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Insurgency’s Scars Line Afghanistan’s Main Road

August 14, 2008

SAYDEBAD, Afghanistan — Not far from here, just off the highway that was once the showpiece of the United States reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, three American soldiers and their Afghan interpreter were ambushed and killed seven weeks ago.

The soldiers — two of them members of the National Guard from New York — died as their vehicles were hit by mines and rocket-propelled grenades. At least one was dragged off and chopped to pieces, according to Afghan and Western officials. The body was so badly mutilated that at first the military announced that it had found the remains of two men, not one, in a nearby field.

The attack, on June 26, was notable not only for its brutality, but also because it came amid a series of spectacular insurgent attacks along the road that have highlighted the precariousness of the international effort to secure Afghanistan six years after the United States intervened to drive off the Taliban government.

Security in the provinces ringing the capital, Kabul, has deteriorated rapidly in recent months. Today it is as bad as at any time since the beginning of the war, as militants have surged into new areas and taken advantage of an increasingly paralyzed local government and police force and the thinly stretched international military presence here.

This district is just 50 miles or so south of Kabul. Farther south, beyond the town of Salar, the road — also known as Highway 1 — is even more dangerous, and to drive beyond that point is to risk ambush, explosions and possible slaughter.

When it was refurbished several years ago, the Kabul-Kandahar highway was a demonstration of America’s commitment to building a new, democratic Afghanistan. A critical artery, the highway quite literally holds this country together.

A Precarious Thread

For the shaky Afghan state, it binds the country’s center to the insurgent-ridden south, and provides a tenuous thread to unite Afghanistan’s increasingly divided ethnic halves: the insurgent-ridden, Pashtun dominated south with the more stable, mainly Tajik, Hazara and Turkic populated north.

For the United States and the NATO-led force in Afghanistan, it is an important supply route for the war effort, linking the two largest foreign military bases in the country, at Bagram and Kandahar, and a number of smaller bases along the way.

But today the highway is a dangerous gantlet of mines and attacks from insurgents and criminals, pocked with bomb craters and blown-up bridges. The governor of Ghazni Province came under fire driving through Salar on Tuesday and two of his guards were wounded, officials said.

The insurgents have made the route a main target, with the apparent aim of undercutting Afghanistan’s economy and infrastructure, said Gen. Zaher Azimi, the Afghan military spokesman.

The road has become the site of extreme carnage in the last six weeks, disrupting supply lines for American and NATO forces and tying down Afghan Army forces. One of the worst attacks occurred in Salar on June 24 when some 50 fuel tankers and food trucks carrying supplies for the United States military were ambushed.

The convoy was set on fire. Seven of its drivers were dragged out and beheaded, said Abdul Ghayur, the commander of the private security force that supplied the drivers. “Those ones who were driving the refrigerated trucks,” which presumably looked more foreign, were singled out, he said.

That attack was followed two days later by the ambush that killed the three Americans and their Afghan interpreter, farther north, near a village called Tangi.

Calling In the Army

The ferocity of their killing, coming amid a sudden spiral of insurgent violence along the road and in the surrounding provinces, forced the Afghan government to send several battalions of the Afghan National Army in July here to Wardak Province, which lies just south of Kabul, to try to secure the road.

Soldiers of Afghanistan’s 201st Corps are now posted in old hilltop positions that the Soviet army used in the 1980s, surveying the road and the green side valleys that provide easy cover for the insurgents.

Since their arrival three weeks ago, the Afghan soldiers say they have been engaged in repeated firefights with insurgents and have surprised several groups trying to lay roadside bombs.

Soldiers from one Afghan unit, which had recently set up camp in a school building in Salar, said they were called out Aug. 1 to reinforce the local police, who were besieged in their own station less than three miles down the road.

The Afghan soldiers ran into an ambush almost immediately and had to battle for three hours before they could relieve the police station, said the commander, Capt. Gul Jan, 42.

Their adversaries include a mix of criminals, insurgents from the mujahedeen group Hesb-e-Islami, and members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and their main aim was to attack government forces and convoys, and kidnap officials and others for ransom, said Maj. Muhammad Gul, a battalion commander charged with guarding the road as far as Salar.

