Asia

Afghan soldiers take fight to Taliban 'brothers'

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Media captionDavid Loyn reports from the front line with Afghan troops

In the near future, probably June, Afghan security forces will take responsibility for the whole country for the first time since the collapse of the Russian-backed army in 1992.

In the last areas still to be handed over by international forces to Afghan control, security advisers are taking a back seat as the Afghan army leads its own operations against insurgents.

The BBC was given unique access to the dawn battle update briefing at Camp Thunder in Paktika, the HQ of 203 Thunder Corps, responsible for much of the east of the country, including a long stretch of the border with Pakistan.

Banks of computers, maps and competent briefings were the new face of an army that can now mount complex operations on its own.

The Afghans are also bearing more of the casualties as Nato deaths fall.

During 2012 at least 1,170 Afghan troops were killed - nearly three times more than Nato, which has seen combat losses steadily decline since 2010. Afghan police casualties were even higher last year, with 1,800 dead.

The commander at Camp Thunder, General Mohammad Sharif Yaftali, was trained as an officer by the Russians a generation ago, and is proud of the new army that is emerging.

"The Taliban do not have the ability to retake Afghanistan. They cannot fight face to face. If they are so strong then why do they need to poison girls' schools?" he asked.

Image caption Colonel Abdul Qadir said that while development was essential, security had to take precedence when battling the Taliban (Photos: Graham Hill)
Image caption In Operation Pamir, Col Qadir deployed short-range mortars against Taliban positions
Image caption More and more Afghan National Army soldiers are being recruited from the same Pashtun community where the Taliban draws its support
Image caption Areas are firstly secured by the army which then constructs a network of checkpoints once they are cleared of the militant threat
Image caption During the operation, the army hopes that the Taliban will attack them so that they can then be traced and destroyed
Image caption Artillery can be a game-changer in the war, significantly improving the ability of the army to secure ground, and replacing international air power

Gen Yaftali also emphasised the scale of recruiting from among Pashtuns - Afghanistan's largest ethnic group - making this a truly national army.

Until recently it was difficult to persuade Pashtuns to join up.

On the ground, in an assault on Taliban positions close to the frontier with Pakistan, most of the soldiers, including the commanding officer, Major Jabar Omarkheil, were Pashtuns.

They called the Taliban their "brothers" but had no hesitation in hunting them down.

The army was engaged in an operation codenamed "Pamir", designed to secure the strategic Pir Koti valley close to the frontier with Pakistan.

Behind the army came large earthmovers, to build checkpoints for the Afghan Border Police.

After an evening attack on a base by a small group of insurgent fighters, Afghan soldiers set out at dawn, hoping to provoke the Taliban to attack them, so they could be found and destroyed.

The soldiers searched a remote village, taking down Taliban flags from houses.

Maj Omarkheil tried to secure support from the villagers, but he had to admit that he would not be staying once Operation Pamir was finished.

The villagers complained that they felt caught between the two rival forces.

The government felt very distant here.

None of the men in the village had been to school and their only access to healthcare was across the frontier in Pakistan - a serious indictment of international aid programmes since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

The overall commander of the operation, Colonel Abdul Qadir, said that development was essential, but security had to come first.

"After 30 years of war we need everything: reconstruction, clinics, schools and roads. But we will have nothing without security."

In Operation Pamir, Col Qadir deployed short-range mortars and Russian-made D30 guns, which have a range of several kilometres.

Forward reconnaissance units mapped the land from high observation points, using maps and hand-held GPS devices to identify targets accurately.

Artillery could be a game-changer in the war, significantly improving the ability of the army to secure ground, and replacing international air power that will soon not be available.

The government is currently working out how to restore old artillery pieces left over from other recent conflicts to increase its capacity.

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