KABUL — Taliban forces spearheading a spring offensive seized a remote town near Afghanistan's border with Pakistan Saturday as Afghan government forces retreated, according to U.S. and Afghan officials.
After a week of intense fighting, hundreds of Taliban fighters overwhelmed local government forces, who said they were making a "tactical retreat" from Barg-e-Matal to spare civilians from getting caught in the crossfire.
Taliban fighters seized control Barg-e-Matal nearly a year after they briefly seized the isolated Nuristan district center last summer but were driven out by U.S. and Afghan forces.
This time, hundreds of Afghan fighters defending the town fled early Saturday morning when they began to run out of ammunition and supplies. The U.S.-led coalition provided limited air support and ran a few supply runs for the Afghan government forces, but didn't offer significant aid, according to Afghan and U.S. officials.
"We could not resist," said Haji Mohammed Ismaile, a former Barg-e-Matal district governor, in a telephone interview with McClatchy as he joined hundreds of fleeing Afghan fighters. "There was no support from the government or the (international military) coalition."
"We could hear them on the radio calling us to surrender and telling us that if we lay down our weapons they would not kill us," said Ismaile. "But we did not surrender because they would slaughter us."
The Taliban assault is the latest in the militants' expanding spring offensive on a number of fronts, while U.S.-led forces are trying to train Afghan forces and mounting an offensive in southern Afghanistan that some officials say lacks sufficient troops.
Ahmad Nader Nadery, a prominent member of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, said that the fall of Barg-e-Matal to the Taliban should be a cautionary lesson for Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top allied military commander in Afghanistan, about relying on shaky Afghan forces to defend the country without outside help.
"Things are very fragile, and our fear is that if you withdraw from those places without building up a force that is responsible to the central government, then you can't hold those districts," said Nadery.
The Taliban advance came as a U.S. military investigation Saturday blamed "unprofessional" reporting from a Predator drone crew in Nevada for a missile attack that killed as many as 23 Afghan civilians last February in central Afghanistan. The report also faulted the forces for waiting 12 hours to report the mistaken attack.
On Feb. 21, U.S. helicopters fired Hellfire missiles and rockets at the three-vehicle convoy in remote Uruzgan province. Survivors of the airstrike told McClatchy in March that women in the convoy tried unsuccessfully to wave off the Hellfire and rocket attack after the first car exploded.
The investigation found that the Predator crew, based at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, provided bad reporting that was poorly analyzed and led to the misguided strike. Though the military tracked the convoy for more than three-and-a-half hours, the report said that analysts downplayed information indicating that the vehicles carried civilians, not Taliban fighters.
The U.S. military helicopters broke off the attack, the report said, after the crews "spotted bright clothing and suspected women were present."
After reviewing the investigation, McChrystal formally reprimanded four senior officers and imposed lower-level discipline measures on two junior officers.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai hailed the investigation and discipline as "appropriate."
McChrystal issued a quick public apology for the attack, and the military said the survivors had been given compensation and medical treatment. Although he's made limiting civilian casualties a top priority, there's been a dramatic spike in such deaths this year that coincides with the surge of U.S. forces heading to Afghanistan.
In the first four months of this year, the international military coalition said its forces had killed 92 civilians in Afghanistan. That was more than double the figure for the first third of 2009, when the coalition said its forces had killed 37 civilians.
While the U.S.-led counterinsurgency strategy is aimed at winning over the Afghan population and bolstering Karzai's government, the Taliban offensive appears aimed at intimidating the Afghan people and demonstrating that the U.S. and its allies and Afghan forces can't provide security, even in the country's largest cities.
In the past two weeks, Taliban fighters have launched attacks on two of the biggest international military bases, near the capital of Kabul and near the southern city of Kandahar, and dispatched a deadly car bomber who killed 18 people, including four high-ranking NATO officers, in Kabul.
Taliban insurgents also have been engaging U.S. forces in increasing gun battles in southern Helmand province and waging an assassination campaign in neighboring Kandahar province, both targets of the U.S.-led offensive. Last month, Taliban fighters swarmed over another remote U.S. outpost in the nearby Korengal Valley.
On Saturday in the Afghan capital, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside compound of Supreme Food Services, a well-known food supplier for the international military coalition. The bomber died, but no one else was hurt.
As Taliban fighters celebrated their border victory, leaders from Afghanistan's Nuristan province held emergency meetings to figure out how to retake the area quickly.
"The Islamic government (of Afghanistan) will not leave one hands-width of ground with the enemies," said Gen. Zaman Mamozai, the local border police commander who was involved in the talks.
Mamozai said the Taliban already had appointed Taliban leader Dost Mohammed as the new shadow governor of Nuristan province, but it remains unclear how or if the Afghan government can quickly push the Taliban out.
Last year, American forces moved into the border area to help Afghan fighters roust the Taliban. Soon thereafter, however, the U.S.-led military pulled out of the area as coalition strategists began to focus more on protecting major Afghan population centers instead of battling the Taliban in remote areas.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2010