Afghanistan – NATO Takes Charge


A U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter takes off from FOB Bostick in eastern Afghanistan’s Naray district .


A local gives this 45 Commando WMIK Land Rover Defender a cautious wave. Although unarmoured, these vehicles were able to lay down a heavy rate of fire and were actually liked by their crews as they offered 360-degree visibility. Many men were not so keen on being battened down inside the later range of armoured vehicles that were deployed to Afghanistan.

Mopping up operations continued well into the New Year, with the Coalition determined not to repeat the mistakes of the battle for Tora Bora. The next area to be subject to a search-and-destroy mission was the Sha-i-Kot Valley (also the scene of heavy fighting against the Soviet army in 1987).

Local defenders, while expecting renewed attacks from the Coalition, did not anticipate it happening so soon. In late February 2002 their strongholds were softened up by fighter-bombers, using 3,500 precision guided munitions, B-52H bombers dropping over 250 bombs and Hercules gunships spraying the area with gunfire.

On 2 March 2002, Operation Anaconda launched 1,200 American troops and 1,000 new Afghan government troops under General Zia Lodin against the Shah-i-Kot Valley, supported by an armada of warplanes. The key to the operation was to prevent al-Qaeda forces from fleeing into Pakistan, so heliborne assault troops were used to block the escape routes. However, Anaconda stirred up a hornet’s nest. The column pushing up the valley road came under intense rocket and mortar fire and stalled, while one of the heliborne forces was accidentally landed in the midst of al-Qaeda defensive positions and suffered twenty-eight wounded. Air power proved crucial in helping clear the valley, though a further 1,000 Afghan government soldiers with armoured personnel carriers and tanks had to be called in. Few al-Qaeda dead were found and the enemy was either buried under the mountains or once again escaped.

Following Tora Bora and Anaconda, the American special forces conducted Operation Full Throttle on 14 June 2002, in the foothills of the Spin Ghar Mountains. This was in response to the Taliban regrouping north of Kandahar. Although Mullah Omar and bin Laden had gone to ground, these forces were thought to be under Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Osmani and Mullah Barader. In particular, Osmani – formerly the Taliban’s 2nd Corps commander – had assumed the role of acting Taliban military chief in November 2001. Full Throttle was followed by Operation Anvil, which succeeded in capturing Osmani, but he subsequently escaped to Pakistan.

NATO assumed control of ISAF in 2003 and expanded its area of responsibility from Kabul to encompass the country’s southern and eastern provinces three years later. This meant bringing the 12,000 American and other Coalition forces in the region under NATO control. It gave ISAF responsibility for the whole of Afghanistan, with around 40,000 troops. The upshot of this was greater integration in the south with the American-led Operation Enduring Freedom. However, the two operations continued to be directed separately, the rationale being that ISAF had a stabilisation and security mission, while OEF was overtly counter-terrorism.

While numerous countries provided contingents for peacekeeping in Afghanistan, the only notable numbers beyond Britain and the US were from Germany, Canada and the Netherlands. By early 2009 there were 56,420 foreign troops in Afghanistan of which 24,900 were American and 8,300 were British. The ANA totalled 79,300, though the Afghan government and UN agreed in 2008 to boost the ANA to 122,000 troops by 2011. It would eventually grow to 350,000.

The HQ of NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, under British direction, took control of ISAF in May 2006 for a nine-month period. This coincided with ISAF’s move south and the arrival of additional British troops in Helmand province for three years. Taliban activities soon made it clear that British numbers and equipment were insufficient to contain the threat. This forced the British Ministry of Defence hurriedly to procure more armoured vehicles for deployment in Afghanistan during the first half of 2007.

The British public really woke up to the country’s involvement when the 3 Para Battle Group deployed to Helmand province to help the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) with security and stability in 2006. Sending just 3,000 men, of whom only a third were fighters supported by just six heavy lift helicopters, seemed over optimistic at best. This force would eventually expand threefold.

At the behest of the regional governor 3 Para found itself divided up into penny packets to bolster the wholly ineffective Afghan National Police and the ANA. The British platoon houses acted like honey pots attracting Taliban from around the province. The civilian PRT members were redundant in the face of an escalating ground war. Nevertheless, in Helmand and elsewhere bravery and tenacity coupled with superior NATO firepower soon persuaded the Taliban that they could not win a stand-up fight. Instead, they began to wage a brutal and effective improvised Explosive Device (IED) campaign.

