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U.S.-Afghan Force Raids Suspected Taliban Hideout

An Apache gunship, seen from a Chinook helicopter.  Both aircraft were part of a joint U.S. Special Forces-Afghan raid on a village in southern Afghanistan.
Jackie Northam/NPR
An Apache gunship, seen from a Chinook helicopter. Both aircraft were part of a joint U.S. Special Forces-Afghan raid on a village in southern Afghanistan.

It's shortly after 3 a.m. at Kandahar airfield, and a sergeant first class with the U.S. Special Forces tries to organize where nearly two dozen Afghan commandos will be sitting on a large Chinook helicopter.

In a little over an hour, a team of U.S. and Afghan Special Forces will begin an operation — an air assault — on a suspected Taliban hideout. It's one of many joint missions that have been conducted over the past year.

The American sergeant knows it's well worth rehearsing the drill over and over.

"Hey, you're going to get a five-minute, three-minute and a one-minute call," the sergeant says.

The American sergeant, who cannot be identified to reporters under the rules of the Special Forces, says he wants to make sure all involved — particularly the Afghan commandos — know what they're expected to do once they hit their target area.

This operation was several weeks in the making, and the small village of Zargaran, in the southeastern province of Zabul, has been under surveillance much longer, says a Special Forces captain who is the commander of the joint operation.

"Some of our intel assessment that we have on this particular area is a known waypoint for IED facilitators in the area," says the captain, who cannot give his name. He says Islamist militants often pass through Zargaran, teaching locals how to make improvised explosive devises — roadside bombs. Two key Taliban leaders are suspected of being in the village at the moment.

The commandos are expecting a fight. Still, Lt. Col. Chris Karsner, the U.S. Special Forces commander in Kandahar, says it will be a standard operation going in.

"Short duration, highlighted by speed of execution, violence of action, well-coordinated plan and a planned withdrawal," Karsner says. "We're not going to stand there and hold ground."

Shortly before the mission gets under way, a Predator — an unmanned surveillance plane — quietly takes off from Kandahar airfield and heads to the Zargaran area. The U.S. and Afghan commando teams put on heavy armored vests, helmets and ballistic eyeglasses and pick up their American-made weapons.

The U.S. team is bristling with communication devices. Team members pause before heading to the Chinook helicopter.

The helicopters lift off from the Kandahar airbase and head to Zargaran, stopping halfway, where more choppers carrying regular Afghan army soldiers join the operation.

The choppers twist and turn through the imposing mountain ranges. Helicopters are the best — and in some cases, the only — way to reach remote villages because the roads are so bad and the Taliban has spotters all along the way.

The joint Special Forces tried to drive to Zargaran about a month ago. After 12 hours, they had to turn back because of the terrain.

This time, after a 40-minute flight, the commandos' chopper touches down on a patch of dry earth overlooking Zargaran. It's just before 8 in the morning. The mission has begun.

The commandos spill out the back of the helicopter and quickly get into position. The first minutes of the assault operation are considered critical.

One group of commandos sets up heavy machine guns on a ridge overlooking the village to cover for the other Special Forces who will be fanning out in the village below.

Two Apache helicopter gunships roar through the valley, bank hard and circle back over the village, providing more cover for the Afghan and U.S. Special Forces now leapfrogging from one building to another.

The U.S. commander there stays on the ridge, watching over the unfolding operation.

The dozen people on the hill scatter at the sound of the gunfire as the Afghan interpreter picks up communications between militants using walkie-talkies.

The chatter on the radio indicates that the militants are still in the area and were very near a weapons cache already discovered by the commandos in the village.

"They got i-com chatter stating that reinforcements are able to come and reinforce here," a commander says. "And there's a Taliban commander saying, 'No, don't go down in the village,' that 'they,' meaning us, [are] still here. But apparently there's still someone in the village still reporting out."

After a couple of hours, the commandos have cleared all the houses and rounded up about a dozen people, none of them Taliban leaders.

The commander and his group of commandos make their way into the village. This team meets up with another Special Forces group and the two compare notes.

"Where we found that cache, there was 12 foreign fighters there this morning, Chechnyan and Arab, they left right at daybreak," one commander says.

"Our guys said the same thing," another commander says. "They said Chechnyan. He said he didn't really understand the language they were speaking."

"So we probably missed them by about an hour and a half, two hours," the first commander says.

The two Special Forces captains say it's not unusual for the militants to leave for another village at daybreak. But they say finding the weapons cache will disrupt the network and show the militants that no place is beyond the reach of the commandos.

The two groups split up again, making their way to the landing site where the helicopters will carry them back to Kandahar. They'd like to be out of the region by noon — because the choppers are needed for another mission.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jackie Northam
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.