13 October 2008
The Wilds, Afghanistan
Since leaving the British embed, I’ve gone unilateral. I flew back and forth between Kandahar and Lashkar Gah, drove around and talked with people down south, then flew up to Kabul. In Kabul, I met Tim Lynch and Shem Klimiuk (a retired USMC and ex-Aussie paratrooper, respectively), and we drove in an unarmored truck east to Jalalabad. The canyon-filled drive would be dangerous even if there was no war, but there is a war – a rapidly growing one — and Tim pointed out burnt spots on the road where ambushes had occurred. I was unarmed, and counting on the military experience of my two guides as well as their combined seven years experience in Afghanistan. In the weeks that I would spend with Tim and Shem, we drove more than a thousand miles up and down Afghan roads without the slightest drama, except that Tim scares me with his driving. If you are rich and want the adventure of a lifetime, contact Tim Lynch. You might die. But if you live, you’ll come back with a new perspective on Afghanistan.
On our first trip, we drove from Kabul to Jalalabad. The road passes through a village called Sarobi. Sarobi has become known as the place where ten French soldiers were killed on 18 August, 2008, although they were not actually killed in Sarobi, but near Sper Kundy. The French soldiers were on a reconnaissance patrol in the Uzbin Valley, about 40 kilometers east of Kabul. At approximately 15:00 local time, they were spread out over a steep slope and started taking fire from the ridges above. The gunfire was fierce and accurate. After 90 minutes, the French vehicles ran out of ammunition, and they abandoned a counterattack. They fought for four hours without reinforcements, which were slow to come because the French troops lost radio contact and could not call in air support or reinforcements. According to a secret after action report that I have read and was quoted extensively and accurately in the Canadian Globe and Mail newspaper, the loss of radio contact was probably due to the fact that they only had one working radio. Soldiers from the Afghan National Army (ANA) had accompanied the French patrol, but they were apparently worse than ineffective, “lounging on the battlefield” until they finally dispersed, leaving their weapons and equipment, according to the report.
Reinforcements eventually arrived, but the fighting continued into the next morning. The French dead were not recovered until mid-day. By then, some had been stripped of their weapons, equipment and uniforms.
Not reported: The body of an interpreter who had worked with the French was left on the field.
The Sarobi ambush was the worst single day toll for the French military in a quarter century. Most of the troops were from the Eighth Paratrooper Regiment, which had been nearly wiped out in the siege of Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam in 1954. Shortly after the ambush, polls showed a majority of French people favoring an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, but President Nicolas Sarkozy reaffirmed his government’s commitment to the war effort. On September 4, Paris Match published photos of “Taliban” fighters wearing uniforms and holding weapons taken from the French soldiers. The photos whipped up bitter controversy over whether the photographs were newsworthy or just propaganda for the enemy. I remember seeing photos of the day when my high school friend, Scott Helvenston, was murdered in Fallujah. One of those photos received a Pulitzer Prize. There was also great controversy in the United States when our government tried to squash photos of flag-draped coffins returning from the Iraq. Yet when I was in Iraq, one day we lost four good soldiers and an interpreter, and I published photos of their flag-draped coffins. In fact, the American commander of the excellent battalion, LTC Eric Welsh, requested that I do it. He wanted to honor his men. After publishing those photos, I received no threats from the U.S. military, individual soldiers, or our government. So the problem was not the content of the photos – in this case, flag-draped coffins – but whether the subject was treated with proper respect.
As we drove along the road between Kabul and Jalalabad, Tim stopped the truck near Sarobi, where we could see the village in the valley below. Tim said that Sarobi is “HIG” country, and that it was actually HIG who killed the French. Not the Taliban. HIG, or Hizb-I Islami Gulbuddin, was founded by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord who hates the U.S. HIG is a terrorist group and a faction of Hizb-I Islami, all with ties to al Qaeda and Bin Laden. Hekmatyar offered homestead to Bin Laden more than ten years ago. Collectively, we call these groups (and others) “Taliban,” but that blanket term is not completely accurate. The Afghanistan/Pakistan insurgency is a complex, distributed and hydra-headed network of different people fighting for different reasons. Sometimes they work together, sometimes they don’t. If they “succeed” in kicking us out of Afghanistan, they will probably end up fighting each other. Some of the people we call Taliban are al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. Others are local insurgents fighting for revenge, self-respect, or because they’re simple, ornery mountain folk who have traded in their spears and torches for AKs and RPGs. Iraq is a few decades behind the west; Afghanistan is practically on a different planet.
