Talking Proud Archives --- Military

Special Forces ODA 3336 deep in the Hindu Kush, gallantry and courage

By Ed Marek, editor

March 16, 2009

The target, Hezb-e-Islami Gulbudden (HIG)

Operations conducted by US Special Forces are understandably kept quiet and close-hold. I did a story on Navy SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1 (SDVT-1) in Operation Red Wing, June 28, 2005, in Afghanistan. Its leader, Lt. Patrick Michael Murphy, USN (SEAL), received the Medal of Honor (posthumous). He led a four-man SEAL team in the mountains of Konar Province, the province adjacent to Nuristan's southern border. His team's mission was to capture or kill high level Taliban and al Qaeda leadership. Three of the four were killed in this action. The three with Lt. Murphy received the Navy Cross, two posthumous.

Going after high value targets demands small, highly mobile, highly lethal teams covertly inserted into areas determined by highly reliable intelligence to host such targets. Special Forces are often selected for such missions.


ODA 3336’s mission was to take out or capture high-value targets from the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) enemy group located in the Shuk Valley area of Nuristan.

The HIG is a large faction of Afghanistan’s Hezbi Islamic Party founded in 1975.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, shown here, built it and leads it. He is shown here in a recent photo.

You will recall from an earlier section that I said one of the Taliban's major victories in the 1996 era was to defeat Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, at the time Afghanistan's most powerful warlord.



For example, here you see Hekmatyar Gulbuddin after he was sworn in as Prime Minister of Afghanistan in 1996; presented by rawa.org. The Taliban would throw him out of that job when they took over. Now "he are" one of them," thought as I will point out later, he is "sort of" one of them.

The Hezbi Islamic Party, or Islamic Party, was set up in Pakistan with the mission of combating communism in Afghanistan.

In April 1978, a group of communist parties in Afghanistan led a military coup, killed the president and his family, and took the presidential palace. This was known as the Saur Revolution. I don't want to go into this in any great detail, but I do want to say that the actual coup was led by a group of Afghan military officers under the control of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and in coordination with the Soviets. They employed Soviet armor and MiG-21 and Su-7 fighters to put the government down. It is arguable whether this was a revolution, since the officers and the PDPA people with whom they worked did not have a great deal of public support.

The military and PDPA set up the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.

Soon thereafter, civil war erupted. Religious leaders did not like the secular character of the new government, and as I said, this was not a coup with popular support. A group that came to be known as the mouthpiece, Islamic men fighting a jihad, or holy war, was actually formed from loosely-aligned opposition groups. They took the fight to the government and threatened to take Kabul in what was now clearly a civil war. The Nuristanis led a rebellion against the communist government and their efforts spread rapidly, including to the Pashtun majority. The numbers of people executed in the rebellion were in the many thousands. One Afghan Air Force attack killed 24,000 citizens. The Afghan government asked for Soviet help.

Contrary to popular belief, the Soviets were hesitant about committing too much to the fight. Soviet help came in dribbles starting in the summer 1979, mainly to protect the government in Kabul.

At about this same time, with the advice of National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, and under the authority of President Carter, the US CIA began providing aid to the rebels, known as the mujahideen, setting up a formal program known as "Operation Cyclone." Brzezinski saw an opportunity to drag the Soviets into Afghanistan in a long and drawn-out war.

At this point at least, Afghanistan became a major element of the Cold War between the US and USSR.

The Afghans kept asking for more and more, but the Soviets kept moving slowly. The Soviets distrusted the Afghan leadership for a variety of reasons, the KGB argued that it be removed, and the Soviets decided they would have to invade and occupy the country.



Soviet tanks entering Afghanistan in late 1979. (Source: Banded Artists Productions). Presented by HistoryCommons.

Finally, in December 1979, Soviet paratroopers and special forces landed at Kabul and in came the 40th Army, starting with about 80,000 troops and ramping up to 152,000 before it was over.


Group of Afghan Mujahideen, summer 1982. Photo credit: Willem Vogelsang, from his book, The Afghans (Peoples of Asia)



US-Map of Soviet Invasion in Afghanistan. Presented by wikipedia.



Soviet tanks and BMPs are on the way to Panjsher for a military operation against bands of mujahideen. Presented by militaryphotos.net.

