Combat Outpost Rankel, Safar, Garmsir District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan
On the way from my old job with the Afghan brigade to my new Afghan infantry company in Safar, I stopped for a few days at Delhi, the headquarters of our Afghan battalion (the middle level between brigade and company). The Marine logistics mentor there was building a medical aid station for the ANA. A local Afghan contractor had dropped off some wood cabinets and tables and was erecting the tent. “How did you find a contractor for this job?” I asked. “Oh, it’s really easy. I walk to Post 3, climb the ladder, and shout into the village, ‘Saiiiiiid Mohaaaamed!’ and he pokes his head out his window and comes to see what we need.”
There are three big pots of money, somewhere way above my level, reserved for contracting projects. Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP) money is usually managed by civil affairs officers and can only be used on projects for the local populace, anything from cleaning canals to fixing bazaars and digging wells. The other two pots are reserved for projects relating to American or Afghan forces—anything where local labor might be helpful on a base. Marine comptrollers reside at the regimental level and help secure lines of accounting for these projects. And pay agents draw the money from disbursing officers at the large bases. Marines are then assigned to supervise the projects and enforce contractual timelines. Audit teams keep everyone in check. All of this is part of what’s now called counterinsurgency contracting, or, as the title of one particularly thick manual would have it, using “Money as a Weapon System (MAAWS).” Depending on the project, the contractor, and the skill required, Afghan workers are paid up to $1200 a month. To put this in perspective, ANA soldiers start out at a little more than $300 a month.
Down in Safar, the Marine company commander came up with a good way to involve the local “Safarians” in their own futures: at the next shura the elders would draft a list of projects they felt were most important. Marines would take the more expensive projects, but for every project we completed, the Safar council of elders and shopkeepers would have to complete one, too. At the top of everyone’s list was graveling the bazaar’s main street (called Maine Street by the Marines; parallel to Colorado and crisscrossing Delaware and Washington). The civil affairs officer attached to Lima Company, Captain Brown, solicited bids and awarded the contract to a not-so-local named Aga Baloor. It took him a while to show up. When he did, he came with no gravel, no workers, and not enough heavy equipment, but bearing gifts. He tilted the piston-driven bed of his truck and dumped a set of playground equipment on the sand. There were blue swings, see-saws, a yellow spinning whirl-a-wheel thing (I’m not up on the official playground jargon), and a somber red slide. It wasn’t much, but against the drab browns of Safar it provided some greatly needed color. We put it in front of the new primary school tents, just outside the base.
The next day, from inside COP Rankel, you could hear the shouts of children playing on their new equipment. Captain Brown and I sat down with the Aga Baloor, a subcontractor, and the ANA company commander, Captain Abdullah, to discuss plans for the bazaar. Conversation immediately turned to Aga Baloor’s accusation that a senior ANA officer had tried to extort money from him in exchange for safe passage. Captain Abdullah was angry. “You say that an ANA officer demanded money for your safety? Well he will come down and arrest you for lying.” “Commandant Abdullah, you can’t arrest someone for lying,” I pointed out. “Then we’ll put him in jail for spreading bad words about the ANA.” “You can’t do that either. Saying bad things about the ANA is not a crime in Afghanistan. You can only put someone in jail for something that’s a crime.” “Then we’ll find a way to punish him,” Captain Abdullah said; true to his word, Aga Baloor now sleeps with his workers next to their trucks outside COP Rankel, instead of in tents with the ANA as they had on their first night of the contract.
Next it was the subcontractor’s turn to air his grievances: “Aga Baloor wants to use my trucks to haul the gravel, but he won’t guarantee me a portion of his money.” “Then you should take your trucks and go,” I said. “We can’t guarantee you any portion of that money, either. Our contract for the graveling of the bazaar is with Aga Baloor, not with anyone else. How he completes the project is up to him. If you want a guarantee of payment, maybe you and Aga Baloor should sign a contract together.” Saying this, I felt like a fool. Who would enforce it? The subcontractor decided to quit, but not before asking us to help him get his truck unstuck from the sand, and asking for a Marine escort for his trip home. We helped him with the former.
