…When they’ve killed 13 people and wounded 42 more in a botched rocket attack?
“We didn’t do it.”
We were cordially invited to stay at FOB Kutschbach for a few extra days by the rotary wing folks, who bumped our return flight to a day earlier than scheduled. So, as we had some extra time on the ground, we did a foot patrol with the French, the PMT and the ANP through the Tagab bazaar a couple of days after the attack. Being that there were two of us, and we each had an interpreter, we were able to talk with the people we ran into at the bazaar. That is, when we weren’t being hurried along.
While asking people what village they were from, if their village and/or family had suffered any casualties, and how they felt about the attack, the story the Taliban was telling came out. First, they insisted that only one rocket was fired… so the other round must have come from either the Americans or the French on the FOB. Right there they shucked off half of the responsibility. Secondly, they insisted that the rocket was not fired by a Talib. They had, they insisted, “arrested” the man who had fired the “single” rocket, and they were investigating to discover who had paid him to fire the rocket into the crowded bazaar.
“Really?” I asked the man who conveyed this. “They are really saying this?”
“Yes. This is what they say,” he asserted.
“They really think that you are so stupid that you would believe something so ridiculous?”
Blank stare. The man searched for something… something that wasn’t coming.
“I’ve been talking with you for several minutes. You are going to go to college in Jalalabad to be a lawyer. I know that you are too smart to believe such a ridiculous lie.” Clearly, he wasn’t; but it was beginning to work on his brain.
He stammered a bit… the corners of his mouth began to curl upwards a little. He was stuck.
“If a man kills someone and you ask him if he’s done it, he comes up with a stupid story about how it wasn’t him, right?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied, hesitantly.
“So that you won’t want to kill him,” I continued.
“Well…” he shifted uncomfortably.
“So then he thinks that if you believe him, then you are a fool. You would be foolish then, right?” I pressed.
“Yes, that would be foolish,” he agreed.
“But you are too smart to believe a foolish lie, aren’t you? You are smarter than that, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am smarter than that,” he agreed.
“The Taliban think you are very stupid people, but you are not so stupid, right?” I offered him a way out.
“Right. We are smarter than that.” The men gathered around began nodding their heads.
It’s not like I could undo the damage done after the Taliban IO (Information Operation) had time, unfettered, to respond to the catastrophe that they had caused among their neighbors. Their gaff was like a kid who throws rocks at a house and breaks a window and then runs away. If confronted by the homeowner later, he comes up with a creative story about someone else breaking the window. Except this rock-throwing nimrod was throwing rockets, and he had killed innocent people.
The French had found rocket fragments from two rockets. One was Chinese and the other of Russian manufacture. They did not get the word out immediately. In fact, the reaction of the French leadership was to cancel a mission that they had planned and “wait it out.” They did not hit the streets immediately, telling the story and showing the rocket fragments to everyone they could find. This gave the Taliban time to concoct a ludicrous lie that, in the absence of any information to the contrary, some people were believing.
The fact is that on the morning of the attack, we were informed that there was some intelligence to indicate that the Taliban were going to attack the District Center that day. The reason was that there was a French General who would be participating in a Shura with local elders and the Sub-governor of Tagab District. COL Z, the local ANP Chief who is much-hated by the Taliban, and the ANA commander would also be there. As with all intelligence, there are a lot of red herrings. The PMT joked about the odds of actually being attacked. But, at roughly 12:30, twin booms rang out from the nearby bazaar. The French quickly identified the site of the launch, a site that the Taliban frequently use to launch rockets at FOB Kutschbach… often missing. This time they missed their mark by a scant 200 meters… just enough to land them in the bazaar, crowded by shoppers stocking up for the Eid celebration on a market day.
The 107mm (4.2 inch) rocket is not a precision weapon system. When tube launched, it is an area weapon. You can get it into a general area, but you cannot ensure a precision hit. When launched Afghan-style… propped up on rocks… it is an order of magnitude less certain. To launch these weapons from four kilometers away at a site which is so close to the bazaar on a bazaar day is criminally negligent at best.
These weapons were fired with a total disregard for civilian lives. It was akin to firing high explosives into a mall during the Christmas shopping season.
The 107mm warhead packs a wallop, but it is notorious for its horrible fragmentation pattern. The warhead casing fragments unevenly, often throwing out very large fragments in a haphazard manner. This undoubtedly spared some while mutilating others. Civilians were torn asunder, some left in bloody heaps while others lost limbs instantly. Still others were injured by flying chunks of rock. One rocket impacted near the place where people shopped for livestock for their Eid feast, not unlike our Thanksgiving Dinner. Livestock and citizens alike were shredded by razor-sharp, white-hot fragments. The carnage was horrendous.
