maandag 2 april 2012

Secret Australian war efforts in Uruzgan revealed by US adviser

"The dinner is ready" ... the Taliban command for an attack on a convoy with Australian special forces.

A new book allows a rare look at setbacks in the region, writes Rory Callinan.

Australian Special Forces in Uruzgan.
Photo: DoD Australia
The Taliban radio operator was watching in the tiny Afghan village of Sar Marghab*. "The dinner is ready," he transmitted as the Australian-led convoy entered the dusty hamlet, and then the road blew up in front of their vehicles.

For hours, a battle raged against a force of about 50 Taliban until the convoy, backed by Australian special forces, had to withdraw, leaving the village to the insurgents.

Just another day in the often secret war Australians have been fighting in Uruzgan province, as detailed in a new book on Afghanistan, The Valley's Edge**, by a former US State Department adviser and scholar Dan Green

The navy reservist spent a period in 2005 and 2006 working in Uruzgan as a political adviser for a US provincial reconstruction team, some of the time alongside Australian troops whose early operations involving special forces and the 1st Reconstruction Task Force have mostly been shrouded in secrecy.

His book, which is yet to be released in Australia, gives an unfiltered account of the conflict, revealing how the province was considered of little importance to the US, and how the Taliban became a deadly fighting force and even had a top-level spy embedded at a special forces base used by the Australians.

Uruzgan was "not a priority" for the US, Green writes, and adds that one US diplomat told him that "our interests stopped at Uruzgan's borders". This, he says, "is the story of the province. The Soviets didn't consider it strategic and neither did the Taliban, at least in the 1990s".

Green, who has a master's degree in international relations and was posted back to Afghanistan in 2010, notes the province has since shown some signs of improvement but he is concerned at the current US administration's decision to pull troops out of Afghanistan by 2014 - which "didn't augur well for Afghanistan or the United States".

The book details how Yassim, a Taliban spy, infiltrated a US base which the Herald has confirmed was used by Australian special forces as a staging area. Yassim rose to head the security detail for the base, known as Cobra***, and led US Green Berets into ambushes before being exposed and jailed.

Firebase Cobra, 2009. Dutch General Mart de Kruif meets with
US Special Forces (photo: Hans de Vreij)
The Australian Defence Force last week said it had no record of any of Australian operations being compromised by the spy.

Green also reveals how the Taliban graduated from an ineffective militia to a deadly force which used foreign-trained snipers and special camouflage with devastating effect.

He describes the new provincial police chief, Matiullah Khan, whom the Australians rely on for security, as the "black prince", and says he has been suspected of involvement in political assassination and corruption but appears to be trying to change.

Last week the ADF said Mr Matiullah was one of the many influential figures with whom Australians had engaged and the ADF expected that as Uruzgan's police chief he would act in an "impartial and professional manner and [continue] to be a positive influence for security in the province".

Another chapter deals with a well-organised Taliban ambush in 2006 against an American patrol led by an Australian captain in the then little-known village of Sar Marghab - which Green appears not to realise has since become linked to one of the blackest days of Australian special forces operations. In 2009, a commando raid killed five children and led to an unsuccessful attempt to court-martial some of the troops involved.

During the ambush, Green's Humvee was narrowly missed by a Taliban mortar and he saw two Taliban shot dead as they "low-crawled" along a wall to attack.

He says the only warning was when a Taliban scout was heard to announce over their radio that "the dinner is ready". The patrol had to withdraw because the sun was setting, he said. "In an initial battle damage assessment, the Australians reported they found 28 Taliban bodies," he says.

He says the patrol, rescued by Australian and Dutch forces, was later described as pointless by some US troops involved.

The ADF yesterday said the incident was probably related to a large offensive operation just north of the provincial capital, Tarin Kowt, when a special forces task group co-ordinated and participated in a planned raid against an important Taliban leader.

"The Australian commandos and Australian CH-47 helicopters ultimately played a pivotal role in ensuring the mission did not end in complete disaster, which at one stage appeared likely," an ADF spokesperson said.

The Herald was seeking further information from the ADF. Green is on his fourth Afghan tour.

(Brisbane Times, 2 April 2012)

*Alternate spelling: Surkh Murghab, Sorkh Morghab. The village is located in the Eastern Derafshan area, North of the provincial capital Tarin Kowt/Tirin Kot.
**Full title: The Valley's Edge: A Year with the Pashtuns in the Heartland of the Taliban.
*** Firebase Cobra, re-named in 2009 into Firebase Tisley, is located in the North West Charchino (Caher Cineh/Shahid-e Hassas) district of Uruzgan.

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