OPERATION ENDURING BOREDOM - EPISODE XIII
Pfc. Shirey and Sgt. Boyle caught in flagrante detaino during an Afghan village HVT raid.
AMERICAN CITIZEN SOLDIER *EXTRA*
This is the continuation of a series of selected excerpts from my Afghanistan war journal hand-recorded from October 2003 to August 2004. All OEB entries are previously unpublished.
Author's Note: This post is chock full of "inside baseball" in terms of the way we approach missions and how we make adjustments on the fly to the situation as we actually find it on the ground. Some may find the level of detail excessively banal, though I found it necessary to include it in order to fully grasp the bigger picture. However, reader discretion is advised.The most precious commodity with which the Army deals is the individual soldier who is the heart and soul of our combat forces.
-General J. Lawton Collins
We leave Kabul today, nearly two full months older, bolder, and wiser. 2nd Platoon has now officially spent more time here than at our battalion’s main camp at FOB Salerno. The FOB is going to feel like a foreign country (!) when we step off the bird. It’ll be interesting to see how it’s changed in the interim. We’ve been told that KBR (Kellogg Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton) is already set up there by now working their contractor magic. If that’s true, then praise Allah, it’s about damn time already. Just because we’re stuck in the Land Before Time doesn’t mean we should have to live like it. “Hi, Afghanistan? Um, yeah, the dinosaurs called. They want their habitat back. They warned that you’d better not have changed it too much. I told them not to worry.”
Friday the 13th. What better day to travel in a C-130 over a combat zone. On my way out of the chow hall last night (snidely referred to as our “Last Supper”) I noticed that some particular individual had left several back issues of American Funeral Director sitting out in the lobby. My initial thought was, Who would read such a morbid periodical in a place like this? Soon followed by, Why do funeral directors need their own magazine? Are there really people out there who get excited when they see the postman stuff this into their mailbox? “Look, Honey! The July issue of American Funeral Director is finally here! Yippee!” Whomever said truth is stranger than fiction didn’t know the half of it.
The ranking officer here at “Camp VIP,” full-bird Colonel Varney, spoke to us briefly before we loaded up and boarded the trucks for Kabul International Airport, otherwise known as “KIA.” (Yes, the Grim Reaper is quite the jokester today.) Col. Varney thanked us for our time spent protecting him and his fellow officers and for our professional demeanor in carrying out our duties, even as monotonous as they often were. He also made it clear that the average Afghan is grateful that we’re here and of the fact that we left our families and lives behind to travel across the globe to lend a helping hand to a part of the world that most other nations had written off entirely.
The officers and senior NCOs here at Camp Blackhorse work closely with the Afghans and have much more personal contact with them than we do, so it was nice to hear that we aren’t perceived as just another group of meddling invaders by the average Joe Haji. It helps to know your sacrifice is appreciated on some level by someone somewhere, especially when so many of your own countrymen could perceivably care less.
Observing the Afghans go about their daily business in Kabul did not leave me unduly optimistic about the prospects for their future, however. The inherent laziness of Afghani culture abounds. The Afghans are natural merchants with a knack for suckering one into buying even the most worthless of crap. Still, there’s simply no evident work ethic to speak of. Mexicans on siesta make them look like army ants. Don’t look for skyscrapers to spring up in downtown Kabul anytime soon, or for infrastructure to dramatically improve, or a chain of Burka King fast food joints to materialize out of the ether. Hong Kong, this is not. (Although it does often smell a lot like King Kong).
Friday 13February2004 -- Monday 16February2004
FOB Salerno, Southeastern Afghanistan
The weather is much improved down here in the south compared to Kabul. What a difference a mere 2,000 feet in elevation makes. Sunny and warm (dare I say hot) in mid-February. This does not bode well for the upcoming summer months.
The FOB is indeed much improved since we last set foot on it. KBR has installed ready-made Force Provider showers and toilets in the expansion area, a 110% improvement over our previous Gilligan’s Island-style accommodations. They also have a new chow hall and gym in the works, though for the time being our food is still lacking in the edibility factor. No surprise there. We have a mini-PX now, though, which almost makes up for it, even if it is just a wooden shack.