As the shocked survivors gathered themselves and the bazaar emptied in a frenzy, severely wounded shoppers dragged themselves away from the center of the disaster. Colonel Z sprinted out the gate of the District Center, four ANP running to keep pace as their Chief ran into the dust and smoke left on the wake of the high explosive warheads. The Colonel lifted injured people into vehicles and dispatched them to either the FOB or the District Center. Within minutes, casualties began to arrive for French and American medics to triage and treat. The Colonel helped retrieve six dead from the litter of blood and body parts. The families took their dead directly home. More would die later from their wounds. Few villages were left unscathed by the toll. Everyone I spoke with a couple of days later knew someone who had perished or been wounded.
“You notice,” Colonel Z mentioned later, “that no one took their casualties to the Taliban for medical treatment. They brought them to the FOB, or to the District Center. They depended on the government or its allies for help when they needed it.”
This is true. That’s what the people did.
There is a “Radio-in-a-box” setup at FOB Kutschbach, broadcasting to the people of the Tagab Valley. The local commander offered the elders an opportunity to come and denounce the attack on the radio. Only one man, Colonel Z, came and denounced the Taliban for their cowardly act. All the other elders declined. So, as they sat watching, the enemy began their damage-control campaign.
“We didn’t do it. We caught the man who did, but he only fired one rocket. The Americans or the French fired the other one. We didn’t do it…”
Just as when untrained nimrods in the United States have money for weapons that they have no business possessing, the same is true in Afghanistan. The Afghan version of a drive-by is the 107mm rocket. Another wondrous Russian invention, it, along with the Kalashnikov and the RPG are the cheap, profligate weapons of the world. The 107 is relatively simple, and while not all that easily transportable, it can be moved significant distances by primitive means. They are often hauled by donkeys in Afghanistan.
I returned to Tagab (Tag Ab) a few days ago on a mission. FOB Kutschbach has really grown. Those who were here when the FOB was started would scarcely recognize the place. This morning, shortly after our arrival at the District Center where we were going to work with the ANP for the day, there was a report that insurgents were going to target the District Center with rockets. Such reports are often without merit, and we joked with the Police Mentor Team about the odds that it would actually happen. A Shura was in progress with the new French commander, his ANA and ANP counterparts, and local leaders. A little after 12:30, two explosions rocked the crowded bazaar just past the gates of the District Center. The insurgents had missed an area large enough to play several soccer games simultaneously and instead hit the bustling market about midday on bazaar day.
A CROW gunner in one of the MRAPS nearby announced that he had spotted a group on a nearby mountain that he thought may have been involved. Mortars at FOB Kutschbach launched a number of rounds at the probable POO (Point Of Origin) site. The local ANP Chief, a heroic individual who I’ve written about before, ran up into the bazaar with four ANP. Soon ANP trucks were summoned to assist with evacuating the casualties. The Chief later stated that at least six civilians had been killed and another 26 wounded. Four casualties were brought to the District Center, where French and American medics stabilized them before loading them into French vehicles and rushing to them to FOB Kutschbach for further treatment.
One man had a serious wound to his upper thigh. Bloody clothing lay against his skin over the pressure bandage the French had placed on him. He had clearly lost a good deal of blood, but he was conscious and able to talk. An apparently secondary bloody wound on his left temple awaited treatment while the medics started an IV. Fluids began to flow into the wounded man. A family member clutched his ankle, staying just out of the way as the medics worked to ensure that the man did not sink into deadly shock.
The ANP said that a small boy with a chest wound was being brought in. SFC Tobago, the PMT Medic, called for his bag. As I arrived with the medical bag the boy, on a stretcher, was placed on the ground. His shirt was open, a bandage on his chest. Terror showed through his pain-clouded eyes. Dried blood streaked his chest, his navel a pool of blood. One of my interpreters assisted in communicating with the boy, who was able to talk in spite of his great pain. He was very frightened, the fear clearly communicated in his small voice; but he did not cry. He bore his pain stoically.
