Michael's Dispatches

Precision Voting

31 August 2009
Helmand Province, Afghanistan

The historical Afghan elections scheduled for 20 August were days away.   While the west mostly continued to vote for Afghanistan, the big question was, “Will Afghanistan vote for itself?”

The latest media wave splashed into the main voting centers in places like Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad, Herat and Lashkar Gah.  The larger cities only account for perhaps 20% of the Afghan population.  Whereas the easy and obvious stories are in the cities, a crucial and larger dimension—the other 80%—would unfold in the boonies.  Most Afghans would have no chance to vote.

The election was to be run by Afghans.  In theory and in practice this would be a recipe for disaster.  The strategic thinkers cannot be faulted for this; after nearly eight years of war, if the west were still running the elections, the elections and government would be a failure to begin with.  By comparison, the Iraqi elections on 30 January 2005 (less than two years after invasion) were run mostly by Iraqis.  In the voting of October and December of that same year, Iraqis had two more runs at the ballots, which were increasingly successful.  Afghanistan, however, is different.  This would be only the second election in history.

There are no good choices here.  Either we run the elections and the central government and in doing so undermine the same central government we are investing in, or we allow that central government to run the elections and probably watch it undermine itself.  But who knows?

We need more troops.  The leadership tells us that the Taliban and associated groups control only small parts of the country.  Yet enemy influence is growing, and so far, despite that we have made progress on some fronts, our own influence is diminishing.  For example, an excellent British infantry unit that I embedded with in Iraq and now Afghanistan, the “2 Rifles,” is staked out in the “Green Zone” around the Helmand River.  HQ for 2 Rifles is at FOB Jackson near the center of the map above.  There are several satellite FOBs and Patrol Bases, each of which is essentially cut off from the outside world other than by helicopter or major ground resupply efforts (which only take place about once a month).  The latest ground resupply effort from Camp Bastion resulted in much fighting.  The troops up at Kajaki Dam are surrounded by the enemy, which has dug itself into actual “FLETs.”  FLET is military-speak for “Forward Line of Enemy Troops.”  In other words, the enemy is not hiding, but they are in trenches, bunkers and fighting positions that extend into depth.  The enemy owns the terrain.

The British are protecting Kajaki Dam but otherwise it’s just a big fight and no progress is being made.  The turbine delivery to the dam, which I wrote about last year, was a tremendous success.  Efforts to get the turbine online have been an equally tremendous failure.  Bottom line: the project to restore the electrical capacity from Kajaki Dam is failing and likely will require multi-national intervention to bring it online and to push back the enemy.

We need more helicopters.  Enemy control of the terrain is so complete in the area between Sangin and Kajaki that when my embed was to switch from FOB Jackson to FOB Inkerman—only seven kilometers (about four miles) away—we could not walk or drive from Jackson to Inkerman.  Routes are deemed too dangerous.  Helicopter lift was required.  The helicopter shortage is causing crippling delays in troop movements.  It’s common to see a soldier waiting ten days for a simple flight.  When my embed was to move the four miles from Jackson to Inkerman, a scheduled helicopter picked me up at Jackson and flew probably eighty miles to places like Lashkar Gah, and finally set down at Camp Bastion.  The helicopter journey from Jackson began on 12 August and ended at Inkerman on the 17th.  About five days was spent—along with many thousands of dollars in helicopter time—to travel four miles.  Even Generals can have difficulty scheduling flights.  Interestingly, when I talk with the folks who reserve helicopter space, they say the Generals are generally easy-going about the lack of a seat, but that Colonels often become irate.

A helicopter finally was heading from Camp Bastion to FOB Inkerman, which is cut off from its own headquarters at FOB Jackson only four miles away.  The war and fighting can vary dramatically around Afghanistan.  In Sangin, the enemy uses mostly fertilizer bombs, which, along with normal leave schedules, has rapidly attrited the battalion to the point that replacements have been sent.  Conversely, four miles away at Inkerman, it’s still mostly a gunfight, though the use of bombs is increasing.  Inkerman sits on the desert side of “highway” 611 that goes from Highway 1 (the “Ring Road”) to Kajaki.  The 611 marks the border between the deadly Green Zone and the desert.  The road is almost completely controlled by the enemy.  Only tiny patches of the 611 are under serious NATO/ISAF influence.  Some will take issue with this statement; if they claim to be in control, they should readily accept the challenge to drive in an unarmored car in those areas they claim to control.

To help avoid being shot down, the helicopter approaches Inkerman from the desert side.  (In fact, two days later on the 19th, a similar helicopter was shot down near here.)  The Afghan road system is the human equivalent of ant trails.  After thousands of years of living here, the Afghans have not cracked the code on road building.  Many people will say that geography has been cruel to the Afghans, and that the mountainous, landlocked terrain is the problem.  Yet this does not explain away the success of landlocked, mountainous countries such as Austria and Switzerland, nor does access to the sea guarantee anything more than saltwater.  The meek have inherited this plot of earth because the strong don’t want it enough to take it.

