The Brits are super and I hope they don't leave.
Published: 15 September 2008
Helmand Province, Afghanistan
The soldiers are living like animals at a little rat’s nest called FOB Gibraltar. They call it “Gib.” Named after the lynchpin of British naval dominance in the Mediterranean, this cluster of mud huts in the middle of hostile territory is more like Fort Apache, Afghanistan. The British soldiers from C-Company 2 Para live in ugly conditions, fight just about every day, and morale is the best I have seen probably anywhere.
The few outside visitors arrive in helicopters that are sometimes spaced days apart, so that if a visitor stays overnight, he could be stuck for a week or more. The closest Afghan dwellings are a few hundred meters away, and each is surrounded by a mud wall. The Brits and Americans call these dwellings “compounds,” because in fact they are little forts. Most Afghans here are a primitive lot who live far outside of cities, and even villages. The Brits say that locals live as their ancestors dwelled in the fourteenth century. Iraq is by comparison extremely advanced and familiar. Local homes are made of mud, straw, and poor-quality bricks that were dried in the sun, not fired in a kiln. Farmers in this area of Afghanistan keep their animals within the compounds, and so the families live in private zoos, and the Brits are in the middle of clusters of zoos that I call Jurassic Park. Though most compounds immediately around Gib are abandoned, crops grow nearly up to the concertina, tripwires, claymore mines and fortifications that form the perimeter of the base.
Helmand Province is the largest producer of opium in the world. During the poppy season, Gib is surrounded by beautiful flowers. From the guard towers, or out on patrols, the soldiers can see the full cycle. Farmers plant the poppy; it grows and blooms producing beautiful flowers like in the Wizard of Oz; the bulbs are lanced and the opium harvested. The final part of the opium cycle lasts all year, and can be seen almost every day, when the British soldiers at Gib take small-arms fire and RPG rounds paid for by the crop they watched growing just outside the wire.
The soldiers at Gib have no internet, but can call home, and they receive mail and care packages by the sackful. (Note to folks at home in the UK: Packages to British soldiers are extremely welcome and true morale boosters. The cubbards are overflowing with dry foods that require hot water, but most other items get snapped up quickly.)
There are three FOBs around the Sangin district of Helmand Province: Inkerman, Robinson, and Gibraltar. These FOBs have two missions: Train and support Afghan soldiers and take Taliban pressure off the Sangin area, so that the soldiers and the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) can try to secure the population while improving their quality of life. Civil Affairs is for the PRT at Sangin. The troops at Gib are not there to win hearts and minds, but to kill Taliban.
Gibraltar, Inkerman and Robinson form a sort of Devil’s Triangle in the area of Sangin, a region that is to opium what Florida is to citrus. The opium has already been harvested this year and should be flowing through veins in Europe by now. The other bumper crop this area produces is Taliban. The Brits call them “Terry.”
The British officers will say they are employing an “oil-spot” strategy. If they succeed in improving one area, people in surrounding areas will want the same, and be more likely to cooperate. This all sounds nice. But will the oil-spot strategy actually work, or is it just a way to buy time until a stinking bag of failure can be handed to subsequent Presidents and Prime Ministers? Some commanders in Iraq referred to the oil-spot strategy back in 2005, but that country was becoming more like a catastrophic oil spill. Yet the fact is, by 2007 and 2008, the oil-spot strategy actually created tangible results. When Anbar Province (Iraq) began to drastically improve in 2007—thanks largely to the savagery of al Qaeda, and smart US Commanders like Colonel Sean MacFarland—Iraqis in Diyala and Nineveh Provinces began clamoring for the same.
But that was Iraq. Will it work in Afghanistan? Many experienced commanders seem to think so. The troops in the three FOBs Inkerman, Robinson and Gibraltar are not there to create ink spots, but to kill enough Terry so that an ink spot can start in Sangin. C-company 2 Para doesn’t have to worry about complex counterinsurgency theories because their job is simple: “Smash” as many Taliban as possible (Brits use the word “smash” a lot), while alienating as few locals as possible. Simple. This is the sort of warfare that a lot of young soldiers signed up for.
The week before I arrived at Gib, the camp was sharply attacked three days in a row. Terry was getting as close as he could. The higher the corn grows, the closer Terry can sneak in. During poppy season, the enemy has less cover, yet the corn is great camouflage. RPGs that used to sail harmlessly over Gib are starting to find their mark.
The enemy is trying hard to shoot down a helicopter; not many helicopters come to Gib. During an attack in late August, RPGs wounded five British soldiers. Another RPG attack caused a casualty when a soldier running for cover smashed his head on a pull-up bar. It knocked him out cold. Another soldier thought he was fragged and ran for a medic. When they returned, the soldier had disappeared. (One never knows what’s next on the battlefields: SGT Hodkins, the excellent media ops soldier who shuttled me around, told me on 10 September that a soldier was trying to clear a mine. The soldier was concentrating on the explosive when all of a sudden some puppies jumped on him, wanting to play.)