In hindsight, this was an incredible period in history. The Iranian Revolution also began in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini took power from the Shah of Iran, Iranians stormed and took the US embassy in Tehran all that year. In September 1980 Iraq invaded Iran and a war ensued through 1988. In 1983, during the civil war in Lebanon, enemy forces blew up the Marine barracks in Beirut killing over 200 Marines and causing the the Marines to withdraw from that country of US forces.

Let's return to Gulbuddin. He was an ethnic Pashtun. He split away from the main Hezbi Party in 1979 and set up his own guerrilla organization, the HIG. The US supported him and other mujahideen forces as did many other countries, including Pakistan. The US CIA and Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) did what they had to do to provide the anti-Soviet forces with what they needed, almost regardless of who they were. The US and others trained mujahideen in Pakistan. The many groups in the mujahideen were more like ones led by warlords. They often fought amongst each other for power and geographic control. Afghans killed many Afghans during this process. Some say more Afghans died during this time than Soviets.

The Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988. The Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, completing that withdrawal in February 1989. Saddam Hussein remained in power in Iraq. Ayatollah Khomeini remained in power in Iran until 1989 when he died and was succeeded by another Ayatollah as the supreme spiritual leader. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was elected by the parliament as president of Iran. Incredibly, just two years after ending their war with Iran, Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and a US-led coalition invaded Iraq and liberated Kuwait. Then, in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed and the Central Asian Republics, three of which are on Afghanistan's northern border, were now independent. So the clock of history continues to be amazing.

So, the Soviets were out, the government in Kabul was in complete disarray yet again because of arguing factions, and, in 1991, there was a coup in the USSR that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. That meant no more Soviet aid to Afghanistan. The communist government in Afghanistan could not withstand this series of events.



The mujahideen interim governing council spokesman Ayatullah Asif Mohseini, at press conference in Kabul on May 7, 1992 announcing newly imposed Islamic rules. Presented by RawaNews.

So the mujahideen, already a gaggle of multiple factions, many of which hated each other, came in to take over. But they did not know how to govern the nation as a whole. They were, after all, warlords and war fighters, not bureaucrats, and they ended up fighting against each other, in yet another terrible civil war. A milestone event in the civil war was a mutiny of the Northern Militia, later to be known as the Northern Alliance. The government had no chance of surviving. The many mujahideen groups now freely moved into Kabul and other cities and the fight was on full bore.


Almost 90 percent of Kabul was destroyed in the lethal and brutal civil war between fundamentalist factions. Presented by RawaNews.

Until now, much of the fighting had occurred in the countryside. Not so after the communist government fell in 1992. The war moved into Kabul, heretofore largely immune from fighting. Giles Dorronsoro, writing
"Kabul at War (1992-1996) : State, Ethnicity and Social Classes" published in the South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, said this:

"From 1992 to the arrival of the Taliban in September 1996, controlling the capital became the principal military and political objective of the military actors. Clashes happened therefore mostly in Kabul. Most provinces, on the other hand, experienced a significant decrease in military activity as hundreds of thousands of people had already gone into exile in Pakistan and Iran."

During the period 1992-1996, the many groups in Kabul constantly changed their alliances and the fighting in the city became very violent.

One of the mujahideen groups was known as the Taliban, roughly translated, "Students of Islamic Knowledge Movement." It was loosely organized, mostly on a regional basis. The Taliban in Kandahar Province, supported by Pakistan, began fighting against other warlords and fought very capably, so capably that they took the city of Kandahar in 1994, then Jalalabad in 1996, and advanced against Kabul, capturing it in 1996.


Led by Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban initially proved popular among a people sick and tired of being sick and tired, especially of war. Omar is a recluse, a most mysterious character, and a tough lad to photograph. BBC says it believes this to be one of the only photos known to be of Omar, standing on the left. He goes under the name of Amir-ul-Momineen, which means "Commander of the Faithful." He was born in Uruzgan, fought against the Soviets, and legend has it he has received special instructions from Holy Prophet Muhammad in a dream. He has strong links with al Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden.

The Taliban managed to re-unite the country but could not put down the civil war, which kept on going. Most of their leaders were educated in Pakistan and were ethnic Pashtuns. That gave them an advantage since the Pashtuns are a sizeable ethnic group in Afghanistan. Furthermore, most Taliban leaders were Sunni Muslims, and 90 percent of the country was Sunni. Furthermore, you will recall from earlier discussions that there is a large population of ethnic Pashtuns in Pakistan.