Where liquid water can be found, so too can Afghans.

Some people point back to the “good-old days” in Afghanistan, when hippies could smoke hash and swim naked in the streams.  The good old days in Afghanistan did not leave much evidence of progress in the form of roads, architecture or written history.

The stories of foreign invaders do not explain away the great walls built around nearly every home and every mind.  The problem is not the terrain.  The problem is not that Americans and others supported the Mujahadin when they fought the Soviets.  The problem is not the artificial boundaries penciled in by the British all over Asia and the Middle East.  The people are backwards and many want it that way.  You can fly over a compound in the desert, miles from the next compound, and still it will have walls.  Afghanistan is the land of a million Alamos.

As the pilot brought the helicopter to the yellow pin called FOB Inkerman, an Afghan man had parked his car just near the front of the base on the 611.  He took out a shovel and began digging, hidden by his car, he thought, at a spot where a bomb had recently detonated.  A British soldier fired a warning shot and the man drove away.  An Apache helicopter eventually attacked the car out in the desert.  There he was, just within direct view of Inkerman, digging in a bomb.  This is typical of the larger situation.

Helicopter landing site at FOB Inkerman.

Two platoons are stationed at Inkerman; meaning only one platoon at a time can leave the base.  Using one platoon to cover this area is like trying to water a football pitch with a drop of water.  The enemy fights just outside the base, even planting IEDs in view of the guard towers.  On my first morning at Inkerman, one of the platoons was outside the wire in the corn.  They came across tripwires and other booby traps.  The enemy was so close that soldiers could hear the enemies’ own radios crackling nearby in the corn.  A firefight ensued.  Machine guns and mortars were fired.  The white smoke is a screen launched by the mortars to help the infantry platoon break contact.  There are too few troops to fix the enemy and prosecute attacks.

Cleaning the mortar tubes after the fire mission.

Restacking unfired mortar bombs.

The platoon comes back to base.  Amazingly, despite the dire situation, British morale is high.  My respect for the men and women here only grows by the day.

The soldiers keep streaming in from the mission.  The Pentagon and British MoD spin lies (though I have found Secretary Gates talks straight), but veins of pure truth can be found right here with these soldiers.  The Pentagon and MoD as a whole cannot be trusted because they are the average of their parts.  There are individual officers and NCOs among the U.S. and U.K. who have always been blunt and honest with me.  Among the higher ranking, Petraeus and Mellinger come to mind, but for day-to-day realities this is where it’s at.  Out here.  Nothing coming from Kabul, London, or Washington should be trusted.

A recent controversy was stirred in the U.K. by my photos of British soldiers in the GZ (Green Zone) wearing brown uniforms.  There is some truth to the controversy, but in fairness to the British MoD, only part of the battles take place in the GZ.  Much of the fighting takes place in the deserts.  Even individual missions often alternate between the Green Zone and the Brown Zone, and so neither green nor brown is perfect.  The British SAS and American special operations forces are using camouflage that is more suitable for both environments.  It would cost very little to outfit these soldiers in better camouflage.

These men and women will never get the credit they deserve.

The women are medics, and they brave the combat just like the infantry soldiers.  But again, they will never get the credit they deserve, and so we joked that they should just let people think they spent the entire tour at Camp Bastion.  Who would believe that they were out there in the thick of it?  On this day, an Afghan man showed one of these medics a rash on his arms, but the medic carried no such medicines out into the fighting.  When medic Evans said she had no medicine, a young man picked up a big stone and was preparing to hit her.  Rhian instantly pointed the rifle at the man who put down the rock.

Still streaming in.

Another day in the war.

Finally they are all in the gate and nobody is shot or blown up this time, and I say a quiet thank you for bringing them back in one piece.

After each mission soldiers drop gear and go immediately into a debriefing to discuss what has occurred.  They discuss things that were done well, things that were done not so well, and there is discussion about how to improve before the next fight.  They talk about the performance of the enemy and any good moves or bad tactics used by the enemy.  They talk about any gear that may have failed or performed well.

The soldiers knew they were doing well and I knew it because they invited me on more missions than I could possibly go on while still being able to write.

Some things could have been done better—always the case even among the most experienced soldiers—so the soldiers talked it through, and after it was over they headed back to re-issue new ammo, clean weapons, recharge batteries for various gear, and prep for combat on a moment’s notice.

About three hours after the firefight, an Afghan man was brought to FOB Inkerman with the note above.  The note was signed with the name Dr. Haji A. Baqi, who the British said is a doctor for the Taliban.  (Not necessarily a “Taliban doctor,” but someone who definitely treats Taliban.)  The Brits said that Dr. Baqi gets medical supplies from the ICRC.  The referral says the patient was “SHOUTED BY GUN,” and judging by the small bullet hole it might well have been a British gun.

Normally, a correspondent would not be permitted to publish photos of a captured enemy (while embedded with British or U.S. forces), but this guy was not captured and he was not being detained.  He was not officially deemed the “enemy,” despite that his hands were soft and he likely was hit during that firefight.

