September 21, 2008 – Pakistani military forces flew repeated helicopter missions into Afghanistan to resupply the Taliban during a fierce battle in June 2007, according to a Marine lieutenant colonel, who says his information is based on multiple U.S. and Afghan intelligence reports.
The revelation by Lt. Col. Chris Nash, who commanded an embedded training team in eastern Afghanistan from June 2007 to March 2008, adds a new twist to the controversy over a U.S. special operations raid into Pakistan Sept. 3.
Pakistani officials strongly protested that raid, with a statement issued by the foreign ministry calling it a “gross violation of Pakistan’s territory.”
But fewer than 15 months earlier, Pakistani forces were flying cross-border missions in the other direction to resupply a “base camp” in Nangarhar Province occupied by fighters from the Taliban, al-Qaida and the Hezb-i-Islami faction led by Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Nash told Army Times in a Sept. 17 telephone interview.
He had previously alluded to the episode in a PowerPoint briefing he had prepared to help coalition forces headed to Afghanistan. The briefing, titled “Observations and Opinions IRT Operations in Afghanistan by a Former ETT OIC” and dated August 2008, has circulated widely in military circles. Military Times obtained a copy.
Nash said his embedded training team, ETT 2-5, and their allies from the Afghan Border Police’s 1st Brigade fought “a significant fight” in late June 2007 in the Agam Tengay and Wazir Tengay valleys in the Tora Bora mountains of southern Nangarhar – the same region in which al-Qaida forces fought a retreat into Pakistan from prepared defenses in the winter of 2001-2002.
“I had six [Marine] guys on a hill,” Nash said. “They weren’t surrounded, but in the traditional sense they might have been.”
At a critical point in the battle, the Pakistanis flew several resupply missions to a Taliban base about 15 to 20 kilometers inside Afghanistan, Nash said. None of the Marines witnessed the helicopter flights during the four days they were there, he said in a Sept. 19 e-mail. Rather, the supply flights had been reported to them by Afghan soldiers and local civilians in the village of Tangay Kholl.
Summarizing the reports, he said, “A helo flew in the valley, went over to where we knew there was a base camp, landed [and] 15 minutes later took off,” adding that this happened “three different times.”
The Afghan government’s intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, had sources in the camp who confirmed that the helicopters were on a resupply mission, according to Nash.
“From NDS sources that we had in the opposing camp, [we know] they were offloading supplies,” he said.
This was consistent with multiple other reports Nash and his Marines received during that period, he said in the e-mail. “The officer that I had advising the [Afghan Border Police brigade] intelligence officer reported to me the presence of this support in south Nangarhar throughout late June and into August of ’07,” he said. “Both Maj. Razid – the ABP [Brigade] intelligence officer – and Lt. Col. Daoud – then working in ABP intelligence separately and on numerous occasions reported this to the ETT.”
He said these reports were confirmed by a separate set of Marine trainers advising the Afghan National Army battalion in the area, who checked out the reports “through their Afghan intelligence officer.”
Two NDS lieutenant colonels, working separately, made further reports to the Marine ETTs about the Pakistani helicopter support to the Taliban.
Nash set great store by the NDS reports. “In general, we do not rely on the Afghan human intelligence nearly enough,” he said. “Everybody will always roll out the one time that somebody [in NDS] was working for the other side. But I can tell you that when bullets were flying, they were spot on for me, so I trusted them.”
The Marine officer said he was not sure what model the helicopters were, but added: “My understanding is they were painted in military colors.”
“In passing this information to other governmental agencies at the time, they confirmed the events via word of mouth to me and my intelligence adviser to the Afghans,” Nash said.
“Other governmental agencies,” or “OGA, is a phrase U.S. military personnel often use to refer to the Central Intelligence Agency.
Few other U.S. forces were involved in the late June battle, because the major U.S. force in the area, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, was focused elsewhere at the time, Nash said.
“[I] passed the information to the coalition, my reporting chain, OGA knew about it, Afghans knew about it,” he said. “We didn’t report or pursue any further. Just accepted [it] as a fact. There was nothing we were going to do about it anyway.”
