Trouble in the Afghan Army: The Battle of Bari Alai

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 11 months ago

The Strategy Page gives us an account of an ambush by Taliban on a U.S. convoy in which both U.S. SOF and elements of the Afghan Army fought back.  Concluding the account:

The quick reaction force called for air support, but the warplanes scanned the area with their targeting pods and reported that the Taliban had collected most of the local civilians and were holding them at gunpoint, as human shields.

The Afghan commandos of the quick reaction force then crossed the river and forced the Taliban out of the village, and away from their human shields. The villagers, once free of their captors, told the Afghan troops where the Taliban had set up more fighting positions, and the Afghan soldiers soon chased the Taliban away. Meanwhile, other Afghan and U.S. troops of the Quick Reaction force went ahead to where the supply convoy was still pinned down. The Afghans, and a team of U.S. Special Forces troops, outmaneuvered the ambush force, killed five of the Taliban, and captured six of those they had wounded. Several other Taliban got away.

As the supply went on, they hit two roadside bombs. One vehicle was destroyed, But no one was hurt. Throughout the entire action, no troops (American or Afghan) or civilians were killed. It was the training and leadership of the Afghan troops, and the use of air power (for reconnaissance, not smart bombs) that played a major role in the success of the operation.

Afghan “commandos.”  This report makes it sound as if these troopers can fastrope, perform room clearing operations with stacks, do squad rushes, perform fire and maneuver warfare, lay down enfilade or interlocking fires, and hump a pack and body armor 30 – 40 kilometers.  Maybe they can even do HALO jumps.  “Commandos.”

As is sometimes the case with the Strategy Page, this report also sounds as if it could be an ISAF or U.S. press release by Public Affairs Officers.  Whether this report is exaggerated, there is another side to the Afghan Army.  We have discussed the drug abuse and addiction in the Afghan Army, and also linked very informative but depressing video of attempts to train the Afghan Army.  There is an even more recent report of treachery within the Afghan Army, costing the lives of three American warriors.

A pre-dawn attack by the Taliban that killed three American soldiers and six other coalition troops earlier this month is raising new questions about many of the Afghan soldiers who were supposed to be fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with them.

Officials are investigating whether the Afghan troops may have colluded with the Taliban in the brazen assault on the remote coalition outpost along the mountainous Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Their findings could complicate further the already difficult challenges U.S. trainers are having with the Afghan Army.

American officials have questioned 11 Afghan Army soldiers and one Afghan interpreter who were taken prisoner after the battle and later released. Many U.S. troops in the area suspect that the Afghan POWs may have passively helped their Taliban attackers by laying down their arms, or even actively colluded with the enemy in the attack.

Details of the battle have been sketchy, since all three Americans at Observation Post Bari Alai were killed in the fight. Of the four Latvian NATO soldiers who were also defending the post, two were killed and a third was badly wounded and evacuated to Landstuhl Army Medical Center in Germany. According to a U.S. official, the remaining Latvian soldier was “shellshocked” by the attack and has been flown back to Latvia for treatment.  Three Afghan National Army troops also were killed.

U.S. officials are declining to comment on specifics until their investigation is complete. But conversations with American troops familiar with the situation reveal that in the early morning hours of May 1, more than 100 Taliban fighters launched a coordinated uphill attack on Bari Alai, a tactically critical, fortified mountaintop outpost that overlooks the convergence of the Hel Gal, Durin, Marin, and Kunar River Valleys, as well as a bridge that spans the Kunar River.

While Taliban fighters pinned down coalition troops with machine gun fire, their comrades scaled the mountainsides and advanced on the post. Coalition troops killed 19 Taliban fighters, according to U.S. officials.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. William D. Vile, 27, who was wounded, continued to return fire as he called on his radio for reinforcements and artillery support. He was killed by an explosion and has been posthumously recommended for the Silver Star Medal, the Army’s third highest decoration for battlefield valor.

The blast breached the perimeter of the post, and the Taliban poured inside. Sgt. James D. Pirtle, 21, and Specialist Ryan C. King, 22, were killed defending the base and were both posthumously awarded the Bronze Star Medal.

After overrunning the post, the Taliban fighters captured 11 Afghan soldiers and one Afghan interpreter and transported them into the Hel Gal Valley, where they were held captive.

In the days following, U.S., Afghan, and Latvian forces embarked on joint operations to recover the dozen POWs. On May 6, approximately 400 coalition troops made a forceful push toward the Hel Gal Valley, where the POWs were believed to be held. But the mission was halted two hours after it began when the Taliban freed all 12 POWs after coalition forces broadcast radio messages demanding their return.

When asked what kind of condition the freed Afghan troops were in, Marine Lt. Col. Ted Adams replied, “Good condition. Too good, actually,” — a sentiment echoed by other officers, which has led many to suspect that the POWs were complicit in the enemy attack.

