Michael's Dispatches

Where Eagles Dare

9 September 2008
Helmand Province, Afghanistan

When I was briefed on the top-secret mission before it was launched, I thought : “Good grief.  I might have to report on the failure of one of the largest and most important missions of the entire war.”

After seven years, the war in Afghanistan has morphed from a breathtaking expedition of a handful of special operators—often on horseback—to a sort of lethal day-to-day business.   Morale is high among American, Aussie, British and Canadian soldiers.  Dozens of other nations are contributing to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, including the French, Italians and Estonians, but I have not seen enough of them to be able to judge their morale.  The French recently lost ten soldiers in a Taliban ambush, and many in that country are talking about pulling out, although President Nicolas Sarkozy is standing firm.  Other countries, like Germany, have strict rules of engagement that essentially preclude them from joining in combat.  The Poles and Danes are strong allies and good soldiers, as they were in Iraq.   Yet the bulk of the fighting against the Taliban is done by the Anglosphere (U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia), and, of course, the Afghans.

Can’t score unless you shoot: Canadian Forces at Kandahar Air Field.

Among the English-speaking troops, there seems to be a sense of mission.  American and British officers with experience in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere—leaders whose opinions I greatly value—do not think we are losing here in Afghanistan.  Yes, they will acknowledge that the situation is deteriorating, but they still believe we are making progress.  And it’s hard to disagree with them (though I do), given the blow that ISAF forces just delivered to the Taliban.

Operation “Oqab Tsuka”

[Photo credit: SGT Anthony Boocock, British Army.]

The top-secret mission was to deliver a new turbine to the Kajaki Dam.  The second-largest hydro-electric dam in Afghanistan, Kajaki is designed to operate three turbines, and was originally built with American money in 1953 to provide electricity to Helmand and Kandahar Provinces.  But that was another era of the Great Game.  Only two out of three turbines were installed, and they fell apart when the Soviet Union pulled out from Afghanistan in 1989.

[Photo credit: SGT Anthony Boocock, British Army.]

Since the American-led invasion in 2001, only one turbine was working.  The mission’s goal was to drag a second turbine up treacherous roads, and put it online.  The operation was of a magnitude large enough to warrant its own name: Operation Oqab Tsuka: Pashto for “Eagle’s Summit.”  Some of the younger soldiers, when they heard about the plan to drive a giant convoy straight through Taliban territory, had another name for it: “Operation Suicide.”

[Photo credit: SGT Anthony Boocock, British Army.] Empty home for new Chinese turbine.

In an increasingly successful attempt to discredit the Afghan government and the ISAF, enemy forces have been attacking infrastructure including bridges, power, communications, and dams.

Far up road 611 in Helmand Province, there has been much fighting at Kajaki.  If another turbine could be brought online, and power lines stretched from generator to consumer, wide swaths of the population would have electricity.  This would not only help the Afghan people, but also support the government, and spur the economy.  It was estimated that the new turbine could eventually double the amount of irrigation available to local farmers, allowing them to plant two wheat harvests per year.  With wheat prices on the rise, wheat might become more profitable than opium.  Helmand Province grows more opium poppies than any other place on Earth.  And much of the proceeds go—directly or indirectly, voluntarily or by force—to fund the Taliban.

Even without enemy opposition, hauling the turbine assembly to Kajaki would be expensive and physically challenging.  The turbine components were sitting in Kandahar Airfield (KAF), a sprawling ISAF base in the middle of a Taliban stronghold.  KAF is home to increasing numbers of foreign troops: American, Aussie, British, Canadian, Danish, French, Italian, Slovakian and others.  Transport and combat aircraft from all over the world use the airfield.  Harrier jets frequently are launched in support of combat operations, while unmanned Predators buzz off into the night, loaded with sensors and hellfire missiles.  Apaches, Kiowas, Hueys, and Blackhawks, as well as Russian-made and French aircraft, trundle down the runway.

The components of the Chinese-built turbine were brought in by an AN-124 Russian transport, operated by a private company.  But the turbine cargo was far too heavy to lift by helicopter for the final 100 miles of the journey.  There were no runways for fixed-wing aircraft at Kajaki.  So the turbine and other critical parts would have to be hauled from KAF to Kajaki by land.

After midnight 28 August 2008: Top-Secret mission prepares for launch.

U.S. General Dan McNeill, the top commander in Afghanistan, wanted a combat-experienced group to plan and execute the mission, so he chose the commander of the 16 Air Assault Brigade, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, who said, “We will take that turbine to Kajaki.”

Several British officers, including Major Howard-Harwood, stressed to me that this was not a “British” operation.  Yes, it was led by British troops, but USAID (American taxpayers) paid for the parts, installation, and much more.  U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) and others would help ensure the convoy made it through.  I was briefed on the SOF operations, but will make no comment other than to say that their contribution would be dangerous and essential to success.   Afghan, Canadian, Australian and Danish troops also played very important roles.  American and British air would provide most of the air cover.  The British 3 Para and 2 Para would conduct treacherous and critical combat operations to take pressure off the convoy.

