Michael's Dispatches

Battlefield Forensics

2011-07-19-125516-2The Later meeting

18 August 2011
Task Force Spartan, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan

During a planning session at a sand table, numerous firefights broke out.  We were at safe distance but close enough to hear heavy volumes of machine gun, AK-47 and RPGs.  The enemy had hit three targets simultaneously.  The closest was a small police outpost over a mile away.  We were hearing the sounds of six people dying.

The attack on the closest police station was unfolding something like this: A small enemy element, probably just a couple or a few Taliban, attacked from vineyards to the south to draw police to the south Hesco wall.  Meanwhile, an assault element consisting of three fighters was trying to penetrate through the front Hesco entrance to the north.  The police did not seem to take the bait.  The three enemy approaching from the road to the north were using a motor-tricycle, which are common here.  The driver was dressed in civvies while the men in back wore chest racks with ammo.  Their weapons were hidden under straw in the tricycle bed.

They made it to the gate and shot the first guard, killing him.  The attackers made it into the perimeter, killing a guard in one tower and lightly wounding the commander in the same tower.  An attacker was shot down and killed and another police officer was killed and sometime in the mix the second Taliban was killed.  The third Taliban, who had been the driver, ran back out the gate and got on the bike and was shot and killed with RPG.

Three police killed, one wounded, and three Taliban killed.  To us it was just noise in the distance.  The planning continued for a large attack that 4-4Cav was to do.

2011-07-19-132821Colonel Pat Frank, Commander of TF Spartan

After the planning session, was another meeting at the Zhary District center on FOB Pasab, in the general area of Kandahar City.  Colonel Patrick Frank presided over the American side of the meeting.  I’d seen LTC Frank sit in similar meetings in the very violent South Baghdad during the surge in 2007.  An ugly time.  As reward (or punishment) for his success in Baghdad, Colonel Frank was sent here.  His AO (Area of Operations) is the most dangerous in Afghanistan.  There are more attacks in some areas of RC-East, but they are more deadly here.  One night, I said to Colonel Frank that I cannot figure out if General Petraeus loves him or hates him, because he gets sent to all the worst places, and clearly General Petraeus was behind it in both cases in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Colonel Frank just laughed and kept explaining something about the fight here.  And today, at this meeting, in addition to so many other matters (most of which are intensely boring), Colonel Frank was bringing up something he used to have to hammer in Iraq: American forces have problems handing over prisoners if you are going to torture them.  You must stop abusing prisoners or we cannot give them to you.

In reality it seems that most countries of the world torture prisoners, and that’s the way it is.  The meeting continued and we Americans all wore headsets so that the Afghan interpreter could tell us what was being said.

An Afghan assistant interrupted to inform the Afghan leadership that the six bodies had just been brought back.  Three police, and the three enemy.


Afghans gawked and made photos.  In many countries, there is no compunction against photographing the dead.  Some readers in the past have been unhappy when I published images of dead enemy, or they complained that it’s against US embed rules to publish identifiable images of dead Americans, and so it’s hypocritical to do the same with Taliban or al Qaeda.  I didn’t write the rules, and so there is no hypocritical bone there.  However, I don’t publish photos of dead US troops, but will not hesitate to publish images of the enemy; after all, they publish them, too.  No need to try to justify it; my double standard is clear to see.  This was a case of Taliban attacking Afghans, who fought back.  No Americans were involved or present during this fight.


The Afghan police and Soldiers backed up so that I could make photos.  Afghans typically are very polite like that.


One enemy had rigor mortis in a strange position.  He was mooning everyone.  An American forensics person told someone to cover him up.  The forensics team was more respectful of the dead enemy than were the police.  (Not that the Afghans were being disrespectful, but that they were slightly indelicate.)


Our guys, actually civilian contractors, gathered forensic evidence.


This man’s thumb was missing but the other fingers were fine.


Fingerprints can be checked against our growing database.  Maybe his prints were on a weapon, or a bomb, or maybe he had been enrolled into our system for some reason.  All detainees, for instance, are enrolled in the biometrics database.  Maybe it will turn out that he lives in London or Tampa.  No telling.


Burned clothing.


Wearing a chest rack for ammo.  Looks like he took a shot to the head.  He probably did not imagine ending here with his buddy’s scrotum dangling over his face.


Not wearing suicide vests.  Their plan apparently did not include this.


This dead man had a bullet hole in his side, which provided a convenient place to swab for DNA.


No iris scans were taken from these guys.


Pressing his foot to guesstimate a time of death.


Policeman who helped with the bodies.


Taliban foot.  Strange-looking skin.


Apparent gunshot.


Always interesting to check their shoes.  Haqqani fighters and serious Taliban typically use footwear that fits, and that they can run in.  In the surrounding villages, you’ll see that nearly everyone either wears sandals (that are not fit for running) or ill-fitting shoes.  Often the shoes are too small, and so they wear them like sandals by crushing the shoe heels with their heels.  At building doorways, or at certain types of meetings, you might see dozens of pairs of shoes outside.  If that’s in a village, the footwear typically will be sandals or ill-fitting shoes.  At a more upscale meeting, the shoes will fit but will not be running or sport shoes.  If you come to a village building in southern Afghanistan and there are a dozen pairs of sport shoes by the door—place your weapon on FIRE and prepare for battle.


As per normal, these guys had shoes, or sandals in this case, suitable for running.


How did this guy get burned?


Appeared to have a couple holes in his back.  As it happens, this was the last Taliban killed, they said.  They said it was by RPG; if so, it must have mostly missed, but the firefights are confusing, and the translations are even more confusing.


He was tough to roll over due to the rigor mortis.


The forensics team wanted to look at the third guy, and the Afghan helper started to kick him over like a sack of flour.  “Hey, hey, hey!  Don’t do that!”  The forensics guys didn’t like seeing the body kicked over and protested.  Enemy or not, something is wrong with that.


“Stop!”  The American forensics man told the policeman several times to stop but the policeman just looked confused and kept pushing the body over with his foot.  At least we have an idea of what he thinks about the Taliban.


Afghans love to share photos and movies of stuff like this.


Man making cell phone video.


Interesting how the cloth was wrapped around his neck.  Clearly it was wrapped after he was burned.  Maybe it was used to pull him from the mess.


This guy didn’t have great prospects for fingerprints, but his DNA was intact.


Not even much of a photo to enter into the database.


Forensics done, Afghan police hauled the bodies away and we went back to tea at the meeting.


Next day, we visited the station where the policeman and Taliban were killed, and there we picked up some snippets that the burned guy may have been killed after being captured.  But there was some difficulty with translation and “he said she said” type confusion.  4-4Cav Squadron Commander LTC Mike Katona got onto the information and called Colonel Frank about it, and the Colonel launched an investigation within minutes.  (I saw it unfold.)  Next day they sent a team out to investigate further, but it became clear that something was lost in translation, as there normally is.  It seems there was just a straight-up shootout and the burned guy apparently got it when gasoline in his motor-tricycle burst into flames from the RPG shot, which explained why he had rigor mortis in a position that looked like he was driving a motorbike.

And that was it.  Another micro-episode in a very long war.

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