Our first few days back were lazily (and gratefully so) spent lounging about between regular pick-up games of touch football on the air strip. (“Time out! Inbound C-130!”) We ate chow, tossed around the ol’ pigskin, caught up on our sleep and our reading (or I should say, my reading -- everyone else’s movie watching and video game playing), and suffered through endless variations and retellings of 3rd Platoon’s war stories. Apparently, every man in their platoon somehow managed to single-handedly take out the four Taliban baddies they tagged and bagged while we were away. John Rambo had nothing on them. Yawn.
Our brief respite from the tiresome pace of Kabul was to be short-lived, however. Charlie Company is back on mission cycle and our platoon is scheduled to venture back out into Indian country once again on the trail of A Few Bad Men, aka Afghanistan’s Most Wanted.
Operation “Kill Bill” commences tomorrow.
Tuesday 17February2004 -- Friday 20February2004
OPERATION “KILL BILL”
Mission: Disrupt Anti-Coalition Forces in and around Objective Sequoia in order to deny ACM sanctuary and freedom of movement. Locate and apprehend suspected ACM operatives known to frequent area (Mullahs Tajmir, Raof, Sultan, Mohammed, Nabi and Akbar Zadran)
[Hey, that’s a great idea. Let’s go around asking people in a Muslim country if they’ve seen a guy named “Mohammed” lately. We’ll get the phone book in response. (That is, if they had phone books here.) As for the rest of this motley crew, I think we just listed half the bad guys from Star Trek. Are we looking for Taliban or Klingons?]
Location: Various villages 10km northeast of Khost
Key Elements: Mounted reconnaissance of area, village assessment, cordon and search of targeted compounds, possible vehicle checkpoints.
Soft search vs. hard search:
-Ask permission to enter [enter either way]
-If weapons/contraband found, transition to hard (forceful) search
Notes: No CAS (close air support) available. [Yeah, that’s comforting.] 105mm artillery support on request, though not approved for use in or near villages. C co. HQ 60mm mortar team attached to platoon.
0400 Rehearsals 16FEB
0030 Stage 17FEB
0200 Departure 17FEB
TBD Return 20FEB
Khost Bowl’s Most Wanted:
Mullah Tajmir: Implicated ACM leader in Yaqobi; former Taliban chief of Jalalabad
Mullah Raof: ACM leader in Yaqobi; former governor of Khost
Mullah Sultan: ACM leader in Yaqobi; former Taliban intel chief in Kabul
Mullah Mohammed: ACM leader in Yaqobi; former Taliban mayor in Kandahar
Nabi: Arms dealer in Yaqobi and brother-in-law of Malem Jan
Muhammed Akbar Zadran: Yaqobi sub-governor (should be able to provide info on security situation in Yaqobi)
Osama bin Laden: Chickenshit A/Q fuck too afraid to face U.S. forces mano a mano; delights in frequent straight-to-video releases to Al Jazeera TV demonstrating the terrifying power of terrorists repeatedly training on monkey bars. Shoot on sight (preferably in the balls):
“Infidel dogs! You are no match for my legions of monkey-bar swinging jihadists! No one is safe! Not Bush! Not Blair! Not Britney! Nobody!! God willing, the Great Satan will fall to its knees! All I need is another Democratic administration and I’m back in business. Go Kerry! Give ‘em hell, Howard! Draft Hillary!”
Our platoon truck-assaulted into an area northeast of Khost today to search village compounds, scout for bad guys, and solicit HUMINT (human intelligence) from willing locals (or unwilling, if need be). We searched by day and bedded down in various secluded wadis (dry riverbeds) rather than return to the FOB each night. We needed to remain in the area in order to be on station to support 3rd Platoon if necessary, out performing night ops while we slept.
We quickly surmised that village cordon and searches are eminently more high-speed to read about others doing than they are to actually do yourself. For many of us, the mission wasted no time morphing into Operation Take a Knee, as the majority of an infantry platoon is often tasked to pull security on doorways, entrances & exits, and detained individuals -- sometimes for hours on end -- while the remainder clear and search maze-like mud-walled compounds.
We feel like the U.S. Army Traveling Circus as we roll into these dusty, no-stoplight towns, facing out from the bench seats in the back of our five-ton trucks. The locals gawk at us like we’re space aliens and then proceed to follow us wherever we go. Haji cable, we call it. They’ll congregate in large groups and do nothing but stare at us stare back at them while we pull security around our vehicles in the scorching heat, waiting patiently for EOD to arrive to dispose of any weapons contraband we’ve uncovered.