The medical team: Nikole Cunningham, Rhian Evans, Jonathan Richards, Daniel Yeoman, all led by Dr. Gabriel Shaya, going to work on the suspected Taliban.  His only real problem seems to be the bullet hole (entry and exit) in the abdomen.  Luckily for him, he seems to have been hit by the same bullets used in American and British assault rifles (5.56mm), which lack the power to make the definitive hits caused by more powerful weapons.   The man was alert throughout.

Dr. Shaya tries to find a vein, but ends up drilling into the guy’s right tibia to deliver fluids.  This is Dr. Shaya’s first combat deployment.  On August 2nd the monthly convoy was moving up from Camp Bastion to resupply bases that no longer see fresh apples, fresh milk, or fresh anything.  The convoy had been harassed along the way and the enemy already knows the expected convoy routine, so they were busy with ambushes.  When the convoy passed by FOB Inkerman, Captain Shaya was on QRF (Quick Reaction Force) duty.  A nearby IED strike caused a casualty just near the base.  Captain Shaya loaded up with only two other soldiers into the Pinzgauer vehicle.  Darkness was falling when the total of three soldiers launched out of Inkerman and Dr. Shaya thought it was exciting to be on his first mission, but he also knew the dangers, having worked for three weeks at the Camp Bastion trauma center.  Shaya was sitting in the back and realized that if the Pinzgauer got hit with an IED, he might break his neck on the partial ceiling, so he shifted to sit under the open space.  He began to ready his gear to accept the casualty, when about five minutes into his first mission, BOOM!, the front of the vehicle apparently hit a pressure plate.

The explosion did not seem loud to Dr. Shaya.  Dust and smoke filled the darkening air as the vehicle came to a stop, and part of the truck fell onto Shaya.  His arms and legs were still attached but due to a partition he could not see either man in the front.  He shouted to them and they both responded and both were wounded.  The easiest, quickest way to the front was to crawl out the back and open the driver and passenger doors, but there might be IEDs because the enemy often plants bombs in clusters.  Dr. Shaya did not want to walk on the road until it had been cleared.  They were alone in the dark.  He didn’t even want to turn on his red flashlight.  He could climb over the top but did not want to be an obvious target, so he shouted to the front for them to use the radio to call for help.  The truck had no radio.

Dr. Shaya climbed over top to the front, but didn’t want to turn on his light.  Soon he saw a dim light approaching from down the road and he felt anxious.  As the light grew closer and closer the anxiety increased, and it came closer still until he saw it was the company Sergeant Major and some soldiers.  The anxiety evaporated into profound relief.  The soldiers opened the doors and Dr. Shaya saw that the driver’s lower right leg was gone, while the dashboard had crushed in on the passenger who was in great pain.  The driver was trapped by the steering wheel, and while soldiers tried to pull him out, Dr. Shaya, now between the driver and the passenger, tried to lift up the steering wheel and finally they got him out to a stretcher where Dr. Shaya had to screw into his tibia to administer fluids.  Dr. Shaya thought the driver was losing his will, and so he gave a pep talk and tried to keep him in the fight.  The other patient was screaming as he was pulled from the vehicle.  He was a large man and difficult to move, and continued to scream with pain as he was put onto a stretcher and the IV was inserted.  Three morphine doses later he was still in great pain due to a severely fractured femur, and as they drove in another vehicle back to base he screamed on the bumpy road.  Dr. Shaya was painfully honest with his recounting, saying that during the stress of his first combat, he had forgotten his weapon and medical bag on the damaged vehicle.  He was upset with himself that he could not administer more because of that oversight.  “The journey back seemed to take an eternity,” he said.  The British MERT helicopter was circling in the darkness overhead and when it landed at Inkerman, he ran off, helping with the stretcher, when he should have been preserving his strength for other casualties.

Dr. Shaya told me that when he returned to the medical tent, “When I got back, I was shattered (exhausted) and shaken.”  He began to pack another medical kit in case he had to crash out the gate on his second mission, yet now soldiers were arriving for treatment after the initial blast that wounded the first soldier, and only when all of that was done could Dr. Shaya relax, and begin to feel the pain from his own throbbing, bleeding elbow.

Combat is the cruelest teacher.  Dr. Shaya, who makes no pretense of being a combat soldier, had been five minutes into his first mission when suddenly he was alone in the dark with two seriously wounded men.

Dr. Shaya treating the suspected Taliban.  Maybe this was the guy who blew up the vehicle.

Soldiers examine the referral note, signed with the name Dr. Haji A. Baqi, wherein the suspected doctor of the Taliban describes symptoms.

Backside of the referral note.

Call sign 'Pedro': One of the great untold stories of this war.

