In mid April of 2007, SFC O, SSG Maniac, and I learned that we were being detached from our team and assigned to the ANP mission. It was a huge disappointment coupled with fear of the unknown; we had trained with our team at Ft Riley to mentor the ANA. Now we were being separated not only from our original mission, but from our team as well.
It's funny; you may not like everyone on your team, but you still don't want to be separated from them. That's just fear of the unknown, plain and simple. None of us wanted to be separated from the team. We also didn't want to be on the ANP mission.
We had no idea what to expect at all. After the surprise of arriving in Afghanistan, which nothing can adequately prepare you for, now there was even more unknown to deal with. We had heard of the possibility of being detached from our teams to be reassigned to the ANP mission while we were still at Ft Riley, but that was supposedly based on having civilian law enforcement experience.
That's not the way that it worked out. O had law enforcement experience. He's a cop in his civilian employment; as a supervisor, no less. Maniac had been a cop of some sort for about six months a long long long time ago, but rarely admitted to it. I don't think that anyone in Afghanistan outside of a couple of guys on our team even knew about it until after we were assigned the mission. I had been the subject of law enforcement, but had no experience actually enforcing the law.
The team had another officer, CPT Cowboy, who had also had plenty of law enforcement experience. He was not pulled away from the team. He went downrange with the ANA and would spend most of the year in and around Jalalabad.
No, that was not what the decision was based on. We would later learn that LTC SFowski had specifically requested three Infantry NCO's to be on the first district mentor team in the country. All previous mentor teams had been at the provincial level.
What we were initially told was that we would be assigned to the ANCOP (Afghan National Civil Order Police) mission.
"What the hell is ANCOP?" we asked. No one could give us a definitive answer. We were told that it was a SWAT-type of organization, but there were also hints that it was more like a riot-control type of quick response unit.
Whatever it was, it didn't sound good. We later knew soldiers who were assigned that mission, and we didn't envy them.
Our knowledge of our mission evolved over the course of several weeks that we spent as fifth wheels at Camp Dubs. During this time, we were assigned various duties to help out around the camp. I was assigned to work in the TOC* at night, performing little more than hourly radio checks and monitoring activities in the ANA 201st Corps area, which covered the southeast portion of the country, including Parwan, Panjshir, Kapisa, Nuristan, Kunar, Laghman, Nangarhar, Logar, and Wardak provinces.
It was at Camp Dubs that we first started to hear about the district where we would experience so much. As a matter of fact, the day that we arrived at Dubs, there was a bit of voyeuristic hubbub concerning a district center that was screaming for help.
The Tagab District center had been surrounded by Taliban and was under siege. Our senior NCO's and officers who had access to the TOC were periodically getting updates about the activity. Reports varied, but at one point we were actually told that the district center had fallen and all of the ANP had been slaughtered by the Taliban.
"Where's Tagab?" we asked.
One night, working in the TOC with a Major from California, we had reports from FOB Nijrab that they had recieved fire. The French ANA mentors* reported taking some machine gun fire from one of the nearby fingers* and described their response. I plotted the reported coordinates on the map and looked at the surrounding area.
It was just another chunk of crenelated landscape depicted in two dimensions on a sheet of paper. Little did I know the role that the same area, including that FOB, would play in my deployment.
As the days went by, we got an opportunity to meet with the members of the infant ARPAC-C (Afghan Regional Police Advisory Command - Central.) We learned that we would be going to be a district team reporting to a LTC SFowski in a province called Kapisa, in a district called Tagab. We had, as of yet, no vehicles of our own, no radios, no crew-served weapons (machine guns,) no SECFOR*.
Our budding knowledge of our coming situation really didn't prepare us for the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, we were in a holding pattern. We had no idea just when we might be moving.
Living every day without any earthly idea of what the most immediate future holds is disconcerting in the extreme. While many picture that this is exactly what military life holds on a daily basis, this is generally not true. You may not know the precise details of what will occur in the near future, but you do have a very general idea. At least you know what area you will operate in and what equipment and resources you will have to do the job. We had none of this.
