As U.S. Speeds lts Withdrawal, Taliban Hit Elite Afghan Forces

Taliban

At least 24 Af­ghan commandos and five police officers were killed this week after they were sur­rounded by the Taliban in northern Af­ghanistan, according to local and Afghan military officials. It was a profound blow to the elite force at a time when such troops often serve as the only units keep­ing the insurgents from capturing more territory.

The vicious battle took place in the early morning hours Wednesday in a key district of Faryab Province. The Taliban seized Dawjat Abad district roughly a week ago — one of dozens that have fall­en since American and international forces began withdrawing from the country last month.

“When the Taliban came to Dawlat Abad, they surrounded the commandos and killed them in less than an hour,” said Mohammad Hakim, a militia command­er who escaped the district.

What happened in Faryab is playing out in districts across the country, at an alarming rate. Tolo News, a national me­dia outlet in the country, reported fight­ing in 80 of Afghanistan’s roughly 400 districts in the country Thursday.

On Thursday, the neighboring district of Shirin Tagab fell after Afghan forces there fought for days and ran out of am­munition, said Sebghatullah Selab, the deputy head of the provincial council in Faryab. Mohammad Nader Sayedi, an­other member of the provincial council, said that several hundred members of security forces either were captured or surrendered and the Taliban seizedover 100 vehicles and hundreds of weapons.

In the country’s south, the Taliban en­tered Gereshk, an important town near Helmand Province’s capital, despite con­certed airstrikes. And in Zabul, tribal eld­ers negotiated the withdrawal of Afghan troops from a base in Shinkay, a district that fell to the Taliban earlier this month.

The tapestry of government defeats and territorial loss has only emboldened the Taliban and called into question Af­ghanistan’s fate as the United States nears the end of its military involvement in the country after 20 years. U.S. and in­ternational forces, scheduled to be out of the country by Sept. 11, have accelerated their withdrawal and will most likely de­part next month.

Now, with no guarantee of U.S. air sup­port after international forces pull out and with a shrinking number of Ameri­can aircraft overhead, Afghan com­manders are being forced to make in­creasingly difficult decisions about which bases and outposts to hold or abandon, leaving the civilian population at the hands of the Taliban.

Wednesday’s battle came after a com­mando force of roughly 50 troops, inter­mixed with police officers and soldiers, carried out an operation to retake Dawlat Abad district from the Taliban with little coordination with nearby gov­ernment forces, said an Afghan military official with knowledge of the operation, who was not permitted to speak to the media. They quickly routed a contingent of Taliban fighters there.

But several hours later, a much larger Taliban force attacked the elite force from all sides, killing at least 24 comman­dos^ and five police officers. Several troops are wounded and missing, the mil­itary official said, and despite calls for air support, none could respond in time.

Among the scattered dead was Maj. Sohrab Azimi, a well-known, beloved of­ficer whose job was directing airstrikes, one of the few advantages the Afghan se­curity forces hold over the Taliban.

In the seemingly endless cycle of killing and dying in Afghanistan’s war, the death of Major Azimi, 30, the son of a well-known Afghan general, highlighted the brutal and personal nature of this new chapter of the war.

Major Azimi “was the best,” observed one of his fellow Afghan comrades, who spent the hours after his friend’s death in the north directing airstrikes in the south to defend the district of Gereshk. “ I can’t tolerate anymore my friends’ deaths.”

Often the seemingly countless Afghan security force casualties spread across the country are faceless to many, espe­cially those ensconced in Afghanistan’s more urban and affluent cities. Fre­quently, in search of job and financial se­curity, they had been recruited from ru­ral areas, where they were returned and buried after their deaths. More than 60,000 Afghan troops and police officers have been killed since 2001.

But Major Azimi was a human face to the military for the country’s upper eche­lons— himself a polished officer who had received part of his education in the United States.

For another part of the Afghan popula­tion in the countryside, though, Major Azimi’s command was the face of terror: the low whine of military aircraft, armed with machine guns, rockets and bombs, all tethered to his radio, capable of destroying property, insurgents and some­times, accidentally, civilians.

The Afghan government’s air and commando forces are arguably the two pillars of the Afghan security forces keeping the Taliban outside of major cit­ies, leaving soldiers like Major Azimi — a confluence of both — one of their most valued targets.

But Afghan commando forces are be­ing stretched to the breaking point, shut­tled between hot spots and dropped in to push Taliban fighters out of important ar­eas. Their night vision, camaraderie and training alongside some of the West’s best military units mean they are well matched against their insurgent adver­saries.

“We mourn. The Taliban celebrate. And it hurts too much,” said Ferdous Samim, one of the major’s best friends, his voice exhausted.

 

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