The 129th ERQS (Emergency Rescue Squadron), flying a pair of HH-60G Pavehawks, launched from Camp Bastion to retrieve the suspected Taliban who was deemed a “Cat A” casualty.  Category A means the patient requires immediate evacuation.  Total flight distance (given the route) from Bastion to Inkerman back to Bastion would be about 100 miles.

Among the British combat soldiers in Afghanistan, Pedro is the only thing more popular than mail.  When friendly forces are in need, Pedro will come anywhere, anytime, during any weather, and their helicopters have gotten the bulletholes to prove it.  The United States Air Force runs the only rescue service that will always be there, no matter what, no matter that there is no moon for flying, or the dust is too heavy for everyone else, or you are in a firefight.  American Army helicopters in Afghanistan fly with the red cross on the side.  Flying with that symbol makes it illegal for our people to carry weapons.  The decision seems ridiculous; the enemy will only use the red cross for an aim point.  While the Army flies armed with a red cross, Pedro flies with miniguns.  And they bring some of the most highly qualified medics in the entire U.S. military–which is saying a lot.  They bring miniguns, and powersaws to cut soldiers out of MRAPs or other twisted hulks, and scuba gear when troops and gear are lost to the water.  If our people can manage to get there, Pedro can manage to get them out.  Pedro rescues people every single day.

The lead aircraft, Pedro 35, brings two pilots, a gunner, a rescue officer, a flight engineer, and two PJs (elite “rescue specialists”; these men are a story unto themselves).

When Pedro 35 landed at FOB Inkerman, the two PJs along with the rescue officer, Captain Dave Depiazza received the patient while British soldiers brought the suspected Taliban toward Pedro.  The PJs like to meet the ground troops outside to make sure the patient is properly categorized, assessed, and loaded.  One challenge with some ground troops is that they will rush the helicopter during a “brownout” and start to load the patient feet first (or headfirst), when the PJs might need the patient the other way; the PJs want the head near the lifesaving airway equipment, and since helicopters vary in configuration, the PJs need to take control early to save seconds.  They want to spend no more than 30 seconds on a hot landing zone; the aircraft do take hits but they have been lucky so far.  (A Pedro from Kandahar Airfield was shot down in July.  Luckily all survived and kept doing missions, but the helicopter was ultimately destroyed during a recovery mission that went awry.)


Sometimes Pedro 36 comes in first, but this time Pedro 36 flies top cover while Pedro 35 loads the patient.

Pedro 36 racetracks low watching for ground threats.  The door gunners can—and often do—return lethal fire in a couple seconds.

Pedro 36 roars low and then both disappear and head back to Camp Bastion.  When the Pedro 35 landed near the Bastion trauma hospital, Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman happened to be visiting the hospital as the PJs helped unload the suspected Taliban.  (Just the day before, when I had spent some hours with the Pedros before heading back out with British infantry, one of these same PJs said he would clean the operations center for a week if he could meet McCain.  I said to him, “Fat chance you’ll get to meet with McCain,” and so imagine the PJ’s surprise when he carried the suspected Taliban into the hospital and accidentally ran into Senators McCain and Lieberman, and shook their hands.)

The war is a busy place and far too much happens out there than can possibly be explained.  Llater that night, a platoon launched on a mission to raid several compounds.  I was invited on the mission on 18 August but did not go due to the usual writing-crunch and impending elections, and so during breaks I sat in the ops center and listened to the radio calls.  The raids unfolded, and after half a night the soldiers brought back six suspects, one of whom had run from the soldiers and urinated on his hands to remove explosives residue.  The terrain had been rough and the night was dark and so two soldiers busted their ankles.

Major Ian Moodie, commander of B Coy 2 Rifles, guaranteed me that in the morning there would be a gaggle of locals, including elders, who would arrive to demand release of the prisoners.  Major Moodie said this problem is exacerbated by the helicopter shortage; if he could get the prisoners extracted as soon as they were captured, he would be able to say that the prisoners had already been moved and there was nothing he could do, but already in the past he had decided to release prisoners to cool tensions.

Later in the day of 19 August, locals arrived to demand release of the six.  All were released except for one, who was finally picked up by a helicopter on the evening of the 19th, the day before the latest historical Afghan elections wherein Abdullah Abdullah and Hamid Karzai had reached the showdown to decide who would become the President of one of the most primitive countries on Earth, but one that probably gets more international press and attention than Japan and Germany combined.

As the helicopter lifted off with the prisoner, the JTAC who talked the helicopter in said to me that “Axle” Foley, another JTAC four miles away in Sangin, was about to call in a bomb from a B1.  The fighting had begun and it was not even election day.  Taliban in the area were threatening people to stay in their compounds and not vote.

On the afternoon of the 19th, before our election-day mission on the 20th, “Snowy” meticulously cleaned every speck of dust off his weapon.  He disassembled the magazines, cleaned the springs, and individually cleaned each bullet.