Many people have the impression that more elite forces operate in a very free type of environment with many twists and turns, basically operating "off the cuff." This is untrue. Special Forces, for example, plan their operations in detail and rehearse their actions and permutations of their actions, contingency plans, thoroughly. The more elite, the more rehearsed. It is one of the reasons why they are elite.
As we floated at Camp Dubs, suspended in the ether of ignorance and shrouded in the fog of a budding organization, we were the polar opposite of this type of planning and foreknowledge.
It is in this type of environment that rumors start in larger units. Among the three of us, it was simply trying to apply the limited bits and pieces of information that we had access to or were being fed piecemeal.
We did some local conops in the Kabul area, just for something to do; nothing really exciting or challenging, although every movement brought the possibility of some type of contact. In Kabul, the most likely contact was actually a VBIED (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device.) Small arms attacks were uncommon in Kabul.
The newly migrated 1st Brigade, 201st Corps of the Afghan National Army was already making contact out east. In one ambush there were several ANA KIA and several more wounded. The casualties had been medevac'ed to the American hospital at Bagram. Several of the ANA were as yet unaccounted for.
The father of one of the unaccounted for soldiers presented himself to the ANA garrison at Darulaman, adjacent to Camp Dubs. The distraught father desperately needed to find his son, and the ANA commander wished to help him, and the American and French mentors wanted to help as well.
We were asked to escort the ANA, the distressed father, and one French vehicle to take the father to Bagram to attempt to identify his son. We planned the conop for the next day, May 19th, 2007.
O called LTC SFowski and told him that we would be going to Bagram the next day. The Colonel stated that he would be on the base and told us to give him a call when we were there so that we could make first contact with our new team.
You have no idea how interested we were in putting some kind of visual to anything having anything to do with our immediate future. It was like being suspended by our little toes in a very dark place while people you didn't know whispered what were likely lies in your ears.
Much of what we were told would turn out to be lies, if the definition of a lie is not the truth.
Our convoy that morning was the first of many tiny, motley convoys that we would be part of in the coming months.
Early in the morning we checked out our borrowed UAH (Up-Armored Humvee,) fueled it, checked our weapons, suited up in our body armor, and lined up in the agreed-upon formation.
It had been decided that the Afghans would lead in their unassuming Ford Ranger LTV (Light Tactical Vehicle,) followed by our UAH, trailed by the French in their Renault Frog.
The ANA LTV. Most are tan. This one is an unassuming white.
The Frog is a small armored reconnaissance vehicle, roughly the size of a humvee but very different. It was an all-armored vehicle, the entire outer skin being made of armor, but it only accommodated three soldiers; while two was really what was feasible.
It was a sporty-looking machine, though.
The Frog. Note the French Lieutenant with his weapon pointed directly at the camera... uh... that would be me.
The Frog was driven by a young French soldier known as Polo, which was a shortened version of his name. Polo was a very likable young man with a ready smile, and eager outlook on life, and terrible but well-used English.
The gunner was a French Lieutenant. He kept the 7.62mm French machine gun pointed forward, seemingly directly at my turret, for the entire trip. The trail vehicle is supposed to provide rear security, which typically means pointing the vehicle's weapon in that general direction. The none-too-young French Lieutenant wasn't demonstrating a high degree of knowledge of that portion of the SOP*.
We called our SP* in to the TOC and headed out the main gate and past the King's Palace, down the main thoroughfare which carried us past the high school which ran three shifts a day, and on towards the first traffic circle. Somewhere the broken pavement gave way to dirt, densely packed by the heavy traffic.
The ANA truck wove its way artfully through the traffic, challenging us in our six ton bulk to keep up. Polo never missed a beat, keeping the Frog tucked neatly behind us as we alternately dodged and bulled our way through the chaotic Kabul traffic.
Afghan butcher shops in Kabul.
