…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…”
The following is an account of events that occurred several weeks ago. It was not the first time that we had been near incoming fire, but it was the first time that we were part of the specific target. The rocket that impacted near us one day as we entered Bagram was simply a “pot shot” taken at that large base. I have omitted only minor details of the attack, and only to avoid giving any operational information that could be at all useful to anyone.
It was about 1020 hours. The Maniac started the coffee and O came down the walk as we sat outside enjoying the quiet and the coffee. O had just topped off his coffee and was refilling mine when the idle chatter was interrupted by a loud “CARROUMP!!”
“That’s not good,” the Maniac opined as his butt lifted about an inch off of his folding camp chair. About five seconds passed and there was a terrible screeching noise… a low buzz with a high pitched shriek overlaid upon it.
BOOM! The glass and doors of the khalat vibrated. Loose dirt and chunks of dried mud shook loose from the khalat wall and sprinkled the gravel and concrete.
“Rockets!” said the Maniac, ducking into the doorway of our concrete room. “Hey man! Get in here!” O was just finishing off topping my coffee cup.
“Hey, almost done with the coffee,” I said. O was walking up the walkway towards his room. He stopped about halfway, turned, and said, “Are those rockets?”
“Yup, sounds like rockets.”
He turned and continued up the walk to his room. By the time I was into the room, the Maniac was already in his ACU pants and was finishing putting his socks on. He was ready for a fight. I started into my ACU’s, and within three minutes we were all suited up, including armor. Several more explosions sounded within the limits of the outer wall of the FOB. The Maniac was out the door, weapon in hand as he prepared to defend what the guys in the other compound referred to as, “The Alamo.” I was about 30 seconds behind him.
As I was on my way out the door there was a loud explosion that felt very close. “Son of a bitch!” yelled the Maniac. “That one was really close! I think it was one of ours… are they supposed to shoot that close? That was right out on the berm!”
As I reached the roof, the Maniac was pointing to where the round had hit. There was still smoke coming from the point of impact, about 250 meters away. “See? It was right over there! I saw it hit, and I’m kicking myself for not ducking. I saw it hit, and I thought, ‘hey, that’s a mortar’ and then it went off. That bastard was really loud! Now I’m kicking myself in the ass for not getting down when I saw it hit.”
The mortar crew was firing the large mortar to the southwest of the FOB. The Maniac, O and I were on the roof of the khalat. We peered over the mud parapet and observed the rounds detonating to the southwest, out on the area that was used days earlier as a machine gun range; out on the ground that we had stood on a few days before, showing the staff guys where some specific sites were. There was a flash and a mass of dust and black smoke. Seconds later, the report… “Crump!” The smallest mortar chimed in, the smaller rounds noticeable in the difference, but still deadly.
The handheld radio had died as O attempted to report to the team leader in the other compound that we were all okay. We were “out of comms” with the other compound.
The three of us watched as the mortars fired. The ANA checkpoint to the west began firing, and some of the heavy crew-served weapons began firing towards the mountain to the south and into the ravine that separated the FOB from the base of the mountain. Some time later we observed several ANA Ford Rangers and two humvees roll out to the southwest towards the finger that was used as the machine gun range. Some explosions were visible near the trail humvee as it rolled along the dirt road. We debated what these explosions were. We would learn later that they were hand grenades that one of the guys was throwing over the low ridgeline to clear that area.
The humvees pulled out to the edge of the finger and we heard the reports of automatic weapons as they fired into the ravine. We could see no other activity. Minutes later the silhouettes of several helicopters were seen and the sounds of “fast movers” overhead could be heard. The humvees and ANA vehicles returned from the finger.
The whole thing had taken about an hour and a half, but it seemed like 20 minutes. We were all happy to have made it through our first incoming with no injuries, and we had all reacted calmly and matter-of-factly to the fire.
We’d had our first taste, and we had weathered it well.
We’ve decided that’s what we are: The Bastard Children. There are just the three of us, at a FOB where we are tolerated but not embraced, our own supply lines non-existent. We prepare to conduct our mission, not knowing when.
In the meantime, we do what we can to stay busy. We have constructed a simple training plan for our “clients” and some tracking tools to follow their progress using excel spreadsheets. Too bad I never learned to do Access database development. We can do without it, though.