I arrived at FOB Gibraltar via helicopter on 30 August 2008. The soldiers had been fighting for five months, and it showed. When they left the base, among the many other weapons, they carried four types of rockets, including 66mms, AT-4s, and Javelins. One soldier on Gib is trained as a sniper and Javelin shooter, and he also works supply, so the joke is that he will serve the Taliban bacon, and a Javelin in the chest. The patrols were all on foot. Terry has stitched the area with bombs, and the patrols just mark the bombs and leave them.
My first mission with 2 Para was an ambush. We trudged over to a nearby ANA (Afghan National Army) compound where a small contingent of Brits from 2 Para are living and running missions with the Afghans. The journey was less than a half-mile, yet the prospect of being ambushed by direct fire or bombs was very real. Some Brits from the ANA camp, along with Afghan soldiers, helped secure our way. We walked through deserted compounds and a large cemetery, all of which have been the scenes of recent fighting. A British soldier named CPL Matt Desmond saw me, and realized there was a civilian in the bunch. He looked me in the eye and said, “If you see the grenade in the cemetery, don’t kick it!” and he chuckled, though I could see by the condition of his gear and the look in his eye that Desmond was a serious soldier.
A radio call came in that Gib, which we just left maybe 15 minutes prior, was about to get attacked. Good timing, I thought. If the Taliban attacked infantry style, since we were already outside the wire, they might lose track of us, and maybe the platoon I was with could maneuver on one of their flanks and kill them. But the Taliban must have seen us leave Gib, I thought. Because if they were preparing to attack, it would have been smart to watch the base for as long as possible before launching. But who knows? The enemy makes mistakes just like we do.
Some minutes later, we arrived at ANA compound, which was surrounded by Claymores. Claymores are powerful defensive mines that are like super-powerful shotguns. They’ll rip bodies to shreds, and so I never like walking in front of them, but that’s what you’ve got to do to enter these bases. Some Taliban are willing to pay the reaper to “disarm” those mines with their bodies, so that their buddies can follow behind them.
Inside the compound, CPL Desmond shed his weapon and body armor gave a safety briefing, cautioning that the ANA soldiers tend to fire wildly when attacked. It was strange to leave Gib and need a safety briefing because the next place was even more dangerous. CPL Desmond told us the code word in the event that the camp was being overrun. Without going into details, we would have to initiate a violent, explosive, and risky withdrawal. This was more than “keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle” kind of briefing. It was more like, “Do ‘A’ and you might survive. Do ‘B’ and you will die.” Further, CPL Desmond said, Ramadan would start at sunset, and nobody knew what might happen then.
For the next five hours, I listened to soldier stories from the Brits and Afghans. CPL Desmond talked about a well-laid ambush the enemy had sprung on them, killing two British. During a Taliban ambush that C-co fought through, Desmond was clearing through the enemy positions they had fought through, when a Taliban commander went for a weapon. Desmond shot him in the teeth.
Recently, there had been a firefight nearby, and British soldiers fired back at Taliban. Unfortunately, far downrange a bullet struck an 8-year-old girl, killing her. The same bullet wounded her mother. The locals staged a protest, coming up to the ANA compound. There were Taliban in the crowd, who shouted to the ANA to hand over the British soldiers. Needless to say, the British put up a good fight, but the ANA refused to help. At least they did not attack the Brits from within or surely the base would have been overrun.
On Thursday nights, the ANA have what the Brits call “man-love” night, or “man-love Thursdays.” Interestingly, Iraqis would sometimes say that a man is not a homosexual unless he has sex with other men when he is over thirty. At that age, they say, a man should stop, or else he’s a homosexual, which is a perversion of faith. I recall reading Ahmed Rashid’s fantastic and prescient book Taliban, which was published before the war. Mr. Rashid described a tank battle waged between warlords over the services of a young boy. Boys are for pleasure, women are for babies, they say. Such is this land, Jurassic Park. I called Mr. Rashid at his home in Pakistan a couple years ago, and he sounded increasingly pessimistic about the region. He has written another book titled Jihad!, which I brought with me but traded with Major Adam Dawson, the British officer in charge of Gib, who had another fine book called Afghanistan: A Short History of Its People and Politics, by Martin Ewans.
Luckily, the night 31 August was not man-love Thursday, just the beginning of Ramadan. CPL Desmond took me to see the ANA lieutenant, a 28-year-old man who said he had been recruited and trained by none other than Afghan superhero, Ahmad Massoud. Massoud had been, assassinated by al Qaeda just before the 9/11 attacks. The lieutenant was gracious and hospitable, and in the beginning was mostly complimentary of NATO/ISAF, and certainly the Brits. But as the hours ticked by, he talked of discontent spreading among many Afghans, as they try to decide whether to cooperate with the foreigners in NATO/ISAF and the weak and fractious government in distant Kabul, or the Taliban who surround them. The Afghan lieutenant said that air strikes killing civilians were turning the people against the alliance, and that promises to deliver electricity—among other things—had turned into empty words. He claimed to be hopeful, though I was unsure.
