Views from the front
Sunday, July 22, 2007: Besides those finishing their night shift, Scrappy and Dog were the only two coalition members up and about this morning as Iwandered around Firebase Chamkani at daybreak. Dog feigned an attack on some of the Afghan help. Maybe theA Team is right about the usefulness of these two Afghan mutts. In many thirdworld countries, barking dogs inform strangers when they get too close to their owner’s claimed property. Scrappy and Dog do not bark at Americans, only Afgans.
Breakfastwas scheduled from six to eight with a team briefing to follow. That left plenty of time for some exercise. So Iwalked to the highest bunker on the outer perimeter, joined by my Special Operations military escort, SF Col. Ray Helton, with his sidearm hidden under his shirt.
At the top, I found Afghan Security Guard Sher Agha who is a member of the Stanakzai tribe according to his US issued identification card. Hewas sitting outside his bunker on a plywood bed eating breakfast and drinking tea, a Russian dishka machine gun wrapped in blue plastic behind him. We arm the ASG force with Russian weapons and munitions scarfed from caches. When you have little, youwaste little.
We returned to this topmost bunker later in the day so theAteam could showme the lay of the land and give me a formal meeting with the commander of this ASG force, Saeed Agha. Team members call him Gun Doctor or GD. He has been a mujhadin since the age of 13. I’m told he is now33, which seems far too young for his striking features. But the average life expectancy in Afghanistan is one of the lowest in theworld. Afghanistan’s poverty, wars and harsh environment are utterly unforgiving.
During the meeting and later, through an interpreter, I spent a fair amount of time talking withGDand recalled Gen. Abizaid’s quip that “Afghanistan is moving rapidly into to the fifteenth century.” Actually its social fabric and mores seem a mixture of many centuries. The culture clash is quite pronounced. Individuals can’t survive in these Afgan and Pakistani mountains conquered only by Alexander the Great. Individuals must ally themselves with a tribe. Tribe is everything. The system is feudal, France and England circa 1200. Like knights and yeomen, young tribal men are expected to serve the security needs of the tribe as determined by tribal leaders. It’s a matter of meeting a social obligation in order to continue to enjoy esteem in the tribal society. GDknows combat. But even more so, he knows survival. His allegiance can change with the tribe’s
We can’t get out today. When the weather is good, no helicopters are available. They are called to more important duty— reinforcements in a fire fight, medical evacuations, critical resupply. This part of Afghanistan is hot. OneAteam member says, “Chamkani is actually in the Bermuda triangle. When you come here, you can’t get out.” I will miss votes. But I insist no one whines about it on my behalf. My business pales in comparison, and I don’twant Special Operations Command or the Department of Defense to have another reason to be reluctant about front line embeds.
One of our outposts, an Afgan Border Patrol checkpoint some three miles toward Pakistan, was hit that night with RPGs (Soviet shoulder fired rockets) and small arms fire. Wewatched the fight from the op center roof and Iwas heartened when listening to theAteam members discussing what to do. The outpost called for help. GDcame by with an additional request. But team members were reluctant to do so. One said, “We need to let them take care of this pissant little stuff or they will never build capacity.” The others agreed. GDasked for at least some illumination rounds. TheAteam fired three, reluctantly, from their 120mm mortar. Spec. Dan Love, a young photographer with 7th Special Forces Group got a great picture of one of the mortar illumination rounds being launched. Iwaswatching the fight, not the mortar crew.
Monday, July 23, 2007: TheA team spent most of the day preparing for a night mission. The plan was to convoy about thirty kilometers in up-armored humvees, sleep for the balance of the night and then spend the next day providing medical services to the residents of a particular village.
They will return to Chamkani after dark the following night. I mentioned that most Americans inVietnam hunkered down at night. One of the team members responded, “we rule the night,” which reminded me of melody andwords from Billy Joel’s song, Goodnight Saigon: “We held the day in the palm of our hand. They ruled the night and the night seemed to last forever.”
Night vision binoculars have come a longway since the clunky, Vietnam-era Starlight scope. The ones used by the team are quite remarkable. Each member has his own pair. I tried them out last night. Both the binoculars and rifle scope converted pitch black to a surreal daylight with people and objects sharply defined.
Whether it is day or night, combat engagements in Iraq or Afghanistan typically are very lopsided affairs, assuming the enemy attacks us heads up or we have a clear target. All Americans knowthat. But too fewfully grasp howcritical it is to maintain and growour tactical advantages. Special ForcesAteam members are at the tip of the spear. For every frontline troop, there are dozens of military and civilian personnel that make their job easier, even possible. I think of the men and women I knowso well at Robins AFB daily doing different tasks that, combined with thework of so many others, gives us remarkable military superiority.
If theAteam ever needs additional combat power, we can quickly give it overwhelming, highly accurate force. Just three weeks before my visit, the team made contact with a Taliban force itwas pursuing based upon local tips. The enemywas high on a mountainside, far from any civilians. So the team employed air power after an exchange of small arms fire. Dozens upon dozens (the estimates range into the hundreds) of Taliban were killed orwounded. There were no friendly casualties.
No country in the history of the world has given itswar fighters such a leg up over the competition. The challenge for us is finding the right targets and using our force discreetly, minimizing collateral damage that can be so harmful to our effort. The Ateam’s medical mission builds good will and relationships that can lead to actionable intelligence. The village of Chamkani’s newschool, a very simple structure built courtesy of America, has the same effect.
American infantry units inVietnam typicallywould move in a company size formation (about one hundred twenty men) “poking around” to make enemy contact. Usually that contact came in the form of a booby trap or unseen snipers. TheAteam does little or no “poking around.” It will sometimes move to an area just to showan American presence. But most of its missions have specific objectives, either military or humanitarian. Once the target is identified by reliable intelligence, team members carefully plan an engagement. These kinetic missions are always executed in tandem with Afghan National Police, typically at night and often without a single shot fired.
Everything the team does is intelligently driven by intelligence. Good relationships with the indigenous population are critical to this effort. Special Forces teams typically rotate tour-after-tour to the same area, avoiding the learning curve posed by a newarea of operations and, most importantly, maintaining and renewing relationships with their friends in the local population. I’ve argued for a force-wide use of this model whenever and whereverwe face an insurgency.
We spend time on the shooting range zeroing in and testing different weapons, sniper rifles, M4s, a fifty caliber that tends to jam. Gun Doctor shows up with some of his men. He fires an 82mmrecoilless rife (a Russian anti-tank bazooka) with great accuracy. I shoot an AK47 with open sights and am surprised that I can hit metal silhouette targets at two, three and four hundred yards. Those shots are easy with the scoped, 7.62 caliber M24 sniper rifle.
Word has come that we will not get out again today. The team decides to delay its mission until tomorrow. It isn’t time sensitive and they do notwant to leave us alone on the firebase. I ask one team member if he’s relieved. He says “No. Missions don’t bother me. We don’t take chances.” Right. And I own a bridge in Brooklyn.