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Weary soldiers battling ghosts in Afghanistan

By MARTIN KUZ | San Antonio Express-News | Published: November 20, 2016

ACHIN, Afghanistan (Tribune News Service) -- The floor pillows and mattresses that Himat Agha had piled high and tied down in the back of his pickup suggested his sense of urgency. His wide brown eyes revealed his unease.

"Daesh is coming," Agha said, referring to the Islamic State, or ISIS, by its Arabic acronym. He had the hollowed-out voice of a man exhausted by war. "It is too dangerous here for my family. We need to go to a safe place."

He talked outside his mud-walled home in the Achin district of Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, a farming region 10 miles from Pakistan. A short time later, with his wife and five children riding in back, Agha drove away along a pitted dirt road, the truck pitching like a boat in rough seas.

Troops with the Afghan National Army's 201st Corps watched the family and a half-dozen others flee the area on a warm September afternoon. Two weeks earlier, after a month-long battle that killed as many as 200 insurgents, the army had expelled ISIS from the largest villages in Achin and three adjoining districts that formed the Islamic group's stronghold in Afghanistan.

Yet with enemy fighters retreating to a mountain range only a few miles away, villagers and soldiers alike saw the relative calm as a mirage. They understood that, two years after the U.S. military handed off control of the nation's security to Afghan forces, the army lacks the bodies, resources and organization to impose lasting order.

Keeping order in Afghanistan

A San Antonio Express-News reporter recently embedded with an Afghan National Army unit that has seen heavy fighting in the Achin and Dur Baba districts of Nangarhar province.

"We know we can't leave our men in any one place forever," said Maj. Malang Jan Safai, deputy commander of the unit that patrols Achin. He stood in the shade of an ash tree by the empty Agha home. "The Taliban and Daesh know this, too. When we leave an area, they come back in."

His lament attested to the military's plight 15 years after U.S. forces removed the Taliban from power following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Across the country, Afghan troops remain trapped in an infinite loop, losing and struggling to regain ground while sustaining heavy casualties as they attempt to eradicate the insurgency.

John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, reported in October that the Taliban holds more territory than at any time since 2001. The army and national police agencies had suffered more than 5,500 fatalities through mid-August, and the war has forced 400,000 civilians from their homes this year alone.

A San Antonio Express-News reporter embedded with Safai's unit in September. His men operate across 11 districts of Nangarhar in the country's restive borderland, beset by the Taliban and ISIS, the military's internal dysfunction and their own declining morale.

As the insurgency gains strength, a shortage of equipment, supplies and food hampers the army, whose infantry soldiers live in austere, almost squalid conditions and earn an average of $300 a month. For the 430 men in Safai's company, the prospect of perpetual war breeds a collective pessimism, tempering the pride they feel in their mission.

"I want to be a soldier for my country," said Capt. Abdul Wahdat, 25, a platoon leader who joined the army seven years ago. "But our life is always hard. We just go day to day and try to keep going forward. We don't think the fighting will end soon. We need more support from the Americans."

The U.S. government has spent $800 billion on the war effort in Afghanistan, and foreign aid has swaddled the country's military since its birth as a professional force in 2002.

Most of the 9,800 American troops deployed to the country serve in an advisory role to Afghan forces as part of an ongoing training mission that has cost $65 billion. The personnel includes more than 1,500 soldiers with the Army's 1st Cavalry Division and 3rd Cavalry Regiment based at Fort Hood and a small contingent with the Texas Army National Guard.

President Obama loosened the rules on U.S. airstrikes against insurgents in June, and weeks later announced that at least 8,400 American troops would stay in Afghanistan through the end of his term. The decisions reflected the tenuous state of the country's security.

President-elect Donald Trump has provided scarce details on his foreign policy positions, including the future of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan after he takes office in January.

He has named retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who served as Gen. Stanley McChrystal's top intelligence officer in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010, as his national security adviser.

Flynn has described America as engaged in a "world war" with Islamic militants.

ISIS has sent 1,000 to 1,500 fighters to Nangarhar, where its leaders seek to establish a base for their self-styled caliphate in the country. Villagers fear the group's outsized reputation more than the Taliban's larger fighting force.

Serajudin Shinwari, a farmer who lives near the Agha home, brought green tea and warm naan to the Afghan troops during their patrol in the village. His callused hands and deeply lined face offered evidence of a life devoted to the fields. The sight of the soldiers at once reassured and alarmed him.

"We are glad to see the military but we wonder when the next attack will happen," he said. "We live in terror. There is a feeling of always being surrounded by the possibility of death."

'The Daesh ghost'

Capt. Fazel Safi stood at the side of a road while his platoon ran a security checkpoint near the village of Ghani Khel. A line of cars a quarter-mile long formed as drivers and passengers stepped out to submit to body searches.

