ANA Exhausted by Long Battle

Afghan troops fire a Soviet-designed howitzer during training last week. Afghan officials seek more advanced weaponry as the U.S. withdrawsBy NATHAN HODGE and HABIB KHAN TOTAKHIL

KABUL—New details about an ambush on Afghan troops in March and the army’s stumbles in the monthlong battle that followed illustrate the challenges Afghanistan faces in taking over security around the country.

Afghan and coalition officials said recently concluded operations in the usually peaceful northeastern province of Badakhshan laid bare a range of problems faced by Afghan security forces throughout the country, from lack of advance planning and communication to inadequate supply and logistics.

What began as a simple resupply mission turned into a prolonged fight to reclaim a remote mountainous district. It also illustrated Afghanistan’s reliance on coalition air power: In the final week of the operation, the Afghans had to call for backup from North Atlantic Treaty Organization aircraft—support that won’t be available once foreign forces withdraw by the end of next year.

The fighting took place in Warduj district, along a highway used by insurgents and traffickers as a conduit for weapons and narcotics. The highway links the rest of Badakhshan with the Wakhan corridor, a sliver of land that shares borders with China, Pakistan and Tajikistan.

The mountain passes of the district, one of the most isolated parts of Afghanistan, offer easy concealment and natural fighting positions, said Fabrizio Foschini, a political analyst at the Kabul-based Afghan Analysts Network. “The terrain is a nightmare,” he said.

On March 4, a group of well-armed and well-organized insurgents staged a surprise attack on an army convoy resupplying a police outpost in Warduj, Afghan officials said. Around 60 Afghan military personal were trapped; the insurgents killed 14 troops and took a number of soldiers hostage, Maj. Gen. Afzal Aman, the operations chief of the Afghan defense ministry, told The Wall Street Journal.

“It was a big blow to the Afghan army units,” Gen. Aman said.

Government forces responded immediately by launching a military operation—dubbed Ghashai, or Arrow,in Pashto—to clear the road and drive the insurgents from their fighting positions.

That phase initially faltered: Gen. Aman said Afghan forces lacked adequate supplies and had poor contacts with the locals, something seen as vital for collecting timely intelligence on the enemy.

They also needed more firepower. Footage released to local television by the military showed Afghan troops attacking insurgents with truck-mounted machine guns. After launching a third, more intense offensive push later in the month, the Afghans brought in heavy weaponry, including their Soviet-designed howitzers. Gen. Aman said the army at the height of the fighting fired around 50 to 60 artillery rounds in a single day.

Some of the captured Afghan troops were freed in an early prisoner exchange. In the final week of the operation, which ended on April 5, the NATO coalition provided close air support and deployed medical evacuation aircraft. Around 200 coalition ground troops, mostly from Germany, also took part, said Lt. Col. Marco Schmidl, a spokesman for the coalition’s northern command.

Five troops remain in the insurgents’ custody, Afghan officials said. Over 45 insurgent fighters were killed in the operation, and no civilians were hurt, the officials said.

Afghan officials also issued contradictory information: Two days after the initial firefight, provincial officials claimed the insurgents had executed 16 prisoners seized in the ambush, but senior Afghan officials later said the men were killed in the initial exchange of fire.

Badakhshan, inhabited mostly by ethnic Tajiks, was one of the few parts of the country that remained outside Taliban control before the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Afghan soldiers and police have been responsible for the province’s security since NATO forces formally handed over the province early last year.

Afghan and coalition officials say well-armed criminal groups have found common cause with Islamic militants in the region. Criminal groups have often allied with insurgents to obtain “a costume of legitimacy,” said U.S. Army Col. Nicholas Scopellite, who oversees police development in Afghanistan.

In Warduj, he said, the Afghan police showed adequate coordination with the Afghan army, despite long-standing criticism that the two forces often do not work well together. “Just like in any other country, if we [encounter] more firepower, we go to the people who have even more, which is [the] military, which is what happened there,” he said.

Top Afghan officials have long complained that the U.S. and its allies failed to provide Kabul with enough high-end weaponry to tackle the insurgency. When Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited Washington earlier this year, he arrived with a wish list of military equipment. The recent fighting in the north could help bolster their argument that Kabul needs more warplanes, better artillery and sophisticated surveillance equipment before the coalition is no longer around to call on for support.

The monthlong battle in the northeast exposed the Afghan military’s shortfalls at a moment when the government in Kabul has accused neighboring Pakistan over what it sees as interference in its sovereignty and indirect support for insurgents.

Top Afghan officials have also blamed Pakistan for military setbacks in the country, including a recent attack on an army outpost that was overrun by militants in eastern Kunar province. Maj. Gen. Zahir Azimi, spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, told reporters last week that “foreign intelligence” had provided support to the insurgents in Badakhshan, a phrase Afghan officials often employ to refer indirectly to Pakistan’s powerful spy agency.

Gen. Azimi didn’t name the foreign power involved in the Badakhshan fighting, but made the statement following a lengthy condemnation of Pakistani activities along their shared border.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that a meeting in Brussels with Afghan President Karzai and Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani made progress. He said a dialogue on political and security issues was on a “good track,” but declined to spell out what, if anything, had been achieved.

Before the meeting, Mr. Karzai’s office said the meeting would focus on the Afghan peace process and recent tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

With the conclusion of the army operation in Badakhshan, the army had managed to reassert government control in Warduj, Afghan and coalition officials said. A full army battalion is now stationed there.

“The road is open for traffic,” said a spokesman for the provincial governor’s office.
—Saeed Shah in Islamabad and Stephen Fidler in Brussels contributed to this article.

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