We rolled through a bazaar area, narrow shops lining the road, meat hanging outside the butcher shops in the open air. Bags of corn, grains, beans, and nuts sat neatly rolled down in front of others. The street was full of people, cars, bicycles, motorcycles, and flat wooden carts built on the rear axles of dismembered trucks.
The neat organization of the inside of the shops was a stark contrast to the disheveled chaos of the street.
Organized dry goods shops in Kabul
Burqa clad, a woman whose age was revealed only by her knurled hands solicited alms in the middle of the street. I wondered what her story was; did it have anything to do with the horrors of internecine warfare, or was she reduced to begging by natural causes in a world far from sanitary?
A young boy hawked papers a few feet away, making his way from vehicle to vehicle in the slowly moving traffic, a smile on his face as he proffered his reading material.
New mosque under construction.
A little past the mosque under construction we paralleled the filthy Kabul River. The old native American with the single tear running down his face in the 70's anti-litter campaign would have had a complete raving breakdown if he had ever seen anything like this.
The river runs through a walled channel which had apparently once been clear. Now it is clogged with a combination of mud, dense clots of trash, the few hardy plants that could eke a pathetic existence in the filth, and water that made drinking a glass of American toilet water from a biker bar seem like a delicious alternative.
Another traffic circle, another crazy roundabout breaking-into-traffic and on our way up the street past the somewhat modern-looking apartment building that always had laundry strung outside the windows.
The garments strung out on the line gave clues to what lay under the burqas. One of the guys had a tendency to make a point of pointing out when there were thongs out on the line.
"See? See? I told you they had thongs out on the line!"
It was incongruous with the ultimate modesty of the burqas. The funny thing about many of the burqa-clad blue Halloween ghosts trudging about was that their shoes were often a stark contrast to the shapeless dowager mystery. High heels, sometimes even spiked heels; shoes that would have looked more in line with a cocktail dress than a robin's egg blue sheet.
Thongs and high-heeled shoes suddenly became quite remarkable. Hence, the remarks.
During all of this, I was scanning from the turret. Yes, I was noticing the cultural details; the paper-hawking boy, the widow begging in traffic, the neatly arranged and rolled-down bags of dry goods, the slaughtered sheep hanging in the open air, the traffic patterns, the throngs of people. I was also scanning for any evidence that anyone was overly focused on us, harboring more than ill intent; the capability to do something with their ill intent.
I've always said that your best protection in this type of environment is to know what normal looks like. When you first arrive in country, everything looks strange. As you get more experience and you know what things look like when you're not attacked, you get a sense of what normal street activity looks like as you pass through their society.
You start to look for anyone who seems to want to get closer to you, especially if they seem urgent in their approach. You look for drivers who seem to want to get close to your vehicle, there are some other things that you look for, but revealing them would be potentially unwise, as they are still what our guys look for.
You begin to notice "the stink-eye." Some of the men on the street will openly glare at you. I always waved to men when I made eye contact with them; including and especially if they gave me the stink-eye. It gave me an instant temperature-read on the situation.
The funny thing is, sometimes Afghan focus appears to be anger. When intently studying something, they may appear to have ill-will. Frequently, the wave would break the spell and this would be followed by a smile and a wave in return.
Sometimes a wave would bring an unexpected result, a negative response ranging from a refusal to respond (an insult in Afghanistan) to a shake of the head or, in rare cases, a negative hand gesture.
Afghan culture does not typically include profanity, whether in hand gestures or in speech. The use of a profane hand gesture is extreme. So you definitely keep your eye on that guy... but you have to keep scanning, too.
There is always a lot of activity in Kabul, so it can feel like sensory overload; the traffic, the pedestrians, the dust, and the seeming chaos of it all. Throw in the underlying emotional thrum of seeing the poverty, filth, destruction, and seeming hopelessness, and there is a lot to scan and a lot to experience.
Strange situations often have to be sensed rather than detected. You may not see the weapon, or the insurgent, but you get a sense that something isn't right. Some of the guys say that their "spidey sense is tingling."
Cartoons; they're not just for entertainment anymore.
