Michael's Dispatches

Amber of War

image044-1000This is Urozgan Province, not far from where I photographed the “Dead Taliban of Chora” this same week. The dead man wore similar footwear. Men cannot fight in serious mud with these shoes, and will quickly be barefooted. Many Afghans can operate with no shoes. Some troops remove footwear to negotiate mud. There is less suction on feet than on boots, and shoes will be lost, anyway, and so they will tie the shoes and carry them around the neck.

In Iraq, the enemy typically would not fight in the mud, which stole their shoes.  In larger wars, generals sometimes must deal with thousands of troops who lose footwear.

In some types of mud, if it reaches your thighs, the suction is so intense that you will never escape without assistance. There you will die, possibly while fighting back the ants during the day and the mosquitoes at night.

The book Mud mentions the folly of sleeping under a tank.  The rains fall, the tank sinks. Men are trapped.  Driving the tank out can only make it worse.

In regard to combat tracking, mud is a switch hitter.  It can preserve a footprint literally for years, even decades, or erase it in seconds.  An anti-tracking technique is to walk in mud where herds of animals regularly travel, or to request or force farmers to move flocks behind you.  Of course if you force a farmer to do this, he will probably be happy to point out your direction of travel to pursuers.

image046-1000An American with RPG plays with Afghan friends. Despite this dangerous play, Afghans are normally warm people. On this muddy day, we were on high ground, and we were driving so we were not forced to wallow.

In Kandahar, is the Tarnak River Bridge.  The span is a crucial kneecap between our main base at Kandahar Airfield and the large battle space that it supports.   The enemy blew up part of the bridge in March, 2010, killing a US soldier named Ian Gelig.

The bridge closed, yet light vehicles easily forded the river.  Our monster MRAP trucks could not cross.  A single car bomb reduced many of our operations to a standstill.

When not embedded with Coalition forces, I crossed that same spot many times by avoiding the bridge and by fording the river.  We sought to avoid being blown up or caught in a firefight on the Tarnak River Bridge.

When the bridge was hit, I was embedded with the 5/2 Stryker Brigade Combat team, whose HQ was at Kandahar Airfield.  The rains came one day and flooded out the HQ, and many of the living quarters.

The wheeled Strykers of 5/2 were less armored, but they were far more agile than MRAPs.  Casualties still occurred, but Strykers were freer to pursue the enemy.

While writing this dispatch, I asked an experienced 5/2 officer about the mud issue, and his opinion on Strykers vs. MRAPs.  He replied:

“Yes, [MRAP], better armor than a Stryker but an MRAP would be limited to 2 routes and a Stryker would have 20 because of cross country ability.  That combined with our terrain analysis/Intel using digital systems meant that we could avoid likely enemy IED attack areas and come up on a village from any direction—once we understood this we quit getting blown up.  This did not prevent all successful IED attacks of course but pretty damn close.”

After the Tarnak Bridge bomb strike, missions using MRAPs were cancelled due to vehicles bogging in the riverbed.  That particular 5/2 platoon had MRAPs, not Strykers.  Strykers could ford the river.  Cars were making it, and Strykers are far better than any car or 4-wheel drive.  If a Stryker is stuck in the mud, the mud is truly bad.

A single car bomb—and the mud—halted missions for days, though any Taliban who wanted to cross the Tarnak River could roll through using motorbikes, normal pickup trucks, small cars, ponies, camels, or on foot.

So what is better protection?  Massive armor knowing you eventually will be hit, or light armor, which allows you to avoid being hit?  The massive armor prevents chasing down the enemy to kill him.  Light or no armor promotes the hunt.  Dead enemy do not plant bombs.

Protection is agility, aggression, and initiative.  Serious veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan know that the best way to die is to huddle, armor up, and wait.  It is coming.

For centuries Afghan farmers have been masters at water diversion and are famous for their water sharing systems.

One night, near Sangin, Afghanistan, I was with British forces and farmers came out suspiciously.  We were watching them through thermals and night vision, and their activity with shovels looked suspicious enough for the Soldiers to shoot.  I was watching and would not have faulted them, but they stuck with the rules of engagement.  We saw no indisputable weapons.

They were not cleared to shoot unless they saw a weapon, though we know that the shovel-man comes out first before the IED-man.  Shovels are ambiguous weapons in the IED wars.

The Brits had good situational awareness, and one said that during this month at this moon phase, the farmers would work late because watering works better at night, and this moon phase provided the nightlight.  They were warned that farmers would be working tonight, and that enemy might take advantage of the human noise.

A US Marine infantry captain with experience in Iraq and Afghanistan read this dispatch in advance, and said that the same thing happened in Iraq.  The Marines were watching and some Marines wanted to light them up, but then they realized that the farmers were just watering. Not planting IEDs.

Nevertheless, using a shovel or a bomb, the farmer can flood mud-prone roads to channelize, divert, or trap us for ambush.

Our giant vehicles continue to roll off the assembly lines despite these inconvenient realities.

image048-1000Urozgan, 2011.

image050-1000The thickest mud is between our ears.

image052-1000Afghan Police pickup in Urozgan, 2011.

image054-1000The amber of war.

A Russian tank is trapped beside a river in Urozgan, on the muddy road from Shah Wali Kot to Tarin Kot.

The Afghan police, along with a couple of American civilians, stopped at the tank, and walked around the slippery slope.

The Afghans with us did not know the story behind the tank.

One can imagine the ghosts of the crew still sitting atop the hulk.  The ghosts are young and abandoned.  Far from home.  Day-by-day they stare at the river flowing by.  The river that delivered the silt and water of their sticky trap.

Standing by the tank, I wondered if the final words of the crew were, “Boris!  Free the machine before we are hit!”

The skeleton of their machine remains a hopeless beetle trapped in the amber of war.

image056-1000Engine gone

image058-1000Tank parts

Mud: if you do not get mud, mud will get you.

The amber of war is heartless, cruel, indifferent, and it never takes sides.

image060-1000Hole from the messenger. The journey is over.

Please see:

Mud: A Military History

Stuck in the Mud

An account of mud at the Battle of Agincourt begins at the 33 minute mark in this video.  The mud is similar to Afghan peanut butter.

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