The hardest fight: making a peace that outlasts the Afghan mission

Spanish troops bid to coordinate local forces against lingering Taliban threat

A Spanish soldier speaks to some children during a joint foot patrol with the Afghan army in the area of Zargar.
A Spanish soldier speaks to some children during a joint foot patrol with the Afghan army in the area of Zargar. CLAUDIO ÁLVAREZ

In the market at Muqur, the mullah in charge of an Afghan battalion tries to reassure the merchants, who fear that the calm in their town will disappear with the Spanish troops, who are due to withdraw at the beginning of next year.

“The Taliban will not come because we will be here,” says the commander, dressed in combat fatigues. “But you do not have fighters or helicopters,” says the trader. “We have cannons. There’s no need to worry,” say the religious leader-cum-soldier.

In appearance, the Spanish foot patrol is a relaxed stroll, complete with visits to local villages. But the operation has been minutely planned. Afghan artillery is trained in on the patrol area, as are Spanish mortar teams. A medical evacuation helicopter is on alert and, at an hour’s notice, so is NATO air support. A Raven surveillance drone circles the area. There is no room for unpleasant surprises, until Major Alberto Fajardo discovers that the Afghan unit his men are supposed to link up with are lost and radio transmissions are not working. The lieutenant-colonel in charge of the Afghan battalion finds himself on the receiving end of a dressing down.

“Radios should be tested the day before. This can’t happen again. We are playing with our own lives — one day we’re going to get shot. If the signals officer is incompetent, he has to be replaced,” Fajardo tells him. The Afghan officer stands motionless, a smile fixed on his lips.

Like many Afghan officers, the lieutenant-colonel is a professional soldier who fought against the mujahideen during the pro-Soviet regime of Mohammad Najibullah. Today he carries an M-16 and travels in a US military Humvee, but the tactics of that campaign are difficult to forget: a scorched-earth policy and the destruction of rural villages to deny the enemy shelter. It is exactly the opposite of the hearts and minds campaign in Afghanistan today.

The merchant in Muqur had a valid point. NATO air power has until now contained the Taliban insurgency. When a patrol comes under fire, fighter-bomber support or attack helicopters scatter the Taliban fighters, although this has only succeeded in keeping the insurgency away from cities and main supply routes. This is about the same as the Soviets achieved before they withdrew.

When an Afghan patrol comes under attack, its NATO mentor takes care of air support, including the Spanish contingent. The local forces lack the means to guide air strikes accurately and NATO has concerns over their lack of attention to collateral damage. The aircraft rarely fire, but instead fly dissuasive sorties.

After Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), the main threat to the international coalition is Taliban fighters who have infiltrated the Afghan forces. More than 50 NATO soldiers have been wounded or killed so far this year by so-called “green on blue” attacks. The Spanish contingent lost two Civil Guard officers and their interpreter in August, 2010, shot by the local chief of police’s driver in Qala-i-Naw.

On October 4, a Spanish RG-31 armored personnel carrier hit an IED two kilometers outside the Ricketts base in Muqur. None of the seven occupants was injured but the explosives used were military grade, not home-made as is usual. Where did the insurgents get them? Lieutenant Ángel Ortega shrugs. Arms are as much a trading tool as opium in the lawless outlands. He describes the proliferation of IEDs as “cyclical” — winter approaches bringing the fighting season to an end. The insurgents are simply using up their stocks.

Ortega recalls driving through a village in the Darreh-ye Bum valley. Afghan children pelted the vehicle with stones and when Ortega scolded them, they asked for biscuits. “Isn’t your dad chief of police?” he asked one. “My uncle is a Taliban commander,” came the reply. Both were true.

“Darreh-ye Bum is like Afghanistan in miniature,” says Captain Pablo Torres. “Everybody is on the side of the government and everyone sympathizes with the Taliban.”

Despite the raft of dangers to Spanish troops in Afghanistan, the only two casualties the Parachute Regiment has suffered since arriving in July have come from small arms fire. Both men were lightly wounded.

Captain Modesto Muñoz is one of the mentors for the Afghan army in Muqur. His task requires him to work side-by-side with the local forces. They cannot enter a NATO base armed, but Muñoz always carries a weapon when in Afghan barracks. He also has a bodyguard and if any Afghan soldier’s loyalties come under suspicion, he is immediately transferred. Nothing, though, can guarantee that one of his pupils will not turn on him. “You have to listen to your instincts, establish personal links with them, be respectful of their customs and not worry too much.” Luck is a major ally in war, once meticulous preparation and rigorous training have been ticked off. The other indispensable ally in Afghanistan is the complicity of the local population. “The Afghan people is the most important aspect of this conflict; winning them over is the key to success,” says Torres. But who can be sure whose side they are on?

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