As we looked down on Sarobi, Tim pointed to the area in the hills where the French had met their end. He said that when we drive through Sarobi, the “Taliban” will be easy to spot: they are the ones wearing tennis shoes.
Tom Ricks of the Washington Post later wrote me:
“Please be careful down in the Sarobi area. It has long been a nest of banditry. For example, it is where the convoy of journalists going to Kabul in late 2001, as the Taliban tell, were ambushed, and some killed.
Three journalists were traveling to Kabul when gunmen stopped their vehicle. The journalists were taken out and killed. The driver and the interpreter were allowed to live, so they could describe the ordeal to the world press – which they did.
But that’s not all. Stories of pure wildness emanate from Sarobi.
Like this one from The Independent:
“Warlord Set ‘Human Dog’ on Hostages, court told.”
“An Afghan warlord accused of torture and hostage-taking kept a ‘human dog’ in an underground pit which he unleashed on his victims, the Old Bailey was told yesterday.
“In the first criminal trial of its kind, Faryadi Sarwar Zardad, 42, who now lives in London, denies waging a five-year terror campaign in Afghanistan in which civilians were routinely beaten and taken hostage. He was running a pizza restaurant in south London when he was arrested in July 2003.
Must be some interesting restaurateurs in London. The story continued:
"’The human dog was biting people and eating testicles under the orders of the soldiers at the checkpoint,’ said Lord Goldsmith. Another witness would testify that his brother was taken from a bus by soldiers and was later killed, said the Attorney General. He had accompanied British police officers to the Sarobi area and identified three of Mr Zardad's checkpoints to them.
"He points out where the 'human dog' was kept in chains and said if travelers did not have money to pay the soldiers, they were put in a tent with the 'human dog'."
When we drove down through Sarobi, we saw perhaps a half dozen men wearing tennis shoes, but there were no human dogs in evidence. We made it through the town with no dramas, passed a lot of places where vehicles had been ambushed, and finally arrived in Jalalabad.
I heard there was a great U.S. battalion near Jalalabad, and I tried to embed with them, but they were full at the moment. The battalion commander and his folks at 6-4 Cav have a fine reputation, and if there is one thing I’ve learned about US and British commanders, when they know they have a great bunch of soldiers, they like to show them off and brag about the unit. It’s like grandparents rambling on about their families. When I popped up on his radar screen, the battalion commander said come on and get over here. But the controllers of the media switches, who were very helpful and responsive, didn’t have any spots at the moment. There were also time consuming issues involving getting a badge to embed. So I stayed unilateral. The only question was: where to go next?
Tim Lynch had an idea. Why don’t we try to talk with villagers from Sper Kundy, the village near Sarobi where the French were killed?
It took several days to set up, but a few phone calls and some planning later, we were on our way. While it was too time consuming to get with our guys, I didn’t need a badge to listen to the enemy. But it wasn’t just a question of logistics. I wanted to talk to the enemy, because that’s the best way to understand them. When we spoke with enemies in Iraq, oftentimes we found we had greater common interests than we ever expected. (And there were people who thought that talking to the Sunni insurgents who eventually became the Awakening was a bad idea.) Eventually, we stopped fighting and joined forces, and beat the rat droppings out of al Qaeda.
Meeting with the Enemy
"It is an undeniable privilege of every man to prove himself right in the thesis that the world is his enemy; for if he reiterates it frequently enough and makes it the background of his conduct he is bound eventually to be right."
On 26 September we headed back to Sarobi.
Tim was driving while Shem was the front passenger. I sat in the back with “Z,” our interpreter. All of us dressed in local garb, and put our sunglasses in the glove compartment. Tim and Shem wore clothing over their body armor. We were heading to meet with three men. Our first contact was in Sarobi. We were to first meet with him, then he would facilitate a meeting with two men from Sper Kundy. We drove into Sarobi and picked up the initial contact named “Abraham,” whose English was not so good. Then we drove out of Sarobi in the direction of Sper Kundy, where we met the other two men.
Now we had seven men in the crowded truck. When the two from Sper Kundy noticed Tim and Shem’s rifles, I saw alarm on their faces. There was some rapid talk between Abraham and Z. The two men from Sper Kundy thought that we were soldiers and they had been tricked, but Abraham pointed to my camera and notepad and eventually the men settled down.
We set off toward Sper Kundy. As we crossed the bridge over the river, the men got nervous because of the police. They covered their faces with their scarves. We crossed the bridge with no problem, but the area we were heading into was truly bad guy country. The Uzbin Valley. Where NATO forces only go in large numbers, and with armored vehicles and aircraft for high cover. We were running behind because Z had shown up late, and there was no road directly to Sper Kundy, meaning we would have to walk in. With the delay, there was no way we were going to make it out before nightfall. Also, something didn’t feel right, so I called “no joy” and we decided not to head to Sper Kundy. Instead we would hold the meeting somewhere else.