Life has settled into a routine. We may or may not eat breakfast, but we always make a pot of coffee on our Afghan stove that the Green Mountain Maniac secured for us. We then sit and enjoy a few cups of coffee and talk about business or whatever comes to mind. The sun comes up about 4:15 around here, so by this time the sun is well up in the sky, but it is still relatively cool in the shade. It’s funny what guys will wind up talking about.
“Silly rabbit, trix are for kids,” was brought up in the context of something silly someone else had done. B-Mo O stated that he’d had a skate board when he was a kid that said it on the bottom of the board. That brought up the subject of skateboards, then snowboards, half-pipes and skis.
“Hey, what cereal was that for, anyway?”
“Nah, that was the leprechaun.”
“That was Sugar Bear.”
“It wasn’t Frosted Flakes, that was Tony the Tiger.”
“Captain Crunch… that was that stupid captain.”
“That was the parrot.”
“Trix! It was Trix!”
“God, we are morons.”
We have taken to running on an uneven dirt road that winds around the inner perimeter but within the outer Hesco walls of the FOB. In some spots there really isn’t a road, just dirt covered with scrubby brush. We measured it with the Garmin GPS, and it came to exactly 800 meters… exactly a half a mile. We’ve been doing four laps… 2 miles a day. At first we were doing it in the evening, but we’ve decided to vary our times so that we don’t set up a predictable routine. For a couple of days we did it before lunch. The temperature has hovered near a hundred degrees while we did that. We’re amazingly well acclimated to the high temperatures now. At 5300 feet, you can feel the difference running. The uneven ground strewn with rocks makes it more difficult. You can’t establish a rhythm, and your stride is by necessity choppy and as uneven as the ground. It sucks, but you feel great when you’re done. Our goal is to work up to 5 miles… ten laps around this course that has all the smoothness of sheet copper that’s been beaten with a ball peen hammer and strewn with rocks.
I am the slowest, finishing several minutes behind the other two. B-Mo O, being eleven years younger, is much faster… even though he smokes. Green Mountain Maniac is a couple of years older than myself, but doesn’t smoke and is actually a physical freak for his age, being in astounding condition. He is addicted to weight lifting, becoming cranky as an old goat when kept from his weights. I smoke… gotta stop that. You can really feel it while running at this altitude. I do it, though… and I’m getting faster and more comfortable all the time.
We have no air conditioning, but that’s not our biggest problem. The concrete floor of our garden apartment draws moisture from the ground, creating a humid tropical feeling that is truly special. I think it has made a very positive difference in our acclimation. We do have a fan, though. The Maniac devised an ingenious plan to makes screens for the top of the windows (about a foot above the sandbags) using empty sandbags cut along the seams and taped to the frame. This has made something of a difference in the climate, and has resulted in only three times the outside ambient humidity within the walls of our sanctuary. He’s really a handy guy, and his hyperactive tendencies mean that he is seldom still, always looking for things to get his hands into. This often results in physical improvements to the AO (Area of Operations.)
He has fixed the dilapidated showers twice now.
We bought a bunch of movies from the vendor who sells movies with a lot of what we think is Chinese all over the covers. They are American movies, but they vary greatly in quality. During one, the silhouette of a man heading for the popcorn stand suddenly appeared, making his way to the aisle. One that I purchased for two dollars (the going rate for these knock-offs) started with Russian dubbing and Chinese subtitles. It took me several minutes to get it set to English with no subtitles… the sound was a quarter of a second off from the video. While screwing around with the Russian menu I managed to get it running with Russian audio and English subtitles that had nothing to do with the actual dialogue. It was hilarious! The subtitles depicted a flirty conversation between a man and a woman while two men were speaking Russian to each other in serious tones about a serious matter and their lips moved in English. Whadya want for two bucks?
There is one computer here for MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) use. There are over 30 guys who use this computer for keeping in touch with the people back home. Time on the computer is hard to come by, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all. I’ve taken to writing emails on my laptop and putting them on a thumb drive to cut and paste into the body of the email once addressed. I’m doing the same with the blog now, too.
So… overall, we are good. A couple of exciting times now, but we are all whole and healthy.