[R-G] US aircrews describe how, under new orders, they show no mercy to suspected Taliban fighters on the ground in Afghanistan
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Sun Apr 29 23:40:10 MDT 2007
Copyright 2007 Telegraph Group Limited
All Rights Reserved
The Sunday Telegraph (LONDON)
April 29, 2007 Sunday
SECTION: NEWS; International; Pg. 31
LENGTH: 1247 words
HEADLINE: 'He turned to the helicopter and sank to his knees, then I
hit him with my rockets' US aircrews describe how, under new orders,
they show no mercy to suspected Taliban fighters on the ground in
BYLINE: GETHIN CHAMBERLAIN in Kandahar
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
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
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.''
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