Michael's Dispatches

Resurrection

Spraying for bugs on FOB Jackson, Sangin.

03 August 2009
Sangin, Afghanistan

The bugs are not bad in this part of Afghanistan.  The scorched terrain is biologically boring.  Mice and ferret-like creatures dash around in the evenings when sparrows and doves and a few other sorts of birds flutter through the cool air.  But even at sunrise, I cannot make out the songs or see in flight more than ten types of birds, one of which is the rooster.  There are no wading birds, not here anyway: no kingfishers, no cormorants or ducks.  The dominant hue of land and bird is desert brown.  Maybe a bird or two with black feathers, but never one with sharp, primary colors: not even a red wing tip or a white tuft.  There are no ornamental birds with glorious plumage or fancy dance, only drab designs, though the lucky ones have short golden legs.  There is not a single inspiring song among them.

In the dark of night the bats discreetly flutter about, and in most places even the flies and mosquitoes are not too bothersome in July and August.  I’ve not seen a moth bounce off a light, and in fact the few brightly lit bare bulbs draw no crowds.  In the river at night, where I sometimes swim in the dark, a flashlight will draw hundreds of small fish, and on shore there are a few toads, or at least toad-looking creatures.  Seldom does one hear frogs or insects calling out from the grasses or trees.  I’ve seen no butterflies coming to drink during the day, and down here, in fact, in Sangin, I have yet to see a butterfly.  At night there are the jackals, more often heard than seen, yelping and yapping off in the blackness.  Sometimes a housecat can be seen slinking about, neither tame nor feral, but something in between…like the people.

By comparison to Florida, mosquitoes in Sangin during this time are practically nonexistent.  Some Afghans will say this is the worst part of Afghanistan, practically lifeless, and inhabited mostly by brutish, uneducated people whose lives are made somewhat relevant only by their violence and drug dealing.  In fact, it seems that many Afghans care less for the people of Helmand than do the foreigners who come here.

Word came that a British unit from 2 Rifles was in contact with the enemy, and that nine soldiers had been wounded.  Two low-flying A-10s had roared over the base—a sure indicator that soldiers were in trouble.  The snarling aircraft are meant to cause the enemy to think twice before continuing, which buys our folks a little time to defend or counterattack.  Shortly after they swooped in, the A-10s fired their cannons.  During a different firefight last week, one that I could hear from base but was not involved in, an American A-10 swooped in and was cleared hot.  The fire support team soldiers explained to me that the A-10 pilot was lined up and preparing to squeeze the trigger when he saw a child emerge from the enemy position and so the pilot flew by with cold barrels.

It was just in this location a few weeks earlier—a little to the right in the photo above—that the Mi-26 helicopter was shot down about 500 meters from the location of the camera.  Many soldiers from FOB Jackson responded to the crash and there they found the burning bodies and the two killed Afghan children.  “Mr. Flemming,” an Afghan interpreter here, said he thought the helicopter was going to crash on him but got lucky.  Mr. Flemming and the British soldiers said the crash looked like slow motion from a movie, and that the pilot had struggled.  One soldier, a direct witness, told me the crash had occurred about five seconds after being hit, but Mr. Flemming and other British soldiers who also had witnessed the strike, said the pilot had struggled for about ten seconds and that finally the helicopter flipped tail over cockpit and crashed on its nose then onto its back, where it exploded in flames. Still, the tail rotor which had fallen free had sliced into a house unburned.  Each account varied but all agree that it was an RPG strike, and that the charred wreckage, that which was not consumed by flames or carried away by scavengers, is still there.

The enemy has the ground advantage, but Apaches, A-10s and other aircraft are crucial platforms, without which we would be far too outnumbered by man and terrain (mostly terrain) to be effective.  UAVs are incredible tools and we need all we can get.  We won’t complain about the IEDs, and the Taliban should not complain about the Apaches, A-10s and Predators.

I was up on a watch post with a soldier from Ghana while we waited for soldiers who have been fighting to return to base.  The war is serious here; earlier in the day, another soldier from 2 Rifles had been killed upriver at Kajaki.  Though morale in the U.K. seems to be slipping, I see no evidence of low morale among the soldiers, though there are increasing grumbles that they don’t get mail from loved ones due to helicopter shortages.  Helicopters are one of our great advantages against myriad disadvantages, yet our combat forces are shortchanged by penny-wise, pound-foolish governments.  The helicopter shortages are adversely affecting our op tempo.

While the soldier and I talked on the roof, waiting for the wounded to return, something detonated.  He said that none of our guys were in that area, but he radioed information about the explosion and wondered if the ANA or ANP had been hit.  Turns out, it was just another of a countless string of seemingly random explosions for which we never know the cause.  Maybe it was some goofball Taliban accidentally blowing himself up, or maybe a dog hit a tripwire, or maybe a cow stepped on a pressure plate.  A British soldier told me yesterday that they had been in a fight a few days back, and apparently some Taliban made a mistake because something exploded – it wasn’t from us – and the soldiers saw a leg or two flying through the air.  There have only been four suicide bombers in Sangin, according to the soldiers, but the fad is growing.

A couple minutes after the explosion in the photo above, an Apache flew over to take a look but like so many times, it’s just a mushroom with no known cause.  A few days ago, in this area, another RPG was fired at a British helicopter and missed.  The area within these photos contains more IEDs than perhaps anywhere else in Afghanistan.  The British managed to locate one of the worst places in the country and proceeded to build bases all around.

The cloud drifts away and we forget about it.

Curious Afghans came to the roof.  Some people – including Afghans – say that Afghans hate the British, but I don’t see that here.  Seems like the people here don’t like anyone in particular, including the British, Americans, and the Afghans from other parts of Afghanistan, and the Pakistanis, and the Iranians.  But that’s only in some places.  In other parts of Afghanistan, we are warmly welcomed.  Other Afghans see this as an extension of previous British wars, apparently having missed the point that we were minding our own business on 9/11.  Many of us seem to share with the Afghans an equal empathy: we care for their plight as much as they care about the attacks in the United Kingdom, United States, Indonesia, the Philippines...keep listing.  Most combat soldiers are pragmatic.  Nobody should carry the burden of illusion about why we are here.  Despite that the Afghans can be a very likable lot, this is not a mercy mission.  We owe nothing to the Afghans, especially not to those who continue to harbor murderers.

The Operational Military Liaison Team (OMLT) going on tonight’s mission: Major Guy Stone; Lance Sergeant (a Guards’ Corporal) Paul Ratcliffe; Lance Corporal Jason Crabb (back); and Lance Bombardier Grant on the machine gun on the WMIK Land Rover.

Sangin is an active battlefield. To describe missions with other than vague details would present danger to these soldiers and to the next rotation. This is not like the sweep from Kuwait into Iraq, wherein the previous week’s missions were tantamount to ancient history. Here in Sangin it’s a daily brawl over the same terrain and sentiments, morning and night.

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