On Its Own, The Afghan Army Takes The Fight To The Taliban : Parallels The Afghan army is now fully in charge of combat operations. NPR's Tom Bowman heads out on a mission with troops as they engage the Taliban in one of its strongholds near the Pakistani border.
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On Its Own, The Afghan Army Takes The Fight To The Taliban

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On Its Own, The Afghan Army Takes The Fight To The Taliban

On Its Own, The Afghan Army Takes The Fight To The Taliban

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We turn now to Afghanistan. The Afghan army is fully in charge of combat operations in that country. The Americans have pulled back to their large bases and are now acting as advisers. NPR's Tom Bowman went out on a mission with those Afghans fighting in the eastern part of the country, a notorious bastion of the Taliban.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The call comes into the Afghan battalion headquarters. The Taliban are attacking a police checkpoint under construction in the foothills.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO CALL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: So the soldiers gather in a line, lift their palms and pray for a safe mission. They hop in their trucks and head up a winding dirt road. The unfinished checkpoint can be seen in the hazy distance. It's not long before they hear the gunfire. The Taliban are attacking from two sides.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

BOWMAN: And just off in the hills, maybe a mile or two away, you can hear gunfire. Earlier today, just a few hours ago, they said the Taliban was closer and ready to actually overtake this checkpoint right here that they're building.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION)

BOWMAN: A front end loader digs into the hillside and fills up large sandbags for the checkpoint. The Taliban have been pushed back, but they continue their harassing fire. That's what concerns Zakirullah, the head of the local police. He's a short, squat man with a heavy beard clutching a radio. His village is spread out in the valley below, a patchwork of green fields and mudbrick compounds. Zakirullah doubts the Afghan army can help his village.

ZAKIRULLAH: (Through interpreter) So when the Americans were here, this area was secured. It was very safe. After they left, Taliban replaced them. OK. This guy's insisting let's go. It's not safe here.

BOWMAN: Now the only signs of America are the Ford Ranger pickups the soldiers drive, the M4 assault rifles they carry and American-made armored Humvees driving toward the Taliban on the sloping hill, firing their machine guns.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

BOWMAN: Back in the trucks, Major Aqa of the Afghan army says he doesn't trust the local police chief.

MAJOR AQA: (Through interpreter) Yes. They say he used to be Taliban.

BOWMAN: The police? ALP guy?

AQA: Yeah.

BOWMAN: And it shows the shifting loyalties here in the difficulty in fighting a stubborn Taliban foe. Many of the insurgent fighters slip over the mountains from Pakistan. That's why this checkpoint is being set up. The Afghan soldiers stop a small pickup truck coming from the direction of Pakistan with five men and two small children.

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: They make everyone get out of the car so they can search it. Inside - a loaded AK-47.

BOWMAN: One man insists he's a policeman, so he's allowed to travel with the gun. As he argues with the army soldiers, his brother stands by the car with a small boy, just 5 years old with wide eyes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: "The child is sick," he says. So they're traveling to town to see a doctor. The soldiers finally let the car pass. Afghan officers say the Taliban not only cross the border, they hide in the villages or are even local residents, dropping their weapons and picking up a shovel when the soldiers appear.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO CALL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: Major Aqa leaves the soldiers, and he heads back down the dirt road to the battalion headquarters.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in foreign language).

BOWMAN: Aqa and the other army officers are convinced they can handle the security now that the Americans have taken a backseat. And the man in charge here is Afghan army Lt. Col. Ghani Khel. He commands the Battalion.

LT. COL. GHANI KHEL: (Foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: Back at headquarters, he sits behind a large wooden desk. Aides scurry in and out. The colonel says they've been successful in pushing back the Taliban on their recent missions. But there are complaints among some soldiers that they lack the aircraft and surveillance drones the Americans used so skillfully to overwhelm the Taliban. Khel agrees that if they don't get more forces in air support, their gains may be lost.

KHEL: (Through interpreter) If we had air support, the Taliban could not take away their heavy weapons from the villages.

BOWMAN: Still, the Afghans are in the fight, and they appear eager to take on the Taliban unlike a year or two ago when they hung back on patrols and let the Americans lead. Col. Khel hears that his men need help up in the mountain, so he heads out of the building and orders his soldiers to fire artillery rounds into the Taliban positions dug in on a hillside. The soldiers work out the coordinates on a wooden table set in a large vacant lot surrounded by sandbags...

UNIDENTIFIED SOLIDER: (Foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: ...And fire a shell from an old Soviet-era artillery piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHELLING)

BOWMAN: The soldiers on the mountain road radio back. The round fell nearly a mile short, so they work the coordinates again and fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHELLING)

BOWMAN: Lt. Col. Khel climbs atop a massive generator to get a better view, a cellphone pressed to his ear. He reports the second round landed square on a Taliban truck with a mounted rocket launcher. It was destroyed and several insurgents were killed. The Afghans have only one casualty, he says, a soldier shot in the foot. Col. Khel hops off the generator. The remaining Taliban just melt back into the hills. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Nangahar Province, Afghanistan.

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