The insurgents will claim a successful attack or, failing that, will claim that the civilians died or were seriously wounded because of the presence of coalition troops. “If the coalition were not here,” they will say, “we would have no reason to be shooting in the first place.” This is like a criminal blaming his victim for having had possessions in the first place. In May of 2007, Tagab was a home of terror. The Taliban and HiG were clearly in control of this area. An NDS agent was hung in the central circle of the bazaar, his murderers forbidding the removal of the body for three days, in violation of Islamic law. Two days after I first arrived in Afghanistan in April, 2007, the local insurgents pinned the ANP down for an entire day in what served at the time as a District Center, firing thousands of rounds in that same bazaar area. The coalition were nowhere near. If the Coalition weren’t here, the people would still be living under the sway of the types of people who hang their rivals in the square and forbid people from cutting down the body for a decent burial. The people of Tagab would still be living in a world where supposedly religious people violate religious principles in order to make their political statements. Civilians would still be dying… but there would be no one to blame. They would have no need to blame anyone. The answer at that point was simply, “We are in control, and you are not. If you don’t like it, and you complain, we may kill you; so shut up.”
If the Coalition weren’t here, there would be no reason to be insurgents. They could return to the civil war that tore Afghanistan to pieces after the Soviets left and also when the Taliban fought the Northern Alliance for years. Of course they are going to blame the coalition; because they cannot take responsibility for a couple of things.
First, they cannot live within the social contract. They want so desperately to be in charge that they refuse to work within the political framework to try to include their ideas in the national dialogue. They don’t want a dialogue; they want to make all the rules. So they blame others for the result of their sociopathic behavior.
Secondly, they cannot take responsibility for their own horrible proficiency with weapons. Afghan insurgents are notoriously inaccurate, rarely actually hit what they are shooting at, and frequently kill civilians with their idiotic use of explosives, small arms and rockets. Monkeys from any zoo would be able to engage targets more effectively than the average Taliban. This idiotic “military” or “insurgent” behavior has resulted in many more civilian deaths than the Afghan Government and Coalition militaries combined.
To take responsibility for not only their lack of political acceptance and acceptability but also their total amateur status with weapons ranging from jugs of homemade explosives to rockets in excess of four inches in diameter would seriously alienate not only Afghan civilians but also the world community. No, that’s just not going to happen. Instead, it’s everyone’s fault but their own. Well, today I witnessed the horrendous results of insurgent unprofessionalism. There is no one to blame for that young, terrified boy with a hole in his chest but a bunch of thugs who cannot grow up and behave like reasonable men capable of living in a society where they are not guaranteed having everything their way.
Joshua Foust of Registan is in one of my old stomping grounds in Afghanistan this week. He’s apparently the guest of the French at the moment, experiencing the wonders of the Tag Ab Valley. Go over to his site and see how the place has changed. Unfortunately there are no pictures, but I almost lost my mind when he was talking about chatting with people that I know.
By the way, the District Sub-governor that he’s talked with is not the same one that I had my little chat with when we took one of the local Maliks into custody for tea-partying with the Taliban and possessing prohibited stuff, like Kalashnikov ammunition. That Wuliswahl was fired, and rightfully so, some time ago.
Anyway, Mr. Foust tells the tale of what it’s like to arrive in Tag Ab for the first time. I remember that feeling… but the first time I was there it was quite the Wild West. It sounds like the ink blot that we started is spreading. You know, even with the pessimistic stuff you hear about Afghanistan, there was and is tremendous progress being made in placees like Tag Ab, which was the nearest Taliban stronghold to Kabul. It was a place where coalition troops raided but never stayed. Now the ANA and their French compatriots are doing the deal there.
I had to call O about that tonight, and we talked for some time about how it was “back in the day” in Tag Ab. I think we both miss it a little.
Go read Registan. He’s also got some really good pictures of Parwan Province in an earlier post. If we’re lucky, maybe he’ll post some pictures of Tag Ab. Maybe he’ll even get up into the Panjshir and take some pictures there. I exchanged an email with Mr. Foust this evening and asked him to pass along a message to Colonel Jhala if he sees him. I hope he does. I miss that guy; he was one of the good ones.
Nostalgia. It really wasn’t that long ago.
Our very own LTC Stone Cold, BSMV, emailed me a link today to a story that was produced by France 24 about Tag Ab and the neighboring district of Ala Say.
For me, it was both exciting and eerie. I’ve been in all of those places. In the video, they visit the local ANP. I’ve sat in the stuffed chair that is in their new office. I was in that building before it was completed. I worked with those ANP, and I’ve met and talked with the Provincial council member who smuggled the reporters back into Tag Ab for their second trip.
Firebase Kutschbach, which started out as a VPB* and then grew into Firebase Tag Ab and is now named for a Special Forces operator who was killed working out of the firebase shortly after the base was begun, has grown quite a bit in the past months since I’ve left Afghanistan.
The French are sending additional troops to Afghanistan and apparently are going to relieve the soldiers from the 101st who are there currently.