We kept going, until finally the men thought the best place to sit down and talk was on a hilltop. I did not like that idea, but choices were limited. As we stepped out of the truck, I mentioned to Tim that this was a great way to get hit with a Predator strike, which he had already thought of - he and Shem left their rifles in the car, so they wouldn’t be mistaken for armed enemy. We also took off our body armor so that NATO aircraft, which surely must be prowling because of all the missions going on in the area, would not spot seven men, fat with body armor and weapons, just near where the French were killed. We were not around any villages and so we were an absolutely perfect target. Everyone had cell phones.
We met at an old fighting position. I was truly worried that we would be hit with a Hellfire missile or JDAM bomb. I’d seen plenty of these situations play out. Often the people on the ground have no idea they are targeted, then they die. I knew our guys, or the Brits, would not fire on unarmed people, unless one of those telephones belonged to an important enemy. But what if jets or helicopters from some other country, like France, spotted us? I had no idea how they might behave.
And so the meeting began. The man on the left said his name is Mohamood Farooq, and the man on the right identified himself as Abdul Samad. Both of them were from Sper Kundy. Mohamood said he was “Taliban,” while Abdul claimed he was not. In fact, Abdul said he hated the Taliban. Mohamood Farooq is also the name of a Taliban commander whose family had recently been killed in an airstrike that was targeting Farooq but missed. Apparently this was a different Farooq because I asked about his family and he said his family was fine.
It was Ramadan and there was white on Abdul’s lower lip that looked like salt from dehydration. Z, the interpreter, said he was so thirsty he could drink a lake. Mohamood and Abdul were respectful and direct. I did not sense that these men would try to harm us. I sensed they only wanted to tell their side of the story.
Abdul said that the villagers had liked the French and the Americans before the fighting, but now they hated them. Abdul called himself the Malik of Sper Kundy, meaning the head man. Mohamood and Abdul both said they were teachers. Abdul taught math and English. Abdul said he was from the Sahak tribe, and both men were Pashtun (the largest ethnic and linguistic group in Afghanistan). Abdul pointed out that there were no Taliban in Sper Kundy, which contradicted Mohamood who teaches in the same school and claimed on sidebar to Z to be Taliban. Abdul said there was Taliban in neighboring villages, though. Abdul said that about 350 families live in Sper Kundy for a total of about 1,200 people, which seemed like a small population for so many families.
I asked them to describe the fighting with the French.
Abdul said that three American Humvees came the first day, along with ANA (Afghan National Army) and French soldiers. He said that the French were out away from Sper Kundy when 35-40 Taliban attacked. Abdul called them “Taliban.” He said the Taliban commander was Mula Hazart, whose nickname is Mujahid. They said that about half the Taliban were Pakistanis. I asked to meet with the Taliban commander. They said he had been shot in the shoulder and went to Pakistan.
Abdul, who can speak a little English, said that at first they liked the French and Americans because they were friendly and helpful. But he said that local people now see people who wear a uniform “all have one same face. ANA and NATO are all in one hand.” He said the French were killed about three kilometers from the village, and though he said he did not see the killing with his own eyes, Abdul was told that some were captured and then killed. Mohamood said that the Taliban were trying to capture some of the wounded French, but they kept fighting so the Taliban killed them.
They told me that the body of the interpreter for the French had been left by the French troops. The interpreter’s family wanted the body returned so they and others collected the body, took it to Kabul and gave it to the French. (American military sources later confirmed to me that Afghans brought the body of the French interpreter, an Afghan, to French forces.)
Abdul said that after about the first 24 hours of fighting, there was no water and the local kids were crying. He also said that after the French had been attacked, they drove their vehicles into Sper Kundy and parked between the houses for protection. Abdul clearly thought this was cowardly, hiding behind the families, and he said the French damaged walls and houses when the Taliban continued the attack. As the Malik, he came out to complain. Abdul said that a French soldier hit him in the back three times with his fist. I told him that he should have gone to the American commander if he had a problem, but Abdul said that my words were not like reality. (Actually, I know American and British soldiers. If they see kids crying they get upset, but if they see an angry man during a fight, there could be another reaction. I don’t know how the French soldiers are. I have had more contact with the Taliban than with French soldiers.)
