Friday, April 15, 2005

The night that nothing much went right, but nothing much went wrong, either . . .

I deliberately stay away from stories that might illuminate our or the enemy's TTP's (tactice, techniques, and procedures.) In this case, though, I'm sure the bad guys have already figured out what we were doing with this one, so with some blurring of the sharp edges of the details, here we go:

One of the things we figured out eventually is that, in the rural areas of Southeast Afghanistan, initiating a raid by driving up to a compound almost never worked. The bad guys almost always had a watcher on the roof if they were in the compound, and they'd spot the incoming vehicles. Given that the terrain we were working in was generally flat (high desert valleys bordered by mountains), you could see for miles from the roof of a compound. Unless the compound was on the main road, the only time you'd see the headlights of three or four vehicles moving together late at night was if we were inbound. If we drove under NODs (night vision goggles) without headlights, the bad guys would figure out that the noise of vehicles with no headlights had to be us. And, of course, if we chose the daring daylight raid, they'd see the military vehicles coming from miles away. During our first raids, it wasn't unusual to see several motorcycles stream past us, and hear later that one of them had been driven by the object of our raid.

Finally, we hit on a tactic that worked pretty well - before the raid kicked off, we'd sneak in a force on foot to surround the perimeter of the compound and keep people from fleeing once the vehicles were inbound. Late at night, we'd take two or three US soldiers and a force of ANA (Afghan National Army) troops, and patrol up to the compound we planned to bounce. Once we had the cordon in place, we'd radio the assault force and they'd come in on vehicles and make the hit.

Leading the cordon force was a both a lot of fun and a pain in the ass - it was a lot of fun because you actually got to patrol on foot, if not through indian country, then through what might turn into indian country. SF soldiers never really get over their infantry roots, and walking through a potentially hostile environment leading foreign troops was what we had spent most of our careers training for - it was just like Robin Sage, except in an arid semi-desert environment instead of North Carolina pine forests. (Oh yeah, there were a couple of other differences between Afghanistan and "Pineland." In Afghanistan, the bullets were real, the "g's" were a lot more motivated, and the American dollar went a lot further than it did in Pineland.)

On the other hand, it was a pain because you had to patrol in from far enough away not to alert the bad guys - usually 10km or more from the drop-off point to the coumpound. That doesn't seem like a lot, but by the time you factor in 100 pounds or more of gear, ammo, body armor and the like, and take into account the broken terrain, it was a long walk. In the southeast, the Afghan countryside was criss-crossed with irrigation ditches and dikes that had to be clambered over and through, and the fields between them were usually rutted and uneven. Plus, even in the arid environment, there was the occasional patch of thick vegetation (usually following the streams and riverbeds) that had to be pushed through.

Our senior weapons sergeant, Mike, was a alumnus of 3rd Ranger Battalion, and had a reputation for finding the wettest, messiest route possible whenever he walked point. He was a fervent believer that a) conventional soldiers don't like to get their feet wet, so they won't patrol the creekbeds looking for you and b) the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, even if it's through the middle of a swamp. Back before we got deployed, it was a truism that if he walked point, we were going to get wet - but that was in temperate forests in the states. Maybe the only good thing about being in Afghanistan was the certainty that for once, we could patrol with him and not get soaked.

One of the earliest things we did was institute regular foot patrols around the A-camp. Eventually, we farmed those out to our ANA, but in the beginning, we did it ourselves. On one of my first patrols, I was out with Dan and Mike looping south to take a look at some fields where the bad guys had set up mortars a few days before.

We were walking through some open fields when we came to a fairly thick treeline with a path running beside it. Mike, taking the straightest line to where we wanted to go, began working his way through the treeline. Dan followed him in. Since I was in back, I turned around to pull security in the direction we had come from - it wouldn't have been good for all of us to get hung up in the trees at once if someone had been following us. From behind me, I heard the signature rustling and snapping sounds of someone breaking brush as Mike and Dan worked their way through. Suddenly, there was the unmistakeable sound of someone hitting water - this wasn't the splash of someone going ankle deep, either. This was a deep, full-throated sploosh! that indicated somebody had just gone at least up to their waist. It turned out that the treeline had grown up around the main irrigation stream / canal / ditch that serviced all of the fields in the area. Forewarned, Dan and I managed to only go into the water to mid-thigh - Mike was soaked up to the chest.

On the way back to camp, we had to cross the creek in the other direction. Dan was on point then, and skirted the treeline until he found a litle bridge where the path crossed over the ditch - not more than 30' from where we had pushed our way through in the first place. We were all suitably impressed that Mike had managed to find water, even in the desert, and suggested hiring him out as a human dowsing rod. If you wanted to find water someplace, we figured, all we had to was have Mike lead a patrol across it, and it would be bound to turn up.

Anyway, we had gotten word from a pretty reliable source that a 19 year old boy was hiding rockets in his family compound, and letting the Taliban use the surrounding fields as a launch site to fire the rockets at our camp. Our source told us that he didn't think the kid was really bad - but his father had died, his uncle was angling to take over the family compound and fields and add it to his own, and the local Talibs not only provided the boy and his family with much needed cash, they had also promised to help him in dealing with his uncle.

