Al Qaeda leader Qari Zia Rahman and a map of northeastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan. Map from the Asia Times; click to view.
US and Afghan forces have wrapped up a week-long operation in the eastern Pech River Valley in Kunar province. During the operation, which the top US commander in the east claimed dealt “a huge blow to the enemy,” 49 Taliban fighters and six US soldiers were killed.
Operation Bulldog Bite was launched on Nov. 12, and targeted Taliban havens in the villages of the watahpur Valley, which lies in the eastern region of the Pech River Valley. The region has served as a transit area for Taliban and al Qaeda fighters infiltrating from Pakistan, and is just five miles from the Korengal Valley, an area where US forces shut down combat outposts last winter. Last year, US commanders claimed that the Korengal was strategically insignificant due to its remote location, but since that time, the Taliban and al Qaeda have used the region to launch attacks into neighboring Afghan provinces.
In the recent operation, a battalion of US soldiers, backed by an unspecified number of Afghan troops, conducted numerous air assaults into the area as part of “their continued pursuit of militant fighters in the Kunar province,” the US military stated in a press release on Nov. 13.
The first US soldier was killed during combat on Nov. 12. Two days later, US troops encountered heavy resistance, when five soldiers from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division were killed during a six-hour-long firefight in the watahpur area. The bulk of the 49 Taliban deaths reportedly occurred in that clash.
US Army officials who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the information told The Long War Journal that the platoon from Alpha Company, 1/327 also took significant numbers of wounded, and that the eight soldiers who were not wounded were divided up among other platoons in the company.
“The soldiers involved who were not hurt are still assigned to their units,” Mary Constantino, the Public Affairs Officer for the brigade told The Long War Journal. “All of the units involved with Bulldog Bite are back at their bases refitting and resting in preparation for future operations. We grieve each death and mourn with their families. Each loss, whether from our force or the Afghan National Security Forces, is tragic. We mourn each one but our resolve remains firm. We will honor their sacrifice by ensuring the mission we are here to do is done to the best of our ability.”
During the operation, US and Afghan troops found a number of weapons caches “containing several mortar systems with rounds, 15 recoilless rifle rounds, more than a dozen rocket-propelled grenades, 20 anti-aircraft rounds, four fragmentary grenades, 400 rounds of AK-47 ammunition, 1,200 PKM rounds and improvised explosive components.”
Major General John Campbell, the commanding general for the 101st Aiborne Division and the commander of Regional Command East, said that Operation Bulldog Bite had put the Taliban in the area back on its heels.
“There’s been significant disruption to that network in that area,” Campbell told The Leaf Chronicle. “This is a huge blow to the enemy …. The enemy didn’t think we’d go back in there.”
Major Pat Seiber, the Public Affairs Director for Regional Command East, said the operations have eased the pressure of Taliban attacks on bases in the region.
“[Taliban] attacks have reduced against Coalition and ANSF bases and around populated areas during the recent “Bulldog Bite” operations, which disrupted an attempt by insurgent forces to re-consolidate near Shuryak,” Seiber said.
Bulldog Bite follows several operations in the western Pech River Valley which began in mid-October. On Oct. 15, a joint Afghan and ISAF force launched an operation in the area. On Oct. 16, Afghan commanders and US Special Operation Forces killed 13 Taliban fighters while clearing “known insurgent strongholds in Tsam, Chenar Now and Matanga villages.” On Oct. 17, US troops killed Gul Nabi, who was described as “a mid-level Taliban commander” and “an al Qaeda associate.” And on Oct. 31, US forces conducted additional air assaults against the Taliban in the region.
Al Qaeda presence in Kunar
The US military claimed that al Qaeda has a small foothold in Kunar and neighboring Nuristan province, while there are an estimated 150 to 200 “foreign fighters” in the region.
