Michael's Dispatches


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.

The next Afghan elections are scheduled for 20 August 2009, so the Commander’s intent for the mission on 28-29 July:

“Disrupt insurgent activity across Sangin in order to create sufficient security for elections.”

This OMLT consists mostly of short soldiers in 3 Company from the Welsh Guards.  They are short because the tall soldiers are sent to the Prince of Wales Company, while the short ones, called “Little Iron Men,” are sent to 3 Company. Tonight, the Little Iron Men would accompany the ANA.

Coalition nations have largely wasted nearly eight years in developing the Afghan Security Forces, and so today we are left outnumbered as much by terrain as by foe.  American special operations forces, for instance, spent more than a half-decade on the greatest manhunt in recent memory.  Today we have little to show for the Great Manhunt other than bumper crops of opium and an increasingly powerful array of enemies.  The press had focused on Iraq while handing out hugs and lollipops on Afghanistan, leaving governments free to operate with practically zero critical outside auditing.  Surely it was the war of their dreams.  They fumbled it.  When I reported with twelve dispatches during 2006 that we were losing the Afghanistan war, the United States government denied my return to Iraq.  Today, in mid-2009, there are no Afghan Army forces in Ghor Province to the north of Helmand.  Here in the 4-km2 Sangin district of Helmand, 100 ANP are authorized but only about 36 are available.  This, after nearly eight years, is typical across the country.

Instead of peace, tonight’s intelligence-driven mission was to unfold in an area of Sangin that the British call Wishtan, a most brutal corner of today’s war.  Wishtan is particularly perilous because of the people and their dwellings and the maze of passages and alleys and doglegs and canalizations between the compounds.  Routes are predictable and bombs are easy to hide in the walls or in the ground, and the channels created by the walls contain the men and the blasts.  During firefights there is little room to maneuver.  Wishtan is a big series of fatal funnels, or in the words of British Army Captain Alexander Spry, “Wishtan is like something from a Freddy Krueger movie.”  Captain Spry believes that Wishtan is almost certainly the most dangerous place in Afghanistan.

The OMLT was to link up with Afghan soldiers under the command of Colonel Wadood, a Tajik from Kapisa Province, whose goals are simply stated.  Colonel Wadood told me all the problems will be solved by killing the Taliban and going home.

Captain Andy White came from the Australian Army into the British Army to fight in Afghanistan.

Jason Crabb will drive the second WMIK Land Rover: the vehicles are mostly unarmored and so avoiding bombs is especially important, though of course we are canalized by the roads and so avoiding bombs is a function of securing the roads, which can only be done in a limited fashion for short distances.  Our movement is severely restricted by countless bombs.

Departure is scheduled for1900 hours.  Coincidentally, just before we depart, there is a ceremony for a 2 Rifles soldier just killed up at Kajaki, and so the soldiers stood at attention and then we loaded up.

We drove down the bumpy road to Patrol Base Tangiers, which was only about a seven-minute journey through a market where an ANA soldier had been shot in the arm last week, and there were plenty of other dramas of note.  We passed by the spot near the gate where a suicide bomber had blown himself up in March, leaving behind only his legs and some scattered parts that were collected and dutifully photographed.

Along the way I could not see out of the WMIK, and so just closed my eyes and hoped that if we hit a bomb it would be big and fast.  The final dispatch would not be written by me.  BAP!, we hit a bump and my helmet cracked into the turret overhead. A few seconds later, as my heart rate began to approach normality again, we came into FOB Tangiers, where we would wait.  Our part of the mission was “relatively” safe: if the British soldiers and ANA conducting raids were to be blown up or got into a serious fight, we would come for the casualties.  That would be the dangerous part.  Despite the extreme danger, the OMLT soldiers and the ANA exuded confidence and were ready to go within a couple of minutes.  The British soldiers praise the courage of their Afghan Army counterparts, and the respect is mutual.

Patrol Base Tangiers, in Sangin.

ANA collect for evening prayers as the cries come from distant loudspeakers and another hot day melts into night.

Patrol Base Tangiers is situated in ramshackle accommodations in a bombed-out compound.  ANA use a British 'Mozzie net' as a window.