Snowy then counted every last bullet—twice—and I joked that if his weapon failed the next day, cleaning would not be the issue.  The weapon was ready, it seemed.... Meanwhile, my BGAN satellite communications gear was malfunctioning on the evening before the election.  Hours would be wasted before it was ascertained the satellite gear was officially broken.  Murphy’s Law was in effect for all guns and gadgets.  I’ve come to a remote base and can report what others are not seeing, and the crucial link was broken at the crucial moment.

At about 2245 a rocket banged and zoomed overhead but missed the base and exploded seconds later somewhere out in the darkness.  Orange illumination rounds drifted down nearby and in the far distance, some casting long, flickering shadows.  Radio chatter at the ops room said that an SAS (British special forces) helicopter had been shot down north of us and one troop was wounded, and that the enemy was moving toward the crash site which was still occupied by British soldiers.  I headed to bed because the mission on election day was likely to include serious fighting.  The alarm was set for 0330, but by midnight there had not been time to get a wink.  Just after midnight, having seen no less than 10 meteors streak through the darkness above, sleep came.  The alarm sounded and I pulled out of the cot, already dressed for the mission, and pulled on the boots in the dark.  Sometime around 0400, there was a distant thud as the helicopter that had been shot down was destroyed.  (An officer later said that two bombs were used, but I heard only one.)

By 0436, the soldiers were ready to launch on the mission and there was time for a few images on this historic day in the middle of nowhere.

The soldiers had erected a memorial for lost comrades.

Metal detectors and other gear were tested.

It was time.

The mission began.

Suspected bombs were marked along the way.  Dozens of them.  The metal could be anything from an old bullet to a nail.  For years, the enemy has seen us with the metal detectors and so are making bombs with LMC (low metal content).

The soldiers on point with the metal detectors have an incredibly dangerous job.  They must watch for all sorts of ambushes, high and low.  The enemy uses command wires, pressure pads, trip wires and radio-controlled devices.  Some people say the enemy bombs are cowardly, as if we are in a gentlemen’s duel.  Others might say IEDs are no more cowardly than our using B-1Bs and A-10s.

Election day begins.

Our mission was to move to an over-watch position to prevent Taliban from harassing voters on their way to Sangin.  Most people in Afghanistan would not have a chance to vote even if there were no Taliban.  British officers told me that between here and Kajaki, for instance, there were no polling stations.

Fatal funnel: the enemy often plants bombs in walls, or simply throws grenades over top.

Often after ground has been “cleared,” soldiers far down the line get blown to pieces.

Open areas make us less predictable for IED strikes, but now we are extremely vulnerable to machine-gun, RPG fire and other weapons such as B10 rockets.  Luckily they are terrible shots with mortars.

If we get ambushed, the only cover is accurate return fire, but the enemy of course tries to hide their firing positions.

Nobody from either side was dead yet.  Not here, anyway.

We reached our objective; an occupied compound that British forces had used three times before and this boy was waiting.  Afghans often stand with an arm behind their back, or they walk up and down steep mountains in the same fashion.

Nearby compound with a possible IED at the corner.

Several sections occupy different compounds giving us better arcs for mutual fire support.

The opium had already been harvested and the poppy bulbs were hard and dry.  How many bulbs does it take to buy one bullet?  The drug dealers are getting rich, and so a strong central government is a natural enemy.

As we occupy his home, this Afghan boy plays like he is killing us with a rifle and then wants to see his photo.

The man of the house says he is worried that on our fourth stay, the Taliban will think he is collaborating and will kill him.  Asked if he will vote, he says no, and that nobody in this area will vote because the Taliban will kill them.

Climbing around these compounds takes its toll.  One can only imagine how many bones are broken.  Often, the entrances of the compounds are laced with explosives, so the soldiers blow a “mouse hole” through a wall, or use ladders to scale, and so the enemy now places booby traps atop walls.  Again, some people will say it is a “security violation” to say that the enemy places bombs atop walls, as if the enemy doesn’t know that the enemy has placed bombs atop the walls.  People will say it’s a security violation to say that we use ladders to climb walls, when every day countless thousands of Afghans see us with ladders.  We’ve been fighting this war for nearly eight years.  The enemy knows we listen to radios, cell phones, and just about anything else we do.  It’s the people at home who do not know.  The enemy has learned our tactics and psychology.

Joseph Etchells had been killed nearby almost exactly a month ago, on 19 July.  “The Kopp-Etchells Effect” dispatch was written partially in Joe’s memory.  Several times, the events of Joseph’s loss were recounted to me, in clear hopes that important details would be told.  I said not to worry, it will be told.  The missing details were that soldiers had complained about not having enough ladders to scale walls to avoid dangerous compound entrances.  During a mission the soldiers needed to get over a wall but were without a ladder, and so Joseph Etchells volunteered to go through the entrance, where he stepped on a pressure plate.

The compound we occupied on election day was littered, partially with batteries.  Soldiers do not throw away old batteries, but collect them in boxes because the enemy digs through trash to collect batteries to make bombs, but just as often something like this is benign.

Afghans in this area typically live with their animals.