Typically, a few in the crowd will speak pidgin English and attempt to engage us in all manner of non-sequitor smalltalk:
Haji: “Amarika! Amarika! Waht is yor name? Give me biscuit. You like chicken?”
Us: “Where is al-Qaeda? Where is Taliban?”
That is Haji’s one-size-fits-all answer for every bad guy we’ve ever looked for: “Pakistan.” It’s not necessarily them just blowing smoke up our asses, either. Afghan Pashtuns are a tribal society and only loosely recognize the sovereign borders that arbitrarily separate them. Consequently, Pakistan does about as good a job of keeping rogue elements out of their country as we do keeping illegal aliens out of ours.
Anytime our convoy stops in even semi-populated areas for any length of time, the local Afghan militia or police contingent will typically make an appearance in order to “impress” us with their crowd control skills; i.e., large switches or sticks which they then proceed to whack the bejesus out of the locals with when they invariably creep too close to our security halt perimeter. The locals don’t seem to like these authority figures much and I don’t really blame them. Though I must admit it was amusing to watch the crowd’s Gandhi-like passive resistance, absorbing blow after blow with the switches, only to defiantly return to their previous vantage points once the Afghan militiamen had moved on to others. I got the uneasy feeling that our presence was the only thing inhibiting these proto-soldiers from unslinging their AKs and taking things up a notch. But then again, they could have just been showing off in front of the big, bad Americans who were clearly allowing the locals to push them around in their wimpy, Westernized fashion. I’d love to see a bunch of NYU college kids protest in front of this bunch of Muslim men in blue and dare to call them “pigs.” The aftermath would make Kent State look like a bitch fight.
PL's Intel Roundup for TUE 17FEB04
Location: Nuri Kalay
Name/Owner: Bagh Dargul
Action: Random house search. Owner claims equipment left by brother (Amir Gul) who was a former jihad fighter long ago. Amir now resides in Dubai. Owner remained friendly and talkative.
Action Taken: All weapons caches destroyed by EOD same day but owner still has  AK-47,  .303 bolt action rifles.
Cache Description:  tactical AK bandoliers (3 full mags each),  boxes w/20 AK rounds each,  RPG rounds (new),  RPG propellant (sealed),  rounds 7.62mm,  rounds 7.62mm on clip. All ammo good condition or like new.
Location: Nuri Kalay
Name: Unknown (lives in compound w/five brothers)
Action: Random house search. Owner stated that suspect A (Mullah Tajmir) lives in Kuwait but family lives in Kurru. Suspect B (Mullah Raof) lives in Junghund, 15km east. Suspect C (Mullah Sultan) lives in Dubai but family lives in Kurru. Owner remained friendly and talkative.
Action Taken: All caches destroyed by EOD same day; owner still has  old AK-47s w/2 mags each and  .303 bolt action rifle.
Cache Description:  AK mags,  PKM rounds,  worn bandoliers,  armor-piercing AK rounds, and  hand grenades.
Acting on a tip from a locally “recruited” informant, we stormed a sprawling compound not knowing how much resistance, if any, to expect. Our squad (3rd) led the way, going in hard and fast through a gauntlet of locked doors that we forcefully breached and ordered all inhabitants “on the floor!” as we came upon them. SGT Boyle, leading our alpha team around a corner, startled a group of Afghan males congregated in an expansive courtyard. He shouted and motioned for them to get down with his left arm as he leveled his M-4 carbine in their direction with the other. One haji made a mad dash for a nearby room instead, prompting SGT Boyle to fire two quick shots, hitting the man in the lower legs as he dove through the open doorway.
“I don’t know what made him bolt like that,” Boyle would later recount. “Panic, maybe,” he said. “But I wasn’t about to let him reach that building not knowing what he may have waiting for us when we go in after him.”
Turns out the man had family inside and we soon discovered seven or eight of them huddled inside a tiny crawl space after we took down and cleared the room. They likely thought we had come to execute them, Afghanistan historically being a harbinger of all-too-swift justice -- or vengeance. Nevertheless, SGT Boyle did exactly the right thing under lightning-quick circumstances, and our chain of command would later back his decision fully.
