April 2009 Kabul, Afghanistan
It took awhile to edit this one, written originally while I was riding the edge of insanity, near the end of a one-year stretch in the ‘Stan. I did not change the tone of it, just filled in a little of the background. It is not a short story, but it is probably my last on this topic. I was not free to post it on these pages at the time due to the discomfort it might cause back home. Here you go:
“Get your Gear on.”
That was an optimistic order – I have little of what this unrehearsed mission called for: a reliable rifle, enough body armor, a helmet, pistol, six magazines of ammunition, hand grenades, a radio, a harness to carry it all, and a personal medical kit strapped to the leg – I had none of that. There were a few other details I found lacking: our beat-down underpowered thin-skinned microvan acting as an ambulance, no additional shooters on board, no GPS tracker on the vehicle or on me, no dedicated Quick-Reaction Force (QRF) to escort us, no license for our weapons, no night-sights, no twin-.50 cal gun turret swiveling around up top. So I grabbed what I had: a not-recently-tested AK-47 made in 1963, stuck the one spare magazine in my pants pocket, a single hand grenade in the other pocket, grabbed a headlamp and strapped on the single 30-pound body armor vest we owned, and why not – my camera, to document the carnage maybe for this page someday. Good to go. Send me in, coach!
Earlier that morning, Dan the other medic, and his girlfriend Fiona had helicoptered down east to Jalalabad to work on a new contract. There were no return flights, so we sent Shafiq the driver down to pick them up and drive them back, leaving Jbad no later than 1500 for the three-hour return trip. Security had been bad on that route that connects Kabul with Pakistan. An ambush in August left ten French troops dead and twenty-one wounded, at the same site where Clinton and I had responded to a road wreck a month earlier. After that, ISAF cracked down hard and it was relatively safe again. But even the Afghans rarely drove that route at night, due to the possibility of Taliban tollbooths. We expected our crew back no later than 1800, before nightfall.
A note on Dan – he is a hard man, twelve years in the Australian Special Air Service as a combat medic and a dive medic, and he knows risk assessment. He hates being unarmed, but we generally drove the streets that way (at least during the day,) because as a start-up, we lacked the money for armored cars, body armor, a QRF contract, properly tested weapons and the $100,000 Afghan government shake-down for a company gun license. This license fee goes straight into some dirty fat bastard’s pocket of course. A note on Fiona – in the real world, she could be described as jovial and outgoing, though I might throw in dopey, naïve, simple, lazy and clueless. In an active war zone, I would classify her as nothing less than dangerously stupid.
She insisted on going to Jalalabad for the sight-seeing and photos, which I understand, but she would not hear the warnings about the risk involved. If night fell before they returned and the Filthies stopped the car, they might pop Dan and Shafiq, who were out doing their job. But she had no business on that trip and would have a much worse time as a guest of the Talib, up in some cave in the mountains, indefinitely.
This was not my problem or my decision to make. Off you go then, girl. They boarded an elderly Russian helicopter and flew out at 0900.
Later that evening, I was at a residential compound across town, having dinner with a big group of South African helicopter pilots and their Russian mechanics. Afterward, I had a dozen of them scheduled for a basic medical history and assessment, part of the process of getting this new contract started. While taking notes on the sixth guy, I took a phone call – it was the boss, Marcus: “Need you here now.” Click.
Oh, alright then. I did not know what was going on, but it was clearly Go Time. Mass casualties? A residential compound attacked? I dropped the paperwork and split, jumped in the waiting ride and arrived at our steel gate to find Marcus pulling it open, “bombed-up” as they say. Headlamp on, mesh vest full of field medic gear and a row of 30-round magazines across his chest, AK-47 in hand, a defective old Russian pistol strapped to his thigh, throwing bags of medical gear into both ambulances, and on the phone requesting a Quick Reaction Force immediately. Our crew was 2 ½ hours overdue, and not answering the phones. “Get your gear on,” he said.
I did not say a word, just nodded and bolted past the dogs and the housekeeper, up the stairs. The power was out again, all the house lights were off, and ill will was in the air. While fetching my feeble gear, I had a few moments to think. We had never rehearsed this, or even run through any verbal rehearsals, though Marcus seemed to have things flowing nicely right now. All of us were comfortable with weapons and willing to use them. I came here aware of the risk of death and accepted that as part of the deal. I do not think I was spiking a high blood pressure at the moment, just wishing primarily that this was a daytime response, which would make it a lot easier for me to kill some of them and maybe make us a more difficult targets than exiting vehicles into the darkness, backlit by our own headlights. Night vision goggles would have been a nice asset right about now.