That sense is often wrong... or is it? When you sense that something is wrong, you become more alert and ready to become instantly deadly aggressive. Our experience in Afghanistan (and most likely in Iraq) has been that insurgents often engage those who appear to be easier targets. If you look like you're ready to respond, they are less likely to engage.
If you look like you're asleep on the gun, you are more likely to get attacked.
Who's to say how many ambushes have been thwarted by such vigilance? They don't go in the books... at least on our end of things. Wonder if the Taliban has a non-TIC list. Hmmmm.
Sometimes when you think something's about to happen, it doesn't. Usually somebody has a "bad feeling" before something happens. Indirect fire (mortars, rockets, stuff like that) is an exception. That very often "comes out of nowhere." But when you're inside the FOB, there's no sense of what the locals are doing and if it's out of the ordinary.
Like I said, it's knowing what normal looks like that makes you able to to know what abnormal looks like. Early on, you have no idea what normal looks like and you have to rely on your training. Therein lies a problem.
Perhaps things have changed, but we were told to look for "signs" that are everywhere and poor indicators of enemy activity. Many of them are, in fact, part of what normal looks like. Aside from the fact that it takes awhile for the newness of everything to wear off and things to start to feel normal, wasting your limited sensor bandwidth on looking for things that you later realize were truly not potential indicators of danger adds to the initial lack of effectiveness as a human sensor.
At this point, we were moving past the midpoint of the newness curve. We had already been on quite a few combat patrols and beginning to feel more comfortable in the saddle so to speak. In retrospect, we still had a lot to learn; but we felt a bit better.
And we were beginning to doubt some of our training.
From the point where we left the river on, the road included fairly long straight stretches that were in horrible condition. The main route through Kabul was in the beginning phases of construction for eventual paving. At this point, though, the road was a dusty, congested, bumpy, chaotic mess. It was not uncommon for cars, buses and trucks to cross into oncoming traffic and bull their way through. It all had a Mad Max quality to it that added to the surreal feeling that would sometimes come on.
When we turned north to leave Kabul and head up the broad valley towards Bagram we drove up a relative side street through a neighborhood area, then a budding industrial area, past an Afghan Army installation and then finally the long, generally flat and mostly straight road across what I came to think of as "the Plain of Bricks."
The Plain of Bricks
As you traveled the main road to Bagram, is seemed that there was a constant stench of burning rubber. There were many brick kilns along the way. While they were well off the road, the main fuel for the kilns was old tires. The sooty pillars of smoke that rose from each kiln site diffused to spread the distinctive smell through the air all along the plain that lay between two widely splayed mountain ridges.
It seemed as if entire villages were under construction along the highway. Afghan-style housing developments seemed to be springing up from the very ground, products of the many kilns that littered the plain.
While we had been on a few open-country conops, being suddenly free from the congestion and dust of Kabul was both freeing and oddly uncomfortable. The opportunities for long-range attacks were suddenly everywhere. Forty foot deep waddies slashed the flat plain at several points along the way, extending to the left and right of the two-lane paved highway at nearly right angles; perfect "keyhole shots."
Our speed was an ally. The ANA truck zipped along followed by the two multi-ton armored vehicles. The French Lieutenant was still facing forward, his medium machine gun still pointed more or less at my turret. I would alternate my turret from left to right keeping within forty five degrees of forward, as we were the heaviest firepower forward as well as to the flanks.
Our rear security was obviously lacking. Polo, on the other hand, was doing a great job of keeping a good interval. He neither lagged too far behind or crowded us.
We had seen a few herds before and had glimpsed Kuchis ("Coochies") on our first trip out into the 201st Corps area to the east. Now they were in abundance. Kuchis with hundreds of sheep and goats occupied encampments at regular intervals along the highway, usually about two hundred to four hundred meters off of the highway itself.
The low tents of the Kuchis, camels tethered or hobbled nearby, stood in twos and threes. Women and children could be seen moving about near the tents. Cooking fires were evidenced by the small white plumes rising from the clusters. A mile further on there would be another tiny tent village, most likely a family unit.