NATO-led ISAF was almost completely reliant on the goodwill and cooperation of neighbouring Pakistan. Around 75 per cent of all non-lethal supplies required by the 130,000 ISAF troops came via the Pakistani port of Karachi and were then trucked north. For this road traffic there were essentially just two key crossing points over the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

NATO-ISAF supply routes were highly vulnerable, a fact not missed by the Taliban. Convoys had little or no security and the Pakistani Police claimed that it was impossible for them to provide 24-hour protection. As a result, NATO civilian supply lorries were regularly targeted in Islamabad, Karachi, Peshawar and the southern province of Baluchistan from the summer of 2008 onwards. In the border areas the Taliban regularly hijacked lorries, kidnapped the drivers and stole their cargos. In the Khyber tribal region militants wrecked or seized numerous NATO transport vehicles.

American troops took considerable steps to secure Afghanistan’s Kunar province to the north of the Khyber Pass. This was in response to insurgents filtering through the Pech and Kunar valleys towards Kabul. American Marine, Mountain and Airborne units established a string of bases in the Pech, Waygal, Shuryak, Chowkay and Korengal valleys. There were rumours that elements of the 9/11 attacks were planned in the Korengal. Similarly, there were rumours that both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri used this route regularly to transit in and out of Pakistan. It was far easier to cut off ISAF’s supply routes through Pakistan than to cut off the insurgents.

NATO and the US were highly critical of the Pakistani army’s reluctance to tackle militants in North Waziristan following operations in South Waziristan. For some time both the US and NATO were demanding that Pakistan assert full control of all the tribal areas along the volatile Afghan border. It was here that foreign jihadists were trained to fight for al-Qaeda and the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. In addition, North Waziristan provided sanctuary for militants conducting attacks right across Pakistan.

The Pakistani government came under increasing pressure from Washington to crack down on the unrest and lawlessness that was blighting supply convoys in the border regions. The different Pakistani militant groups, including the Taliban, had the ability to strike with seeming ease. Pakistan was like a powder keg, forever just one step from a spark that would blow the whole thing to pieces. The country was caught between a rock and a hard place. Its foreign allies and partners were constantly exhorting it to greater efforts in the war on terror both at home and abroad. Internally, its competing religious and political groups were constantly straining the very fabric of the beleaguered state.

In the meantime, the US and NATO were making rods for their own backs. The Taliban, normally largely dormant during the winter, escalated their campaign largely in response to US special forces conducting operations throughout the winter months against its leadership and logistical routes. In addition, missiles fired from US drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (principally the aptly named Reaper) regularly killed Afghan and Pakistani Taliban inside Pakistan. This created an anti-American backlash and culminated with tribal leaders in North Waziristan vowing revenge on the US.

In southern Pakistan the road runs from the city of Quetta to Chaman through the Khojak Pass and across the border up to Kanadahar, which sits astride Afghanistan’s great ring road. To the north the road runs from Islamabad through Peshawar to the Khyber Pass and over the border to Jalalabad and on to Kabul. Militants were able to cross the border via the innumerable mountain footpaths, many of which were developed during the Soviet-Afghan War.

The Taliban claimed they set up a special unit to target ISAF supply convoys inside Pakistan and that this strategy would not cease until the supply routes had been completely cut. The Taliban scored a notable propaganda coup when they filmed themselves with seized American Humvee motor vehicles in November 2008, which had been destined for American forces across the border in Afghanistan.

ISAF claimed its operations remained unaffected by the destruction of these vital supply convoys, but behind the scenes it was seeking alternatives in order to reduce its reliance on ever-unstable Pakistan. Clearly, ISAF could not sit idly by while the Taliban strangled it. However, the only real alternative was that supplies were brought into northern Afghanistan via Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. This was not a viable option, as all supplies first had to be flown in to intermediate countries rather than be shipped by sea.

In June 2010 around a dozen militants walked into a vehicle depot just 6 miles outside islamabad and shot up twenty lorries setting them on fire. The attackers quickly escaped in two cars and on motorbikes, leaving behind millions of dollars worth of destruction and seven dead and four wounded. Alarmed at the complete lack of security, local truckers closed the grand trunk road between Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar before the police managed to move them on. The Pakistani government refused to step up security despite the Taliban publicly acknowledging they were targeting the trucks and tankers. It was also alleged that Pakistan’s intelligence and security forces were deliberately looking the other way to encourage the attacks to punish NATO for the border violations and American drone attacks.

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