By chance, a freelance photographer for Time (who’s name escapes me) had been accompanying us all week and was literally part of our alpha team stack as we cleared the corners and rooms of the mud-walled compounds, fearlessly snapping pictures at a rapid fire clip.
[If I’m not mistaken, the above photo of my team was taken by him during this particular raid.]
The next adjoining entryway we breached like a bull in a china shop, smashing through a door that led to a courtyard of nothing but terrified women, children, and assorted farm animals. One spooked bull in particular took the resulting commotion and frenetic activity so badly that he managed in one fail swoop to uproot his heavy linked chain, sprint straight out the now open back gate, and all the way up the side of a nearby mountain. Whoops, our bad.
This courtyard is where my fun ended for the day, as PFC Christy and I were tasked to stand watch over the group of women and kids that we scared half to death when we burst through the door. They had by now settled down and looked upon us with impassive expressions. There the group of us remained for hours on end while the rest of the platoon cleared and searched the rest of the compound. The three women sat predictably huddled together in a tight cluster with their faces covered as we stood nearby, but the teenage boy among them was not the least bit shy in attempting to communicate with us. I finally relented and handed him a pack of cinnamon chewing gum just to shut him up, and he proceeded to smack away and blow giant bubbles like a seasoned pro.
Several hours passed, the blazing Afghan sun baking us in all our cumbersome gear, when another shot rang out from across the compound. Weapons squad leader SSG Carmoney, the token platoon blowhard who also happens to be a spitting image of the Little Caesar’s “Pizza! Pizza!” guy, was soon heard over the ICOM radio net:
“Yeah, uh… roger, this is 2-4. I had to fire at a dog that was charging at me, over.”
“2-4, 2-6 (1LT Harber). Did you solve the problem? I can still hear a dog barking, over.”
“Um… that’s a negative, 6. The dog is unharmed, over.”
“So what you’re saying is, you fired a warning shot a dog? Is that the story you‘re going with, over?”
“Roger that. I think he got the message, over.”
[Hysterical laughter over the net]
I'm still not sure which is more comical -- SSG Carmoney unloading a shotgun at a snarling canine from point blank range and missing, or him then attempting to convince everyone that it was intended as a “warning shot.”
Once we began wrapping up, our medics finished treating the leg wound of the Afghan male that SGT Boyle inflicted earlier, also recommending that he make his way to the aid station at FOB Salerno for follow-up treatment. We then rolled out to seek out our secluded wadi for the night, as the sun was quickly receding behind the hills.
The First Sergeant somehow got it into his head that we needed a break from the constant stream of Meals, Ready to Excrete and arranged to have hot chow trucked out to us in the dark. The only problem was, it tasted worse than the MREs. I ended up devouring what was supposed to be a kielbasa sausage but was in fact a balled-up piece of stale bread placed in the bottom of the pan to soak up excess grease. And that wasn’t even the worst part of the meal. An unfortunate consequence of pitch-black “tactical field chow,” where we stumble around trying to eat food we can’t see and maintain a 10 meter separation from each other (in case of mortar attack or ambush), is the likelihood of tumbling head over heels down the steep sides of the wadi in the process amid a string of belted expletives.
A fitting ending to a crazy day.
PL's Intel Roundup forWED 18FEB04
Name/Owner: Family of Suspect C (Mullah Sultan)
Action: Hard search of compound. Notes handed over to company HQ/Geronimo 5. Several photos included.
Haji TV is back on the air as we surround another compound in yet another Afghan village in perpetual search for “evil doers.” We encountered a shady-looking character with a nasty hole in his leg who disavows any nefarious ties, though we would later receive intel that not long after we departed he was visited by an entourage of up to twelve known ACM guerrillas. Sneaky Afghan bastards.
After taking a knee outside an alleyway among several Afghan “surface mines” (apparently, not many of them have heard the operative phase “don’t shit where you eat”) we would return to this same house again in search of Haji Wounded Knee in order to PUC (detain) him and sweat him out for info just five days later. Ironically, I would end up providing security in nearly exactly the same spot as before. I even saw my gum I had spit in the dirt the previous week.
