Camp Garmsir, Helmand Province, Afghanistan
I walked into the Afghan conference room one morning to find the 1st Brigade mullah teaching a class to the staff officers on the assembly and disassembly of the M16 rifle. Dressed in the ANA’s green digital cammies instead of his usual religious garb, he sat at the head of the table. He’s a sturdy man with a thick beard dyed black (you can see the gray peeking out at the corners) and thick black-framed glasses, halfway in shape between Rivers Cuomo’s and Mies van der Rohe’s. One of the officers struggled with the bolt, trying to get it back into the upper receiver of the rifle. The mullah grabbed it away and showed him his mistake, sliding it in easily. Though he’s the brigade’s official religious officer, he likes to boast—only half-jokingly—that he’s the most tactically savvy officer in the unit.
The brigade is not even close to filling its tashkiel, the roster of every type of soldier it’s supposed to have. A full ANA brigade should have a religious and cultural chief (a lieutenant colonel), a family affairs officer in charge (a major), a family support male section officer (a captain), an Islamic education officer (a major), and a cultural affairs officer (a captain). The tashkiel, created in Kabul by men a lot higher ranking than I am, is always a lot longer than the roster of soldiers assigned to the unit. Even shorter is the roster of soldiers actually on hand and not on leave or absent without authorization. As long as I’ve been with the brigade, the mullah has been the only religious or cultural officer on hand, out of the five the brigade is structured to have. Yet his duties as the leader of prayer leave plenty of time for leisurely tactical discussions. “The M16 is good, but after I fire a few thousand rounds through it, the softer metal in the firing pin starts to wear down,” he said to me that morning. I can only imagine when he had occasion to fire so many rounds.
“You know I fought with Mahsood,” the mullah said, referring to the revered Tajik mujahideen commander. “We fought against the XO.” He laughed, pointing at the brigade’s executive officer, who had worked with the Russian-backed Afghan army. “The United States helped us fight but they left too soon. This time you should not leave too soon.” I told him we were trying to help strengthen the Afghan Army so that we all could eventually go home. “There are two powers in the world,” he confided, “the power of Allah and the power of weapons. We Afghans fight with the power of Allah on our side. You Marines have the power of weapons on your side. With those two powers combined, no one in the world can defeat us.” The Afghan officers in the room listened intently; it was better than the weapons class.
A soldier walked in and addressed me: “Aloha,” he said, thinking he was greeting me in the standard English manner. Sammy translated: “We need a flight home for the brigade commander. His mother has died.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “I’ll do my best but it might take a few days to get him out of here. Air is red,” meaning the dusty sky would keep flights grounded until it cleared. The ANA relies almost totally on Marine aviation for transportation, including to and from Kabul for vacation. And a Marine is required to escort them; so coordinating their flights is a collateral duty that takes time away from the primary job of an embedded adviser, which is mentoring the Afghan soldiers. Though we ask for rosters in advance of all ANA soldiers who need flights, when they hear a C-130 land, some Afghan soldiers inevitably make their way up to the flightline waving their ID cards, hoping that catching a Marine flight is like hitchhiking.
I told the lieutenants on my team about the colonel’s dead mother. “He’s been home on leave twice in the last three months, and now he has to go again because his mother died,” one of the lieutenants said. “Have you seen how many ANA soldiers have requested emergency leave due to dead mothers lately?”
“Why do Afghan soldiers’ mothers die at a rate far exceeding the normal population of mothers? Is it an epidemic? Why no dead fathers?” We were starting to sound like morbid Steven Levitts. We had to give the colonel the benefit of the doubt.
“The nice thing about the mother excuse is that he can only use it once. He won’t be able to have a dead mother ever again.”
“Not true. He can use that line again with the next team, after we go home. For all we know his mother has died several times over with different units of Marines. We’ll have to put it in the turnover brief for our replacements. We can make a roster; a dead-mom spreadsheet: Name of Afghan Soldier, Rank, Status of Mother.”
I helped the colonel catch his flight a couple days later and was ashamed to be reading his face for signs of his mother’s demise.
Corporal Diego was teaching a counter-IED class when an IED went off.
I’d left my job as a mentor with the Afghan brigade—an aerial-view, staff-level position—to work with an Afghan infantry company on the ground. Corporal Diego is one of two non-commissioned officers on my new embedded training team in Safar. He had set up an IED training lane on the sandy helicopter landing zone outside the blast walls of Combat Outpost (COP) Rankel. He took a group of our Afghan soldiers through the lane, showing them how to detect different types of improvised explosive devices with metal detectors, dogs, various other tools, and above all, the naked eye. The soldiers walked back and forth on the landing zone, trying to find the pressure plates, wires, power sources, and jugs Cpl. Diego had buried. After a couple hours of good training, the Afghans headed back to their tent for lunch, and Diego packed up the counter-IED tools he had been teaching them to use. As if on cue, a blast rocked the desert outside COP Rankel. I was sitting on a plywood bench with the ANA company commander, Captain Abdullah, and we both ran to the ANA observation post to see what had happened. So close to the base, it must have been a controlled detonation—when Explosive Ordnance Disposal reduces an IED found by Marines—that our Combat Operations Center forgot to notify us about. But it wasn’t. Standing up on the post we could see the dust cloud and, under it, just a few hundred meters from our position, a British vehicle lilting on its side, the front end crumpled like a soda can.
The vehicle was a Jackal, an open-topped contraption with passengers who sit much like tourists on those novelty amphibious landing craft you see in some cities. It’s also a bit reminiscent of those desert rovers from the Second World War, with scruffy be-goggled Brits driving on long range reconnaissance patrols, scarves blowing in the dust. To Marines it seems insane. Safar is one of the most heavily IED’d patches of land in Afghanistan. Why would anyone ride around in a flat-bottomed truck with no roof?
The Marines of COP Rankel’s Quick Reaction Force quickly suited up and sped out the gate. Within minutes they were alongside the damaged vehicle. Minutes later the medevac helicopter arrived for the wounded British soldier. Capt. Abdullah’s soldiers and I still had a patrol to do; we put on our gear. A Marine from a visiting support unit got up on the ANA post to see what was going on. He walked along the sand berm, onto the roof of a small makeshift kitchen the ANA had built. He looked out into the desert, and then he fell right through the roof, crashing onto the pots they use for cooking their nightly rice. He was unconscious. The helicopters came back for him and for another British soldier who needed higher echelon care. Medevacs #2 and #3 for the day. The first British soldier died in the helicopter, or in surgery at Camp Dwyer. Both his legs were gone and he had lost too much blood. The other British soldier had minor injuries. The Marine who fell through the roof was fine. He received a concussion along with well-earned teasing from his colleagues.
The IED was probably a few months old, laid in by the Taliban as part of an IED belt to prevent the coming Marine assault on Safar, which they guessed was going to swing in from the desert. (Safar, like the rest of Garmsir District, is laid out long and narrow along one side of the Helmand River, with sharply defined Eastern and Western Deserts to its flanks. The Marine battalion had slowly pushed south along the river towards Pakistan, taking back kilometer by kilometer from the Taliban. Safar was the most recent push south. Until August 2010, it was firmly in the hands of the Taliban.) The IED was almost identical to the ones Cpl. Diego had buried for training, but this one was fully connected, with a power source, blasting cap, homemade charge, and a pressure plate to complete the connection.