Earlier this year, as Safi's men conducted a checkpoint in the same area, five insurgents in a vehicle opened fire. They killed one soldier and wounded a second before other members of the platoon shot the attackers dead.

This day proved quiet. The motorists complied without complaint, and most chatted with the soldiers who patted them down. The absence of tension testified to the routine presence of troops in civilian life, and to the apparent allegiance of villagers here to the military.

During its clash with insurgents that had ended two weeks earlier, the army received support from residents, who tipped off soldiers to the location of enemy positions and weapons caches. Still, even after pulling back to the mountains, ISIS lingered as a pathogen of the mind, preying on the anxieties of villagers.

"We can fight them physically," Safi said, "but it is the idea of Daesh that creates fear. They torture and behead people, and everyone has seen the videos and the propaganda. They are afraid of the Daesh ghost."

At age 32, Safi appears closer to 50, his bearded face clouded by the strain of a war in which he has fought since 2002. His stooped bearing evokes the weariness of a country weighed down by nearly four decades of bloodshed that began when the Soviet Union invaded in 1979.

"Each of us in the army wants to fight for Afghanistan," he said. "But there are not enough of us. We cannot completely get rid of the Taliban and Daesh without more soldiers."

In his report last month, Sopko, the special inspector general, labeled more than a third of the country's 407 districts as either "contested" or under insurgent control or influence.

The escalating violence has drained troop levels this year. The army has lost a third of its estimated 150,000 soldiers to death and injury, desertion and retirement. The attrition has coincided with recent reports of Afghan forces surrendering to the Taliban in several provinces.

Sopko has asserted that the official count of 320,000 Afghan army and national police personnel may exaggerate the figure by up to 200,000. The plague of so-called ghost soldiers has infected the 201st Corps in Nangarhar.

An Afghan military spokesman claimed that the company patrolling Achin and the surrounding region consists of 700 troops. Safai, the unit's deputy commander, gave the total as 600. Safi insisted there were no more than 430; lower-ranking soldiers corroborated that figure.

The reduced manpower inhibits their efforts to tame the insurgency in an area roughly the size of the triangle between San Antonio, Laredo and Corpus Christi. Frustration and fatigue shadow the unit.

"We are willing to give every last drop of blood to fight the Taliban and Daesh," said Lt. Abdullah Momand, 26, who enlisted eight years ago. "But it is impossible to stop them from attacking without more help from the U.S. You see how long the war has been going. We do not have the ability to end it on our own."

Unlike American and other foreign forces, who deploy to Afghanistan knowing they will depart within months, Afghan troops cannot escape the war. Their fatalism deepens when the military deprives them of the basic materials of combat.

Soldiers in Nangarhar ran low on ammunition and food while battling ISIS in late summer. Resupply shipments took days to arrive, a chronic problem across the Afghan armed forces rooted in corruption and negligence among senior defense officials. As fighting intensified, soldiers debated whether to walk away.

"It is hard to win a war without bullets," said Muhammad Yousuf, 23, an infantryman who enlisted five years ago. "How can we win if we are dying?"

High rates of poverty and unemployment in Afghanistan entice young men to enlist. The unceasing danger and wretched living environs tempt them to quit.

Afghan commanders, desperate to sustain the fighting strength of their units, exacerbate the discontent by typically allowing soldiers only a day or two of leave at a time, preventing them from returning home.

The privations provoke thousands to shed their uniforms every year either by deserting or refusing to re-enlist.

Yousuf had seen his newborn son once since his wife gave birth in January, and he held little hope that commanders would grant his request for a longer leave. He signed up to defend the country for his family's sake. He resents that peace remains an abstraction.

"My whole life, there has been war in Afghanistan," he said. "But if I don't fight, what future will my son have? So I have to fight, and the army knows I have to fight."

He sat atop a weathered picnic table outside his barracks on a base in Ghani Khel that the U.S. military turned over to Afghan forces two years ago. The sprawling complex exists in a state of slow-motion collapse, mirroring the decay of bases throughout Afghanistan that American forces once occupied.

Most of the base lacks electricity because of a shortage of fuel to power generators. Viscous rivers of raw sewage run beneath latrines with broken plumbing; dry streams of trash snake through the grounds. Dozens of wooden barracks stand vacant and rotting while a few serve as garbage bins for discarded mattresses, lighting fixtures and other debris. Many soldiers choose to sleep outside rather than in buildings stained black by mold.

Safi, the platoon captain, likened the condition of the military's bases to the circumstance of Afghan troops. Both have deteriorated since U.S. forces withdrew.

"Our situation is very serious. It is hard to have confidence without more soldiers, more supplies, more petrol," Safi said. He gestured toward an unmanned guard tower. "If you can't watch out for the enemy at all times, you will be in trouble."