During the first of two visits to Tag Ab, the French crew rides out to Ala Say in an MRAP with soldiers from Co A, 506th INF, 101st ABN during a combat patrol. That was the road that we went up and down numerous times in the valley. I once took a two humvee patrol out there, spent several hours doing a district assessment of the district ANP and returned without incident. Why they didn’t hit me is anyone’s guess. Box of chocolates, I guess.
Days later, six humvees went out and one of our SECFOR gunners had his M-240 blown clean in half by an RPG which struck the top of his humvee. He was unscathed; not so much as a singed eyebrow. Days later the same soldier, now driving, on the same road, was struck in the door by an RPG. It blew the door open and peppered him with metal and glass fragments in his left arm and face.
No one blamed him when he announced that he would like to be rotated to tower guard duty back at Blackhorse. He’s a great kid with a great sense of humor, and he still carries fragments in his left arm. He was one of our awesome SECFOR crew from South Carolina. Can’t say enough good things about our valiant South Carolinians; they were the best.
He was, obviously, an RPG magnet as well; so it was in everyone’s best interest that he did just that. Great guy; not safe to be around.
It must have been his magnetic personality.
It’s a trip to see Afghanistan in the news more often. Americans seem to have a renewed consciousness of this theater of the war. Before I went to Afghanistan, one of my co-workers, Mrs. Howesfrow, asked me with all earnestness, “Is there still a war in Afghanistan?”
My response was one of those that required a conscious effort to leave the “dumbass” off of the end of the sentence.
A commenter on this blog once queried to the effect that he thought that we had already won in Afghanistan. Afghanistan was called “The Forgotten War,” likening American lack of awareness to the blithe ignorance of the Korean War. Now there is a resurgent interest in Afghanistan. Part of that interest was generated by the battles that were fought in 2007 and the continued activity in 2008.
This activity draws pundits out of the woodwork claiming with all earnestness that we are losing. Just days over a year ago, Tag Ab was a place that coalition forces rarely went and the nearest permanent presence was at the north end of the valley at Nijrab. That presence was a Special Forces ODA** and about a company of ANA who rotated in and out. The ANP in Tag Ab were completely non-functional. The now-fired Chief of Police in Tag Ab rarely actually ventured into the valley.
It was Talibanland.
Now there is a struggle going on in Tag Ab, which adds to the violence level reported in Afghanistan, and to the casualty count; but before there was not so much activity, because it was left to the Taliban.
The government of Afghanistan is pushing into these areas that were previously ungoverned, and the ACM, the best known of which are the Taliban, are finding themselves pushed back.
It doesn’t help that the Taliban have their safe havens in Pakistan. It doesn’t help that there is Arab money pouring into those areas, either. It doesn’t help that Al Qaeda still functions there and brings resources to bear in defense of their hiding place and training ground.
But that doesn’t mean that we are losing. Can we lose? Yes. Are we losing? No. We have gained ground in areas like Tag Ab. But we are clearly reaching a decision point in our efforts.
When we arrived in Tag Ab, the paved road in the video was unpaved and rough. The District Center was 40% complete and not in progress. The ANP had been pinned down in their makeshift district center for days at a time by the Taliban and they were afraid to go more than a few hundred meters from the District Center. Now they are part of the fight for their own country. They hopped in their trucks and went tearing off to assist their commander when he was ambushed.
The ANP commander who was injured in that ambush was in for his second flight on a MEDEVAC bird to Bagram. He is one of the bravest Afghans I met in Afghanistan. A quiet, unassuming man, he always went towards the fire.
Tag Ab is obviously still contested. It is a struggle, and partly because it is their closest major activity to Kabul. Suicide attacks that emanate from Pakistan have staged through Tag Ab to reach Kabul. It is a critical area.
Two years ago, convoys were ambushed much further north, but now much of the drive from Bagram to Tag Ab is fairly peaceful. The government is obviously in control in those areas. Police are in evidence and the people go about their daily lives in relative peace. Tag Ab still has a way to go to get to that level, but it will happen.
It takes time, patience, and unfailing commitment.
Our media is still missing the boat. While the French report is not entirely accurate, they did the best that they could. Most of it is either accurate or close to the truth, but it is by far the best piece I’ve seen on Tag Ab. There are a thousand stories that are ongoing in Afghanistan where Americans are doing things that would make people here proud, but they are not being reported. The stories are not being told. America is being ripped off.
We’re being scooped by the French.
*VPB = Vehicle Patrol Base; a group of vehicles arranged in a defensive perimeter, a temporary arrangement
**ODA = Operational Detachment Alpha; an “A Team”