US aircrews describe how, under new orders, they show no mercy to suspected Taliban fighters on the ground in Afghanistan
Gethin Chamberlain, in Kandahar, for The Sunday Telegraph, 29 April 2007
Caught in the middle of the Helmand river, the fleeing Taliban were paddling their boat back to shore for dear life.
Smoke from the ambush they had just sprung on American special forces still hung in the air, but their attention was fixed on the two helicopter gunships that had appeared above them as their leader, the tallest man in the group, struggled to pull what appeared to be a burqa over his head.
As the boat reached the shore, Captain Larry Staley tilted the nose of the lead Apache gunship downwards into a dive. One of the men turned to face the helicopter and sank to his knees. Capt Staley’s gunner pressed the trigger and the man disappeared in a cloud of smoke and dust.
By the time the gunships had finished, 21 minutes later, military officials say 14 Taliban were confirmed dead, including one of their key commanders in Helmand.
The mission is typical of a new, aggressive, approach adopted by American forces in southern Afghanistan and particularly in Helmand, where British troops last year bore the brunt of some of the heaviest fighting since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
American commanders believe that the uncompromising use of airpower in recent weeks has been a key factor in preventing the Taliban from launching their expected full-scale spring offensive against coalition forces and forcing them to rethink their tactics.
Aircrews say they have been told to show no mercy, but to press home their advantage until all their targets have been destroyed. The Apache attack was one of five in three days in Helmand, where British troops operate alongside a much smaller contingent of American infantry and special forces.
Capt Staley, the commander of the Apache unit based at Kandahar airfield, described how his helicopters had arrived just after an ambush by Taliban fighters with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns, on a detachment of American special forces and an infantry unit. In the second Apache, 1st Lt Jack Denton, 26, was in radio contact with the special forces unit, Scorpion 36, on the ground.
The soldiers said they had information that the Taliban were escaping across the river. “Look out for any boats,” they said. He spotted a small aluminium fishing boat pushing out from the eastern shore of the 200-yard-wide river. In it were six or seven people. When they caught sight of the Apaches, they started to paddle back towards shore.
The aircrew hesitated. “It seemed a little premature,” said Lt Denton. “We didn’t have hostile intent or a positive ID from the ground commander.” But the special forces soldiers were adamant that, although they could not themselves see the men on the boat, they must be the Taliban who had attacked them. That, said Lt Denton, was good enough for the Apache crews.
By then, most of the men were ashore, walking quickly towards the tree line. They appeared to be pulling clothing over their heads – burqas, Capt Staley thought, and Lt Denton concurred. As the helicopters came in to attack, Lt Denton said, one of the men turned to face him and dropped to his knees. “I think he knew that there was no hope,” he said. “He was making his peace.”
Capt Staley’s helicopter hit them with its rockets while Lt Denton, the gunner in the other helicopter, opened up with his 30mm cannon. Three or four of the Taliban died where they stood and the rest made a dash for the trees. “They were trying to get to their bunkers,” Capt Staley said. “We started a diving run and destroyed four of the six people we could see, including the Taliban commander.”
From 500ft up, Lt Denton said: “You can see the person but you can’t see the features of his face. The 30mm explode when they hit and kick up smoke and dust. You just see a big dust cloud where the person used to be.”
As the Apaches came in for another run, Capt Staley said, he saw the muzzle flashes of automatic weapons among the trees. A rocket-propelled grenade screamed towards his helicopter, but it passed by harmlessly.
The Apaches made eight attacking runs and, by the end, the bodies of 14 Taliban littered the shore. Another two were spotted floating down the river. Any survivors did not hang about. “They usually extricate their dead but this time they left them there,” Capt Staley said.
American intelligence named the dead commander as Mullah Najibullah, who, they said, had been responsible for leading attacks against British forces in and around the town of Sangin, in Helmand.
The attack, and four other missions against suspected Taliban compounds, are clearly effective, but the stakes are high. Coalition attacks on mistakenly identified targets here, as in Iraq, have left dozens of civilians dead and wounded and can act as a recruiting sergeant for the terrorists.
But Capt Staley said he had no qualms about pressing home such attacks until no one was left standing and claimed that American pilots were more effective than their British Apache counterparts, who he said flew higher and were less ruthless in finishing off their targets. “The Brits are good but they don’t have the extreme aggression that we do.”
Lt Denton, too, believed they were striking the right balance.
“Usually, right before the engagement, you stop and think, ‘Are you sure?’, because you are going to be taking someone’s life, but everything happens so fast you have to make quick decisions.”
On Monday, the Apaches struck again, killing 12 Taliban whom they had caught in the open near Qalat, in Zabul province.
Lt Denton and Capt Staley were in one of the two-man aircraft, escorting two Black Hawk helicopters, when they spotted eight motorcycles, with a rider and passenger on each. It seemed unusual and the Apache broke away to take a closer look.
Dropping to 200ft, it swooped close to the motorcyclists – and the two men could not believe their luck: some of the passengers were holding the parts of a long-barrelled heavy machine-gun.
Six of the bikes slewed to a stop, their passengers leaping off and aiming their weapons at the helicopter in what appeared to be a well-practised drill, while the others took off across country. The Apache banked away to begin its attack run.
“Some of them were trying to get the heavy machine-gun up a small hill to engage us,” Lt Denton said. “Capt Staley used the 30mm gun to take out the two guys who had taken off, and then we fixed on the ones with the heavy machine-gun. They were huddled around a large boulder and we shot them. We put as many rounds around it as we could, because if they got to it they could cause us trouble. But they never had a chance to set it up.”
Using its cannon and then its rockets, the Apache finished off all the Taliban fighters it could find, then launched nail-filled rockets and dropped white phosphorous to destroy the motorcycles and the machine guns. After the shooting stopped, 12 Taliban were confirmed dead.
Not surprisingly, the Apache assaults have forced the Taliban to adopt a lower profile. For the coalition to continue to be successful, commanders must hope that the Taliban do not get their hands on the weaponry that has made life so perilous for pilots in Iraq, where more than 50 helicopters have been shot down since the start of the war.
But for now, the American airmen are not losing any sleep over it. “When you are on top of the enemy you look, shoot and it’s, ‘You die, you die, you die’,” Lt Denton said.
“The odds are on our side. I really enjoy it. I told my wife, if I could come home every night then this would be the perfect job.”