They said four civilians were killed by one of the airstrikes -- three men between ages of 40-45 (most Afghans apparently do not know their own ages), and one 11-year-old boy. They said another civilian was wounded, and villagers took him to a hospital in Laghman.
Abdul told me that during the fighting, about 200 animals had been killed, including 27 cows. The rest were sheep and goats. Abdul also claimed to be able to tell the difference between American, French and ANA vehicles, and that the French had fired four Milan rockets during the fighting. He actually called them Milan rockets. He said three rockets hit the hills, but another rocket badly damaged a house or building in Sper Kundy, and he said the school also was hit during the fighting. He claimed that nobody – not the U.S. nor France nor Afghanistan - paid for any damages. I asked Abdul to estimate the complete damages and he put it at about $20,000. I said there was nothing I could do about that, but I knew the right people to contact with the complaint. (And I did later pass the word to the right people.)
Abdul said that on 18 September at about 11 p.m., the French, U.S. and ANA attacked another village in the Uzbin valley. He said they landed in about 10 helicopters. Abdul said that villagers ran from the helicopters because they were afraid. He said, seeing them run, soldiers shot and killed four and captured six. I had seen a report saying four had been killed and another four captured, so there was a discrepancy on how many were captured. Abdul said he did not know where the captured men were taken and they have since disappeared. He said the soldiers were on the ground for about 4 hours and flew away at 3 a.m. He also said that the men who had been taken prisoner were not Taliban, but four were businessmen from Khost buying fruits, and that the other two men were from Uzbin village (which is in Uzbin Valley). Mohamood said the villagers had noted the direction the helicopters flew off in, but didn’t know of any bases in that direction.
Abdul and Mohamood said they were not present during the 18 September attack, and they might have wrong information. But I was able to check many parts of their stories, and most details were corroborated by solid sources. After checking with knowledgeable U.S. and other sources, I believe Mohamood and Abdul were telling the truth as they knew it.
Our meeting was originally planned for 25 September, but just before Tim, Shem and I took off, we got word about a big mission that was unfolding near Sper Kundy. I wanted to go, but Tim said that it would be a bad idea. When a retired USMC infantry officer with four years of Afghanistan experience tells me to cool my heels, these heels are cooling. I took the day off. And so the meeting took place on 26 September. I asked Abdul about the prior day’s mission. He said that about 40-45 vehicles came. Most of them were French, but there were also ANA and Americans. He said the villagers became afraid, but the soldiers said they were not coming to fight, and so the villagers relaxed. Abdul didn’t know why they came.
I was getting concerned that the longer we stayed on that hilltop, the more we invited an airstrike or an attack by the Taliban. Even if just for a couple hours, I felt what it might feel like to be a villager, caught between two fierce lions. I know which lion I want to win, but that did not ease my feelings that we might get hit by our own airstrike. I can only try to imagine how the villagers must feel. Imagine that fierce, unpredictable power from the air. Airstrikes are impressive affairs. Much more impressive in person than on television. Although I know our folks are extremely cautious, we’ve earned a reputation for killing lots of Afghans by accident.
The Taliban are a force that people might not like, but they can learn to understand and even live with them. We saw in Iraq that many people wanted to have a predictable despot in charge, while others were willing to take the risks of democracy. Those who wanted the dictator would accept that he was cruel, and angry, but they could learn to live by his rules. So, hatred of the Taliban doesn’t translate into love for us. The Afghan people might not have liked living under the Taliban, but they also know that one day we’re going home. And the Taliban are home.
The seven of us loaded back into the truck and started back toward Sarobi. When we came to a good view of Sarobi, the men from Sper Kundy wanted to take a picture, which I found curious. Why would a man who has lived here all his life suddenly want a photo of Sarobi? Maybe he had a new camera. Had it belonged to a French soldier?
The date and time in his view finder was 2008/09/26 at 06:27AM. The date and time programmed into my own camera was 2008/09/26 at 10:24AM. My cameras are set to GMT. It appears that someone had taken the time to program the date and time on this camera. But this is not Afghan time. France is one hour ahead of GMT. Some parts of French-speaking Canada are four hours behind GMT. But none of the ten French soldiers came from Canada.
We dropped off Mohamood and Abdul, and headed to Sarobi to drop off Abraham. There we saw a French patrol coming from the direction of Kabul, and turn right up an unpaved road. The French did not point their weapons at people, and the soldiers seemed to try to be non-menacing. But I’ve noticed something with the huge amounts of military convoys I’ve seen; when you are embedded with the convoy, you don’t feel menacing, because, at least with the Brits and U.S. when I go with them, I know they take great effort not to hurt innocent people. But up on that hilltop, sweating out the possibility of an airstrike, and now watching the French convoy in Sarobi, it’s easy to see why we wear out our presence. We don’t want to be a pain to normal people, but we are.