The U.S. military public affairs office at Bagram air base in Kandahar did not respond to e-mailed questions.
Nadeem Kiani, the press attaché at the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, D.C., denied Nash’s claims. “There is no truth to these sorts of reports,” he said, adding that “120,000 Pakistani troops are fighting terrorism in the tribal areas” and that about 2,000 Pakistani troops had lost their lives to terrorists.
Nash’s briefing included a slide titled “Outside Enemy Support,” which mentions ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) support to “anti-coalition militias,” or ACM: “Helo re-supply to ACM training camps inside Afghanistan.”
When told of Nash’s briefing, several U.S. military and civilian officials expressed surprise and said this was the first they had heard of such support.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan from November 2003 to May 2005, said he “would have been absolutely astounded” had the Pakistanis attempted to resupply the Taliban by helicopter during his tenure in command, which ended in May 2005. “Nothing remotely like that occurred,” he said.
A field-grade Army officer with recent experience in eastern Afghanistan was also surprised by Nash’s claim.
“I never saw or heard of an ISI helicopter resupplying the enemy inside Afghanistan,” he said. “I just didn’t. It doesn’t match any of my knowledge of that area.”
Another Army officer, currently stationed in eastern Afghanistan, also said he had never heard of any cross-border Pakistani helicopter flights to support the Taliban.
But according to Nash, the helicopter missions were just the tip of the iceberg of the support the Taliban and its allies in his area of operations received from Pakistani forces. That support included training and funding – he notes in his briefing that the average Taliban fighter makes four times the average monthly income of an Afghan – in addition to logistical help and, on numerous occasions, direct and indirect fire support, he said.
“What [the Pakistanis] bring to the fight is not only tactical expertise, but [because of] how they’re arrayed along the border, they can easily provide support by fire positions that our enemies are able to maneuver under,” Nash said. “We were on the receiving end of Pakistani military D-30.”
The D-30 is a towed 122mm howitzer.
“On numerous occasions, Afghan border police checkpoints and observation posts were attacked by Pakistani military forces,” usually those belonging to the Frontier Corps, a locally recruited force in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas that abut the border with Afghanistan, he said.
In addition, he said, his Marines had definitely seen combat with Pakistani forces.
The introduction of al-Qaida and Pakistani military training teams into Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami units resulted in a “dramatic increase in capabilities” for those forces, Nash said.
“The biggest thing is coordination between enemy units,” he said, adding that the Taliban and its allies had evolved from “hit and run” attacks to “hit and maneuver.”
“Their ability to pull something off like a pincer movement or a flanking movement wasn’t necessarily present before,” he said.
But with the injection of “professional” expertise, he said, “You started to see attacks that weren’t conducted by goat herders. These were people who knew what they were doing.”
Shown a copy of Nash’s briefing, a U.S. government official who closely tracks events in Afghanistan and Pakistan said he could confirm everything Nash said about Pakistani support to the Taliban with the exception of the line about “helo resupply.”
“All of that’s going on,” the U.S. government official said. “They have [training] personnel in place – I’ve heard the logistical supply is very much going on.”
But despite the extensive military and paramilitary support Nash said Pakistani forces were providing the Taliban and their allies, the Marine officer stopped short of saying Pakistani forces fighting the coalition were carrying out Pakistani government policy.
“I’m not saying that any of that is sanctioned by the government of Pakistan,” he said. “What I’m saying is this is occurring,” the officer said.
The U.S. government official who closely follows Afghanistan and Pakistan also said it was difficult to gauge exactly who in the Pakistani government was giving the go-ahead for such extensive support of the Taliban.
“The question that’s hard to answer is what level of senior leadership is that under,” the official said. “The usual Pakistani M.O. is to say ‘Those are rogue elements and we’re trying to get them under control.'”
He noted that the Pakistanis used a similar defense when it came to the support its forces gave to the Afghan mujahideen in their fight against Soviet forces.
“I think that’s as much bulls—today as it was 20 years ago,” he said.