ASADABAD, Afghanistan — Enemy fighters knew that U.S. and Afghan troops were coming in by helicopter to three of the five locations they flew into during a recent combat operation in central Kunar province, a U.S. commander said.
"(Anti-Afghan Force) commanders knew we were coming into the valleys," said Lt. Col. William Ostlund, commander of 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment.
Enemy commanders didn’t know when U.S. and Afghan forces were coming, nor did they know the precise locations of the helicopter landing zones, "but they knew we were coming, and they started to leave" before the operation started, Ostlund said.
The 10-day offensive known as "Rock Penetrator" started about two weeks ago, and concluded earlier this week. The intent was to disrupt enemy command and control, and logistics, in five valleys in central Kunar province and to regain freedom of movement for U.S. and Afghan forces.
Meeting Wednesday with several Afghan officers at Camp Joyce, near Asadabad, Ostlund said the security lapse probably resulted from something overheard by local Afghan workers at one of the U.S. and Afghan bases in the area.
"I would bet my life that no ANA (Afghan National Army) soldier tipped off the AAF (anti-Afghan forces), Ostlund said. "I don’t think that happened at all."
But it’s possible that soldiers talking about the mission were overheard by local workers on the base who mentioned it to someone else, who passed the information off to insurgents, he said.
The tip-off was not the only security lapse of the operation. Earlier this week, U.S. forces confiscated six cell phones and a Thuraya satellite phone from Afghan soldiers who’d brought them into the field against orders.
Ostlund said he would trust his life and those of his soldiers with the Afghan troops, and there was no indication that any of the soldiers used the phones to contact enemy fighters. However, the presence of the communications devices on the battlefield still represented a potential security risk that needed to be avoided in the future, he said.
Ostlund met with the commander and officers from the Afghan National Army’s 1st Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 201st Corps, in part to smooth over bitter feelings that had surfaced over the cell phone incident.
An Afghan lieutenant complained that it wasn’t within Afghan culture "to search soldiers who’ve been out looking for bad guys all day."
The Afghans had been instructed to leave their cell phones at the base and not carry them with them on the operation. However, the lieutenant said that several of the men had carried their phones with them because they had no place to store them on Camp Joyce. He said the soldiers took the Thuraya phone with them so that they could communicate with their base, if necessary. He said the military radios they use are unreliable.
Ostlund agreed that part of the problem stemmed from cultural differences. He said U.S. forces would provide the Afghans with a locker in which to store the cell phones, and asked that the Afghans "police up" the cell phones from their soldiers before any future operations.
Ostlund said he wasn’t concerned solely about the potential security threat to U.S. forces but to Afghan forces as well.
Operation Rock Penetrator was the latest U.S. effort to disrupt enemy fighters in Kunar province, which lies just across the border from Pakistan and serves as an entry point for money, supplies and fighters for the Afghan rebels.
Ostlund said that U.S. forces killed at least 30 enemy fighters in the operation, and caused significant disruption to their operations. However, he cautioned that intelligence analysis was not yet complete.
No U.S. troops or Afghan security forces were killed in the operation, and there were no reports of civilian casualties, Ostlund said.