A few days of graveling later, one of Aga Baloor’s workers was riding through the Eastern Desert in his tractor when his wheels touched a buried pressure plate, close to the spot where the British soldier died the week before, and again a couple hundred meters from COP Rankel. It was one of the largest IEDs I’ve seen. We all felt the deep blast and saw the billowing brown plume. It was easily a hundred pounds of explosives. The front half of the tractor was instantly obliterated, as were the worker’s face and legs. It took Aga Baloor quite some time to identify the man as his cousin.
“SIR, RIGHT now I am a kind of confused, because I see the contractor guy, and he has lost his two legs, and his face is off, and he has one of his eyes gone, and Aga Baloor could not even tell who it was. My parents love me a lot, and if I die there is no one to support them.” My interpreter, Said, was having a hard time handling the IED attack we had seen earlier in the day. “I’ll help your family if you’re killed, Said.” “How?” “I’ll have to figure that out when the time comes.” “With money?” “Sure, with money.” “When a Marine dies the family gets money. When an interpreter dies the family gets nothing. How much will you give them?” “$10,000.” “Come on, lieutenant, I’m worth more than that.” He was right. Said is a savvy interpreter. And his calculating persistence serves him well.
I was matched up with Said the day we moved down from Delhi to COP Rankel in Safar, the new frontier in the push south along the Helmand River. Said was wearing Marine-issued trousers and boots and a green skivvy shirt. “Lieutenant, I am a good interpreter, and I will do whatever you need me to do. At the end I will need a recommendation for my VISA package or to get a good computer job in Kabul.” He had a large backpack with extra clothes and sleeping bags and tossed his laptop carrying case into the backseat of one of the convoy’s vehicles. That laptop, a rarity among interpreters, was to become a prized possession, the centerpiece of entertainment for our company of ANA soldiers and the half dozen translators.
Said had wrapped his computer in plastic and tactical tape to protect it from dust, and packed the hard drive full of movies. When Captain Abdullah comes to the interpreter tent he insists on action, usually an old James Bond movie, but sometimes something newer with Nicolas Cage. The interpreters whisper to him the meanings of the most important lines. At one point in Face/Off, Cage’s character says despondently, “This is a suicide mission.” Said whispered the translation to Captain Abdullah, and Captain Abdullah whispered a question to me: “They do suicide missions in America, too?”
Said’s favorites are American college comedies. In an average week the interpreters will make it through American Pie 1, 2, 3, 4 (are there more?), giggling like teenagers, which many of them are. Said is nineteen. To him, America offers the possibility of endless College, and he desperately wants to go. Serving time as an interpreter is the only viable ticket. Raised in Kabul, the sand, violence, and ancient customs of Helmand are totally alien to him. It’s like a foreign country. America is a lot closer to what he knows, and wants, than southern Afghanistan. Now, after a couple years as an interpreter, he sees the light at the end of the VISA process, and he wants to make it to College unscathed.
“The 1st Sgt. up at Delhi said I wouldn’t have to go out on operation anymore. He said with the embedded team all I have to do is help train the ANA.” “Going out on operations is part of training the ANA, Said. It’s called on-the-job training.” “Come on, lieutenant, I’m not retard. I’ll go on patrol, but not on operation. I know operation is more dangerous than patrol.” “Said, an operation is just a fancier version of a patrol. It’s the same thing.” “Ok, I’ll go on operation but only if you give me weapon.” “Said, no one’s giving you a weapon.” “Last time I went on operation the Taliban started shooting, and the Marines started shooting, and no one tried to help me. Everyone he take care of himself and no one take care of me. If I have weapon I can take care of me.” “Said, if there’s shooting your only job is to take cover and go where I go. There are enough people shooting.” “I need a weapon so if the Taliban is coming to take me away, I can shoot myself.” “I’ll tell you what, Said, if the Taliban is coming to take you away, I promise I’ll shoot you myself.”
“Ok, I will go on operation but I need to borrow the satellite phone to call my mother. You know she was going to be dying, and is very sick.” “You know we’re in River City, Said; no one is allowed to use the satellite phone,” I said, referring to the period of “Reduced Communication” after a Marine is killed in the area, preventing word from spreading to families back home before the official notification. Because there’s no cellphone tower in Safar, the interpreters rely on borrowing Marine Corps satellite phones. “Come on, lieutenant, River City does not apply to interpreters, only to Marines, and my mother is sick. Also, lieutenant, did you ask the major (the Marine company commander) for a recommendation for me? It’s good to have a major’s recommendation.” “Said, I’m writing you a very good recommendation. And you already have fifteen recommendations from other Marines over the last couple years. How many do you need? You don’t need to collect them like baseball cards.” “But lieutenant, I need a few more recommendations from majors.” “The major doesn’t know you, Said. It would be wrong for him to write you a recommendation.”
