns from whom the Taliban draw their recruits.
Farsi, or Persian, is the principal language spoken in Iran. But Cannata was quick to caution against assuming that the presence of Farsi-speaking insurgents indicated that Iranian operatives were fighting U.S. troops. "That doesn't necessarily mean ‘Iranian,' I wouldn't want to lead anybody down the wrong route on that," Cannata said. Versions of Farsi are also spoken in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
The Army source in Afghanistan even cautioned against taking the interpreters' word that the language was Farsi. What they heard was "likely not a known language to the 'terps, but [was] difficult to identify due to the variety of dialects especially in the remote valleys of Afghanistan," the Army source said.
There have been no reports of Iranian operatives operating in Zabul, said Master Sgt. Simon T. Smith, the TF Zabul director of intelligence. But a U.S. military official in Kabul said the Iranians were involved in the insurgency in Afghanistan, albeit on a small scale.
"We see Iran basically playing a dual-track role providing significant economic and social assistance on the one hand, but on the other hand facilitating a low level of support to the insurgency," the U.S. military official said. "They want a stable Afghanistan and do not want the Taliban to return to power, but they also aren't excited about increased Western influence in the region."
The second non-Afghan language spoken by the insurgents was one the interpreters did not recognize, but which Cannata said was "potentially Russian." Cannata's guess was informed by the fact that a sizeable force of Uzbek and Chechen fighters associated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan had been reported in the area where the battle took place. The IMU has been an ally of al-Qaida and the Taliban since the 1990s.
Rising skill level
The tactical skill displayed by the insurgents in the May 28 battle, particularly in marksmanship, is part of a trend in Zabul, which has traditionally been a Taliban stronghold.
U.S. troops here say three basic types of insurgents operate in Zabul: hard-core Taliban fighters who answer to the "Quetta Shura" leadership of Mullah Omar, based in the Pakistani city of Quetta; local Taliban who are mostly part-timers; and foreign fighters. The Taliban both the hard-core and local varieties have not been renowned for their tactical prowess.
"Having been in direct fire engagements with the Taliban here, I can tell you they're not particularly well trained," said Maj. Paul Darling, the senior mentor of the Afghan National Police in Zabul.
That is still the overwhelming view held by troops here. But as the level of violence has risen, so have reports of insurgents displaying unusually good marksmanship and other tactical skills.
"They've got marksmanship training somewhere that is making it much more accurate than normal," Cannata said, adding that the insurgents were displaying improved shooting skills with AK-series assault rifles and PKM machine guns.
"We have reports of training camps in Deh Chopan," he said. "They are doing training there. Where the training camps are, we're working on, and what specifically they're training, we're working on. Certainly marksmanship and maneuver are two of them."
Capt. Andrew Webber, a mentor to the Afghan National Army's 1st Kandak (Battalion), 2nd Brigade, 205th Corps, based at FOB Sweeney in southern Zabul's Shinkay district, said this year he too had observed insurgents using "very accurate PKM fire" at a range of 600 meters to 800 meters.
"On numerous occasions we've been hit with accurate machine gun fire," Webber said. "We've had more injuries from machine gun fire than from IEDs [improvised explosive devices]."
The increased skill level points to the presence of foreign fighters either as combatants themselves or as trainers of Afghan insurgents, U.S. troops said. Although Uzbeks and Chechens have been a presence on the Afghan battlefield since before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, the most persistent foreign presence here has been that of Pakistani fighters.
It was the Pakistani military's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate that created and sponsored the Taliban in the 1990s, and there have been persistent reports that despite American pressure in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the ISI maintains links with the Taliban and associated jihadist movements operating in Afghanistan.
Smith, the TF Zabul director of intelligence, said TF Zabul had received reports of ISI activity in the task force's area of operations as recently as last year.
"There have been reports in the past of ISI activity in the province, in 2007 and 2008, bringing stuff across the border … weapons and explosives," he said. However, there had been no such reports this year, Smith said.
But the Army source in Afghanistan was reluctant to state outright that the ISI was still aiding the Taliban. "Lots of groups ferry weapons across the border," the Army source said. "Lots of groups blame ISI for everything."
Cannata said coalition forces in Zabul encounter and kill Pakistani fighters "routinely."
In early April, when 12 U.S. and 35 Afghan National Army troops successfully fought through an ambush staged by roughly 150 insurgents in Shinkay's Dab Pass, they recovered two insurgents' bodies with Pakistani identification cards on them, according to Webber, who said he inspected the cards and the bodies. Although the Taliban is predominantly a Pashtun organization, the names and home towns listed on the cards indicated that the men were Punjabi, Webber said, adding that the Pakistanis were probably training the Taliban, resulting in the improved marksmanship that he's observed.