Among the Taliban's strongest enemies was a group of Tajiks, Hazara, Uzbeks and Turkmen in the north, who formed up the Northern Alliance, mentioned earlier. In this photo credited to Tyler Hicks, Getty Images, you see Northern Alliance soldiers firing at Taliban. They held the northeast corner of the country, about 10 percent of the entire country. They resided on lands opposite Pakistan's Northwest Frontier, held by Pakistani ethnic Pashtuns. So the Northern Alliance had to deal with them and with the Taliban.


On September 11, 2001, Islamic enemies attacked the United States. The US government determined that the attack was masterminded by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. It further determined that the Taliban government in Afghanistan had provided active support to al Qaeda, enabling them to train and organize in Afghanistan. As a result, the US retaliated against the Taliban government beginning on October 7, 2001, in Operation Enduring Freedom. The UK joined in. The US and UK provided mainly air forces while the US provided CIA and special forces to work with the Northern Alliance and provide the requisite ground forces to overthrow the Taliban government. The US, with the UK, acted bilaterally, without UN Security Council approval.


Northern Alliance soldiers celebrate as they roll into Kabul in tanks. Presented by BBC.

The Taliban government in Kabul fell like a house of cards on November 12, 2001. They moved largely to the south where they could hide. Leading up to this, Saudi Arabia cut ties with the Taliban on September 25. Pakistan also withdrew support and agreed to help the US on September 26. The US-UK bombing campaign began on October 7, 2001. The Taliban said it was ready to give up Osama bin Laden to a third country on October 14. The US rejected the offer. The Northern Alliance marched into Kabul unopposed on November 13. The Taliban surrendered its last stronghold at Kandahar on December 6.


Taliban prisoners in the cage, December 5, 2001. Presented by September 11 News

Frankly, the Taliban fell faster than the US anticipated. The Northern Alliance moved into Kabul before the US wanted it to. To this point, and shortly thereafter, the US meant to continue combat operations to finish off the Taliban and also destroy al Qaeda --- this was the thrust of the 9-11 retaliation. But then the UN stepped in and began planning for a post-Taliban administration. Without going into a lot of detail, this led to an emphasis on setting up a democracy in Kabul. The UN held a conference in Bonn, Germany in December and established an interim authority to govern in Kabul. The conference also created the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), initially a coalition of the willing and then later sled by NATO.

At the risk of oversimplifying, the US for the most part stayed away from ISAF to focus on destroying the Taliban and al Qaeda, while the ISAF focused on securing Kabul, rebuilding the country and promoting a democracy.



Intelligence sources say the Taliban have reorganized with a new command structure. At the top of the military hierarchy is Mullah Beradar. He manages several Taliban commanders and religious leaders assigned to different provinces. Please note that you can find as many depictions of provinces as you look for. This depiction does not show Nuristan. For our purposes, Nuristan Province occupied roughly the northern half of the light blue area led by Taliban leader Mullah Kabir. Presented by The Christian Science Monitor.

The Taliban fell back, regrouped, re-equipped and reorganized, and in 2003. Scott Baldauf and Owais Tohid, writing "Taliban appears to be regrouped and well-funded" for The Christian Science Monitor published on May 8, 2003, said this:

"...the Taliban are back as well. Regrouped, rearmed, and well-funded, they are ready to carry on guerrilla war as long as it takes to expel US forces from Afghanistan ... Across the southern portions of Afghanistan, where the Taliban found strong support among the rural conservative Pashtun populations, there are definite signs that the Taliban are making a comeback."

At the time, the senior US leadership thought it had Afghanistan well in hand. That was wrong. Russia, Iran, Pakistan and China were not happy with the initial US victory over the Taliban and presence in this region. As a result, the Taliban emerged again and attacks against US and allied forces in Afghanistan ramped up, starting seriously in 2003. These attacks intensified in 2005 and 2006. Fighting continues to this day.

I have noted in previous sections of this report that the political situation in Afghanistan has long been incredibly chaotic. That situation remains today, and presents the US with exhausting challenges. But, since Afghan politics are so fractured, there are opportunities to split them further and befriend and ally with various factions, a US tactic that worked nicely in Iraq.

Let's return to Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) and Gulbuddin Hikmetyar. HIG is one of the many factions, especially aggressive, and is very active in Afghanistan's Konar and Nuristan Provinces. Its leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, remains closely aligned with Osama bin Laden, a long-time friend, said by some to be seen by bin Laden as the most important Taliban leader in Afghanistan. His public goal is to liberate the country of foreign military forces, overthrow the Karzai government, and create a fundamentalist Islamic state. His strategy appears to be to outlast the US and then topple Karzai.

