TIME: In Afghanistan, Shutting Down Taliban Support


No army exists in a vacuum. One reason the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces holed up in their Shah-i-Kot stronghold have been able to last so long is that they have had crucial help from sympathetic locals. So this week, as the assault by Afghan forces to move the terrorists out of their base shifted into high gear, a team of Australian commandos conducted a raid designed to cut off some of that support. The mission came Monday, as an Afghan force of more than 350 footsoldiers led by General Zia Lodin and backed by six tanks and American air cover stormed up the western reaches of the terrorists' domain. Elements of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division swept down from the north. The plan: to drive the remnants of al-Qaeda's fanatical militia into the southern and eastern killing fields set by U.S. and Australian Special Forces along the most feasible escape routes.

That same afternoon, further south near the tiny village of Shayk Mali, two teams of Australian commandos ventured from their isolated camp at the bottom of a desert gully. In eleven all-terrain vehicles the Special Air Service troops crossed a dry riverbed and low ridges embroidered with sharp-edged stones to reach the village of Gardit Khahi in Armah district. Though they'd patrolled the hamlet at the foot of the mountains many times in the past month, their arrival took the villagers by surprise. "They had many weapons and were ready to fight," said 21-year-old Akram the next day.

The Australians had good reason to be on their guard. The people of Armah have been supporting al-Qaeda and Taliban there from the beginning of the fight. Even during the height of the offensive a week ago intelligence reported fighters coming down from the peaks at night to rest, resupply and seek medical attention. Last Saturday extra checkpoints were thrown up along the edge of the battlefield to deny them access. But checkpoints mean nothing in Gardit Khahi. Here, all that's between al-Qaeda and the village of 30 farming families is a single, passable mountain. "But we don't help al-Qaeda," villager Haji Amin Khan maintains, "because if we do the Americans will bomb us."

When the Australians drove in late in Monday afternoon they knew precisely what they were looking for. One team went to a large new compound on the top of a hill. The other continued about a mile and a half further to the Taliban district office. "We don't know what they were looking for," elder Haji Tazha Gul told TIME. But there are clues. The compound the SAS raided is empty, but nonetheless grand, and clearly beyond the means of the impoverished farmers. At the district office SAS troops destroyed an anti-aircraft gun. Ammunition was seized from a storeroom. Elsewhere, bedrolls were neatly stacked along a wall. The blankets were new and expensive, the pillows and mats ornate. Again the locals said the office, a former Taliban headquarters, had been unused. Yet signs of life were obvious.

There's more than recuperating fighters to worry about at Gardit Khahi. The village borders one of the three major exit roads from Shah-i-Kot. Running through snow-clogged passes, the unstable road is littered with mines, many left over from the war against the Russians, but villagers say al-Qaeda and the Taliban have laid fresh ones. To the east and west of Gardit Khahi U.S. Special Forces maintain blocking points to prevent al-Qaeda escapes. Tuesday attack helicopters were diving low over houses and heavy bombardment continued just a short distance up the mountain. Residents say it's impossible to sleep at night with the ear-cracking explosions. "It was fighting and bombing all last night," said Haji Amin Khan. "We heard the sound of heavy weapons from American soldiers on the ground, and the noise of bombardment. And we could hear the sound of heavy weapons some ways away from the al-Qaeda side."