After claiming for months that everything in Afghanistan is under their control, the Americans got a rude shock at the end of January; it has forced them to concede that several of their soldiers have been killed. But even this admission came with a fantastic amount of ‘spin’, and several days after the actual event. On January 30 an American military spokesman was quoted as saying that a helicopter carrying troops had crashed at Bagram airbase north of Kabul, killing at least four soldiers.
Three days earlier there had been reports of heavy fighting in the mountains near Qandahar, the former stronghold of the Taliban. Afghan fighters opposed to the US presence in Afghanistan claimed that they had killed 14 American and 24 Afghan soldiers. They also said that an Apache helicopter had been shot down during fighting in Adi Ghar, a mountain range south of Qandahar. The truth about the two conflicting versions was confirmed through other Afghan sources, and reveals the degree of censorship exercised by the US government, and the willingness of the US media to go along with it. This has been standard procedure with most news emanating from Afghanistan: only one version (the American one) is given, but this time the Americans’ denials were not plausible.
Let us recount the American version first. On January 28, the New York Times (internet edition) reported that there was heavy fighting in a mountainous region of southeastern Afghanistan that had started on the night of January 27. Quoting colonel Roger King, the US military spokesman in Kabul, the report said that "at least 18 enemy fighters had been killed." No coalition casualties were reported. The same report went on to state that some 80 fighters belonging to Gulbuddin Hikmatyar’s faction were lodged in caves and mountain hideouts near the border with Pakistan, and had fired on Apache helicopters that were sent to investigate their presence. The fighting occurred in the Adi Ghar mountains, just north of Spinboldak, the border-crossing between Qandahar and the Pakistani city of Quetta.
To present a picture of total control, the US military spokesman said that US forces responded with a rapid reaction force of the 82nd Airborne Division, backed by air support from B-1 bombers, F-16s and AC-130 gunships. Why such massive air power was deployed to dislodge 80 fighters, who could not possibly have had anything but small arms, was not explained. "The bombers had dropped two 500-pound and 19 2,000-pound bombs on the area during 12 hours of fighting," according to colonel King. The fighting, according to the same American version, began after a minor clash on January 27 when American and Afghan forces were searching a compound in the area. They came under fire and in the ensuing firefight one attacker was killed, one wounded and one detained. It was apparently the detained fighter who under questioning revealed the concentration of fighters in the mountains just north of the compound.
The Afghans gave a completely different version of the fighting, and the Americans’ admission three days later that one of their helicopters had crashed lent credence to the Afghans’ claims. The mountainous region of Adi Ghar was reportedly empty of Taliban and other fighters because the Americans had swept the area repeatedly. It lies close to Qandahar, where the Americans are in a large compound. An American helicopter carrying a number of US troops and US agents was shot down by a Stinger missile while flying over the mountain range; everyone on board perished. The Afghans released the story on January 28. It was only after this incident that the Americans unleashed B-1 bombers and F-16s on the mountain stronghold. But, as they have done throughout the war, the anti-US fighters did not hang about long; unable to match the firepower of the Americans, they withdrew from their mountain hideouts and melted into the local population. If there were 80 of them, clearly the Americans did not kill or capture all of them; nor did the Americans make any such claims. The American admission that one of their helicopters "crashed" north of Bagram due to "technical problems" was an attempt to cover up their losses three days earlier.
So far the Americans have admitted the loss of only two helicopters since they attacked Afghanistan in October 2001: the other was lost during Operation Anaconda last March in the mountains in eastern Afghanistan, when some 2,000 US troops were deployed. All other helicopters and planes have been lost through "technical" failure. Clearly the Americans make terrible aircraft.
Even more worrying from the American point of view is the use of a Stinger missile fired from the mountains so close to Qandahar. First, the city was a stronghold of the Taliban: although they have been driven from power, the fact that their supporters, or others opposed to the Americans, can operate in its vicinity must be a great worry to the US military. Even more disturbing is the use of Stinger missiles. The Americans have made air-power an important part of their strategy; US ground troops are used only after a target has been pulverized from the air. If anti-US forces in Afghanistan have access to Stingers, it will further jeopardize the American presence, and make their unwelcome presence even more difficult to sustain. B-1 bombers and F-16s may not be vulnerable to Stingers, but the shoulder-fired missile is perfect for bringing down helicopters or planes about to take off or land. This is what apparently happened on January 27. The Stingers, supplied by Americans to the Afghans while they were fighting the Soviet Union in the 1980s, have a short shelf-life, but it seems that enough pieces were left in Afghanistan for private arms-manufacturers to have copied them. It is one of these copied versions that was probably used to shoot down the American Apache helicopter last month.
Opposition to the US’s presence in Afghanistan is increasing, and the use of Stinger missiles is bound to raise the level of resistance. It is already much more widespread and sustained than it was against the Soviets during their occupation of Afghanistan. The Americans have been extremely cautious in using ground troops; now they have even more to worry about. All this is made even worse by the fact that Hamid Karzai’s government has demonstrably failed to exercise any control even in Kabul, much less anywhere else in the country.