The locals present told us he had heeded our prior advice and had left to go to a hospital, but was later ratted out by people who said that he split after receiving a cell phone tip-off that we were rolling back into town. (Our convoys unavoidably stir up tornadoes of dust and can be viewed from miles away). Our leadership, fed up with these typical displays of Afghan cat and mouse, warned the locals that if they did not produce this wanted individual within a few days time, we would come back in the dead of night and arrest everyone. That got the message across, and a local runner was dispatched to the FOB to drop dime on him by the end of the day. (FYI: Haji Wounded Knee turned himself in for questioning a few days later).
PL's Intel Roundup for THUR 19FEB04
Name/Owner: Islam Gul (brother of Nabi Gul)
Action: Search of house, acting on tip from local informant. Islam Gul states he was former soldier for PKZ and was shot in the leg six months ago. Claims he worked around the Khost area.
Action Taken: All caches destroyed by EOD same day; owner still has:  AK-47,  .303 bolt action rifle,  BDU field jacket (claims it was his dead brother’s). Left note with Islam Gul to come to Salerno for medical treatment. Told him he would probably die if he didn’t seek medical treatment based on condition of wound.
Cache Description:  field expedient antenna,  grenade,  mortar stake,  AK chest racks,  map of Kabul showing embassy locations,  sets of American BDUs, and  American boonie cap w/sergeant rank sewn on.
My final day in the field was spent rather uneventfully providing additional security for a commo humvee (one with a round, telescoping antenna that gives it a turtle-shell appearance when lowered) on a hilltop with my team leader SGT Boyle and PFCs Shirey and Christy. The rest of 2nd Platoon proceeded to search another few villages with only meager results.
Everyone dreads dry holes -- it’s disappointing to expend so much effort and energy in what is ultimately a fruitless exercise. Though it also has its upside: not having to wait hours on end for EOD to arrive to dispense of any confiscated ordnance. The Army in all its grand wisdom has suddenly become so risk adverse after losing seven soldiers in last month’s weapons cache explosion near Gardez that we aren’t even deemed competent enough to utilize our own combat engineers in the capacity they’re trained for.
This is yet another classic Army move -- treat you like an overprotective mother of an asthmatic paraplegic who desperately wants to try out for the soccer team when it comes to relatively minor risks like UXO (unexploded ordnance) disposal, yet then send you on your way via the insanely dangerous “SGLI Express,”* teetering on the edge of ravines and careening down steep wadis in near total darkness. We don’t fear the Taliban’s mines or rockets anywhere near as much as we fear faulty brake lines or high centers of gravity. The Army doesn’t worry about our broken bodies splayed at the bottom of a remote ravine among the scattered remains of a flaming wreckage -- it frets more about all the secondhand smoke we might be subjected to as a result.
*Servicemembers Group Life Insurance, the policy that covers U.S. soldiers
Again I refer you to the Law of Time in Service, which clearly states that a soldier’s IQ is inversely proportional to his pay grade. The longer one spends in the Army, the more likely he is to be a complete imbecile, as any rational human being would have gotten out long before. Sorry, but I'm just calling it like I see it.
Haji TV created a bit of a reality show around me today, albeit in its own twisted Afghan fashion. The viewership camped around our hilltop position caught a glimpse of the snapshot of my girlfriend that I keep tucked inside the helmet liner of my K-pot. After much internal commotion they finally sent forth their one English-mangling studio audience member to ask to see it. Amused by their curiosity (and glad to be spared the usual litany of requests -- “Water! Pen! Pen! Water-pen!”) I complied and was instantly swarmed.
“My friend… (Everyone in Afghanistan is “your friend”) …this girl look very interesting. You marry?”
“No, we’re not married. She’s my… (I rack my brain for the Pashto word for “girlfriend.” I’m not sure there is one). …girlfriend. She’s my girlfriend.”
“Girl...friend? How old you are, my friend?”
“Twenty-eight,” I answer, flashing the appropriate amount of fingers to help them out. This news creates a strange buzz among this all-male crowd, just enough to sufficiently creep me out. Apparently, 28 and not married equals “bi-curious” in this part of the world.
