08 September 2009
Helmand Province, Afghanistan
Just before the mission, soldiers form up near the memorial for our fallen.
The mission was simple. Taliban had been watching FOB Inkerman and British patrols from various compounds and we were going to occupy those compounds and pick a fight with all comers.
The mission is set to begin just at sunrise, so soldiers use white lights because night vision will not be needed. (We are still well within the base.)
The sounds: Muffled discussions, metallic clicks and snaps, and the sound of gear being stuffed into rucksacks. A soldier can be heard taking a long inhale from a cigarette. The tip grows brighter and he pauses; the tip dims and he exhales while quietly talking at half volume.
The task was very dangerous and we expected a fight. Ross Kemp, the famous British journalist who shot a documentary here, did a fine job in catching the truth of the Green Zone. Little has changed since Mr. Kemp came here; his work is as true now as it was then. Every British soldier knows and respects Ross Kemp—not because he made them heroes, but because he told the truth.
As a mood-probe, I posed a silly question from the darkness: “Is this dangerous?” Two soldiers burst into laughter, and a third said, “It’s stupid as shit, that’s what it is.” The mood was good. It’s when you don’t get an answer that you need to watch out.
Leaving base, we pass the mortar pits where the crews are ready to support us with lethal fire. A hundred meters away, the 105mm howitzers also are prepared, as are the Javelins and machine guns and grenade launchers on the perimeter. Today, when the fighting begins, they will fire many shots.
It’s time to head to the gate by the 611 “highway” that separates the desert from the Green Zone. FOB Inkerman is on the desert side, but just fifteen seconds’ walk from here begins the Green Zone.
The enemy owns the Green Zone and so platoons don’t push far from base. The risk of being outnumbered and outmaneuvered is evident. Some commanders might take issue with that statement, but the commanders here will not. To any commanders who are distant and would like to challenge my claim that the enemy owns the Green Zone here, they might consider accepting my challenge: When an officer of the rank of Colonel or General is ready to walk from FOB Jackson to PB Wishtan to FOB Inkerman and walk back to FOB Jackson, please call and I’ll walk with you.
Yes, if they accept this challenge and spend the day to walk this route, their words will stick. Yet today, even with so much immediate support from the mortars, guns and Apaches and jets, little imagination is required to envision losing most or all of a platoon within a couple miles of a base.
Despite all that, the morale of British troops is unmistakably good, which cannot be attributed to the terrible rations they eat. After more than a month with British combat troops in the Green Zone, I hadn’t seen a piece of fresh fruit on a base, despite that we are surrounded by farms.
Riflemen Ben Taylor and Aaron Jones always seem ready to roll. Moments before we head into the mission, I say, “Don’t worry men. If there are any dramas, just fall behind me and obey my commands.” Their eyes go wide, then Ben laughs loudly and Aaron goes “Kookoo, Kookoo,” while twirling a finger close to his ear.
We snap on helmets and enter the Thunder Zone. Lance Corporal Johnston takes file behind Ben Taylor. Two soldiers wearing at least three types of camouflage because the British Army has not properly outfitted its soldiers. Missions here range from Brown Zone to Green Zone back to desert brown within minutes. The soldiers need camouflage similar to what special operations folks wear. British and American special operations folks use camouflage suitable for both environments. It’s cheap and every combat soldier should have it.
We have so few troops that we cannot even control the veins of Green Zone.
As we step off base from FOB Inkerman, we are immediately subject to coming under small-arms attacks.
We walked off base, briefly along the 611 “highway” that runs just by that power line. On the hill, just this side of the mosque, are approximately 35 men and boys. They are watching us. The speakers mounted on the mast above the mosque are used for the call to prayers.
Is it a security violation to print Google maps? Those men up on the hill and the farmers in the fields see every move we make. If this were the opening stage of the war, it would be a mistake to print such a map. But not now. The people here know exactly what we do and where we do it. The people at home are in the dark, but not the Afghans.
We move through the corn and other crops under the eyes of the Afghan men on the hill. Soldiers on point mark a possible bomb.
