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.
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.
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.
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.