KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — An ongoing operation northwest of Kandahar has brought US forces into contact with the largest concentrations of Taliban fighters in nearly eight months.
Operation Eagle Fury involves nearly a brigade of American Special Forces and elite units of the 82nd Airborne Division, along with Afghan fighters loyal to the central government in Kabul. Spread out over the long Baghran Valley in Helmand Province, companies of US forces have spent the past two weeks moving north from village to village, searching houses for Taliban fighters and weapons caches. They've rounded up more than a dozen suspected Taliban fighters.
If the US operation succeeds, American forces will have cornered Taliban forces - and perhaps some top Taliban leaders - in a high-walled valley with few opportunities of escape. Like Operation Mongoose, set in the Adi Ghar mountains southeast of Kandahar late last month, Eagle Fury started with a foiled Taliban attempt to ambush US forces. In four or five clashes that followed, the US encountered anywhere from five to a couple dozen Taliban at a time.
Until recently, contact with the enemy for many US soldiers has been limited to rocket attacks on US bases - most of which miss entirely - or the occasional homemade bomb or land mine placed near US bases. The growing aggressiveness by guerrillas is a relief for US forces, who greet the possibility of a real engagement with the Taliban as a possible turning point in the war.
"We want them to attack us, so we can engage them and destroy them," says one Special Forces soldier from the US firebase at Spin Boldak, who took part in the initial firefight that led to Operation Mongoose. "If we can draw them out of their hiding places, we can destroy them."
While the Taliban seem to be regrouping, it's not clear whether their growing assertiveness is a sign of confidence or desperation.
US military sources, for one, say the Taliban are entering a field of battle where US forces have a distinct advantage.
"The past two operations suggest that the level of the training and performance seems to be worse than ever," says Maj. Greg Liska, commander of the Civil Military Operations Command at the US base at Kandahar Airport. "We've had a number of people attempting to lay mines who have blown themselves up." Civil- affairs soldiers under Major Liska's command have accompanied US combat forces during Operation Eagle Fury, assessing humanitarian needs of the local population.
Afghan commander Abdul Razzaq Achakzai, head of border security in Spin Boldak, agrees that the enemy seems to be getting weaker rather than stronger. "They can cross the border stealthily, like a thief in the night, and then escape, but they cannot come out in force so that people can see them," says Commander Achakzai. "And the people help us whenever the enemy of Afghanistan comes to disturb us. They are tired of war, and they don't want to help the enemy."
US soldiers say they are adjusting to the rugged terrain and complicated tribal societies where alliances quickly change. "We are getting better at what we do, and we have a better understanding of how their culture works," says the US Special Forces soldier.
Still, past US operations haven't been all successful rounding up fighters. In Operations Anaconda last spring, the bulk of Taliban and Al Qaeda forces, which the Americans thought were cornered in the Shah-e Kot mountains, managed to escape. And the Taliban's guerrilla tactics in ensuing months, such as firing rockets at American bases, have also met with little effective US response.
Another frustration remains a thorn to US forces along the Pakistani border. "We know [the Taliban] are getting safe haven in Pakistan," says the soldier, "but we can't cross that line and chase them, so it causes some problems for us."
The timing of the battles here in southern Afghanistan - a five-province region that formed the birthplace of the Taliban movement and the home of many of its top leaders - is taken by some as a sign that the Taliban and its allies are coordinating their attacks with an expected US attack on Iraq. Radio broadcasts linked to the former anti-Soviet guerrilla leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, have called for a jihad against US forces in Afghanistan.
The war here is being fought on many fronts, including psychological ones. In border towns like Spin Boldak, anti-American leaflets are dropped in marketplaces late at night, warning the local Afghans to stop cooperating with US forces. In bigger cities like Kandahar, where US forces occasionally patrol, and where international aid groups begin the long process of reconstruction, land mines and booby traps are laid to kill US forces. In many cases, these Taliban bombs kill innocent Afghans instead, causing substantial fear among the local population.
US forces, for their part, have responded by engaging their enemy with a combination of ground forces and deadly aerial bombing.
Operation Eagle Fury began Feb. 10, when a group of five apparent Taliban fighters fired on a US military patrol near the town of Baghran. US soldiers called in an airstrike of F-16 jet fighters, which dropped 500 pound bombs on a series of caves where the attackers had taken refuge. No US or militant casualties were reported at the time.
US forces are also trying to dispel what they call "disinformation campaigns" aimed at exaggerating the civilian casualties from US bombing. Recent reports that US planes had killed hundreds of civilians in the northern Baghran Valley, for instance, are simply untrue, says Major Liska.
"I have a feeling this will be like the other reports," he says of the reports broadcast by the BBC Pashto language service and a handful of Pakistani newspapers. "First they said there were 17 civilians killed, then they said 20. The truth is that only one civilian has been injured, and there are no deaths."
Even that one civilian injury - an 8-year-old boy from the village of Lejay - shows that US military operations in the Baghran Valley have been largely accurate. According to US military spokesman, Col. Roger King, the boy had been wounded because he had accompanied his father, who was firing onto US forces from a mountain ridge.
The boy is now in stable condition; his father is in US custody.
For the past few months, leaflets urging Afghans to resist US forces have appeared in Afghan villages along the Pakistani border. Few ever reach the hands of Afghan officials, however. This leaflet was discovered last Friday in Spin Boldak, about 2-1/2 miles from the border. The Monitor obtained the leaflet, titled "Al Jihad," from border chief Abdul Razzaq Achakzai, and Monitor interpreter Ali Ahmad Safi translated it from Pashto:
"In the name of God, the beneficent, the merciful.
"We inform all those who are currently with Americans or helping them that they should go away and leave them. Americans are the enemies of God, they are the enemies of the Koran, and the enemies of all Muslim nations.
"God has said: Christians and Jews cannot be the friends of Muslims until Muslims obey their own religion. We warn you not to be with them and not be their guards, or else you will be treated the same as Americans. This means we will kill you with poison, or we will blast you with bombs, or we will cut your head from your neck or we will shoot you.
"Our target is the Americans. We fight and make holy war (jihad) with Americans. Accept our requests and go away from their group. If you don't accept our requests, your future will be like the Russians' friends or even worse than them. Of course in this world, try to understand, try to understand.
"This is a call to mujahideen nation, Al Jihad."