Said left a few days later, having finagled a deal to serve the rest of his time on a bigger base in a safer part of the district. He had two copies of my recommendation in hand as he boarded the truck that would take him north. The truck started to move, and he threw something back to me. It was an old Mahsood-style mujahideen hat. “Hey lieutenant, give that to Captain Brown and tell him to please write a recommendation for me. He knows me.”
My new interpreter came down on the same convoy. “You will write me a recommendation please,” he asked soon after getting off the truck. “If you do a good job, I will write you a recommendation at the end. We usually don’t ask for recommendations from people we don’t know yet.” “Do not worry. I will have done a good job, so you can just write the recommendation now, sir.” “I don’t have anything to write about yet. Why don’t you focus on doing the best job you can.” “Did you write a recommendations for your last interpreter?” “Yes.” “How many?” “One.” “Just one?” “How many should I have written?” “Maybe at least five.”
We file out of Patrol Base Johnson well before dawn. Illumination is low. The Afghan National Army soldiers don’t have night-vision goggles. We stumble and slurp our way through flooded fields and canals, several clicks to the objective: a mud-walled compound we suspect is used by the Taliban, with a direct line of sight on a known enemy ratline. We will search the compound and set up an ambush, fishing for a fight.
We pause outside its walls. It looks like a place you’d lose your legs, or more. Narrow canalized passageways and obvious paths you’d have to walk; a perfect place for catch-me-fuck-me tripwires, pressure plates, command-pull devices, and all manner of “victim-initiated” explosive booby traps. In the past two months, in this area not much bigger than Central Park, Marines have found more than a hundred IEDs, and more than a dozen found them first.
A quick wave of the metal detector over the entrance and we’re in. Only Afghan soldiers are allowed to search homes at night, so Karim’s in the lead. I’m right behind him. A dog starts to bark. There are people inside. All women and children in one room, while we search the other. I hold a flashlight. Karim starts looking: yellow oil jugs in one corner of the room, like the ones so often packed with ammonium nitrate, sugar, cornstarch, and metal tools sprinkled in like raisins to produce a healthy fragmentation. A teddy bear on a shelf. Fake plastic flowers adorning the cornices. A gadget for boiling chai, arabesque ceramic plates, gourds, a small print of a quaint New England farm and barn scene, empty UNICEF notebooks from another generation, a child’s bicycle with wicker basket, a kilo of opium, and a color photo of the man-of-the-compound posing with a beat up AK-47. Stacks of adorned blankets against a wall, and behind the blankets a wall-hanging, and behind the wall-hanging a chiseled-out niche in the hard mud. In the niche a locked rusty metal box (we found the key in another room), and in the box two doubled up shopping bags, and in the bags the works of Agha Jan, who plays the Robab guitar, and new bass-heavy singles from Pashtunistan, and albums by Tajiks and Uzbeks, and American “JAZZ,” Volumes 1, 2, and 3. Cassette tapes and a player.
There are things people hide from us, and there are things they hide from the Taliban.
The sun rose, hazy, to reveal saturated, electric green marijuana fields and pomegranate trees, set off against the Helmand River and the first dun colors of the western deserts on its other bank. To the east, a prominent hill, a Marine heavy gun position, covering us, always ready to make some music.
Marines are raised on CLP, a viscous amber liquid for Cleaning, Lubricating, and Protecting the moving metal parts in weapons. We take its availability for granted; the company gunny always has a stash when you need an extra bottle, and your buddy is good for a few drops if you run out. A little bit on a toothbrush goes a long way in dissolving the carbon caked on the innards of your rifle and gives the bolt the shiny glide it needs for its cycles of action in the upper receiver. Soviet weapons, long used by Afghan military and mujahideen alike, are much more forgiving of dust, dirt, and carbon. So Afghan fighters never developed the American culture of weapons maintenance, where cleaning your rifle takes precedence to cleaning your gear and your body: “horse, saddle, rider.”