As the sun rises, the variation in from Brown Zone to Green Zone becomes evident.
Rifleman Jack Otter is in the file just behind me. It seems that the most dangerous place in the file is at the point, but after that everywhere is probably about equal. The battle spaces around Afghanistan are very different. Here at Inkerman, for instance, the fight is remarkably different than the fight four miles away at Sangin. At Inkerman there are bombs, but it’s still mostly a gunfight, whereas in Sangin most of our KIAs come from bombs.
The opium has been harvested and these fields have been sowed with corn and other crops. Farmers are not happy with this year’s opium prices.
The corn provides great cover for the enemy and for us. Operating in the corn is like being aboard a British submarine while we cruise around for Taliban subs. We can’t see more than a few meters, and so it’s particularly important to be quiet and try not to ruffle the corn stocks which jiggles the tassles. Even in this kelp-like maize, we are subject to being hit by bombs. There are so many IED attacks that it’s hard to keep track. A special operations unit was attacked in late August resulting in one KIA, some amputations, and a soldier who lost his genitals, which happens more often than one might think.
Land mine? Nail?
The PKM is a common enemy weapon that packs a wallop. It can penetrate our helmets. Untrained fighters typically will fire high during night time, or in places of limited visibility such as in the corn. Good fighters often use “grazing fire,” so that even when the enemy is lying flat the gun can get hits. During our ambush on 20 August, four days earlier, the enemy had used good fire discipline and it was only due to pure luck that none of us were killed. Our guys are better shots and more tactically sound, so whereas the terrain definitely belongs to the enemy, when firefights actually start, the smart money is on the Brits or Americans, not the Taliban. They might kill a few of us, but if they stick around and fight we will wipe them out.
Lately the Green Zone has been flooded by the farmers and the fields have been muddy, yet today the irrigation had shunted and the irrigation ditches were mostly dry for this mission. Sometimes the enemy plants bombs in trees, or stretches tripwires high so that antennas will catch, which is part of the reason why being on point is not always most dangerous. Often, the point elements miss the bombs which then hit the main body. IED strikes are not like the war movies where somebody gets shot, falls down dying in his buddy’s arms saying, “Tell Lara…cough cough… Tell Lara…I love her.” And his buddy says, “No Jimmy, hang in there! Tell her yourself! Tell her yourself! Don’t die Jimmy! Don’t die you bastard!”
No, that’s not how it is at all. After an IED strike you are using sticks to knock body parts and gear out of trees, and you are collecting arms, legs, and helmets splattered with brains. Bodies get blown from one compound into another compound, and parts land on roofs. Weapons are completely lost or shattered into pieces. There is nothing romantic about the bombs. It’s straight up combat. Body parts we cannot find get eaten by dogs and nobody wants that, so we try to find every little piece—if time permits, and if there is enough light. Lately, the enemy have often been killing more of us with the second bomb than the first. After we get blown up and start collecting casualties, BOOM, other bombs start exploding.
There are loads of Fijian soldiers in the British Army. The Fijians make good soldiers and they also are very friendly and easy to get along with.
When firefights start, maneuvering can be tricky; the “cleared” lane is only a few feet wide.
Nearing the objective. We had split into several elements for mutual fire support.
As we approached the compound that was our objective, the point elements kept sweeping for bombs. Often there will be a metallic ping on a corner. I went around a corner a month or so ago, and found a sheer hole that might have been forty feet deep. Just how many soldiers have fallen into holes in this country is unknown, but it’s got to be a lot. Afghans are liable to dig holes just about anywhere, and you can bet that the holes will be unmarked. The deep holes around here are wells. Perfect tiger traps in the making.
We enter the compound and find this man. He looked familiar. As it happens, he had come to FOB Inkerman on 21 August along with nine other men, when an elder asked to be compensated for a generator that got shot on the 20th by a Javelin missile. (I had photographed the Javelin shot and can confirm that the big fireball seemed to have come from a hit on fuel.) Captain Ed Addington asked for his ID, and other details. The man claimed not to know any Taliban, though of course he probably is part of the gang. He seemed friendly and self-assured, and despite that he probably is the enemy, I would end up sitting with him for about an hour. When he learned I am American, he smiled and said “Barack Obama President.” The man said he had never heard of Michael Jackson. Just behind the man is a hole that’s about 10m deep, and about 8m x 5m on the surface. (About 30x25x15 feet.) At the bottom was water. The massive hole was dug by hand—about 4,000 cubic meters—and the whole hole was inside his compound walls. I asked how long it took to dig that hole, and he said six men would need two months.