Fighting for soil and souls

Dust swirled skyward as a convoy of Ford Ranger pickups clattered along a sinuous mountain road three miles from Pakistan. Maj. Safai and his soldiers intended to meet with Hamisha Gul, the district governor of Dur Baba, who lives in a village near an ISIS camp.

Safai's salt-and-pepper beard, barrel-shaped build and voluble manner bring to mind the character Tevye from "Fiddler on the Roof." He had planned a different mission for today until a commander with the Afghan National Police refused to take part.

The Ministry of Defense directs the army to lead combat operations and police forces to provide backup. The roles switch during house raids, with police in charge because of their ties to village residents and familiarity with ethnic and tribal sensitivities in a given region.

Safai wanted to travel to a town in Achin to search for three suspected insurgents. He had spent the previous afternoon coordinating the mission with commanders of national and local police agencies in Nangarhar. He sat at a folding table outside his office to take advantage of the fading sunlight, juggling calls on the four cell phones he carries owing to the army's scarcity of functioning radios.

"We have many things that don't work: radios, trucks, guns," said Safai, 50, who joined the military in the late 1980s, a few years before the civil war that preceded the Taliban's rise. "We fight for our soil, we fight for our souls. But without equipment, how can we do our job?"

One of the police commanders called Safai later in the evening to tell him he had changed his mind about the house raids. His reversal derailed the mission, and Safai's irritation flared.

"This is the problem -- there is too much waiting," he said. "The enemy doesn't wait to attack. But we have to wait to look for them."

Reluctant to spend a day on base doing nothing, he arranged to meet with Gul at the governor's estate in Dur Baba.

The 90-minute route from the base in Ghani Khel passed over serrated mountain ridges and cut across emerald-green valleys. The imposing terrain offered a silent explanation for why ISIS fighters retreated to the area after troops pushed them out of Achin two weeks earlier.

The trucks pulled into the dirt parking lot outside Gul's residence. Maj. Muhammad Hakimi, riding with Safai, climbed out and nodded toward a ridgeline less than two miles away.

"Daesh is there," he said. "They know we cannot come here and have a long fight. They know we do not have the men and equipment and support."

He pointed at the bright blue morning sky. "The only way you can do this is with planes and helicopters."

U.S. air support gave the edge to Afghan forces in their offensive against ISIS in Achin. A comparable scenario has unfolded on dozens of occasions this year when the Taliban has seized control of district and provincial capitals, from Lashkar Gah in the south to Kunduz in the north. American fighter jets, attack helicopters and drones have thwarted insurgents from holding the ground for more than a few hours or days, firing on them until Afghan troops could regroup.

The frequency of U.S. airstrikes has exposed the impotence of an Afghan air force comprised of 150 aircraft and an excess of crews untested in combat. The inexperience showed last month, when a helicopter pilot's errant airstrike killed five soldiers as they battled Taliban insurgents in western Afghanistan.

The U.S. military has committed a series of similar mistakes. Fifteen civilians died in Achin in late September in a drone strike that American officials claimed had targeted ISIS fighters. Earlier this month, U.S. airstrikes killed 30 civilians in Kunduz during heavy fighting between Afghan forces and Taliban insurgents, a year after 42 people died when a U.S. gunship bombed a hospital in the city.

The United Nations reported in July that the war killed 1,601 civilians during the first half of the year, the highest six-month total since the agency started tracking casualties in 2009. The toll has inflamed public opinion against Afghan forces in some districts even as insurgents cause the vast majority of casualties.

Gul, the Dur Baba district governor, welcomed Safai and his top officers by serving them plates of lamb, rice and naan. He has nurtured a strong relationship with the military as the war has found its way to a village that, aside from cell phones, appears almost untouched by time.

A Taliban suicide bomber targeted Gul four years ago while he attended the funeral of a tribal elder. The blast killed 25 people, including Gul's 26-year-old son, who attempted to grab the attacker.

He regards the presence of ISIS fighters in the mountains above the village as an invisible fog that hangs over its 200 people, who live in mud-brick homes and whose days revolve around their crops and livestock.

"We are grateful for the military's support," Gul said. "But the enemy has eyes. They see that we are vulnerable."

Later in the day, Safai's soldiers went on a foot patrol, climbing to a ridgeline from where they could glimpse Pakistan in the valley below. As they walked back down to their trucks, a girl emerged from her family's home, her blue flowered dress and hijab a beacon in the gray-brown landscape.

She handed the men bowls of yogurt milk. They took turns drinking and laughed at their milk mustaches. The sun seemed to brighten, and for a moment, in a village at the edge of nowhere, the war felt as remote as the rest of the world.

Qadir Sediqi and Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

mkuz@express-news.net

Twitter: @MartinKuz

(c) 2016 the San Antonio Express-News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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