Dan and I were leading an ANA platoon in to set up the cordon around the compound. We walked the platoon into within about 800 meters of the compound, halted them, and had them set up a secure perimeter (military readers will recognize this as the ORP - Objective Rally Point.) We had driven by a few days earlier on one of our routine mounted patrols of the area, so we had a pretty good idea of how we wanted to do things, but there's nothing like taking a look around before you commit everybody. So, Dan and I took the ANA platoon leader, one of his squad leaders, and a terp, off on a leader's recon of the objective, so we could figure out how we were going to set everybody in. There were two compounds, side by side - one belonged to the boy's family, and the other was his uncle's. We weren't 100% sure which was which, so we planned to surround and search them both. We found a good route to the target, and figured out which squad would go where to surround the compounds. The ANA platoon leader took his soldier and the terp back to pick up the platoon and bring them forward. Dan and I settled in to wait for them to come back.

The ANA lieutenant had only been gone a few minutes when Dan and I saw a light, like a flashlight, snap on and off a few times in the field behind us. Since the light was off behind us, I'm ashamed to admit that we immediately jumped to the conclusion that our lieutenant had gotten lost and was trying to figure out where he was. But, the light kept snapping on, moving over the same ground, and then turning off. Dan and I decided to move down and take a look. We radioed the camp, and had them call the ANA patrol and let them know what we were doing, and to have them wait for us at the release point where we were supposed to link up.

We crept through a field of some sort of waist-high grass towards the light. We weren't making a lot of noise, and what noise we did make was somewhat covered by the sound of a diesel irrigation pump running nearby. As we got closer to the light source, we could make out a man moving around in one corner of the field. Even closer, and we saw that what we thought might have been a rifle or RPG launcher was actually a shovel. From the field, we heard the sound of digging.

Now, this was exciting stuff. I glanced at my watch - it was around 2:30am locally, and here we were, not more than half a kilometer from a compound we knew had been used to fire rockets at us. We were convinced that this was a bad guy servicing a weapons cache - digging up buried rockets to shoot at us. What other reason would someone have to be digging at this time of night? And we were going to catch him in the act!

Dan stayed there to keep an eye on him while I scurried back to link up with the ANA. I got about halfway back, and saw that, instead of doing what we had asked and waiting for us, the entire ANA platoon was making its way down towards where we were. Great. Now, instead of one moving element (me) making its way from a known direction into a static position, we had two moving elements wandering around trying to bump into each other, and not bump into any bad guys. That's how accidents happen. I stopped and waited for them to get reasonably close, then, trying to look as American as possible, stood up and called out softly to the terp: "I'm over here."

As soon as they knew I was there, I walked over to the ANA, and resisting the urge to ask what the hell they were doing there, talked to the ANA lieutenant about sending most of his men back to wait and only taking a squad forward. Even moving quietly, there was no way that the guy in the field wouldn't hear a platoon of men tromping around. He agreed, and we started back towards the digging with a squad of soldiers. We crept back up to where Dan was keeping an eye on things, and he told us that it looked like an old man to him, and that he had been digging steadily the whole time. The ANA lieutenant sent two of his men forward to grab the old man and bring him back to us. They got within maybe 10' when the old guy picked up on them. As nearly as I could follow the conversation (and confirmed later by the terp) the old man calls out "Who's there?" "Get over here now! "replied the two shadowy figures with guns. So the old man screams the Afghan equivalent of "Oh shit, oh fuck, oh no!" and takes off running. The two soldiers take off after him, and probably would have caught him in a dozen steps or so - but at this point the PKM* gunner gets into the act and rips off a burst of about a dozen rounds, which inspires the guy next to him to open up with his AK. Just freaking terrific.

Dan and I leap up, yelling "Don't shoot" in Dari at the top of our lungs (believe me, "Don't shoot" is one of the first phrases you learn), the ANA lieutenant is yelling at his squad, and the old man is screaming at the top of his lungs. So much for surprise.

They dragged the old guy over to where we were, and let him go. He fell to his hands and knees, gasping for breathe with this keening sort of staccato breathing going on. I get him rocked up on his knees, and he's panting, shaking uncontrollably, eyes frozen wide - he looks about one step away from shocking out. Meanwhile, I'm trying to figure out if he's been hit or not - running my hands over him looking for an entrance wound while I'm snapping at the terp: "Ask him if he's hurt. Ask him if he's been shot." I hate to admit it, but I was less concerned with the human dimension at that point than I was with all the statements and paperwork this incident would generate if the man was to die or turn out to be seriously injured. I was already mentally rehearsing the conversation that I would be having with my chain of command if it turned out we shot an old man armed with a shovel. ("Hey, sir, it was an Afghan soldier in the Afghan National Army firing an Afghan weapon at an Afghan civilian in Afghanistan. I don't see why you're yelling at me.")

