Alexa
  • Directory of Taiwan

Among NATO's 'fighting countries,' Romanians securing vital Afghanistan highway

Among NATO's 'fighting countries,' Romanians securing vital Afghanistan highway

The Romanian soldier quietly makes the sign of the cross, then thrusts his rifle through the narrow slit of an armored vehicle as it rolls toward one of the most vital _ and dangerous _ highways in Afghanistan.
As night falls, machine gunners constantly rotate their turrets and searchlights on the four patrol vehicles and rake the passing countryside for possible ambush sites amid rocky outcrops, mud-brick farm houses and orchards of blossoming almond trees.
Among only a half dozen NATO countries willing to take on combat operations in the country, the Romanians are tasked with securing a stretch of Highway 1, the strategic and economic lifeline between the capital Kabul and the key southern city of Kandahar.
The Taliban were preparing to cut off the highway, isolate and then recapture their one-time stronghold of Kandahar before major NATO pushes blunted their advances late last year. Whether they can regain their momentum this spring is still uncertain.
"Cutting off Highway 1 would be a major information campaign victory for the Taliban. But it is almost impossible," says Maj. Ovidiu Liviu Uifaleanu, commander of the 500-member Romanian unit. "If they attack us, they have a problem."
Taliban insurgents, he says, now largely confine themselves to quick, shoot-and-retreat attacks against the 20 checkpoints manned by Afghan military and police in Zabul province. The Romanians bolster the Afghans with their mobility and firepower, rushing to threatened outposts and otherwise trying to reassure the local population that they can provide security.
"I feel that I am trying to swat a fly with a 40-pound hammer, and only with luck will the fly stay put," Uifaleanu says in fluent English.
"Our last unit in Zabul fell into two or three ambushes. But the Taliban learned. The machine guns we carry can demolish a mud building and anyone standing behind it," says the major, who commands the 812th Infantry Battalion. The unit, known as the "Carpathian Hawks," has seen service in Angola, Iraq and on an earlier Afghanistan tour.
The greater problem now faced by the Romanians appears to be Zabul's inadequate and poorly equipped Afghan National Police.
Normally paid just US$70 a month, they haven't seen a paycheck for the past four months due to restructuring of the force. So some of the checkpoints along Zabul's 150-kilometer (93-mile) stretch of the highway are abandoned, others manned by a handful of policemen, some of whom sleep on the job.
"It's possible," says provincial police chief Gen. Abdull Ghafar, when asked if some of his men accept bribes. "If they don't get a good salary they try to get money from other sources."
Maj. Christopher Clay, who commands the U.S. Army unit in Zabul, says the Taliban and drug traffickers pay off police to pass through checkpoints. "Some attacks are staged by traffickers against police units which refuse to accept the bribes. That's how we can sometimes identify an honest ANP unit _ it's the one which gets hit," says the commander of B Company, 4th Infantry Regiment.
Clay, who serves under Uifaleanu within Task Force Zabul, gives the Romanians high marks and some of his officers say they're a more finely honed fighting force than some American units. The Hawks trained with U.S. troops in Romania and Germany before being ordered to Afghanistan three months ago.
Here, Romania, which joined NATO in 2004, joined the United States, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Estonia and the Netherlands as one of the member nations willing to engage in combat. The notable "stand asides" among the 37-nation coalition are Italy, Germany, Spain, Turkey and France.
Analysts offering recommendations on how the war in Afghanistan can be won, say that "national caveats" that prevent the "stand asides" from engaging in combat must be removed so that all NATO members can march to the same tune.
"NATO needs integrated operations with common rules of engagement," Anthony Cordesman, a terrorism expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies told the U.S. Congress last month. And the Brussels-based think tank, International Crisis Group, said in a recent report that "hard questions need to be asked of those who sometimes appear to put force protection, not mission needs, at the fore."
Uifaleanu declines to speak about decisions made in other NATO capitals but says, "We are keeping our promises as a NATO nation and we are here based on a political decision and taking orders from our higher echelon."
From a coalition base on the edge of Zabul's capital, Qalat, Uifaleanu launches more than 50 missions a week, most centered on Highway 1. It's transformation from a potholed track to an asphalted highway, cutting travel time between Kandahar and Kabul from a full day to about five hours, is hailed as a key achievement in Afghanistan's reconstruction.
The Romanian night patrol covers nearly 100 kilometers (60 miles), the last stop a concrete blockhouse manned by a dozen Afghan soldiers along a desolate, lonely stretch of the highway.
A half moon casts an eerie glow over an arid plain and a jagged range of hills from which the insurgents emerge to attack the outpost almost weekly.
Sgt. First Class Gabi Sasalman, a 12-year-veteran of all Romania's overseas missions, points to the distant peaks.
"It's the same danger here as we faced in Iraq," he says.