Making things difficult for the US, there is evidence that the Pakistan ISI provided escaping Taliban with refuge and that their leader, Mullah Omar, was protected by Pakistan in a safe-house in that country. Gulbuddin Hikmetyar had been in exile in Iran, and returned to Pakistan and was allowed to operate freely in the area of Peshawar. Our forces have learned quite a bit about Gulbiddin's outfit and its leadership from detainees held at Guantanamo, and US forces have documentation of Pakistani support to him and to others in the Taliban.

His HIG organization is an aggressive hostile enemy and lethal terrorist organization with a lengthy record of murder and destruction, often spending as much or more time killing Afghan citizens as it does its foreign enemies. It is based in eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan. Gulbiddin is a pioneer in sending Islamic fighters to other countries to fight. He has been an active supporter of Osama bin Laden. He is roughly 62 years old and has experienced three decades of war.


Gulbiddin and another enemy leader, Jalauddin Haqqani, shown here, work together. They are radical, violent, and lethal. They work together, but are not monolithic. I have not seen any good estimates of their numbers. It is likely that they number in the hundreds, and are well armed, well-supplied, highly mobile, and well led.

Their fighters ally with anyone who will fight against the US, including Taliban, al Qaeda, drug and timber smugglers, insurgents, gunmen and crooks. It is common to hear American military commanders in the area refer to this grouping as a "syndicate;" some have even referred to it as a "rainbow coalition" because it includes Afghans, Pakistanis, Uzbekis and a wide assortment of others. Generally speaking, they engage in small attacks, but attacks very lethal to local citizens and very threatening to US and Afghan forces.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his HIG fighters have been the target of US forces for several years. The US thought it had him in 2003, fired a missile at him, but missed. The US also was behind the arrest of his son, Ghairat Baheer in 2003. Hekmatyar's response was to become increasingly defiant and aggressive.

Hekmatyar has been labeled by the Department of Defense as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.

I must comment here that the intrigue, duplicity, undercover work, and all that are mind-boggling. It truly takes a very patient and analytic person(s) years to untangle all this. Frankly, it is understandable that Americans would have a tough time unraveling it all --- my guess is that figuring all this out is far more complex and challenging than dealing with all the foreign intrigue that occurred during most of our history.

In that vein, Hekmatyar has on occasion offered to deal with Karzai and Karzai has not shut out that possibility. Furthermore, I have seen reports that the US would consider dealing with him if he would stop the fighting.



Gulhuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the HIG during an exclusive interview with the Washington Post, as referenced in the paragraph below.
I'll point you to a most interesting article by Candice Rondeaux,
"Afghan Rebel Positioned for Key Role," published by the Washington Post on November 5, 2008. She argues that Hekmatyar "could prove central to US plans to rein in the the insurgency through negotiations." She highlights the complexities of Afghan politics. His forces have been very effective, the Karzai government is not seen by the US as very effective, and the US might be willing to work with this guy.

For his part, Hekmatyar has issues with both Karzai and the Taliban, and has fought against them both on the battlefield. He's a moody kind of man, known to flip flop around, sometimes supporting Karzai, other times the Taliban. The prevalent view is he likes power. Dealing with him is a risk, but ignoring him is also a risk. He's got a good following and carries weight in many provinces with the locals. At the moment he's quite confident of his position. He's politically savvy, militarily skilled and has no trouble raising money. He feels the US cannot sustain the casualties and costs of the war much longer, and that as soon as the US leaves, Pakistan will move away from the US along with Afghanistan and American efforts in the region will have been for naught.

So, Gulhuddin Hekmatyar is a problem.

Complicating this is that people in the outback regions such as Nuristan feel their government in Kabul doesn't care much about them. It's hard to argue that point. Villagers openly complain to US forces when they patrol and visit, asking for roads, schools and medical facilities. US forces want to help, but they lack the numbers to stay long enough to secure the area to help build what the people need. When the people try, the HIG destroy what they've done.

So, ODA 3336 was targeting his HIG organization on April 6, 2008, and perhaps Gulhuddin Hekmatyar himself.

I now want to get down to the business of ODA 3336 and its Afghan Allies. Who are they?