May I Ask Who is Calling?


May 2009     Qalat, Afghanistan

Last week we sized up a new contract with a security company by accompanying them for a little night work. The mission involved a convoy of 40 tractor-trailers, carrying shipping containers, new armored vehicles, and loaded fuel tankers on an overnight run to Kandahar and back. Convoys on this route get hit every night with rockets, roadside bombs and machine guns, sometimes in well-organized ambushes. Few of their vehicles are armored, and most have a few holes in them. The military is still stretched too thin to offer air or medical support, so the security companies are on their own to fight through and deliver these high-value targets every time. It is a hugely lucrative contact, but it comes at a steady cost.

I went over to their compound for a BBQ where Mick, one of the shooters, told me that an Afghan team leader had jumped out of a vehicle to return fire the previous night and was hit in the chest with a rocket-propelled grenade.  This made my decision a little easier when they asked us to provide tactical medic support for this large high-profile delivery. I volunteered to not go for several reasons, only one of which is obvious. Both of my co-workers geared up with weapons, armor, helmets and medic bags and headed out.

Unfortunately, mechanical issues disabled two of the trucks, and roadside repairs cost valuable night hours. Light and shadows crept across the fields as they entered an area with no cell phone coverage, and that is where the first roadside bomb detonated. Most of the 40 trucks were stopped, and the 20 thin-skinned security vehicles along with them. Briefly described, a few dozen security guys jumped out and counter-attacked, rather than sit and take machine-gun fire from 200 yards away. Actually, the Afghans mostly off-loaded and took cover in a ditch (a common story), while the westerners maneuvered on foot across a field and up a creek bed towards the mud village where the enemy were positioned.

This action went on for maybe 45 minutes, and it became clear that the enemy was well-organized and positioned; likely they were foreign Al Qaeda jihadis, not just local Taliban. Once it became clear that the security guys were getting no support or covering fire from their own Afghan buddies, the Arab and Chechen (?) fighters launched their own counter-attack, driving the security company back to their vehicles. During their advance, Mick watched two of them maneuvering up an irrigation ditch towards a few of his men 100 yards away. He shot one in the face, then the other as he panicked and turned to run, twice in the neck. During their retreat back to the trucks, low on ammo now, Drew saw a few jihadis following them up the creek bed. Twist, pull pin: two grenades put an end to that pursuit. The final score was reported as one Afghan driver shot in the arm, and five or six Al Qaeda killed. Hopefully that is an accurate report.

The next night, they were not running a convoy, but sneaked back to the area to hunt down their attackers, who would not expect that sort of action. They got it, but on their own terms: they ambushed the contractors from both sides at once. Once again, sit and die in place, or dismount and fight. Two windshields quickly splintered from gunfire, then a back window to an RPG. “Doc”, a former Ranger medic, jumped out and reached back inside to grab grenades. In doing so, he moved his shooting hand from his AK, which then took a direct hit. An enemy bullet sheared off his pistol-grip, and might have taken his hand. No matter, return fire, attack, and hope the fairly useless Afghan co-workers provide covering fire. This time they somehow managed to get close air support, a rarity for non-military convoys. Apache helicopter gunships smoked eight more Al Qaeda, added to the two or maybe three that the ground guys erased. Hundreds of rounds fired, but no wounded contractors – especially lucky considering that Mick chooses not to wear any body armor.  He is an interesting case, that one.

It is a good thing that even these trained and well-positioned Chechens or Arabs are notoriously bad shots: impulsive, undisciplined, unevenly trained. Not much sense in training guys committed to to die here, and they no longer have the freedom to run training bases. That was the whole idea of this war, at least at the beginning.

This time, there was an added bonus to having air support.  After clearing the area of any injured stragglers and following a couple of blood trails, the boys got down to stripping the dead of documents, weapons, IDs, and some nice US military gear. This is becoming more common as shipping containers in transit are hijacked, blown up or sold off  by Afghan drivers.  Sometimes it seems to come from inside, too, as US medical gear, armor and night vision goggles are available at the bazaars near the bases.

From one of the dead guys, a cell phone rang out.   Ha!  A contractor handed it to an Afghan, who answered it, and tried to get a location of the caller.  No luck.  The conversation quickly turned to insults and taunting, especially when the caller hung up and tried again, ringing a different dead jihadi.  I’m sorry, but the caller you are trying to reach is indisposed at the moment.  Why don’t you come and get him?

Another convoy rolls tonight, down the same roads.  Happy hunting, guys!


(No new photos this time.)



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3 Responses to “May I Ask Who is Calling?”

  1. David M Says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 05/27/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  2. News At Eleven « Housefly Says:

    […] They were probably on a standard high-risk night mission, no different than the one also described here in May.  As mentioned before, I volunteered to not work that contract.  Those who know me well, […]

  3. “Get Your Gear on.” « Housefly Says:

    […] Dan was out there, which obligated me to try to find him.  This was very different to me than volunteering as a tactical medic for night convoys through the Badlands, though the risk was about the same.  I am not sure if I can explain that, because it puzzled me […]

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