Later, a British officer told me that the Afghan lieutenant was a puff bag of sorts. His soldiers go into combat with the Brits, while he stays on base doing admin. The British officer said that the ANA soldiers were losing respect for the lieutenant, because the Brits of higher rank would go into combat, while he stayed in the rear with the gear. I witnessed the same in Iraq during 2005, until the Iraqi soldiers began losing respect for their seniors, because ranking American officers (even full colonels and command sergeant majors) would roll into combat with Iraqi soldiers, while many Iraqi captains stayed on base. But the mentoring began to work, and Iraqi officers were often seen leading the way in combat, and taking casualties right along with their soldiers, which served to build respect for the officer corps, and today we are seeing the fruits of those efforts in Iraq. After nearly seven years at war in Afghanistan, this Afghan lieutenant made it sound like we are at square one, though the Brits said the normal ANA soldiers will fight.
In Iraq, “Green Zone” is synonymous with “safety,” despite the fact that Baghdad’s Green Zone (renamed to the International Zone) was never safe. But here in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, “Green Zone” means danger. The Green Zone is the place around the rivers and irrigated areas where crops and Taliban grow. FOB Gibraltar is surrounded by Green Zone, while the ANA compound was on the edge of a desert that swallows armies who are never seen again.
The Afghan soldiers were supposed to get up around 0400 on 1 September 2008 to prepare for morning worship and Ramadan, but in fact they were rummaging around all night, while I tried to sleep on the ground in the dust, using a rock-hard sandbag as a pillow. All night the ANA guys were coming and going, talking in Dari and Pashto and other languages. I could not tell the languages apart, and was told that many of the Afghan soldiers could not communicate with one other, but that they worked well together.
And so I lay in the dust, gazing up at thousands of stars. The Milky Way glowing so bright that it looked like a hand could reach up and scoop heavens from the sky. Occasionally there were the sounds of unseen jets and airplanes. A single aircraft with its lights flashing was likely an unmanned Predator or Reaper. The Taliban were out there, probably singing lonely songs, as they were known to do.
This war is just beginning. Great war is in the air. The feeling is as conspicuous and distinct as the smell of rain, or that morning every year when the first chill of winter tickles the senses. The corn will soon be harvested. The fields will become brown and fallow. The snows will come and blow across barren lands, and next Spring the war will be worse than ever before. It will grow higher than the corn.
Still under the Milky Way, at the tiny and remote ANA compound, some of the British soldiers seemed to be sleeping. Everyone wore boots in case of attack. Occasionally a 2 Para soldier would emerge from the darkness for a guard shift. The ambush they had prepared for the Taliban lay quiet. The dogs had stopped barking hours ago.
Slowly the stars crept through the sky. Hours melted by and constellations seemed to drift through space as the Earth turned below.
Afghanistan is a time machine. Primitive men fight with modern weapons, radios and telephones. The Taliban’s eagerness to embrace ignorance will doom them eventually, but how many of us will they kill first? They are a relic of the beasts in our nature.
Some of the stars above must already be dead, but their light has not finished arriving to this place. The stars were far and visible, while the enemy was close and hidden. Our soldiers kill them constantly, but they keep coming. The Taliban I have seen so far are stupid compared to the enemies we faced in Iraq. The Taliban in this area are easy to kill, but there are so many of them. For safety they can always cross an imaginary line into a disintegrating land called Pakistan.
Only the heavens had taken me through Iraq alive and as witness. Afghanistan likely will be far worse. It’s in the air. It’s coming. How will this war end? I kept thinking, How will this war end? Some countries such as France are clamoring to leave already. The Brits have the wherewithal. The Americans are well-fibered. But tonight these British soldiers sleep in the dirt under the stars with their boots on. When they go home, I’ll still be here as witness. And when their replacements go home, I’ll still be here. When the replacements of the replacements go home, if the heavens consent, I’ll still be here as witness. And so will the Taliban.
The path will be long, painful and lonely. There will be no signs or markers to guide the weary. There will be no villagers to ask the way, for they will not know the way. There will be no fleet messengers bearing scrolls or maps or epistles to warn of dangers ahead. This distance is uncharted and untraveled. The sails in these desert seas billow only with mystery, and the only charts derive from the senses of experienced sailors.
The coming storm will need a witness. No less than five shooting stars cut silently through the night sky. On each shooting star, I made a wish that I know would not come true.
To read Part II of this series click here.