We had scheduled to do some training in Kunar, and so we set out on the arduous aerial tour that would take us to the remote outpost which was our destination. My team, consisting of myself, CPT Jean-Luc and two interpreters flew into Bagram planning to catch another helicopter to Jalalabad and yet another out to the outpost in Kunar. At Bagram we discovered that the flight to Kunar was originating from where we stood, but we would wait overnight to catch it. It sounded like it was worth the additional pain of a night in Pogadishu. The terps groaned; they hate Pogadishu, because it makes them feel like sub-humans in their own country. But, they were good sports and took one for the team.
We arrived a half an hour before “show time,” the time when they call the roll for the flight, and immediately noticed the red band on the display. “Canceled.” Whoa. Not good. Sure enough, the Specialist at the window indicated that the flight indeed was canceled, and would not be rescheduled. The next flight to our chosen destination would be the next scheduled flight, now days away.
“That puts us outside our mission window,” I said, obviously irritated.
“I’m sorry, I don’t control the flight schedule,” the young Specialist offered.
“I know. You’re fine. I’m still pissed, because my mission is screwed; but you’re fine. I know it’s not your fault.” I’m sure that made him feel much better. Strain showed on his face.
I called the shop and after pondering our situation, they beckoned us to scrub the whole thing and return. I started looking for air again… headed the other way. The fixed wing pax (personnel) terminal, about a mile away, said that they had a flight leaving with a show time only about an hour and a half distant. They don’t take Space A (space available) listings by phone, so we had to get ourselves, our weapons, armor and gear down to the terminal. No big deal… we were getting used to dragging our gear back and forth all over Bagram. As we grabbed our gear, an Air Force Captain awaiting a different flight recognized my obvious irritation and asked where we had been headed. “Ah, Kunar,” he said, “Couple of places out there having a really bad day. They needed helicopters.” This didn’t sound good. Not a lot of information, but enough to know that some of our guys were having a rough time out there.
Maybe my day wasn’t so bad after all.
We wound up catching a shuttle, and soon were on the tail end of a 200 person list to fly to Kabul. Going by the numbers, that didn’t sound promising. However, there were very few people in the pax terminal who seemed to want to go to Kabul. I have no idea where all the people on the list were, but they weren’t where we were. Sure enough, we got seats. We palletized our gear and waited to be called to board the bus that would drive us out to the C-130. In the meantime Tamin, one of our experienced interpreters, noticed someone from our unit who was due back from leave. “I saw Pickling, Sir.”
“He was over there. I dunno… he might be in the bathroom.”
I didn’t see Specialist Pickling anywhere. I got up to look around. There were Soldiers everywhere. A flight had come in from Kuwait with at least 150 Soldiers, Marines and Airmen returning from leaves. I soon spotted Pickling and quickly had a reservation for him on our flight as well. He was relieved not to have to spend the night in the purgatory that is Pogadishu. Something had gone right.
Messages began to come in on my phone. Something was going on. There was word from a friend in the states that a base in Kunar had been overrun. I sent back a message that I had already heard that a base was having a bad day, but nothing at all about anyone anywhere being overrun. Still no solid information.
The picture began to gel as time passed. So did the flu I was coming down with, a gift from the Frenchman. It wasn’t until the next morning, after finally flying back to KAIA and grabbing just under three hours of sleep in the transient tent there (the nicest I’ve slept in in Afghanistan) and a European breakfast (where do they call that sausage?), that reports of 8 KIA at Camp Keating began to filter through. They were part of the same Task Force I was going to work with.
My mission was a scrub; but maybe, in comparison, my day wasn’t so bad after all.
I made the trip through the J-bad Pass a number of times during my deployment. Twice in one day, with one of them at night; which was crazy. It was one of the most dangerous things that I did the whole time in country. One of the drivers later told me that he had started hallucinating from fatigue during the trip.
This particular clip was shot on December 15th, 2007. The total trip from Kabul to Jalalabad takes over three hours and is about 90 miles in length. Along the way you lose about 5,000 feet in elevation. This clip is nearly seven minutes in duration, and is the most exciting part of the trip; the switchbacks. It is the most dramatic elevation change, probably around a thousand feet or so. The first time I made the trip there were no retaining walls, which was really interesting as I was driving at the time with O in the turret.
It may sound like I am talking to myself during the clip, but we use an intercom in the humvee, so you can’t hear anyone talking back.
Yes, humvees really do rattle like that.
We are more or less on the southwestern edge of Kabul, so we had to go through Kabul to get started to J-bad. Not long after leaving Kabul, the mountain pass starts, following the Kabul River. A few miles later, the really dramatic stuff starts, with the road on the side of the mountain with no guard rails, retaining walls, or anything between you and a 500 – 1000 foot drop down the mountainside. At this point the river is far below. There are a series of switchbacks carved into the mountain, and you descend down until the road is next to the river again.
