Northern Exposure Part Two

Over the last couple of weeks I have been conducting a Regional Security Assessment throughout the Northern Region. I approached this task with minimal planning as far as geographical objectives were concerned. Since it was conducted by myself and my driver only, I didn’t feel the need to generate a formal and extensive  plan. A vehicle, map, GPS, med kit, water, MRE’s,  overnight bag, and personal protection equipment was  satisfactory enough for me to hit the road.

Our journey began with the objective to reach Sherberghan City in Jowzjan Province approximately 140km west  from Mazar-e-Sharif  . One of my  aims was to try and organize a meeting with Gen. Dostum, however that plan didn’t work out  since he happened to be on an overseas visit at that point in time.   So, from Sheberghan we moved further west  toward Andkhoy, Faryab Province which is approximately 75km from Sheberghan. In  Andkhoy, I decided to  visit Aqena, the border crossing between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. Having  a poor quality map and not  knowing the  quality of the road, it was a stab in the dark.  Along the way I had my driver inquire about distances and other minor details, however the reports  came back  very conflicting (ranging from 30 minutes to 2 hours, good road, bad road). It took us approximately one and a half hours to reach the border. Once we reached Aqena, we encountered an Afghan Border Police Checkpoint (ABP CP) where the guards  looked rather surprised and a little confused as to why and what we were doing there.  This area does not receive much attention from the international community.  I thought it would be a good time  to seize the opportunity and  asked for a meeting with the Commander of the border crossing.

The Commander took us in  eagerly and even though the CP finished their lunch, like the  hospitality elsewhere in the country, he  delegated one of his guards to  make a lunch for my driver and I – fried eggs, vegetables, fresh bread and an endless supply of Chai. Over the short period of time we spent in Aqena, I conversed with the Commander about numerous issues ranging from the district situation to the upcoming elections.

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Upon  the conclusion  of our impromptu  meeting, we decided to move back to Andkhoy, and since we had around an hour to pass, we would decide our next leg of the journey along the way. The move back from the border went a little faster and smoother since we were a little bit more familiar with the route. One thing that  we’ve noted along the journey back was the truck drivers’ nervous reaction  to an  SUV rapidly  approaching them at great speed from rear. This is due to this route (along with  other border crossing routes throughout the country) being subject to frequent  armed criminality. However, once we passed each truck, a wave and a smile was well received.

By mid afternoon we were back  in Andkhoy. The next leg of the journey was to head into the southern part  of the province  where the capital, Maymana is located, which is approximately 140 km south of Andhkoy. The trip was rather picturesque; the road in very good condition so speed was no problem. It took us approximately one hour to reach Maymana.  As we moved through southern Faryab, since it was too late in the day  to organize a proper meeting with any law enforcement chiefs, I thought it would be a good chance to speak with local commanders of various checkpoints, and verify certain information as well as  obtaining new information. Once we completed our rounds it was time to move back to Sheberghan in a race against the sunset.

The plan was for us to  stay in Sheberghan for the night, however, the guest house that was organized had little (if any)  security measures and I didn’t think it was worth taking a risk of staying there since Mazar-e-Sharif was only 140 km south.  The main danger for internationals in this region is being targeted by criminal gangs.  We did not know anyone in Sheberghan and could not get a good local assessment on security situation in general or our proposed guesthouse specifically, so I decided to push for Mazar in the dark. The main concern in this region whilst traveling after sunset is the chance of being halted by a rogue CP on the highway which is usually manned by armed criminals, especially in areas such as Chahar Bolak District of  Balkh Province. Other risks include being subject to crossfire when attacks on law enforcement facilities  are  being conducted by  Anti-Government Elements (AGE)/Taliban (TB) groups  along the highway, and these attacks, which were exceedingly rare prior to 2008 have been occurring with greater frequency along our intended route of travel.

Whilst passing through Chahar Bolak District, we encountered what appeared to look like two members of the Afghan National Police (ANP) standing on the road. We know this section of the route quite  well and had never seen a checkpoint in this area before. There is really only one response in a situation like this turning around and going back will expose you for several seconds well within rifle range as you’re turning (there are no fancy J turns on these crappy roads mate) it is best to hit the gas, get the weapon up and be ready to respond if the guys in the road attempt to bring their weapons to bear. Criminal gangs are known to wear ANP uniforms whilst performing their dastardly deeds which is a fact well known to the ANP who always run night time checkpoints in force with lots of ANP vehicles. The two men in front of us who were diving out of the way of my driver were definitely free lancing trouble makers.

Once this unknown CP was passed, we reached Mazar-e-Sharif safely without any further incidents.

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The next day we  proceeded  to Sar-e-Pul Province, which is  located approximately 200km from  Mazar-e-Sharif  in the southern part of the region.  From the Provincial capital, which is of the same name we moved out into the direction of Sangcharak and Gosfandi Districts in order to complete a reconnaissance on a route which leads back into Blakh province.

As  we moved into Sangcharak District, with the weather deteriorating we decided that the remainder of the route would have to be abandoned due to the wet conditions which would slow us down considerably and we would have been still on route in isolated areas which were prone to armed criminality and AGE/TB activity at times after dark. Hand in hand with that, a few days prior to our visit to the area an INGO vehicle containing three expatriates (one of whom was believed to be a reporter for Reuters) was halted and robbed by armed criminals.   Something  that  our friends from the international community have been failing to realize in recent months (especially in the Northern Region, where incidents are predominantly lower in comparison to the rest of the country) is that the days of moving around districts on secondary/isolated routes without adequate security measures  are coming rather abruptly to an end. This isn’t  a Taliban problem it is armed criminality which the Afghan security forces have proved unable to contain.