Major Guy Stone, the OMLT Commander here, disappears into the rubble and emerges with a filthy mattress unfit for a goat, and says to me, you are the guest and this is yours for the night.  Major Stone drags the stained mattress through the dust and drops it against the barrier, which radiates heat like an oven that has just been switched off.  The British soldiers never seem to complain about discomfort or filth.  In fact, Major Stone was serious that as a guest, I was getting special treatment; the OMLT soldiers were going to sleep in the hot dirt on their sleeping pads, and so it would have been embarrassing for me to accept the disgusting mattress.  Instead, I asked the ANA Commander, Colonel Wadood, to let me sleep on the tiny patch of grass planted by the ANA.  An Afghan soldier took the mattress for his bed.

Darkness has settled, but while I make a satellite phone call, the camera gathers light from the kitchen where Afghans prepare our dinner.  Wake-up is scheduled for 0300, though the actual raids should begin at about 0400.

The grass where we enjoy Afghan dinner with Afghan soldiers.   Some of us will rest here under the stars while awaiting the mission.

Just before dinner, Colonel Wadood, Commander of 2nd Kandak, 3rd Brigade, 205 Hero Corps, consults a map with Sergeant Satar and Captain Nadari.

Dinner was served to a half dozen Afghan soldiers, five British and the interpreter, Mr. Flemming, who sat to my right while Colonel Wadood was to my left.  Major Guy Stone wisely retired for some sleep so that if we had serious combat in the morning, he would be better prepared for quick decisions.

The conversation with Colonel Wadood and the Afghan soldiers ranged over the war in space and time.  As with our dinner the night before, Colonel Wadood clarified that his view of success is two-dimensional: kill the Taliban and the war is over.  Of course, the Taliban is one of many enemies here.  This was my second dinner with Wadood wherein he seemed uninterested in development and related all problems to the Taliban and drug lords.  ‘Kill them.  There will be peace.’

Colonel Wadood’s 2IC, Maj Zelgai, who recently spent nearly two weeks in the United Kingdom, stayed the night at the home of Major Guy Stone, telling Major Stone’s wife not to worry, as he would take care of her husband.  And one might suspect that Colonel Wadood and the ANA mean just that; no British soldier I have spoken with questions the courage and ferocity of Wadood or his men.  American soldiers will further confirm that Afghan soldiers are ready to fight.  There are exceptions – bad units wherein the Afghans often prefer to smoke dope than to fight – and there are other impressively negative narratives. But again, many of the units, such as Wadood’s, earn praise.

The dinner conversation meandered from one interesting vignette to another, with British soldiers explaining, for instance, how they were “mugged” by mobs of Afghan boys.  The boys appear from the market and rush in, stealing anything they can grab, including one soldier’s wallet (why did he carry a wallet?), and a hand grenade pin from a live grenade.  Luckily, the soldiers keep the grenade spoons secured, or the soldier would have been killed along with the kids.  The soldiers and Mr. Flemming, the interpreter, talked about the Mi-26 that had been shot down and the burning bodies and the heat and how they thought one of the children who had burned to death was not a girl, but a boy as first assumed.

Over dinner, at 2015 hours, there was a distant explosion, sounding like an RPG, which nobody bothered remarking about, because it would be like bringing up something as common as a mosquito or a fly.  I said that President Karzai’s brother has a restaurant in America, and the ANA soldiers laughed, saying that President Karzai himself had been a restaurant owner, until we made him President, and they joked not to bring any more restaurant owners to become Presidents.  Still, they agreed that Karzai is a good President.  Two of the soldiers are from Jalalabad and one had been a Mujahadeen fighter, while Colonel Wadood had fought on the Russian side, and so they laughed that they had been enemies, yet now they fight the Taliban.