“The Taliban are trying to bring more people in from other provinces because Wardak is closer to Kabul, and definitely, what happens here will affect Kabul, too,” he said.

The deployment of the Afghan Army, which is now equipped with artillery and heavy machine guns, came just in time, residents said.

Haji Muhammad Musa Hotak, a legislator from Wardak Province, says that public confidence in the government has virtually collapsed along with the security situation.

Insurgents and other armed groups in the province have swelled from barely 100 last year to an estimated 500, as villagers have joined the insurgents, either for money or their own protection, he said.

“Dissatisfaction of the people is growing, anger is growing, people are joining the opposition groups,” he said in an interview in his Kabul office.

He has not been able to visit his home district for a month since the kidnapping of a Chinese road construction worker there by the Taliban, not even for the funeral of his grandson, he said. “How can we say the situation will gradually get better?”

In one of the most brazen attacks, on July 6, at Durrani, a large verdant village flanked by craggy mountains, the Taliban seized positions just above the road and fired on a convoy of seven tankers. The explosion set fire to the roadside shops and civilian cars, killing 22 civilians, Mr. Hotak said.

Army Capt. Muhammad Zaman, 41, was sent in with his platoon to set up base in Durrani just after the attack, as other units pursued the insurgents into villages behind the mountains.

The local police were woefully outmanned and outgunned, he said. “If there was no Afghan Army here, it would be too difficult to secure the road for one hour,” he said.

Tense Relations

But camping in the open, he had minimal defenses, and no protection against mortar fire, he said. His battalion has served alongside American troops all over Afghanistan, but on this operation the Afghan soldiers are on their own, save for some French troops who were mentoring them. Only one small French team appeared to be present among several hundred Afghan troops.

Coordination with American forces in the area was so poor that a passing American military convoy had fired on his positions just five days before and wounded one of his soldiers, Muhammad Baqer, in both legs.

“I could easily have fired back at them,” he said angrily. Villagers, too, complained that the American troops were firing recklessly.

“The Americans are not looking at us like human beings, but we are also human beings,” said a 20-year-old mechanic, Homayun, who uses one name and works in the bazaar down the road at the town of Saydebad.

“We don’t like either of them,” Homayun said of the Taliban and United States forces. “If they are fighting each other, innocent people get hurt.”

Nevertheless the Afghan Army units here seemed confident they could handle the insurgent threat in Wardak, and said the people were on their side.

“We can beat the Taliban conclusively when we build up our manpower,” said First Lt. Rahmatullah Minallah, who commands a post overlooking the Tangi valley, where the Americans died.

“I have 50 men here now. When I have 100 men, I can leave 50 here and go and clear out the village,” he said.

Some men from the unit were sent in to assist the ambushed Americans soldiers at Tangi, and gave their account of what had happened.

A Deadly Attack

The American soldiers had been traveling in three Humvees, heading east toward the neighboring province of Logar, they said. The United States military later said they were on a combat patrol and died from their wounds when their convoy was attacked by improvised explosive devices, small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

The three were identified as Sgt. First Class Matthew L. Hilton, 37, of Livonia, Mich., of the Michigan Army National Guard; and Sgt. First Class Joseph A. McKay, 51, of Brooklyn; and Specialist Mark C. Palmateer, 38, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., both of them part of a reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition unit of the New York Army National Guard, according to a Pentagon news release.

Their Afghan interpreter was 21-year-old Muhammad Fahim from Kabul, who had been working with the Americans for the last three years. His body was burned beyond recognition, his family said.

One vehicle struck a mine, but the convoy of three Humvees apparently kept moving, until a second vehicle hit a mine, said Capt. Haji Rahim, who visited the scene afterward. The Humvee caught fire, and the blaze was so strong the trees around it burned too, he said.

Captain Rahim did not see the bodies but learned from an American officer that one or more had been butchered. “Their bodies had no heads, legs or arms,” he said. A Western official in Kabul confirmed that at least one of the bodies had been cut up. “Organs were removed,” the official said.

Those behind the attack were swiftly identified as a group led by a local man, a former Hesb-e-Islami commander named Mullah Najibullah. Two weeks later United States and Afghan forces tracked him down at his home and killed him and his followers in a siege of the compound, Afghan officials said.

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