Following our decision to retreat, we made our way back to Mazar-e-Sharif. The remainder  mission will be resumed shortly.  Over these  two days alone (and there were a few others)  we covered approximately 1400 km along primary and  secondary routes,  calm, medium risk  as well as  hostile areas.  Bearing in mind that this task was executed by a two man team (a driver and a shooter)  – this is something I have come to terms with  whilst operating in Afghanistan. Although this  configuration may not be ideal, it proves that missions of such kind  can be achieved without  spending millions of dollars  annually on multiple expat operators and countless armored vehicles which end up doing nothing more along the routes but cause traffic jams and  dismay  toward the local population. As they say at FRI… “Low Profile = High Speed, Low Drag”! This  is exactly how this task was executed.

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In conclusion, I would have to say that the stance on security measures and operations  within Afghanistan  has always been of a  ‘reactive’ nature. And by stating this, I am  including the collective effort, military and civilian organizations combined.   As opposed to knee jerk reactions which are usually  a result of mitigating incidents well after they have occurred, a proactive posture can actually  be assumed and become an effective tool for achieving goals and missions.  This subject will be elaborated in  the next post.

Poles Apart

It was a regular Saturday night in Mazar-e-Sharif quiet, cold, yet comfortable as I say having dinner with a friend at one of the only restaurants catering to internationals the mighty Oak. We were passing the time with small talk. It was towards the end of our evening that my mate received a phone call from a member of the international community telling him there had been an accident and he needed help immediately. My driver, who was waiting outside rapidly saddled up and we flew across town to lend a hand.

We arrived at the residence, my accomplice started getting the patient’s history and checking the vital signs. I checked out the scene and saw blood everywhere lots of it. I knew that there was no time to lose – this was a ‘Fair Dinkum’ MEDIVAC!

Time to do a ‘Harry Bolt’ up to RC North. RC (Regional Command) North is an ISAF base on the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif. It is the only facility providing western standard health care in the region. Once we took off from the scene, I instructed my driver to ‘Punch It’! This was due to the casualty having lost a substantial (however, not immediately life threatening) amount of blood. Hand in hand with that, I predicted that there would be dramas at the gate (because it was around 2130 hours), and unless you have direct HF/VHF COMMS with these guys, you get the usual run around.

Once we got to the entrance of RC North the immutable rules of Murphy’s Law took over. I dropped off my local driver and took over driving duties to avoid time consuming screening procedures used when Afghans come on the base. We were greeted by the Force Protection (FP) soldiers who are from Croatia. These FP guys were actually very friendly and helpful they understood exactly what needed to be done however, rules and guidelines aren’t so simple. Once they had a clear handle on who I was, whom I was carrying in the vehicle and the reason I was there, the whole ‘liaison drama’ began.

In the minutes that I was waiting for a clearance to proceed I kept focused on the casualty, checking the vitals and making sure that the bleeding was kept under control. The FP kept on coming back and telling me the hospital is not responding”! They were at a loss, about how we should proceed. This is a German base; the Croats were there to guard the perimeter and apparently did not enjoy the luxury of independent decision making. Between trying to persuade them that we needed to get moving and checking my patients vital signs, I became cut as a mad snake, pulled out my phone and called the Medical Director (MD) for RC North. This is a silver bullet which I would rather not have wasted but the urgency of our situation demanded it. A person in his position is usually pretty busy between his normal daily routine as well as supporting combat operations.

An IED casualty being treated on the scene, Tarin Kowt, Oruzgan.
An IED casualty being treated on the scene, Tarin Kowt, Oruzgan.

He took my call and said he would get us cleared immediately. Thirty seconds later the FP Commander arrived to escort us to the hospital. We needed the escort too as were traveling at a much higher speed than allowed at the base. We got to the hospital, and rushed our casualty in. It was surprising that there was a stretcher waiting at the entrance considering the ‘V8 super car lap speed’ we took to get there. The good doctor was true to his word and had, in less than a minute, infused a needed sense of urgency into the hospital staff.

The German medics quickly controlled the bleeding and were able to suture our friend up and release him within an hour. He came out with a jolly old smile on his dial. We rolled out the gate, picked up my faithful driver Nasser, who was freezing but happy to see us, and headed back into town dropping everyone off at their shacks.

The whole point of this unfortunate event is this; when you have a Priority 1 (Life threatening) or a Priority 2 (Life or Limb threatening) casualty, you need access to professional care quickly. Seven years into this mission and we still do not have these basic procedures in place.

A typical VBIED attack which usually ends up in fatalities and Priority 1 casualties.

This is not the only time or place in Afghanistan where I have experienced these sort of dilemmas. To us former soldiers on the outside looking in the international contingents within ISAF seem to do little if any coordination between themselves. The brand ‘Coalition Forces’ has little meaning when they cannot function as whole, and I believe it has been displayed time after time in this conflict. I’m a former enlisted soldier not an officer like my mate Tim and I do not claim to posses any brilliant insights into the art of war. But I know this mate when you see the lack of coordination in an effort of this size, it tells you something. And usually that something is that we do not have a single focused mission under which to plan and conduct operations. There is no unity of command or unity of purpose concepts I learned as an NCO. Junior enlisted leaders can see the root of our problems in Afghanistan so why can’t our governments? I guess we are Poles Apart.