Sometimes the flocks would be nearby, sometimes there would be a large herd, tended by the men and sometimes children, quite a distance from the nearest cluster of tents. A man led a camel along the highway, claiming right-of-way just as surely as any jingle truck.
A Kuchi, a Camel, and a Frog
We reached a sweeping curve that lead to a choke point; masses of rock rose on each side of the road. Rusting hulks lay decaying where they had died in battle, twisted metal frozen in the moment of destruction. Scorch marks on the rocky heights evidenced the ferocity of a fight some time ago. An ANP checkpoint and a terribly warped buckle in the road stood guard at the gate to the north.
Our new interest in the ANP brought a disappointment; the ANP seemed singularly disinterested in the traffic passing to their front. Our passing, and accompanying wave from the turret, brought forth the enthusiasm of an aging porchbound bluetick hound on a hot and steamy country afternoon.
They barely raised their heads to look. Was that a nod, or did he just fall back to sleep? Don't hurt yourselves, guys.
We've got work to do. Sheesh.
From here it was all down hill to Bagram. Demining teams were still active in the fields that bordered the road. Rocks painted red and white indicated the safe passage lanes. Red side meant mines. White side was clear. You hoped. We were glad that we were not due to dismount.
We finally came to Bagram Air Base, a long broken pavement road lead to the front gate, which was not the original main gate. Clearance procedures at the main gate included vetting the Afghan officers and their passenger, and we began to move along the road just inside the fence along the border of the airfield.
We passed a couple of numbered conex towers manned by body-armored guards who peered intently outward. Symbols of the 82nd Airborne Division were in evidence here and there, from the patches of the gate guards to replicas of the unit patch on several signs.
As we paralleled the fence I gazed outwards, relaxed. We were inside the wire now at the biggest Coalition base in Afghanistan. An A-10, gear and flaps lowered, crept towards the runway threshold. Half-crumbled khalats lay only a few yards beyond the remnants of of Russian barbed wire posts made of concrete. The presence of a few children in the fields between the fence and the crumbling mud-walled courtyards bespoke mine-clearing operations completed in that zone.
The second A-10 swooped in, talons extended, massive multi-barreled 30mm gun jutting from its chin. This base held some not inconsiderable power. As a ground-bound soldier, there isn't much more beautiful than the ugly mug of a Warthog. It is an instant combat multiplier on an order of magnitude, and we love their ungainly-looking asses.
You won't find too many grunts who wouldn't give at least a portion of a limb to fly one just once, too. It looks like a lot of fun.
My head involuntarily bobbed as it swiveled out towards the sound of the blast. The angry puff floated just above the ground about seventy meters to my eight o'clock.
"What the hell was that?" I asked, even as I assessed the threat.
"What? That noise?" O asked from inside the humvee. It had been greatly muffled inside the armored humvee, the headphones adding to the sound deadening.
"It was bigger than a hand grenade..." I began. The French Lieutenant in the vehicle behind us looked at me quizzically, palms upturned in the universal sign for "what the hell was that?"
"...and smaller than an 105 or a 120 mortar..." I pointed the Lieutenant's eyes in the direction of the smoke and dust now beginning to drift northward on the breeze.
"It might have been an 81," I concluded, "but from where?"
It wasn't until several weeks later that we learned that it was likely a rare rocket attack. A single rocket, fired from the east that had flown completely over the base and landed just outside the wire on the far side. Right near where we had driven that day.
I stayed a little lower in the turret, but there were no further events, and we turned right onto Disney Road, named after a soldier who had given his life in Afghanistan, not the entertainment conglomerate we came to suspect of running the place.
I often referred to Bagram Air Base as "Disneystan." of the 40 some-odd thousand Americans in Afghanistan, well over ten thousand of them live and work at Bagram, and only seven percent of them ever leave the wire. We were told that this seven percent was referred to as "the Seven of Spades" by the tower guards.
