The Spying Game

In hunt for enemies, coalition Special Operations troops drop in and spy across Afghanistan

May 9, 2002


BAGRAM, Afghanistan (AP) _ To shepherds and playing children, they're usually invisible. Wearing ripped pieces of camouflage canvas, they could be mistaken for a mountain crag or a leafy bush.

Often dropped in covertly by helicopter at night, nobody is supposed to know they're there.

All across eastern Afghanistan, Special Operations forces from several nations are secretly dropping in and spying on villages and mountain passes deemed suspicious by the U.S.-led coalition against terror.

Their aim is to zero in on suspected al-Qaida and Taliban holdouts, who military officials say have dispersed into small groups, adopted guerrilla tactics, and learned to blend in among local populations _ much like the covert operations teams themselves.

"Our people are very good at what they do. They're very good at hiding," said the U.S. military spokesman, Maj. Bryan Hilferty.

Equipped with handheld "laser target designators," U.S. Special Operations forces were active in the early stages of the war, sneaking near front lines to guide American air strikes toward enemy positions. The bombing campaign, backed by northern alliance troops, ousted the Taliban late last year.

Back then, the enemy was relatively easy to spot. These days, surviving al-Qaida and Taliban fighters are proving elusive, and the allied coalition is turning increasingly to covert operations and intelligence to track them down.

The effort includes finding and analyzing documents, computer disks and arms caches left behind in caves and underground bunkers, monitoring satellite imagery and intercepting electronic communications via radio, telephone and e-mail.

Unmanned spy planes equipped with cameras have also been put to use by CIA operatives. One of them, the Predator drone, is fitted with Hellfire missiles.

Even with all the high-tech help, human intelligence is the most reliable, Hilferty said. Tip-offs sometimes come from Afghan authorities or villagers, who point out areas where suspected al-Qaida fighters or weapons caches might be.

Special operations teams are inserted into a target area _ mainly in eastern Afghanistan _ by air, vehicle or foot, and usually at night.

"You'll put people in a way that no one will know that they're there," Hilferty said. "You'll set up a position where you can provide eyes on a particular area."

And then you watch and wait.

One method involves donning something called a ghillie suit, made up of ripped pieces of camouflage canvas.

"You just layer it on and you just become like this big blob," Hilferty said. "You kinda' look like the blob, or the creature from the swamp, and when you lay down in that, if your canvas is the same color as the surroundings, you become almost invisible."

Special forces teams are normally equipped with night vision goggles and binoculars _ some with the power to mark latitude and longitude coordinates on far away mountains. Small computers and communications equipment they carry can then be used to call in air strikes if the need arises.

The United States, Australia, Canada and Denmark have acknowledged deploying special forces inside Afghanistan. British and German special forces have also been seen. The American contribution includes Army Green Berets and CIA operatives _ who sometimes conduct covert missions inside Pakistan, a military official said on condition of anonymity.

At Bagram air base, U.S. Special Operations forces are easy to spot. Unlike regular troops with crewcuts and military uniforms, they often wear civilian clothes and scraggly beards. Hidden behind sunglasses, they sometimes sport checkered Afghani shawls. Many are highly educated and all are highly trained.

In the field, most work in 12-man teams that include communications and weapons specialists, medics and demolition experts, Hilferty said. Some work with local Afghan militias, training them and gleaning intelligence. Some conduct surveillance and reconnaissance missions. Others are deployed to kill or capture enemies.

Missions can be risky.

Last week, an Australian special forces team staking out a suspect village near the Pakistan border was discovered and shot at by what U.S. officials say were suspected al-Qaida fighters. A firefight ensued and two of the assailants were shot and believed killed before the Australians were extracted by an American Chinook helicopter.

Covert operations often take place in populated areas where villagers gather firewood and shepherds tend to flocks of sheep in the hillsides.

It doesn't always take a counterintelligence expert to discover covert forces though. Hilferty said even children had run across troops in hiding.

"You can be compromised obviously. This isn't a sterile environment," Hilferty said. "Our guys have been stepped on. And no matter how well you hide, if someone steps on you, they'll probably find you."

Copyright 2002 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.