In retrospect, this was a scatterbrained assignment, similar to jumping overboard into icy cold water to save someone who fell in: good luck with that. Right now, what was the task at hand? Re-establishing phone contact and then…Search and rescue? Hostage recovery? Finding the bodies? Changing their flat tire? Assaulting a cave complex? We were not suited for any of the above, but I was not at all inclined to refuse the mission.
Then a quote that has stuck with me for ten years resurfaced, part of a Sebastian Junger dispatch from, coincidentally, Afghanistan, printed in 1999 in Vanity Fair magazine I think. He was traveling with Shah Massoud’s men of the Northern Alliance, outnumbered, outgunned and outfunded by the Taliban, doing battle in the Panshjir Valley. They did not have much long-term chance, fighting an enemy backed strongly by our great allies, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, but Massoud was a genius and they fought the good fight. One day, taking cover under a rock ledge while on the receiving end of a 155mm artillery barrage, Junger apparently had serious misgivings about being there and asked a Northern Alliance fighter about getting the hell out. The Afghan looked at him incredulously and asked “What are you doing here, if you are not prepared to die?” A fair question that was, but I had my reasons, and they made sense at the time.
Right now, my co-worker 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 at the time. It was simply much more acceptable to become a casualty while carrying out an obligation than to lose a limb while volunteering to carry out some dirty work, especially if volunteering partly out of visceral spite for the enemy.
I faced the moment, test-fired a quick burst from my ancient AK into the front yard, and jumped into one of our ramshackle ambulances, which was ghetto even by Afghan standards. Two civilian ambulances, two Afghan drivers, and no additional shooters: far from ideal. Fortunately the QRF was on the way, doing us a large favor. This added two more armored SUVS, eight guys bombed-up thoroughly, heavier weapons, night sights, GPS trackers and radio uplinks to the US military for close air support, if it came to that.
It did not. Munir opened the gate for us and we drove east, over the dark broken roads of the capital. Then the phone rang: It was Dan, they had just driven back into cell-phone coverage, out of the deep narrow valley and back into the outskirts of Kabul. There are parts of the road so narrow that cars have to stop to let opposite truck traffic pass, so trucks move west during the day and east during the night. They had been stuck in a traffic jam for hours on the two-lane road because as always, the police were taking bribes from truckers who paid to go against the flow of traffic, in order to get back to Pakistan before sunup. And that was that.
Funny enough, our lost patrol actually had a good time while stuck out in that gorge along the Kabul river. They told us that the Afghan men had turned on some music, locked their women in the vehicles and man-danced the night away in the middle of the road in the headlights of their parked vehicles. There is no denying it, Afghanistan is an amazing place.
You may wonder why I did not take the next flight out of there. I wonder that now. The goddamn startup company owed me a lot of back-pay at the time, but I had committed to myself to stay for a year, and fleeing would have cost me my tax-free status and a good deal of self-respect. Like so many other Westerners out there, I was well on the way to losing my mind, and self-medicating nicely just to get by. Other than that epic northern road trip, I hated every day in Afghanistan, but I do not regret the experience one bit. I even miss the photography and writing experiences throughout the country. I counted down the thirty days remaining and went on a bit of a rampage back in the USA upon arrival.
Since leaving, home invasions have occurred throughout Kabul and the rest of the land, seven of my friends or work associates have died or been killed, and my man Mick is on death row in Kabul, for killing someone who needed killing. The US is ringing up a $100,000,000,000 tab this year for that war alone, or $1,000,000 per soldier per year. 2,134 ISAF troops killed to date, and possibly a larger number of contractors, but nobody officially tracks that, due to the political cost.
All of that to help shore up a society that publicly values this: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/08/29/INF21F2Q9H.DTL
There must be an easier way to blow up Al-Qaeda training camps anywhere in the world than the way we are doing it now. None of the 9/11 hijackers were Afghans, and none of them learned how to fly commercial airliners inside that rotten corner of the world. Nation-building is not our job, and nobody has ever won a war there. Taliban funding is coming from outside of that primitive sump of a country, not from within (other than the opium trade.) This war is not worth the ever-increasing effort that we are putting into it, and we all know that it will sink right back to a medieval brawling mess once we pull out, thousands of casualties from now.