Now the Afghan National Army uses American rifles and light machine guns—the M16 and M249—which can be finicky if not treated as they deserve to be treated. I’ve seen Afghan soldiers with rounds stuck midway down their weapons, the propellant insufficient to push it up and out of the grimy reduced width of the barrel. If they tried to fire another round, bad things could happen. One of my soldiers, nicknamed Kako, a Pashtun who spends most patrols wandering out of line to pick large fragrant hashish leaves, came back one day from a mission and shook his head at me. “M249, no good,” he said. “No shoot.” I opened the feed tray cover and looked inside. “M249, very good,” I said, “but of course it won’t shoot. The bolt is rusted over, and your weapon is filled to the brim with mud.” “I no have oil,” he said. And he had a point.
In addition to developing an ethic of daily weapons cleaning, there is another barrier to fully functional ANA rifles, and that’s the Afghan logistics system. They know, and I know, that there is very little chance their ANA battalion logistics officer will get them all the items they request in a timely manner, if ever. So we’re forced to come up with alternatives. I learned about some of these alternatives during a few days of pre-deployment training at Advisor Training Group (ATG), in Twentynine Palms, California. ATG’s mission is to train Marine Corps transition teams to advise, mentor, and train foreign military and police, especially the forces of Iraq and Afghanistan. ATG gathers first-hand reports from embedded Marines operating in the field and brings them back to train the next group of Marines. My first day there I learned that diesel fuel is a viable alternative for cleaning your rifle, and thirty-weight motor oil for lubrication. It makes a lot of sense: a fluid for stripping carbon and rust that won’t combust under the pressure and heat of the weapon’s normal cycles. But it’s something I never would have considered.
The diesel trick was one among many lessons we learned as part of a new sort of “field expedient” logistics: temporary patches until their system can work for itself. That’s one of the things ATG offers: patches as part of the transition to Afghan authority. There are those who feel that the patches are flimsy and don’t nearly cover the full extent of the wounds, but all things being equal, we’re much better off with ATG than without it.
My ANA company of fifty-eight infantry soldiers does have CLP, not because they received it as part of an ANA battalion-level re-supply from their logistics officer, but because I asked for some from the gunny of the Marine company that shares our base, Combat Outpost (COP) Rankel. He had big bottles of it sitting in his shipping container, along with extra cleaning kits full of rods, brushes, fluids, and everything else you’d need to keep your rifle in the fight. I gave the ANA company commander, Capt. Abdullah, five of the kits, one for each of his patrol bases and checkpoints. The two corporals on my team had already taught a class to some of the Afghans on weapons maintenance, and Capt. Abdullah likes to help his soldiers figure things out on their own, so I handed over the kits with just a quick brief on how to use the things.
The next day I patrolled down to the bazaar checkpoint to make sure everything was going smoothly. The checkpoint is next to the main canal bridge leading into the bazaar and is manned by six ANA soldiers. Most checkpoints in Helmand are manned by Marines, with a few Afghans in support, but the Marine company commander decided that an all-ANA checkpoint would be a good way to have an Afghan face on the entrance to the bazaar. Only a few weeks before, the bazaar and the surrounding villages were a Taliban stronghold with no coalition presence. The ANA checkpoint is still a work in progress. Marine engineers came down with an armored tram the week before to expand the HESCO blast walls and add a machine gun position on the roof, which offers a vantage point into the bazaar and a key T-intersection.
I was greeted at the checkpoint by the usual discrepancies: ANA soldiers sitting in the shade instead of searching vehicles, soldiers without their weapons, soldiers not manning the machine gun position, soldiers sleeping on post, soldiers not monitoring their radios. But one soldier was diligently cleaning the bolt of his M16…with glass cleaning spray. The cleaning kits, in addition to CLP, come with a little bottle of glass cleaner to use on the weapon’s optic. And this soldier was using it on his metal bolt, trying to clean off some gunk, now made even gunkier with the sticky spray. Of the many unexpected challenges working to help develop Afghanistan’s new national army, here was a new one to remember: most Afghan soldiers can’t read the English labels on American cleaning kit bottles.
Two months ago, when I was still working as a mentor up at the ANA brigade, my teammate Luke gave Sergeant Major Rashidi a Marine care package filled with little hotel-size toiletries as a gift. Rashidi held up each item and asked what it was, categorizing them into piles and showing that he understood by motioning their purpose with his hands. He pointed to one bottle and scrambled his fingers through his hair: “shampoo, finished; conditiony, five minutes, shower second time; finished?” “Finished,” I said.