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Showcase Afghan army mission turns into debacle

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KABUL, Afghanistan » An ambitious military operation that Afghan officials had expected to be a sign of their growing military capacity instead turned into an embarrassment, with Taliban fighters battering an Afghan battalion in a remote eastern area until NATO sent in French and American rescue teams.

The fighting has continued so intensely for the past week that the Red Cross has been unable to reach the battlefield to remove the dead and wounded.

The operation, east of Kabul, was extraordinary in that it was not coordinated in advance with NATO forces and did not at first include coalition forces or air support. The Afghans called for help after 10 of their soldiers were killed and perhaps twice as many captured at the opening of the operation nine days ago.

"There are a lot of lessons to be learned here," said a senior American military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the operation was continuing. "How they started that and why they started that." He said there had been no public statements on the battle because of the need for confidentiality during a rescue mission.

The Afghan National Army now has 134,000 soldiers, and on Wednesday, the new American commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, complimented the Afghans on reaching that target three months ahead of schedule.

Still, the Afghan National Army runs relatively few operations on its own, particularly large-scale ones. They take a little more than half as many casualties as coalition military forces, who now have roughly the same number of troops in the country. (In 2009, according to NATO figures, 282 Afghan soldiers were killed, compared with 521 coalition soldiers.) American advisers are included in most Afghan operations. It is not clear whether any were involved in this one.

The operation began when the Afghan army sent a battalion of about 300 men from the First Brigade, 201st Army Corps, into a village called Bad Pakh, in Laghman province, which is adjacent to the troubled border province of Kunar. Their operation, which began on the night of Aug. 3, was to flush out Taliban in a rugged area where they had long held sway. First, using the Afghan army’s own helicopters, a detachment was inserted behind Taliban lines, while the main part of the battalion attacked from the front.

But, according to a high-ranking official of the Afghan Ministry of Defense, the plan was betrayed; Taliban forces were waiting with an ambush against the main body of troops. Then the airborne detachment was cut off when bad weather grounded its helicopters, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.

In the confusion, the 201st Army Corps commanders lost contact with the battalion. The battalion’s Third Company — 100 men — took particularly heavy casualties, the official said, although he did not have a number. He said many of the company were killed, captured or missing, and as of Wednesday at least, the status of the rest of the battalion remained unclear.

However, the senior American military official said the battalion had not been lost. "We know exactly where that battalion is," he said, "although there are several soldiers unaccounted for and several killed." He estimated that "about 10" soldiers had been killed and that no more than a platoon were missing, meaning up to 20 soldiers.

An official of the Red Crescent in the area said that casualties were very heavy on the government side and that the Taliban had destroyed 35 Ford Ranger trucks, the standard Afghan Army transport vehicle, which typically carry six or more soldiers each.

Officially, the spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, Maj. Gen. Muhammed Zahair Azimi, said that there were only seven dead and 14 wounded and that the number taken prisoner was unknown.

"We cannot say the number captured because some of them were in difficult places, but some of our soldiers were captured by the Taliban," Azimi said Wednesday.

In addition, seven army vehicles were burned, he said, adding, "No other vehicles are in the hands of the enemy."

A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, spoke of a far more devastating toll. He said the militants’ ambush killed 27 Afghan soldiers, wounded 14 and led to the capture of eight, while 18 army vehicles and six tanks were seized.

"The NATO-Afghan terrorists were forced to retreat in humiliation after taking on heavy casualties," Mujahid said. The Taliban often wildly exaggerate the damage they inflict.

Both Afghan and American officials said that many Taliban fighters were killed and that the insurgents continued to take casualties through Thursday. Government forces now have the Taliban surrounded, Azimi said.

A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kabul, Bijan Frederic Farnoudi, confirmed reports that the group had tried to recover bodies and the wounded but had been turned back because the fighting was too intense.

"We’re monitoring and ready to go," he said. "As soon as it’s possible we’re willing to go in."

A tribal elder, a former Taliban official who has switched to the government side, said the Taliban contacted him to arrange for the Red Crescent and the International Committee of the Red Cross to remove the dead.

"The Taliban commander said the bodies are decaying and it’s a problem for us," he said, asking not to be named for his safety. "One of the Taliban told me, ‘I took three ANA soldiers prisoner myself, then took them home and killed them in my house, so my home would be the home of a hero."’

The International Security Assistance Force referred all questions about the operation to Afghan officials. "We can’t confirm information past what the MOD released since this started as a unilateral Afghan operation," said Col. Hans E. Bush, a spokesman for the NATO mission in Afghanistan. He added that a "personnel recovery" operation was under way, using the term for a rescue operation for wounded, dead or missing soldiers.

"When ISAF conducts personnel recovery missions," Bush said, "we consider them sensitive operations and do not provide public details while the operation is under way in order to safeguard any information/intelligence advantage we may have."

Most officials in Laghman province declined to comment about the fighting. On Wednesday, Iqbal Azizi, the governor of Laghman, described it as minor and said that only one policeman had been killed.

A local journalist for Pajhwok Afghan News, a news agency, who wrote about the attack was called in by the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence service, and questioned for several hours, according to the news agency’s director, Danish Karokhel.

Abdul Waheed Wafa, Sangar Rahimi and Sharifullah Sahak contributed reporting.


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