Views from the front

The Covington News - - OPINION -

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.

Jim Mar­shall

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