After dropping off the Afghans, we headed back from Sarobi to Jalalabad. At 1530, Shem spotted a man above the road to the left with what he thought was an RPG, and he thought someone was about to get attacked. We made it back to Jalalabad and the only drama was Tim’s driving, which was a lot scarier than the idea of an airstrike. Sometimes I closed my eyes. (There was a report that on 04 October, there was an illegal checkpoint on that road where the bad guys apparently were looking for pro-government people.)
We made it back to Jalalabad, and later that day, I was given 32 photos and videos from another source. These images were of the Taliban who I believe killed the French. During some of these videos some men were carrying the French weapons and wearing French uniforms. All of the photos were shot with a Fujifilm Finepix F480 camera. I was given the photos on a thumbdrive. I do not know the model of the camera that made the videos, but apparently it’s the same F480 camera that made the still photos. All the still photo and video files have the prefix “Padsfsf.” Fujifilm advised this is not a prefix that their cameras use.
The following photographs came from the thumb drive.
Shortly after meeting with Abdul and Mohamood, I read in the press that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar had released a video claiming responsibility for the Sarobi ambush. Gulbuddin said that he lost ten men in the fighting. Meanwhile, the Taliban were also claiming credit for the ambush. Some “170 heavily armed rebels” had attacked the soldiers, who killed “between 40 and 70 enemy fighters,” according to French officers quoted by Agence France Presse. That same news report also had this interesting item:
The Taliban had previously rejected working with Hekmatyar's faction, but analysts have suggested they could be involved in some joint activities.
Hekmatyar, who served as prime minister briefly during the 1996 to 2001 civil war, is known as one of the most radical warlords in Afghanistan. The United States has offered a multi-million-dollar reward for his capture.
Tim had said explicitly that this was HIG country, not “Taliban.” The reports make it appear that he is correct. And so, perhaps, when Abdul claimed he was not Taliban, and, in fact, hated the Taliban, he might have been telling the truth. (I got the feeling that he was.) Maybe Abdul was with HIG.
When I was up on that hill with Abdul and Mohamood, they never mentioned religion. They did not seem like terrorists to me. They came across as men with their own lives who wanted to be left alone. Yet I was unhappy with the thought that I might be in the presence of men who had something to do with the deaths of French soldiers. I originally obtained the 32 photos and videos on 26 September. At first, I refused to publish them or even show them to anyone. Then, after much thought and consultations, I decided to publish them, hoping I could do so with respect for the fallen soldiers. There is a great sadness in my heart about this war. A relative handful of terrorists can provoke more than three dozen countries to come to Afghanistan. The fire they started could consume the democracy of Pakistan. The French came to Afghanistan as our NATO allies – if they surrender, will the alliance hold?
Two days after our meeting, the French were attacked again nearby. This time nine of them were wounded. The next day, down near Kandahar, another four French soldiers were wounded, along with two Canadians.
On October 9, the Agence France Presse reported:
French army chief rules out military victory in Afghanistan
PARIS (AFP) — The head of the French military General Jean-Louis Georgelin on Wednesday backed comments by a senior British military officer's view that the war in Afghanistan was unwinnable.
A British officer "was saying that one cannot win this war militarily, that there is no military solution to the Afghan crisis and I totally share this feeling," Georgelin told French television channel Public Senat.
This is exactly what the Taliban want, to split off our allies and create a sense of desperation among those willing to stay. The Canadians are also getting hit hard. And the Brits as well. By picking off our allies, and undermining the domestic support crucial to supporting the war effort, our enemies in Afghanistan and Pakistan are trying to isolate the U.S. so that they can eventually force us to leave.
Is this war winnable? I don’t know, but my gut instinct is that Afghanistan/Pakistan will devolve into something worse than Iraq ever was.
Afghanistan is considered “The Good War” only by people who don’t realize (or refuse to acknowledge) how difficult the situation is. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. And that seems to be the road we’re on in Afghanistan.
But for the moment, let’s forget geopolitics, and remember the soldiers who gave their lives not just for their country, or Afghanistan, but also for us.
Americans love to visit the beaches of Normandy and pay tribute to their countrymen who died for France. Well, here are the names of the ten French soldiers who were lost in combat on 18 August 2008, in a battle for Uzbin Valley. They, too, deserve our gratitude and respect.
Julien Le Pahun
These soldiers were deployed in the name of peace. May they rest in peace.