KANDAHAR (Reuters): A convoy of exhausted Afghan commandos were speeding back out of their base to try to extract a wounded policeman trapped by Taliban insurgents on the outskirts of Kandahar.
The previous outing had been tense but quiet. This operation in the southern city, a Taliban stronghold before the movement was ousted from power in 2001, was anything but.
As they approached the checkpoint where policeman Ahmad Shah had been holed up alone for 18 hours, some 30-40 special forces soldiers in a line of Humvees came under automatic weapons fire, according to a Reuters reporter travelling with them.
A gun battle erupted as the convoy forced its way to Shah’s position, and he was hurriedly loaded into one of the vehicles. Then came a series of loud explosions; the first three of eight Humvees were struck by rockets and too badly damaged to continue.
In the ensuing confusion, commandos inside the disabled vehicles rushed to switch trucks. Gunfire appeared to be coming from all around; from a cemetery to the left and the heavy cover of Eucalyptus trees to the right.
A volley of bullets ricocheted off the Humvees’ metal armour. Gunners atop the Humvees swivelled wildly, aiming fire at suspected Taliban fighters who were hard to see. The remaining Humvees absorbed several hits from rocket-propelled grenades, blasts echoing loudly inside crammed metal interiors and shaking the vehicles violently.
Tuesday’s mission underlined the relentless demands on Afghanistan’s military, as Taliban fighters seize more territory and as foreign troops complete their withdrawal after 20 years of inconclusive conflict.
The insurgents’ hit-and-run tactics make them a tough enemy to pin down, and, while air support from Afghan warplanes can provide cover where there are few civilians, doing so in urban areas is risky. Soon after the commandos’ convoy left the base on Tuesday, it was held up by traffic streaming into Kandahar.