Many believe that the Pashtun people are one of the lost tribes of Israel.  If true, some Taliban might actually be descended from Jews, which would be one of the most severe ironies of humanity.  Some branches go off and earn Nobel Prizes and unravel the secrets of the universe while advancing humanity by leaps and bounds, while another turns malignant and doesn’t know how to build a road.

The FST (Fire Support Team) goes into position over-watching a road leading to Sangin.  The mission is to prevent any roving bands of Taliban from interrupting voters traveling to Sangin.

The family keeps two myna birds whose wings have been clipped, and the Hazra interpreter tells me the birds can talk.  I tell him that birds of similar appearance, also called myna, are sold in America.  “What if the bird says, ‘I love Mullah Omar.’” I asked the interpreter.  “Then we must shoot it!” he answered.

The heat increases and the soldiers wait.

The first customers arrive.  Maybe they are a probe.

The men are searched.  If others were planning to come down the road on this day, none do.

A radio call said there was an IED strike nearby, in the area of Patrol Base Wishtan, which would be on or in the area of Pharmacy Road (the subject of the latest dispatch “Bad Medicine.”)

Later we learned that two soldiers were killed at Wishtan: Sergeant Paul McAleese, 29, and Private Jonathan Young, who was 18.

According to the BBC:

They were killed while on a routine foot patrol near the town of Sangin, in Helmand province, on Thursday. Their families have been informed.

Their deaths bring the total number in Afghanistan since 2001 to 206.

Lt Col Nick Richardson, spokesman for Task Force Helmand, said: "It is with deep regret that we report the deaths of two soldiers in Helmand Province.

"Our deepest heartfelt thoughts and sympathies go out to the bereaved family, friends and comrades of these brave soldiers."

The MoD said the deaths were not connected to Thursday's presidential elections in Afghanistan.

Every mission here on the 20th was connected to the elections.  The idea that the losses were not connected to the elections seems off, not that it would make a difference to the fallen.  Yet the slights and spins, often for no apparent reason (even if not the case here), undermines the messengers.

There would be much fighting around Afghanistan this day.

Men were watching us and roving around at a distance of about 900 meters.  Sniper Keiran Jones is told to fire a warning shot.

Fighting was kicking up in the distance, and FOB Inkerman was starting to get attacked.  Out in Sangin the fighting would last all day.

Rifleman Keiran Jones keeps his eye on the target while rolling the foam earplugs.  The man watching us is wearing a white dishdasha and a white turban.

BAM!  Keiran Jones launches a bullet from the .338 rifle, which cracks just a few feet away from the “dicker.” (Watcher.)

Another FST member has already recorded coordinates for targets and is ready to start a fire mission using mortars or the 105mm howitzers.

Rifleman Keiran on the scope.  The snipers would fire about half a dozen times this day, and not all were warning shots.


BAM.  Dust fills the air and reflects off the morning sun.



BAM.  More dust.

The snipers are cleared to kill a man, the same one who has been watching us, as he peeks his turbaned head around a corner about 900m away.  The shot is difficult because Keiran is in a tough and painful position to shoot from.  I joke that they need to do “sniper yoga” and Jones replies with a chuckle, “No shit.  It’s a stress position.”  Both snipers stayed in positions that were agonizing for their legs and backs.  There were no good places to get a relaxed shot.

Keiran Jones aimed for the man’s head and BAM!  The supersonic bullet that could kill an elephant raced toward the target.

Keiran was very upset, thinking he may have missed, though others thought he might have hit the man.  The shot would have been an easy shot if Kerian were prone, but the muscle stress in the growing heat was adding up.

The snipers stayed for hours up in that sun, sometimes taking alternating breaks, but they were in competition to get the enemy.

Like dueling banjos.

I sat in between them for about 20-30 minutes and all three of us were aching from the positions, though my position was far easier and shaded by one of the snipers.

They stayed at it.

Jones, drenched in sweat, takes a micro-break.

Fighting continued in the distance over in Sangin.  We saw bombs drop and the mortars and howitzers were firing dozens and dozens of rounds, while the Apaches were hammering away with their cannons, and launching about 30 rockets through the day.

The compound and our soon-to-be ambush spot.

CPT Ed Addington keeps an eye out.  We could hear firefights but other than the snipers peeling off some shots, we were not in contact.

We were not trying to hide.  The Brits wanted everyone to know we were there.

A jet drops a bomb in the Green Zone.

Down inside the compound, soldiers began to try to compress themselves into any sliver of shade but the shade kept shrinking.  Though we had occupied the compound, soldiers respected the house by staying outside.

The dog looked thirsty but when I tried to give him water, he launched out like the Killer Rabbit on Monthy Python.  If not for the rope around his neck, there might have been a death match.  The dog seemed completely insane, as if he had been attending al Qaeda seminars.  The soldiers couldn’t believe that five minutes later, little Cujo was still viciously growling.  I slid the water close enough but by several hours later he still never took a sip.

Medic Nikole Cunningham goes into firefights in the middle of bomb-laced country.  Nikole said her family thinks she never goes on missions.