After a few minutes of not finding a bullet hole and of listening to the man's keening, I switched my instructions to the terp: "Tell him, if he's not shot, he needs to shut the fuck up, now!" It turned out, after we spent a few minutes getting the old man calmed down, that despite the gunfire, he was uninjured. Not one of the rounds had hit him, either because the PK gunner was firing a warning shot (his claim), or he just couldn't shoot worth a damn (my suspicion.) Either way, we finally got the old man calmed down to the point that he could talk to us (Not that I mean any disrespect to the Muslim religion, but the process probably would have been helped along immensely if we could have given him a few shots of brandy.)

It also turned out that the old man was the uncle of the boy we had come to collect. He and the boy's family were embroiled in a water dispute over who had the rights to the output from a particular irrigation ditch. Just like in the American Old West, water disputes were a major source of conflict - and, in the absence of any effective court and law enforcement system, often became the basis of a shooting feud. The digging had nothing to do with servicing a weapons cache: that night, at 2am or so, the old man was out there with a shovel diverting the flow of the irrigation ditch back onto his fields. That had been going on every night for the last few nights, and every morning, the 19 year old discovered the diversion and re-diverted the water back onto his land. So far, the bonds of family kept them from shooting each other, but it was only a matter of time.

One of the reasons the uncle was so scared was that he didn't expect Americans and ANA to be out running around in the middle of the night. When he saw and heard the shadowy figures with guns coming out of the dark towards him, he figured that they were Taliban friends of his nephew come to deal with the water issue once and for all. So, when the PK rounds started whizzing past his ears, he was pretty sure he was on his way to a little one on one meeting with Allah.

After he figured out that he wasn't going to die, the uncle was all too willing to make sure that we knew which compound belonged to the boy, and to tell us the best way to get in. Fortunately, the kid had decided to stay put when he heard the weapons fire. He didn't figure that the Americans would come in shooting, so he thought it must be a private dispute he needed to stay out of. He stayed where he was, and we were able to hit the compound and capture him without further incident. I actually ended up feeling a little sorry for him - he was one of those guys that you knew had always been picked on as a kid. He was no good at standing up to his uncle or his mother, who were on different sides of the whole land and water dispute, and I suspect that a lot of the reason he hooked up with the bad guys was to get a little respect as a badass Taliban - and to give him some leverage with his uncle. I also suspect - but couldn't prove - that his mom was involved with the whole rocket thing up to her neck. Hell, it was probably her idea that he become a terrorist in the first place.

Anyway, we held him for a few days, and ended up "paroling" him to the local shura of his tribe instead of shipping him off to Bagram. (A shura is a council of tribal elders who make decisions for the tribe and speak on their behalf.) That worked well for us, since it demonstrated to the community that we were willing to work within their framework, and it saved us the embarrassment of sending a crying kid up there with the real bad guys.

*PKM: Pulemyot Kalashnikova Modernizirovanniy - a Soviet built light machine gun.


Blogger Licken Chicken said...

Great Story! Thanks for sharing. It is nice to hear more about Afgan when all you hear is Iraq.

8:37 PM  
Blogger Uncle Jimbo said...

That was an excellent read. I think the stories and movies to come from the Afghan and Iraq wars will be incedible. Thanks for the shout out. I commented below that I didn't write the Schwarz piece and I thought it said that. I've had it for years and no clue who that crazy bugger was, but I knew plenty of his friends. Heck I was one when I was a spec 4.

10:37 PM  
Blogger bblatt said...

Just a note regarding the Skippy List. does seem to be the real deal no shit original Spc. Shwartz. That must have been one f-ed up deployment in the Balkans, but it makes for a good list. His links page has a link to a submariner with his own list including gems about not firing pencils using .45s. it's also funny as h-ll. Check it out, if you dare (dude's a friggin' trekkie). Although lines like "He's dim, Jeb" and " He's dead Jim. You get his tricorder, I'll get his wallet." do make up for it, kinda.

2:36 AM  
Blogger Uncle Jimbo said...

I just emailed Skippy and told him thanks for the many gut busting laughs my friends and I have gotten from his beautifully reprobate behavior, and i will post tomorrow properly attributing him.

3:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the type of story that can greatly inform the average civilian reader of the professionalism and training of the U.S. military in general and the SF specifically. It shows the results of all the training soldiers go through (i.e. decisions of when to shoot and when not to shoot) and one of the top priorities of our presence in Afghanistan and Iraq (i.e. training a local civilian controlled professional military to stabilize the country). If only Big Media would carry more stories like this to inform the U.S. of all aspects of our presence in these countries. By the way, have been reading this blog for a few weeks and really like it.

6:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Holy crap.... after you get out you must write a book.

(jbrookins said to stop by so i did)


9:50 PM  
Blogger exMI said...

"That worked well for us, since it demonstrated to the community that we were willing to work within their framework, and it saved us the embarrassment of sending a crying kid up there with the real bad guys."

I wish more people had taken that approach. We got more than one "crying kid" up at Bagram.

1:28 AM  
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5:02 PM  

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