This battle is moderately less costly than the Battle of Wanat (in which nine U.S. soldiers perished and fifteen were wounded), but similar in that it shows both the massing of large numbers of Taliban fighters, and the lack of effectiveness of the Afghan Army.  In this battle only three Afghan soldiers perished, and at Wanat, none did.

The going forward strategy in Afghanistan seems to be similar to the Iraq strategy in 2004 and 2005 – train the indigenous forces.  It didn’t work in Iraq, and Iraq has a much stronger governmental institutional skeleton than does Afghanistan.  The U.S. administration is loath to increase troop strength beyond 68,000, but standing up the Afghan Army is bound to be a problematic and troublesome affair.  They are not only shot through with corruption and drug abuse, they are apparently guilty of treachery as well.  Finally, based on the casualties we have seen at both Wanat and Bari Alai, they simply can’t be trusted in battle.


Analysis of the Battle of Wanat

On the Front Lines in Afghanistan

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  1. On May 19, 2009 at 7:37 am, TSAlfabet said:

    Two thoughts:

    1. It would certainly be a shrewd strategy by the T-ban to infiltrate members into the Afghan Army for just this sort of inside operation.

    2. As in Iraq (and pretty much all of life), people want to be on the winning side, or, to be more precise, to be on what is perceived as the winning side. Right now, as things are going in A-stan, the T-ban are perceived to have the momentum and it is quite possible that at least some members of the Afghan Army have not “bought into” the coalition. They are there for a paycheck. It does not take any imagination to see Afghan Army soldiers weighing the risks and figuring that resisting the T-ban is the riskier option. Perhaps if the Afghan soldiers are found to have deserted or betrayed their comrades, their execution might persuade other soldiers not to do the same in the future.

  2. On June 11, 2009 at 5:13 pm, xiolablue said:

    I have been told by an individual who operates in the area, that there were 29 casualties at Bari Alai (Nishigam).

  3. On September 12, 2010 at 11:15 am, Jeromy Henning said:

    Not to mention details, but the Afghan Commandos are a very different breed among the ANSF. Don’t sell them short on their capabilities. They are extremely well-trained and very disciplined. SOF has done an outstanding job in setting the Commando units up and maintaining the program…

  4. On November 16, 2011 at 1:23 pm, Carlos U. said:

    What you describe is right out of “The other side of the mountain”, which describes oprerations from the Muji side. Negociating and co-opting the local afgani gov. troops so they’ll lay down their arms and then attacking the foreign troops.

  5. On March 2, 2012 at 11:14 pm, Erc Winn said:

    The taliban are nothing like the iraqi fighters.. Iraq was a cake walk in comparrison.. May first was a nightmare. they hit us at day break and the AA “Afghan Army” were involved with the infiltration of OP bari ali…. we all knew the threat. vile, king, pirtle and the latvian had been begging col market and highers for help and reinforcement for months. 3rd platoon 6-4 cav was supposed to have been at the District center the night prior to the attack but had them selves just returened from a long mission just north of the area, so, my self and fellow nco’s requested a day of rest and refit for our men. we had planned to move to the DC the next morning to act as a quick reaction force for Op Bari Ali.. needless to say our actions resulted in an extened reaction to the horor that was to happen the next day.. This is what we as the leaders live with on a regular day. and i am to blame for this as well as my fellow NCO’s. on the ride to aid our fellow comrads, Vile “after being wounded multipul time told col market everything he actually thought of him befor vile him self was kia. 1 hour and 40 min after the attack started 3rd plt C co. arrived at the top of the smoldering mountain. it took us 28 min to clime 3000 ft under moderate fire. we fought our way up, across the top and stopped at the far side of the op to set up a perimater and assess the situation.. after gathering our fallen brothers 1st squad 3rd platoon lead the way down into the vally with 2nd squad 20 meters behind us. a total of about 24 men. we fought under heavy fire down the spur and into the mouth of the valley all day with not one lull in fire from the enemy. when night fell. we flew out our injured men witch left 6 our platoon leader, platoon sgt, my self the first squad leader, first squad Alpha team leader and two of 1st ssquads soldiers. when 10th mtn, finally arrived Late that night they sat on a ridge line as a company size over watch element while what was left of our platoon snuck deep into the vally to capture the talibans snipers and a few of there leaders. our night mission was successfull even without one shot being fired.

    3 americans 3 latvians were killed and the latvian medic survived. I was there these men were my friends and good men with good families. I could care less how many Afgahn soldiers were killed. every one of them should have died along side our men but the ones that were captured WERE part of the attack and the ones that didnt die or that wasnt part of the taliban force, DROPPED THERE WEAPONS AND FLED DOWN THE SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN LIKE COWERDS!!!! Like i said i was one of the First infantry soldiers on top of that mountain that day. and the only reason the detail are sketchy is because the officers in command “COL MARKET” and his a#@ and trash do not want to admit they are responsible for ignoring all the intel and none of them want to tell the world the truth about that day.

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You are currently reading "Trouble in the Afghan Army: The Battle of Bari Alai", entry #2944 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghan National Army,Battle of Bari Alai and was published May 18th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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