The family was long gone, but two boys came back and fed their grandfather (apparently) who was very old and stayed with us.

The plan was to stay all day, but we were told that by late afternoon, only 245 ballots were cast.  And so it was decided that we should head back before dark, which would make it easier for us to avoid IEDs, but more difficult to avoid ambushes from machine guns and RPGs.  No matter what you do. . . .

Everybody expected an ambush.  The enemy had had most of the day to cook up something.

Off we went, down the middle, taking chances with the machine guns, RPGs and other rockets, but avoiding the more likely IEDs for the first leg.

The Taliban is in complete and uncontested control of the nearby power station.  We don’t even have enough soldiers to take and hold the power station, and so the enemy controls the on/off switch, and they charge locals for power.  While we generate electricity up at Kajaki, the Taliban makes money off it.  It’s no wonder why the Taliban laugh at the idea of negotiating.

The thought went through my head, “If I were the enemy, I would ambush us right. . . . ”  ZIP, SNAP, CRACK, CRACK, CRACK!

Their machine-gun fire was accurate and we all dove to the ground.

ZIPT!  SNAP SNAP! Some bullets hit between this soldier and me.

There’s Snowy, who had cleaned his weapon with surgical care.  He had wiped down every bullet and every millimeter of the magazines.  His weapon was working just fine.  For now.

Sapper Cameron Baldry starts to get up, and I think, “Why is he getting up?” Bullets were snapping by.

The soldiers often complain that when they hit the dirt, some of the bulky radio frequency gear they carry gets in the way of their helmets.  When soldiers are down in the dirt they cannot aim their weapons because their faces are stuck in the ground.  So Baldry rolled into a sitting position to return fire.

Meanwhile behind me, Snowy’s weapon began to malfunction.

I was making video when a soldier fired a Javelin missile which impacted close to the nearest compound.

This is where untrained fighters usually crack and run away in a jumble.  British soldiers, however, are well-trained.  While some provided covering fire, others peeled off in an organized fashion.

At this point another Javelin was launched and can barely be seen in this photo.

Impact: I’d never seen a Javelin explode like that.  Usually they are like gigantic hand grenades, but this one looked like a bomb from a jet.

What in the world did he hit?

A fireball gathered and left a mushroom cloud.

None of us knew what had been hit, but of course there was speculation that the Javelin had found ammunition or bomb-making material.  Maybe a tractor, I thought.

We went to a nearby compound that was empty and I stayed low near the front thinking this was the real ambush and that a cluster of bombs was about to kill half of us.

A soldier dropped his pants to see where he had been hit.  Apparently a bullet had sent a rock into his thigh.  The fire truly was accurate.  We truly were lucky that several of us did not get hit.  Meanwhile, other soldiers were checking ammo levels and doing redistribution as needed.  After every firefight, the Brits (and Americans) check for wounds, redistribute ammo, and check critical gear.  Two or three British soldiers asked if I was okay.  Meanwhile, leaders would consult maps, develop SA and figure out what they wanted to do next.  It cannot be stressed enough to check your buddies for wounds.  Soldiers have often died because in the adrenaline rush and cascade of survival juices, or sometimes simply because they are still fighting, troops don’t realize they are badly wounded, and so they bleed out and die.

Being just a writer, it’s not my domain to intrude, but after every drama I closely watch their uniforms and hands for blood.  All the soldiers are well trained, but some are still just teenagers and so you start to feel responsible for the younger ones, especially.

'Did you see those bullets hitting between us!?'

Sapper Cameron Baldry, a twenty-three-year-old soldier from 2 Troop, 11 Field SQN of the 38 Engineer Regiment, pointed at me exclaiming something like, “Did you see those bullets hitting between us!  They were striking right between us!”  I chuckled, saying yes, it was close, and those guys are good shots but we got lucky.  Baldry’s antenna had been shot off but he didn’t get shot.

We headed back to FOB Inkerman, avoiding many markers for potential IEDs.

Aircraft could still be heard, and there was fighting in the distance.



Fighting continues to our left, but it’s in the far distance.  To our right about a thousand meters away someone is using a signal mirror, probably tracking our movements.

The heat and the weight cause some soldiers to pause, and finally we are back on base and somehow got away with no fatalities or even injuries.

There is no telling how much ammo was fired by 2 Rifles elements in Sangin, Wishtan and elsewhere, but the soldiers from Inkerman fired at least 1,100 rounds of 5.56 (rifle and link), 800x 7.62mm, 3x Javelin, 133x 81mm mortar, 172x 105mm howitzer.  The Apaches fired about 500x 30mm, 28x flechette rockets and a Hellfire.  Someone dropped 2x 500lb bombs and a British Tornado strafed, while American A-10s and Belgian F-16s also joined up.

