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The Fayetteville Observer December 17, 2006

Taliban fought in vain on hill

By Kevin Maurer

Maybe history will record it as the battle for Sperwan Ghar.

Or maybe, like much of the continuing fight for Afghanistan, it will be little noted or remembered, except by the Fort Bragg Special Forces soldiers and other coalition forces who fought in it.

They know it as one of the biggest battles of the war, part of a monthlong clash with a resurgent Taliban in September.

About 900 Taliban fighters died in the month, during what was dubbed Operation Medusa. Soldiers from the 3rd Special Forces Group, the Canadian army and Afghan forces battled insurgents, who decided to stand and fight. Bigger clashes have become more common — U.S. Army spokesman Clifford Richardson said that more than 2,000 Taliban deaths have been confirmed in just the last four months.

Fort Bragg Special Forces soldiers, who talked about the battle on condition that their names not be used for security reasons, said growing violence demonstrates that the Taliban still has the will and the ability to mount a fight.

Other observers of the conflict in Afghanistan have noticed.

“There has been a steady escalation of their tactics and capability,” said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington defense policy think tank. “The last six months have been the worst since the beginning. There doesn’t appear there is an end in sight.”

CNN reported earlier this month that the Taliban had more fighters on the battlefield this past summer than it had in the previous five years.

The Sperwan Ghar fight came as the Special Forces-led coalition blocked the Taliban’s plan to capture Kandahar, an intelligence sergeant and officer from the 3rd Group said. Kandahar is one of Afghanistan’s largest cities and the cultural center of the southern part of the country.

“They were well on their way to doing that,” the intelligence officer said. “They were cutting the main lines of communication.”

Pike said that if the Taliban had been successful at its plan to seize Kandahar, the loss would have been a major psychological setback for the the United States and its allies. Ultimately, it could have undermined support for the war. While opposition to the Iraq war is widespread, there has been little protest against the Afghan conflict.

“People are optimistic about Afghanistan,” Pike said. “Nobody is talking about (bringing troops home) from there.”

Key battle
The fight with the Taliban ran through September, but the battle at Sperwan Ghar may have been the key.

The hill named Sperwan Ghar is 40 miles southwest of Kandahar. It sits between the Arghandab and Dowry rivers that run northeast by southwest through Kandahar province. The area is a large farming community and was a haven for the Mujahideen during the war with the Soviets. The Russians never controlled the area because the terrain is rough and easily defended.

The fields are separated by mud walls. Vineyards have large oven-like mounds used to dry grapes. Fighters use the mounds as weapons caches and bunkers.

Three months after the battle for this Afghan hill, the Observer interviewed several Special Forces soldiers with knowledge of the fight.

The Special Forces soldiers arrived in Afghanistan just days before the operations kicked off. The Fort Bragg forces included a command detachment and three A-teams, accompanied by a battalion of Afghan soldiers. The force drove into the area from the south and set up outside villages. Canadian soldiers massed to the north.

On Sept. 1, Asadulah Khalid, the governor of Kandahar, told civilians to evacuate because fighting was expected. The residents fled.

The villages around the hill were deserted when the soldiers moved toward it two days later.

The hill was one of four areas the soldiers wanted to control in the region. The day before taking it, the soldiers fought for several hours at the base of Sperwan Ghar before running out of ammunition, the Special Forces company commander said.

It is uncommon for the Taliban to stand and fight, the Special Forces soldiers said. Taliban fighters and the group’s leaders usually flee as soon as they are attacked, leaving only a small force behind to cover their escape.

Pike said the Taliban started to stand its ground a year ago, but never with a unit as large as the one on Sperwan Ghar.

Just before dawn the second day, a convoy of GMVs — a modified Humvee used by Special Forces soldiers — and pick-ups raced cross-country over the packed sand and rocks toward the hill.

Air Force A-10 fighters pounded the hill as the Afghan and Special Forces soldiers approached. A few hundred yards from the base of the hill, the Taliban started to fire rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns at the soldiers.

Despite the fire, the Special Forces soldiers made steady progress up the hill until a bomb exploded underneath a GMV.

The blast blew the driver — a Special Forces soldier — to the top of the hill and set the truck on fire, trapping the gunner, soldiers said. Ammunition started to cook off, spraying the advancing soldiers with mortar and machine gun rounds.

Heroic rescue
An instant after the explosion, a Special Forces communications sergeant dashed into the flames and pulled the gunner to safety. The company commander said the communications sergeant’s heroic actions saved the gunner’s life and kept the attack from stalling.

Both soldiers in the truck were evacuated with an Afghan soldier who stepped on a mine and another soldier who was shot. The communications sergeant suffered burns, but remained in the fight.

The battle for Sperwan Ghar raged for another hour, ending when the U.S.-led force occupied the hill.

Over the next few weeks, the Taliban counterattacked with little success. Using the high ground, the soldiers called in repeated air strikes that were too much for the lightly armed Taliban.

Soldiers said they were most comfortable when they could hear Apache helicopters and fighters pounding Taliban positions with rockets and bombs.

Once in control of the hill, the soldiers started rooting the fighters out of the surrounding villages and fields.

The Special Forces soldiers say the battle was a major blow to the Taliban plans.

“The enemy took a very significant loss to fighters, leadership and morale,” the intelligence officer said.

He and other Special Forces soldiers believe the war is far from over in Afghanistan. Experts say coalition forces will face a re-energized Taliban when the winter snows melt.

“They are regrouping, but they are not finished by any means,” the intelligence sergeant said.

Copyright 2006, The Fayetteville Observer