During the many weeks that the complex convoy took to plan and assemble, potential routes were meticulously reconnoitered.  Combat leaders checked vulnerabilities and choke points, while engineers assessed roads and bridges.  The route chosen was in poor shape to support the convoy, so a team of combat engineers would build and shore up roads just ahead of the convoy, possibly while under enemy attack.  There were obstacles to blast, wadis to fill, and bridges to test before the key vehicles rumbled in.  As in Iraq, the combat engineers working in Afghanistan are one of those quiet groups of essential personnel, without whom the war would fail.  I’ve never seen them properly credited for the work they do or the sacrifices they make.

The convoy of about 200 vehicles included seven absolutely critical trailers, along with an eighth trailer that was not absolutely critical, just extremely important.  That trailer contained an 80-ton crane for lifting the other seven parts off their trailers.  If the crane were destroyed, the engineers could make a work-around using “Foden” trucks but that would be fraught with risks and cost precious time.

British soldiers securing the crane.

The loss of any one of the seven critical trailers would constitute mission failure.  A second mission of equal magnitude could be attempted, but it would probably have to wait until spring.  This mission was one of the largest logistics operations during the entire war and certainly one of the most important civil affairs efforts.  Although it was top secret at the time, news of mission failure would quickly spread.  In terms of propaganda value, failure would be a major victory for the enemy.

The Canadians have an excellent reputation among British and American forces, and so the Canucks were tasked to clear the road for the convoy.  This was a chain of many links: if the Canadians failed, the mission would fail.

Of the seven critical trailers, four contained transformers, two held stators, and the last one carried the upper bracket assembly, which itself weighed about 15 metric tons.  The smallest transformer weighed about 25 metric tons, and the other three about 29 tons each.  These would be driven along bumpy roads replete with beautiful ambush opportunities for the enemy.  I asked a British mechanical engineer, Major Mark Howard-Harwood, just how he thought they could pull this off.  Even without the imminent threat of ambush by every means imaginable, the route itself could easily tip the scales in favor of Murphy’s Law.  If any of the four transformers were destroyed, they could be easily replaced, but delivery would require a separate mission.  Yet if one of the two custom-made stators were destroyed, there would be a two-year delay before a replacement could arrive.

Major Howard-Harwood went on to explain some of the other challenges facing the convoy.  The transformers were filled with oil, but there were no baffles, so even in the smaller of the four transformers, some 7.5 tons of oil would slosh around.  The moment a transformer was hoisted, the center of gravity could change quickly and dramatically.  Taking these sloshing loads up treacherous, unpaved roads would be difficult and risky.  In favor of success, the army transport vehicles are made for hauling heavy loads, like tanks, so the trailers have sophisticated self-balance systems to smooth the ride.  The roads were so rough that the convoy brought 84 spare tires.  (If the mission failed, likely it would not be due to lack of a spare tire.)  Major Howard-Harwood put his mechanical engineering skills to work, designing stabilization frames, which two British soldiers, metalsmiths CPL Houghton and SSG Tindall, then built.  Houghton and Tindall also designed and built metal enclosures that would protect the precious parts from small-arms fire, adding at least some protection against IEDs, although one direct bomb strike on one of the seven critical trailers would likely doom the mission.The enemy is plenty smart enough to wait for the heavy cargo before detonating one of its bombs, so the PsyOps folks designed what they thought might be a prophylactic: Koranic verses written on the trailers holding the precious cargo, in hopes that the enemy would not attack the words of the Prophet.  Some soldiers sneered at the idea, but I thought it was smart.  Iraqis had told me that Saddam put “Allah u Akbar” on the Iraqi flag so people would stop desecrating it.  And besides, the cost of the signs was almost nothing, while the mission was of great strategic importance.

Must Shoot to Score: The PsyOps folks had designed their own armor.

One of the critical trailers festooned with Koranic verse.

The convoy would be self-sufficient for a ten-day mission.  With British helicopter assets already stretched far beyond anything that could be termed acceptable, resupply would cut into operations elsewhere.  In other words, they would have to get by with what they had.

Many of the villages along the route are under Taliban influence or complete Taliban control.  CPT Jim Crompton, Brigade Media Ops, told me that “lots and lots of foreign fighters” had flooded into the area.

The enemy could see them coming from literally a hundred miles away.  About half of the convoy would launch from Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, while the critical trailers would leave from KAF.  The convoy from Camp Bastion would head east, while the convoy from KAF would drive west, where they would link-up at Maywand, and head north.

