Thursday, April 14, 2005

About those beards

Twelve suspected Taliban militants died in air strikes by US helicopter gunships and tankbuster jets in south-eastern Afghanistan, while the Taliban militants injured two members of the US-led coalition after fighting broke out early on Monday in Paktia province.

I'll bet this happened around the Logar pass between Gardez and Kabul. It was always a pretty safe place for us, but there are a lot of natural chokepoints going through the mountains where it would be easy to set up an ambush - or, in some places, just roll rocks down the hill and squish a light vehicle, like the Land Rovers we used to drive.

There were basically two ways to get from where we were in SE Afghanistan back to Bagram, and both of them meant driving through Kabul. One way was to go up and over through Ghazni, and then up Highway 1 that ran between Kandahar and Kabul. The other was to go through Gardez, then pick up the road to Kabul. Highway 1 had been freshly paved to try to tie the country together a bit better, and was one of the very few paved roads of any length that existed in the country. Since the road between Gardez and Kabul was also mostly paved, we used to call it Highway 2. (I have no idea what the actual designation was.) Either way, we had to travel many kilometers of bad road before getting to pavement, and then the paved road held its own dangers. The danger of getting hit by an IED* was smaller on pavement, both because it was harder to emplace an IED in asphalt without leaving a noticeable signature, and because it was harder for the bad guys to time one to go off precisely when a convoy went by because we could drive much faster on a paved road. (The IED danger didn't go completely away on a paved road, though. A unit out of Ghazni found a "really big" IED buried below the pavement just north of the city. The bad guys had buried the device before the road was paved. They knew that US forces would tend to gravitate to the good road, and would thus "channelize" themselves on Highway 1. That meant that, sooner or later, the ACM would have a good shot at an American convoy using the IED they had planted months earlier. I didn't particularly like the people who were trying to kill me, of course, but I did admire their tactical patience.)

The biggest danger on the paved roads, though, were other drivers. Few Afghanis had any experience with speed and pavement - until the Americans fixed Highway 1 and a few other roads, most Afghanis' driving experience was limited to badly washed dirt roads, and 20-30 MPH on a really good stretch. Suddenly, they could drive 60-70 MPH, and suddenly, all the traffice from Southeast Afghanistan was travelling along one road - buses, jingle trucks, and an apalling number of Toyota Corollas all streaming up and down Highway 1. While it was far from what an American would think of as heavy traffic, it was more than the Afghanis were used to. And, until you've been confronted by people who have never driven fast, it's hard to appreciate how much judgment of speed and distance is required to do simple things like judge safe passing distances, or when it's OK to pull out of a side road. Wrecks weren't infrequent, and near misses were pretty common.

So, we usually made our way up through Gardez, then through the Logar pass, and onto Kabul, a little to avoid Highway 1, but mainly because Gardez had a pretty big SF base there, with a B team and a couple of A-teams, and could usually be counted on to stand us lunch and diesel for the vehicles if we stopped by. That meant making our way through the Logar pass north of Gardez and then onto Kabul. Some SF team, or partial SF team, made the trip through there at least a couple of times a week, and none of us ever had any trouble, so it seemed like a pretty safe route. Naturally, when a convoy of support people had to come down from Bagram to visit us for a week or so, that was the route they took.

Of course, on the way back to Bagram, they got bounced. No big deal, they made it through and back to base without a scratch. (Well, no big deal for them - as I heard the story, it didn't turn out so well for the bad guys: The 19 year old mechanic riding the .50 cal in the turret shot the ambushers up pretty good, breaking up the ambush, while the twenty something female Engineer lieutenant who was driving the lead vehicle rammed a jingle truck - that was trying to pin them in - off the road. We all thought she was cool anyway, but that definitely confirmed it for us.)

We happened to be talking to one of the ANA company commanders about the ambush a few days later, and we asked the question that was on everybody's mind. Why did we drive the pass all the time and never get hit, while our support people got it their first time out? I mean, at the beginning of the deployment we did everything but run naked through the countryside to encourage the Taliban to come out and fight, and they still waited until our support team came through before springing an ambush. We were happy for the support team and everything, of course, but where was our ambush?

The ANA captain's take on it was this: He said that the Taliban knew better than to attack the "Americans with beards, the Americans who wear hats." He said that they waited for the normal army people - the ones who were clean-shaven and wore helmets - to attack. Our interpreter agreed. He said that he had interrogated captured Talibs in the past, and they had told him that they knew that the Americans with beards would kill them if attacked. And, he added, the Talibs had said that "if the bearded Americans couldn't kill us right away, then the airplanes would come."

It looks like that lesson needs to be expanded to include friends of Americans now, as well. I was glad to see that we were able to bust up the ambush of an Afghan government official, and I hope the word makes it around to the bad guys that hitting them is a bad idea, too. I'm a big fan of CAS (close air support), and believe me, if you're a bad guy, you don't want to be there "when the airplanes come."

*IED: Improvised Explosive Device. A roadside bomb or mine, usually command detonated.


Anonymous Kristy said...

More war stories. Cool. It's so great having the internet and being able to find out what really happened there instead of having to depend on the media to carefully explain to us how we're losing the war.


If you happen to see this comment, I think you're the one who also wanted to read the second half of that assault-on-the-compound story. If so, I can point you to it. After coming to the reluctant realization that I wasn't going to be coddled and spoonfed in spite of my requests, I went looking through the archives a little more closely. The downside of that was some really sad dog stories that I wish I hadn't seen, and a couple of entries that made me shake my head and wonder about the male affinity for bathroom humor. The upside was an absolutely hilarious post about how to pretend to be a Green Beret, some interesting notes about who gets sent to Guantanamo Bay and a Semper Gumby reference that made me laugh out loud. Anyway, check out the bottom of the March archive and you'll see Part Two. SFAG is a little hard on the Air Force, but I guess I can see where he's coming from under the circumstances. :-)

Spc Skorka and Consul-At-Arms,

Thanks for the confusing additions to that whole bewildering flow of armament information. Just teasing, both your comments were helpful and I think I actually do understand the difference between automatic, semi-automatic and regular, ordinary, everyday, good ol' guns now.


12:40 AM  
Blogger JA said...

Great story!! Thank you again for sharing with us.

11:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

They covered this same point in the book "Masters of Chaos".

From your story, if they knew who they wanted to attack and got their target on the first pass, then that means they must have been watching all the time. I would find that a bit discomforting.

Question: When someone is looking at me I get the feeling that I'm being watched, like a sixth sense. Did you ever get that feeling going through those passes?

Tom M

2:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, a similar technique to burying the bomb and demonstrating "tactical patience" was used in Chechnya to off the Russian appointed president of the region, Akhmad Kadyrov. The rebels had buried a bomb under the VIP box at the city stadium during renovation and months later detonated it during a ceremony.

Tom M

6:56 PM  
Blogger exMI said...

"From your story, if they knew who they wanted to attack and got their target on the first pass, then that means they must have been watching all the time. I would find that a bit discomforting."

AS I recall we werealways being watched when out in the field. (And back at base) There was a vastly non PC phrase "the Southwest Asian Staring Monkey" which was used to describe the Afghan guy(s)that were sitting around watching you whereever you went. Most of them were just unemployed locals with nothing better to do than watch the wierd americans and hope we'd give them something. But there was no way to tell that kind from the ones who were Taliban, or HIG, or unhappy poppy growers, or just being paid $2 bucks to tell someone which way the American convoy went when it pulled out. Just one of those sad little things you have to deal with.

1:08 AM  
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10:45 PM  

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