When you leave Kabul, there is a large marshy area before the river flows into the mountains. As the river heads down the mountain pass, the water is muddy brown. The raw sewage of Kabul flows into the Kabul River. Kabul’s infrastructure was destroyed by the war, so there isn’t much else they can do. There are a couple of dams and hydroelectric power stations, and then a fair-sized lake. Then the water takes on an aqua green color for the rest of the way down the course, which looks beautiful as it splashes down a seemingly never ending series of rapids to a broad, flat valley full of rice paddies and grazing livestock. The drive through this area is absolutely pastoral. The fields are well-tended, and there are people in twos and threes every few hundred yards or so working in the fields, walking, sometimes groups of children playing or helping.
After a while, there is another dam and a pretty good sized lake with several villages along the shores. It is beautiful, almost Mediterranean-looking.
I think I may have mentioned before that I kind of test the mood of the people in a certain place by waving to them. Support for the central government in Kabul is spotty. Some places very much support the government, the ANA, and Hamid Karzai. Others… not so much. The reasons are various, but suffice it say that some do and some don’t. Some, on the extreme ends of the poles, are vehemently for or against. I get a quick and dirty read on this by waving to people and making a humble friendly gesture. Some will wave enthusiastically, some will wave half-heartedly, some will give the ‘thumbs up’ (which may or may not be good,) some will not respond at all, and some will make a negative gesture. Some will only stare with unbridled hatred in their eyes. I call it the ‘death stare.’ You can tell that they are literally wishing you dead. It is pure evil.
I guage the general support of the people in that area (and our chances of getting attacked by locals, of course,) by the relative balance between the above. We also look for the presence or absence of children. If there are no kids around, it is a bad sign, and we all hunker a little lower in the turrets.
One of these quaint little lakeside towns was one of the most hostile places I’ve been while in-country. It was a pretty little lakeside town, too.
Our first destination was a little town called Mehtar Lam. It was a little out of the way off of the main road, and it was a deceivingly pleasant drive. The road was paved the whole way, and the farms and villages and Khalats (walled family compounds whose walls are made of a mud/straw mixture 2-4 feet thick and as much as 25 feet tall)
are well-kept and beautiful. Lots of rice was being grown there, and water didn’t seem to be an issue. Clean drinking water was probably a problem, but not water for the paddies. There were many beautiful, green scenes along the way. Lots of children were playing and people were working in the fields.
In nearly every village you could smell the strong odor of marijuana being smoked, seemingly by the bushel. It reeked. You don’t smell dope in Kabul, but in the southeast, you smell it in nearly every village.
We looked at the fob and headed back to the main road into J-bad.
It is about a mile drop in elevation between Kabul and Jalalabad. The air is thicker, warmer, and much more humid. It’s not like an American city, where there is a clue that you are getting there. Seemingly out of nowhere, J-bad just happens. The people in Jalalabad are mostly Pashtuns, the largest tribe in Afghanistan. The Taliban leadership and origins are Pashtun. Still, there are those who wave enthusiastically, and there are those who give the death stare. I just wave, and observe the reaction. I make a point to wave right at the ones who seem to be staring. I acknowledge their hatred with a polite nod of my head and go about my business, noting their position and whether or not they seem to be armed or trying to make a cell phone call. A couple of times I have put my hand on my pistol… the machine gun is the last thing you want to use on a busy street, and the pistol is quicker than the rifle. They can’t see what I’ve done, but there have been a couple who I thought might be more than idly hostile.
For all I know, they are Taliban. The thing about insurgents is that they don’t wear uniforms and they mix with the people. It has been written that the people are the water that the insurgent fish swims in. Part of our job is to separate him from the water. I’m sure that I’ve looked right into Taliban eyes by now. I just can’t be sure which ones. I won’t take action against someone I’m not sure is an enemy. But to ignore them is to court disaster.
J-bad was not nearly as dirty nor anywhere close to as damaged as Kabul. It seems like a resort next to the post-apocalyptic world of the capitol city. There were trees, and greenery, and undamaged buildings and new businesses and undamaged pavement.
There was a new gas station/mini mart along the lines of any American gas station. It was brand new and hadn’t even opened yet. It was called “Atock” and instead of concrete or blacktop, the area was paved with bricks. The sign that declared it to be open 24 hours was in English. It was so out of place, it made me laugh.
Even here, in this Pashtun stronghold, there were people who were obviously still happy to see us. We went to the Jalalabad Airfield (JAF) and ate dinner, then went the roughly half mile up the road to the Army compound which also contains Bin Ladin’s last known address and spent the night there.
I wonder if anyone checked with the Post Office to see if he had filed an address forwarding card. No, that would be too easy.
We all woke up fairly early the next morning, got the vehicles ready, and then headed to breakfast at JAF. The made-to-order omelet was pretty good, but the sausage was terrible. Then we mounted up again and headed out of town to a place called Khogyani. It was roughly 20 – 30 km outside of J-bad, and as we rolled out of town into more of the farmland dotted with khalats and interspersed with small villages, it was a pretty nice drive.
The paved road was in fairly decent shape and the traffic wasn’t bad at all.