At 2115 we heard what sounded like a jet, but I was unsure, and then BOOM!, a large explosion.  At 2125, there came word via radio: five Taliban had been killed by a Hellfire launched from a Reaper prowling invisibly in the dark skies.  About five minutes later, the Apaches were overhead and then came four thumping bursts from the 30mm turrets.   No flame or tracer could be seen, just darkness and thumping and the sounds of the Apaches, also prowling invisibly in the ink above.  Four minutes later a pen flare arced just outside our perimeter, and at 2140, there were two very loud explosions approximately one second apart.  We were told later that the second explosion was from an enemy bomb that detonated after our bomb had hit it and killed some men.  I say in English, “Someone is not happy tonight,” and Colonel Wadood and the Afghan Sergeant Major, who speaks English, both burst into laughter, “Yes, yes…someone not happy tonight.” Seconds later, there were two more bursts from the Apache 30mm. We are later told that the Apaches were chasing squirters.  Our radioman called back to the JOC (Joint Operations Center), and they said, “the aircraft are attacking people who are laying IEDs.”

Word comes a little later that the Taliban are saying we bombed people who were eating watermelon in a field.  The Afghans responded by telling us this was a lie, because they know how careful the British and Americans are with their fires, and they also knew that Afghans do not sit in fields around here this late at night eating watermelon.

I’ve witnessed too many missions (several in the last week) wherein British or Americans refused to fire because they could not positively spot a weapon, despite it being flagrantly obvious that we were tracking actual enemies.  It’s very frustrating for me at times because I want to say to an American or British commander…Take the shot!  This is too obvious!  But that is not the place of a writer.  The strategic wisdom behind the Rules of Engagement can be difficult to contest, though tactically, those same ROE can be fantastically frustrating.  Tactically, the restrictive ROE endanger our troops every day, but strategically there is no doubt that strong ROE save the lives of even more.

I needed to place another satellite phone call to a friend regarding replacement of some camera gear that was stolen in Kabul.  While we were talking at 2151 hrs, the Apaches began firing again.  The attack sounded like nine or so distinct bursts of 30mm, though I was unsure.

There was time for possibly four hours of sleep before heading into hell, just a few minutes away.  Sleep would not come, so I watched the big screen of the Milky Way for a couple of hours as it drifted from left to right across the sky.  During this interim, I saw nearly twenty meteors slit the vast black screen, like a white-hot torch, sometimes leaving a trace.  And I wondered how many people might die in the coming few hours.

As the earth continued to revolve around our tiny star and lie seemingly insignificant within the billions of lights overhead, a rooster crowed at 0215 as a couple of gunshots rang in the distance.  Finally, there came sleep.  And as if time had slipped by unnoticed, Major Stone woke me at 0400 and I packed immediately, in case there were combat.

As indigo seeped from east to west, with gradient hues of lighter blue, closely followed by yellow, the British soldiers were all ready to go, as were the ANA. We waited as the sun rose over the horizon, and with it the temperature.

Staff Sergeant Ben Worthington waits for a call.  If our people get hit, we will be there in minutes.

Time elapsed and nothing happened.  The raids turned up very little, and so I walked inside the building to talk with Colonel Wadood and eat breakfast with the ANA.

Boots at Patrol Base Tangiers in Sangin.

Mr. Flemming the interpreter came with me to breakfast with the ANA, as the British soldiers stayed by the vehicles outside, ready to crank and roll.  Over a breakfast on the floor of bread, yogurt, jam and tea, the ANA intelligence officer said that he feels the morale of the Taliban in Sangin is slipping.  They lost another seven nearby last night, and another five upriver at Kajaki, making twelve enemy killed in a single night and we did not get a scratch.  We talked about the world and a little about America, and I asked if they knew that Michael Jackson had died. Four Afghan soldiers said yes, they knew, they saw it on television, and one said “we are sorry to hear this.” Colonel Wadood said somberly that Michael Jackson was “a good artist” and another ANA soldier said “I never know if he was male or female” and everyone laughed.  I asked if they liked to watch wrestling, and yes, they love wrestling “competitions,” which they said are televised every night from Kabul.

I asked Colonel Wadood what he thinks about a British idea to negotiate with the Taliban and he said it was a good idea so long as everything is open and nothing is hidden, and he said, “War has exhausted the people of Afghanistan.”  (They don’t seem exhausted to me.)  And then he launched into something about President Obama, saying the whole world has positive views of Obama and “almost all people of entire world have bad memories of Bush and family.” Later I said to a British officer, just wait until I report the words about Bush and Obama, and watch the daggers come out, and the British officer said something like, “Yes, but you are free not to report it and they will be angry that you did.”  As Colonel Wadood spoke of the Taliban and Obama and Bush, a curious coincidence flowed into the dusty room from the shortwave, as Secretary Clinton’s voice could be heard in a sound bite, and she was talking about talking with the Taliban.

