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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.

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    5 comments to Northern Exposure Part Two

    • The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 03/03/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

    • Good post, Bot. Well worth the wait. The best illustration of how not buggering up the traffic can still get the job done with minimal pain.

      Looking forward to the next post!

      I didn’t mean that thing about being a camel, by the way. All in fun.

    • Thanks for the report. It is always a pleasure to read these kinds of ground truth field reports.
      S/F

    • Reminds me of my many happy years traversing the largely empty regions of Northern
      Australia. We just didn’t require a shooter except that time I took two bullocks
      square on a bridge at 80 kph. We had the problem of two 3 legged oxen as a result who
      needed a shooter. I waved down a road train and he had the necessary to dispatch the
      poor bastards. Nice to see minimal units getting essential work done in a no nonsense
      fashion in real danger. I’ev been in suss situations in Zimbabwe which were a little
      more like you were dealing with. Police checkpoints with a few men with AKs out of sight
      if you didn’t stop. Sometimes a shakedown for money but never encountered the real
      criminals. They were there but we managed to avoid them. Best gun we could carry was
      usually a .22. My hats off to anyone exposing themselves to that level of risk
      for years at a time. I found your blog from a Roggio interview and am impressed at the
      quality and clarity of the writing which conveys a solid sense of what is going
      wrong and what aint. It sounds to me like if we put a decent plan in place and do the counterinsurgency work work among the populace we have a real chance, I’ve always got on with Afghans I’ve
      known. I always feel better when they want to know who owes me money so they can
      kill them. :-)

    • I tell you what is shit-hot about this op is that it was conducted by the leader himself and not delegated to someone else. I love it!!!

      SF

      Jake