“My friend,” he says. “My brother asks if you like his hair. Very long and beautiful, yes?” He began stroking it as if to hammer home this uncontestable fact. I reluctantly glanced over at him. His brother looked like Yanni in a man-dress and Jesus sandals, his fingernails painted bright orange as many rural Afghans inexplicably seemed to have. (Whether this is the result of a common Third World medical condition or vitamin deficiency is something that we’ve never to be able to determine. God if only that could be true).
“Um… yeah, I’m sure it’s real nice. I think I’m going to go stand back over here now.”
I nervously scrambled for an exit strategy to extricate myself from this increasingly uncomfortable situation, wasting no time in changing the channel on this freakshow. Jerry Springer’s got nothing on these guys.
PL's Intel Roundup for FRI 20FEB04
Location: Kholbesat, north side of bazaar area (main road)
Name: Sabir From: Noor (village)
Action: Caught taking photos of C co. convoy as it passed
Action Taken: Confiscated camera and Sabir was given a note to “pick up camera at Salerno.” Photo was taken of Sabir.
Additional Personnel: Two males traveling w/Sabir
Name: Bismallah From: Noor
Name: Habibjan From: Noor
After Action Review [AAR]
PL’s Notes for OBJ Sequoia (16-20FEB2004)
Issue: Mission transportation/vehicle coordination
Discussion: Trucks for mission 24/hrs prior to conduct PCIs [pre-combat inspections]. Prep w/classes of supply, what heavy weapon they are equipped with, who the driver is, are gunners provided, are gunners qualified with weapons system, test-fire heavy weapons system, and PMCS [preventative maintenance checks & services] of vehicle.
Recommendation: Truck drivers w/vehicles, weapons system, and gunners should link up w/company at least 24/hrs prior to departure. This should be done in order to conduct PCIs, prep w/classes of supply, etc.
Issue: Vehicle Accessories
Discussion: Ops that cover multiple missions require different weapons systems. A storage area is needed to transition to alternate weapons systems based on mission requirements. M-14 long rifles should not be used to enter/clear buildings and rooms.
Recommendation: Wooden seats in the bed of trucks that serve a dual purpose: storage area for extra weapons/equipment and a seat for squad members to face out while in transit.
Issue: Designated Contraband Vehicle
Discussion: During ops several items were dispersed over several vehicles to include Geronimo 7’s [command vehicle]. In addition, a metal box or coffee can needs to be attached to the outside of vehicle to transport small explosive times like blasting caps and grenade fuses to EOD collection site.
Recommendation: Attach metal box/coffee cans to vehicles.
Issue: Entering a Building/Clearing a Room (w/Local-National Interpreters)
Discussion: During hard searches, terp did not meet the PL’s [platoon leader’s] intent. Amid the chaos, along with the language barrier, terp was not as loud or effective as desired to assist with the madness.
Recommendation: Train/rehearse with terps in a MOUT [military operations in urban terrain] environment. Terps also need megaphones so all in house/room can still hear after Americans start yelling. Pointing a rifle and shouting in our native tongue is highly ineffective.
Issue: Leaders Recon Prior to Hard Search
Discussion: Objective building was only pointed out as convoy pulled up -- this technique permitted barely 30 sec. to develop a COA [course of action].
Recommendation: Pinpoint objective from a distance utilizing optics or have the PL don a man-dress and conduct initial drive-by in civilian vehicle.
Issue: Hot Chow in the Field
Discussion: Hot chow was horrible.
Recommendation: Ask cook not to piss in spaghetti.
Issue: Sodas, Bread, PB&J in the Field
Discussion: It may seem insignificant, but it’s all about morale.
Recommendation: These are valuable items that need to be supplied every day whenever possible.
“Long Hair Two-Six”
Thus ended Operation “Kill Bill,” wrapping up with more of a whimper than a bang. It would have been nice to have caught UBL with his robe around his ankles, but the only thing we managed to kill was time.
I’ve come to the hard conclusion that nothing worth remembering will ever happen on this deployment, and have since shifted from an outlook of cautious optimism to merely counting the days until we can blow this joint for good. If there are no bad guys left to kill here, then either send us someplace where there are or let us get back to our business of sleeping in a real bed, wearing real clothes, and drinking real beer. Cause we sure as hell aren’t fighting a real war. Not anymore, at least.
COPYRIGHT 2006 BUCK SARGENT