The route is like an inverted T.  It was believed that the enemy would think the convoy would head up the obvious route, HWY 611, and straight to the Kajaki Dam.  To help nurture this misconception, the British would launch deception operations up 611, and also launch attacks on known enemy strongholds.

Engines were started, morale was high, and British and Canadian soldiers at KAF were ready to get on with it.

In the early morning of 28 August 2008, the convoy from KAF, with the eight vital trailers, began streaming out.  The convoy was led by Canadians who would clear the route and fight through any resistance.  I wondered which of the Canadian vehicles might be left in flaming shreds, veiled in the pitch-colored smoke, thick with the heavy smell of burning fuel, and the popping and booms of exploding ammunition.  On the ground, the sights and smells would be horrific, and often these scenes play out with soldiers trapped in burning wreckage while comrades are under direct fire trying to save the wounded.  On the video feed from the Predator UAV above, the scene would be black and white, flames flickering, images of soldiers running around, hot smoke glowing as it floats away in the darkness, where brave Canadians might perish.  Everybody here knew the perils.

And so the Canadians led the way: lights would go out as they left the base.  Everything could go wrong, and probably would.

The convoy left in about four distinct parcels.  Large convoys are difficult to control; they have a tendency to stretch out and bunch together like a “slinky,” especially when driving without lights on treacherous roads.  The convoy commander will attempt to maintain a constant speed, attempting to mitigate the slinky effect that can leave vehicles sitting still and vulnerable to ambush.  Dozen after dozen British and Canadian vehicles streamed out, most of them heavily armed.  Some of the vehicles played loud music while still on base.   Soldiers checked and re-checked comms, electronic warfare devices, and untold numbers of other systems.  A Predator launched in the darkness.  A British officer said he knew it was a Predator by the flashing lights, while most other aircraft are blacked out.

As the last of the Canadian security vehicles left the marshalling area at KAF, I gave a thumbs-up to a Canadian soldier manning a big gun.  He saw me, and gave a thumbs up, and that was it.  They rumbled away into the dusty darkness.

Some 250 Taliban were reportedly killed in the fighting along the way to the dam, though one British officer told me he thought the number might be a bit high.

As the convoy drove away, I prepared for a flight back to Camp Bastion, where I would get on a helicopter to a tiny, dusty FOB called “Gibraltar,” which was surrounded by Taliban.  (More on that in the next dispatch.)  Meanwhile, every day I asked about the fate of the Kajaki convoy, hopeful that it would succeed in its mission, and have no casualties.

Some excellent British combat photographers went along for the Kajaki mission.  SGT Anthony Boocock, RLC, shot the photos below, and gave them to me after he returned safely from the mission.  These photos are property of the British MoD:

“Sniper Snacks”: Some routes were cleared on foot with metal detectors.

This vehicle clears with rollers and other devices.

Loss of one of the critical trailers above would constitute mission failure.

Terry (Taliban) tried to deliver show-stopping blows, and so Australian forces punched back.

“3 Para” were taking it to the enemy on foot, and the combat photographers, such as SGT Anthony Boocock, stuck with them.  Here the British soldiers take fire from both sides, but keep pushing in while the SGT Boocock goes about his work.

British soldier tosses grenade before attacking through.  The grenades are powerful, but the fine dust creates a Hollywood effect that some soldiers call “gren-nuke.”

500 lb bombs are big enough to get the job done, but small enough not to flatten a village.

British soldiers fire a deadly Javelin missile.

Success!  The convoy made it, and all the components arrived safely.  There were no combat casualties, but one soldier had his pelvis crushed when a vehicle he was working beneath fell on top of him.  But that doesn’t mean they weren’t fighting.  Anywhere from 200 to 250 Taliban were killed trying to take out the convoy.  With more hard and dangerous work, and a couple more years, the turbine will begin pushing electricity to more than a million Afghans.

The mission was a brilliant success against substantial odds.  The British press was justifiably proud of what has been called their largest logistics operation since World War II.  These are precisely the sort of large-scale civil affairs/information operations, backed up with military strength and tactical ingenuity, that are required to turn this war around.  Digging wells is nice, but pushing electricity to over a million people is even more effective.  Yet as impressive as Operation Eagle Summit was, it will take more than just one civil affairs project, however dramatic, to defeat the Taliban, as The Economist notes in this editorial.  I found the editorial a bit downbeat considering the unchallenged success of the mission, but we must be realistic that we are in for a long war.

Whether the Kajaki Dam is a turning point in the war, or just another brilliant success on the road to defeat, only time will tell.  But for now, let us praise USAID, and the courageous soldiers who went where only eagles dare, to deliver power to the Afghan people.  Operation Eagle Summit was a brilliantly planned, brilliantly executed, unqualified success.  It was a giant step forward, and a demonstration that ISAF leadership is willing to undertake the type of difficult and risky projects we need to win.


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