Bagram sports a Burger King, two Dairy Queens, a Pizza Hut, a theater, a large portable building known as "The Clamshell" which featured such delights as Karaoke Night, Country and Western Night, and Salsa Night, at least four gyms, three large KBR-run chow halls, a Korean restaurant, and two PX/BX's.
Shuttle buses ran up and down Disney, carrying the denizens of this island of civilization to and fro.
Weapons were carried everywhere by all armed personnel. "Muskets," the full-length M-16A2's, were in full evidence. They seemed impossibly long compared to the M-4's to which we had become accustomed.
We located the American hospital and parked. The Afghans were required to be escorted everywhere, so O accompanied them into the hospital, where the distraught father searched vainly for his son's face among the ANA wounded being treated there.
They learned that there was an Afghan body at the mortuary. O decided to accompany the Afghans there for the difficult task. We waited as they rode off in their LTV.
Polo opened the rear of the Frog and waited.
"Chick magnet," he explained. We laughed.
Sure enough, several females stopped by to look at the odd little French vehicle. Polo was in his glory.
I called LTC SFowski and told him that we had arrived, and he gave us directions to the North DFAC* so that we could meet him for lunch. I told him that O was busy with the Afghans at the mortuary. The Colonel informed us that his time was a bit limited and that we would need to hurry. I called O and let him know where to meet us, and Maniac and I locked up the humvee and strode off towards the DFAC.
Bagram is a saluting post, and the place is swarming with officers of all types and services. I thought that my arm was going to charley horse from all the saluting on the short walk to the DFAC. We would get plenty of this in the months to come, each of us returning home looking like fiddler crabs from the unequal exercise that our arms would receive during our periodic stints at this "combat" base.
When we arrived at the DFAC I called LTC SFowski and he directed us to his table where we met the man who was to shape the first couple of months that we would work with the ANP. He was a man of average height, soft-spoken, with a thoughtful look about him and the "long tab" of the Special Forces on his left shoulder.
The Colonel greeted us casually and talked briefly about our mission. We were to be the very first District Team in the country. He explained that he had specifically requested three Infantry NCO's to man the team, and that we would be working in the Tagab District of Kapisa Province.
He briefed us very quickly that we would be going to a Special Forces camp in Nijrab, at the northern end of the Tagab Valley, and that an operation was being mounted to fortify the Tagab District Center and build a very small American compound there for our Mentor Team to live. This compound would not be ready for some time; in the meantime we would live at Nijrab and commute to work with the ANP in Tagab.
O appeared part-way through the briefing. A few minutes later the Colonel announced that he had to be on his way and bid us adieu. His final remark was that he planned to come to Camp Dubs to retrieve us in two days, kit and caboodle.
O informed us that the search had been fruitless. The Afghan father was beside himself at this point, having been to a hospital and a morgue looking for his son to no avail. It was time to go back to Kabul.
The return trip was a reverse image of the trip up, minus the explosion near the perimeter.
We arrived at Camp Dubs in time for dinner and reported the results of the mission to the Brigade Mentor Team. While the search for the missing ANA soldier had turned up nothing positive, our mission to put a name to a face and learn more about our future had brought more fruit than several weeks at Camp Dubs.
Very soon our real work would begin.
*The French ANA mentors were called Operational Mentor Liaison Teams, or OMLT's. It was pronounced "Omelette." French Omelettes. What a hoot.
TOC = Tactical Operations Center. It is the nerve center.
Finger = a spur or small ridge extending off of a larger ridge, usually at a right or nearly right angle.
SECFOR = Security Force. Each mentor team has a security element assigned to it. Each base or FOB also has a resident SECFOR detachment responsible for manning the towers and gates. Our SECFOR went where we did and worked hard to keep us safe so that we could work, and sometimes helped train the ANP. Our SECFOR were mainly from the 263rd Armor, and were some of South Carolina's finest sons ever.
SOP = Standard Operating Procedure.
SP = Start Point.
DFAC = Dining Facility. It's the chow hall.
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