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

terrorize people.?



       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.



       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

shave immediately.

        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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