Suddenly, the paved road ended, and although we didn’t know it, the saying, “ten miles of bad road” was about to take on new meaning. The road was rocky, dusty, full of ruts and washboards, and in places it was blocked. As we drove we would occasionally come across vehicles coming the other direction, and they were very often the ubiquitous Toyota Corollas of Afghanistan. It was amazing how people will drive those cars just about anywhere. I’m sure that road is nothing but a quagmire when it rains.
We rolled past a number of Khalats surrounded by fields and livestock and finally entered a scenic little village and up the main street. The greeting was a bit lukewarm, but we knew we were close to where we were going and didn’t mind that much. We rolled out of the village and could see the fob up on a hill, but we were on the wrong road! We stopped by a large Khalat that looked more like a small village in it’s own right and figured out our plan to get on the right track. A couple of us noticed what happened next… all the women who were out in the fields began to walk back into the Khalat while a teenage boy stood next to the gate watching us intently. Khogyani had been rocketed only four days before, and this area has a small but active group of Taliban. Twenty years ago, the Soviet response to that type of activity was sometimes to raze the nearest village to demonstrate their power and to try to destroy the shelter of the Mujahideen. Perhaps they expected the same treatment from us. In any case, the women calmly walked back into the village and a few minutes later we turned around and headed back through the bazaar to the intersection where we had missed the turn.
Minutes later, we were entering the fob. After sweating inside the vehicles in our body armor, getting out into the bright sunlight and shucking our shells was heaven. In the distance beyond the rolling hills around Khogyani were snowcapped mountains. We found ourselves next to a small castle surrounded by Hesco barriers (modular barriers made of interlocking wire baskets with a feltlike bag liner that hold anything from dirt to concrete and are excellent barrier walls.) As we walked into the “castle” I realized that it was a khalat. It felt like we were in a small western fort. We joked about how the only thing we were missing here was to be surrounded by a ring of whooping Comanches riding circles around us and firing arrows over the walls.
It turns out that the khalat had been owned by a Taliban Lieutenant who fled to Pakistan when the Americans helped the Northern Alliance take over Afghanistan and kicked the Talibs out. The provincial governor had handed it over to the Army to use as a base. What a trip, I thought, to be using the enemy’s former home as a base. Now there are Americans and ANA stationed there to be the government’s presence in the area.
The four rockets that had landed at the camp a few days earlier had done no real harm. One had landed next to the Afghan’s volleyball court and rearranged the sand. The Afghans are avid volleyball players, believe it or not. We saw a game going on outside a small village on our way back out of Mehtar Lam the previous day.
We stayed for about two hours and then saddled up again for the six hour drive from Khogyani back up to Kabul. We drove back along the same road, seeing everything from the opposite angle. Finally we rolled back into J-bad, rolled through and headed out of town towards the mountains to the northwest.
We retraced our route up the broad river valley, and stopped at the Afghan equivalent to a truck stop to let the vehicles cool down and swap out drivers/gunners. I had been driving up to this point, and I wanted to experience the pass from the turret. We stopped well out away from anything, did our close proximity checks for any dangers and dismounted the vehicles. We must look like spacemen to the locals, helmeted, armored, with earphones and microphones and weapons hanging all over us as we dismount our vehicles. I waved to a family of Afghans sitting in front of their house next to the “store” and they waved back, watching with intent curiosity.
We all grabbed bottles of water to drink (it’s amazing how good warm water can taste!) and some grabbed snacks or a smoke while we assumed a posture of relaxed vigilance. Heads on swivels, we stretched our legs and enjoyed the breeze outside of our humvees. I glanced over at a nearby village and saw a group of children coming up a trail towards us. I counted: seven. I got into the “trunk” of our humvee and opened a twelve pack of water and pulled out the package.
As the children arrived, they knew that the water was for them. I passed out the water, making sure that each got at least one bottle of water. The children here will continue to beg, and it’s heartrending, but once you have given them something, it’s easier. We can’t give something to everyone, but I do what I can. I took pictures of them as we mounted back up and headed towards the mountains.
We went back through up the valley in reverse order as it narrowed, past the dam and the beautiful, quaint, hostile village of Sarobi, back up into the narrowing passes and into the beautiful, primitive mountainous wonder. This time I had a full appreciation of the incredible, massive beauty of the mountains and all of the detail. There was so much to see… and I was still watching for people up on the mountainsides who wanted to blow us up.
As we went along the river, the spray from the rapids could be felt from time to time. I kept my mouth closed. It was beautiful, but completely unsafe. It still felt good. We climbed into the sun, twisting and turning.
After a dramatic climb up a mountainside full of switchbacks we finally drove up a stretch of slightly more open space and through a final pass into the dusty plain that Kabul lies on. We had returned and it was time to make our way back through the chaos to Camp Phoenix, where we stopped for dinner, and on back to Camp Dubs. It was after dark when we returned, tired, incredibly dirty, and happy to have done it all without injury. We were “home.”
And so they called a meeting. I wanted to strangle someone.