Information flow from locals is tantamount to zero. There are some local sources, but on a scale of 1–10, information flow is probably about a 2. The other 8 must go to the Taliban, though the more time I spend in the Green Zone the more I begin to think we are fighting the people in general, and not some small group of Taliban. The British government insists that British must guard Kajaki Dam (just upriver from here) or the Taliban will destroy it because the Taliban does not want people to have electricity. This is untrue. The Taliban had years of control over Kajaki and never destroyed the dam. British officials also tell me that it would do no good to build an electrical grid because the Taliban would destroy the grid. This is patently false. The power lines in this area – under Taliban control – are in fine condition. The Taliban controls the electricity and shuts it off at night, along with cell phone towers in many places. We generate the electricity and the Taliban collects money for wattage.
Water well in the compound.
The soldiers occupied the walls and watched for attacks, while I sat with the two men in the compound.
He was all smiles and then asked for his photo. When the camera was brought to bear, he got the serious look. The moment the photo snapped he was all smiles again and wanted to see the photos on the screen.
I counted five kids. They never avoided us but never approached us and never smiled. If the kids were a barometer of the house, this house did not like soldiers.
The children’s dollhouse also had walls.
The handmade dolls might have reflected a census of the household.
Even the dolls had sleeping mats.
The younger man watched the soldiers while holding a wrench that I figured was for hitting us if he got in the mood. The soldiers found an ammunition carrier in the house but no ammo.
We had reliable information that the enemy was moving in on us.
Shots were fired by us on several occasions but the firefight had not yet started.
We kept getting information that the enemy was moving in on us. The machine gunner in the background fired at men who were maneuvering in. The soldiers were very confident that we would be attacked on the way out. As we moved into the corn, a shot rang out and I fell flat and a soldier behind me said, “That was impressive,” and I said, “I told you I am always the fastest to the ground.” Turns out it was just a warning shot . . . but nobody warned me! A couple minutes later a proper firefight broke out and we were all on the ground but we were not actually in contact. Another element was shooting at the enemy with machine guns, rifles and grenade launchers. The mortars began firing and we moved to contact, and along the way encountered what appeared to be an IED laid out for us. We went around and ended up with the element that was doing all the shooting. The 81mm mortars and the 105mm howitzers were firing dozens and dozens of shots into a compound where the enemy had disappeared.
Lance Corporal Lee Casey stays on the gun. After each firefight, the soldiers redistribute ammo so that the loads are more even.
Lance Corporal Gareth Prior
Lance Corporal Michael Pidgeon
Behind the dust is the compound we were hammering. We got intelligence that some enemy might have been killed or wounded, so the British commander said, yeah, right, hold on. Cease fire. Let’s give them a chance to send a recovery party and when they’ve had time to get there, unleash again with the mortars and guns. And so that’s what happened. The next barrage was intense and on target. Again, dozens of howitzer and mortar rounds landed inside the compound and a B-1B was said to be in the area, and there were hopes that we could drop a bomb in there, too. No bomb was dropped.
After the fighting, we moved back to Inkerman, and along the way we kept getting reports that the enemy was trying to hit us with bombs they had hidden. We got lucky this time.
More than two years ago, Ross Kemp, an outstanding British journalist, filmed a documentary series here. I have recognized many of the scenes in his footage. Little has changed other than it’s more dangerous here now. If you want to see what it’s like here through a video camera – Ross Kemp and his crew have done an incredible job. His facts and the tone were just right.
And that was it. We came back to base and I received a message. The British Ministry of Defence had canceled my embed. Here we are, eight years after the attacks on 9/11, watching censorship creep in to “the forgotten war.”