“Between Kunar and Nuristan provinces, there are an estimated 150-200 foreign fighters and only a handful of Al Qaeda identified in the area,” Seiber told The Long War Journal. Seiber defined foreign fighters as “an individual from outside the border tribal areas who travels into the border area to get into the fight.”
When asked if Arabs, Central Asians, Chechens, and others would be included among these foreign fighters, Seiber responded, “I think that’s fair, they could certainly be included.”
Qari Zia Rahman, the dual-hatted al Qaeda and Taliban commander who operates in Kunar, Nuristan, and across the border in Pakistan’s tribal agency in Bajaur, may still be in the Kunar region, according to the US military.
“There are unconfirmed reports of QZR [Qari Zia Rahman] activity in the area — but nothing confirmed,” Seiber said.
Qari Zia is closely allied with Pakistani Taliban leader Faqir Mohammed as well as with Osama bin Laden. Qari Zia’s fighters are from Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and various Arab nations. Earlier this year, the Pakistani government claimed it killed Qari Zia in an airstrike, but he later spoke to the media and mocked Pakistan’s interior minister for wrongly reporting his death.
In late July and early August, ISAF announced that it was hunting Qari Zia Rahman. The US has targeted Qari Zai in three raids over the past summer. On June 29, the US launched a battalion-sized operation in Kunar’s Marawara district, which directly borders Pakistan. More than 150 Taliban fighters were reported killed in the operation. On July 20, US and Afghan forces launched another battalion-sized operation in Marawara to flush out Qari Zia. And on Aug. 2, combined forces conducted a raid, again in Marawara, that targeted the al Qaeda leader.
The top al Qaeda commander in Kunar province is Abu Ikhlas al Masri, an Egyptian who has spent years in Afghanistan and has intermarried with the local tribes. Abu Ikhlas is al Qaeda’s operations chief for Kunar province, having assumed command after Abu Ubaidah al Masri was promoted to take over al Qaeda’s external operations branch (Abu Ubaidah died in early 2008 of a disease).
The US military has killed three senior al Qaeda leaders in Kunar this fall. On Sept. 25, a US airstrike killed a senior al Qaeda leader named Abdallah Umar al Qurayshi and an “explosives expert” named Abu Atta al Kuwaiti, along with “several Arabic foreign fighters.” Sa’ad Mohammad al Shahri, a longtime jihadist and the son of a retired Saudi colonel, is also thought to have been killed in the same strike.
Kunar province is a known sanctuary for al Qaeda and allied terror groups. The presence of al Qaeda cells has been detected in the districts of Pech, Shaikal Shate, Sarkani, Dangam, Asmar, Asadabad, Shigal, and Marawana; or eight of Kunar’s 15 districts, according to an investigation by The Long War Journal.
• Security forces begin clearing eastern Pech River Valley, ISAF press release
• DOD Identifies Army Casualties, Department of Defense press release
• Afghan, coalition forces conclude operations in eastern Pech Valley, CJTF-101 press release
• Taliban on run, Maj. Gen. Campbell says, The Leaf Chronicle
• Combined force takes fight to enemy in Kunar, ISAF press release
• Security forces begin operations in the Pech River Valley, ISAF press release
• , CDO, USSF reduce caches, kill 13 insurgents in Konar, ISAF press release
• ‘Al Qaeda associate’ killed during Kunar operation, The Long War Journal
• ISAF kills senior al Qaeda leader and an IED expert in Kunar strike, The Long War Journal
• Wanted Saudi al Qaeda operative killed in Afghanistan airstrike, The Long War Journal
• Egyptian al Qaeda leader reported killed in South Waziristan airstrike, The Long War Journal
• Taliban commander Qari Zia Rahman denies reports of his death, The Long War Journal
• US hunts wanted Taliban and al Qaeda commander in Kunar, The Long War Journal
• Afghan, US forces hunt al Qaeda, Taliban in northeast, The Long War Journal
• Afghan, US forces launch offensive in Kunar, The Long War Journal