I asked Colonel Wadood if the people of Afghanistan understand Democracy and he said yes, but not the people of Helmand, who “understand only Swordocracy,” and everyone laughed.  And then spontaneously, Colonel Wadood said, “We have the best Democracy with Islam.  Our religion is one of brotherhood and oneness.  Our religion is about equality, no status.”  He said these things, and more.  Colonel Wadood continued, pausing long enough for me to write, “Women have the right to education, to have a job, to be a candidate in elections.”  Colonel Wadood paused, and continued, “If we applied these things it is the perfect democracy and perfect religion.  Killing people is forbidden.  Drug trafficking is forbidden.  Cruelty and brutality is forbidden.  Attacks that Taliban execute are all against Islam and Sharia.  The best Muslim never harms anyone with his eyes, his tongue or with his hands.  He should only be useful not harmful.  We cannot kill infidels without reason.  But if they invade our honor, our religion, our land or our pride, we can kill them.  Same condition applies to Muslim too.  If he does these things we can kill him.”

After breakfast: Sergeant Mohammed and Captain Nadari stay in the conversation.

Colonel Wadood said that “Muslims in their deed, character and ethics should make the best example, and this does not just apply to Muslims but all humanity.”  He said, “people should have fair and good relations with people around the world.”

I asked the Colonel about the Sangin economy, and he answered that first they need a paved road, with actual tarmac, and the road should link to Kajaki, then Musa Qa’lah.  But then comes the crux, the crux according to Colonel Wadood: “We cannot build the roads until we destroy the drug lords and drug factories.”  The drug lords depend on ignorance and so they do not let girls and boys go to school, and the Taliban, at least in the beginning, were their enforcers. (In fact, on 30 July I went on a mission with Gurkhas in the British Army, and we walked to a school that the Taliban had blown up and which the British were constructing.)

“They need ignorance,” said Colonel Wadood, in reference to both drug lords and  the Taliban.  “The government failed to provide opportunity, so the drug lords provided their ‘opportunity,’ but they needed security.  So they hired the old Taliban to fight while the drug lords carried on with their business.  Pakistan noted that this was in their vested interest, so they started to support the Taliban.”  Colonel Wadood called this “The second rising of the Taliban,” and I’ll just call it the Resurrection.

We watched the Resurrection blossom with each passing season and, essentially, insofar as tangible outcome is concerned, did nothing at best.  At worst, we aided the drug dealers by doing little or nothing while building infrastructure that aided them.  I made photos in Urozgan Province in 2006, of road construction paid for by us, and those roads were going straight through fields of poppy.  In 2006, poppy was growing within a slingshot range of the Provincial “Reconstruction” Team in Lashkar Gah, and in 2009 it grows abundantly around Sangin.  This year’s opium harvest is already on the way to market and the corn that replaced much of the poppy is not yet tall enough to hide in.

I asked Colonel Wadood how many big drug dealers there are currently in Sangin.  He said there are 10 or 12, and added that “A month ago, Taliban commanders south of Sangin nearly ran out of ammunition, and so the drug dealer [whose name Wadood gave me but the British asked that I not print] donated almost 5 million Pakistani Rupees to three Taliban commanders to purchase more weapons and supplies.  Those Taliban commanders are [M1], [M2], and [M3].”

I asked how long we should stay.  Colonel Wadood answered that we should stay until Pakistan interference is cut off, but in the current atmosphere we need to help with engineers, reconstruction and mineral extraction.  “After 30 years, we are backwards.”  (Before, over two dinners, Wadood talked only of killing Taliban, but over breakfast he talked about development.)  “We are hopeful that Pakistan influence will soon be cut because we don’t want to lose Afghans or Coalition because everyone has family.”  I asked what the Afghans think of India and Wadood answered by saying the relationship is good, and so I asked about Iran and he said they are the same as Pakistan but Pakistan is the first priority.  I asked how long the war will last and Colonel Wadood said he did not know, but that he has been fighting for 30 years and hasn’t been absent a single day.


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