Too much was going on to keep up, and in fact the base had been hit while we’d been gone, destroying someone’s sleeping space.  Soldiers on base had identified at least one firing point and kept eyes on, and we got back just about the time I saw John Loughday and Simon Wagstaff trying to kill someone with a Javelin as the enemy occupied a firing position with what soldiers identified as a B10 rocket laucher.  The first Javelin failed, and so they grabbed another and launched.  With six seconds of flight time to that target, the single enemy saw the messenger coming his way.  Instead of praying he made a run and I heard the explosion.  The men radioed down from the tower, “Hello Two Zero this is crow’s nest.  Good strike one enemy dead.”

The day kept going but a man can only record so much.  My sat-gear was broken and so there was no way to file a detailed account of the election day, which in this area was a failure.

The next morning, on the 21st, ten men showed up to the FOB to talk about the generator that he said had been hit by the Javelin missle during the ambush yesterday.  The soldiers had previously been to his compound and confirmed that he had a nice generator, which now apparently was the victim of a Javelin missile and had gone out as a fiery mushroom cloud.  As a heat source, it would have stood out as a nice target to lock the Javelin onto.  As a side note, the man said they had gone to Sangin to vote and had voted for Karzai.  Yet we had watched his compound all day and nobody had left it to travel to Sangin.  Furthermore, three days later, I was present when the same platoon occupied a compound of the man wearing blue (above).  On the 24th, he said he had not voted.  We occupied his compound on the 24th because British soldiers thought it was being used by the enemy.  Yet here he is on base on the 21st, part of the party asking for money for the blown-up generator.  On the 24th he said he didn’t know any Taliban and had only been here for a month.  He spontaneously said he knows that Barack Obama is the President of the United States, but when asked, did not know who Michael Jackson was.  On the 21st he was on base, while on the 24th I sat with him for about an hour while we waited for the enemy to square off for a fight.  (And there came another firefight.)

On the 21st, the elder said the generator cost about 70,000 Afghanis, or about $1,400, but the most that could be paid from this base was $300.  The inanity of it all is difficult to fathom in one sitting.  We were taking machine-gun fire, apparently from his compound or that area, but he had no information about the Taliban.  Probably because he is Taliban.  We blew up his generator and now he wanted to get paid.

Later the evening of the 21st, soldiers held a ceremony for recently lost comrades and the next day they were right back out there in combat.

On the 22nd there was business as usual.  A patrol was out on the road and a man was driving toward them on a motorcycle.  The daylight was fading and a warning shot was fired but the man kept coming so a soldier went lethal and shot to kill, grazing the man’s arm.   The man didn’t realize at first that he had been shot, or where it had come from.

Dr. Shaya and crew treat another gunshot wound on FOB Inkerman.

As with young American soldiers, nobody seems to believe that a man cannot hear a warning shot while he’s riding his motorcyle, or that he can’t see soldiers wearing camouflage during the last rays of daylight.  Despite being in countless firefights wherein we often have great difficulty identifying firing positions (such as two days earlier when machine guns were nearly hitting us), many young soldiers think that firing a warning shot is enough.  We all know that snipers who are in hiding fire only one shot to avoid conveying their firing position.  Warning shots mean nothing to an old man who needs glasses, who is riding a motorcyle at twilight in an area where gunshots are more common than frogs.  So a small piece of flesh was stripped from his arm and the man got off light.

The world kept turning and on the 24th “Bad Medicine” was published just after midnight Eastern Standard Time, and that morning before sunrise the soldiers were going on a dangerous mission and I went along.  The result was a firefight and much mortar and cannon fire using prox fuses, delay and airbursts into the enemy position.  Though we had information that the enemy was trying to get us with IEDs, we escaped getting blown to pieces.  When I got back to base, there was a message from British MoD that my embed had been canceled (about one month before we had agreed it would end) without warning.  The message and timing were clear enough.  “Bad Medicine” was published, and I was out.  The soldiers at 2 Rifles were astonished.  The MoD gave the reason that it was unfair to the journalists who were clamoring for spots, but my sense was that MoD had created a convenient excuse that was kept in the chamber, and now they had pulled the trigger.

I responded to the MoD:

Thank you for the message.

The precipitous decision by the MoD to cancel my embed after today's dispatch is unfortunate.

The sudden reversal after today's dispatch -- apparently a publication that did not sit well with the MoD -- will cause me significant headaches.  As you know, there are many balls in the air, and the MoD has effectively shoved me out of the way.

Please forward to Ltc Richardson that the message was received.


And so that was it.  My last day with the British 2 Rifles had ended the same as it had ended in Iraq.  In combat.  I’ll miss the British soldiers.  They constitute a truly professional force–if dangerously underresourced.  It has been my honor to accompany them in combat.  In theory I would do so again anytime, but in practice this will be the last time MoD will have a chance to cut me off in mid-flight, wasting much time and resources that should have been devoted to telling the story.  Barring a guarantee from a British General Officer that something like this will never happen again, my days of covering British operations are over.

On Sunday morning, 30 August, the United States Air Force “Pedros” took me on three missions.  Please stand by.  This is very interesting.


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