The southern region of Afghanistan is unstable, dangerous, and an extremely risky place to travel by road these days. This is a new development which started about one year ago. Prior to that we would make trips down to Kandahar routinely, tracing the same route made famous in James Michener’s excellent book Caravans. Back in 2005 and 2006 it was still a risky trip, but the risks were manageable. We always travel in armored trucks in these contested areas but unlike 98% of the other security companies in Afghanistan we opted for the low profile trucks with firing ports. These are not comfortable rides and they are noisy too, but they perform as advertised.
I hate being stuck in large armored SUV’s because you are locked in and cannot use your weapons unless the Taliban opens the vehicle for you. Normally that is done with an RPG which of course disables the vehicle as well any survivors inside. People working outside the wire in Afghanistan are like people anywhere they really don’t think that they will be targeted or attacked and therefore they value the comfort and false sense of security large brand new armored American SUV’s provide.
Hope is a bad security plan but it is the most common plan people use. Every second of every day somewhere in the world someone is being victimized. The chances that you are the one being victimized are very small. But that is irrelevant when you find yourself the target of criminals or terrorists. When that happens the statistical chances for you are now 100% and at exactly the time you realize they are 100% you also discover you are dealing with a pack of wolves (terrorists) or a rabid dog (criminals) and they do not respond to reason.
Most people are sheep my friends and I are sheep dogs who protect the sheep and boy am I drifting way off the story line reservation here sorry dear readers I’ll get back on track. Remember be friendly to everyone you meet but always have a plan to kill them that is a good place to start if you too want to be a sheepdog. The next step is a good multi-day handgun course; followed by obtaining a concealed carry permit, (if you live in the United States) and then learning how to apply the color code of mental awareness to your daily routine. If you live in a country where owning firearms or any type of weapon is prohibitedwell I guess it is back to “hope” for you. Call your local police and then call Dominos Pizza and see who gets to your house first then tell me how Neanderthal us Americans are for owning guns. OK I’m stopping the rant…honest.
The route to Kandahar runs southwest through the provinces of Wardak, Ghazni, Zabul and Kandahar. Up until last year Wardak and Ghazni provinces were pretty safe. Our Panjshir fighters used to pick up their weapons from the police in Ghazni when operating in Kabul city became too difficult due to police harassment. They are a registered company with weapon permits but that has nothing to do with getting arrested by the Kabul police. The amount of corruption in Kabul is truly stunning and the local cops have gotten bolder in the last few years. They have even locked up internationals from large security companies who had weapons permits, licenses and letters from one of the generals running the Ministry of the Interior. Our embassy and those of our allies couldn’t care less security contractors are as popular with them as an ACORN trained community activist would be with me. Local Afghan security companies have it much worse depending on who owns them and who is watching over them. I would go on about this rather sore topic but prudence dictates I leave this sleeping bear alone.
Wardak province is now statically the most dangerous portion of the trip south. Earlier this month AOG fighters ambushed a convoy guarded by Afghan security guards in the middle of the day. They killed three guards in the firefight and captured four whom they beheaded, again in broad daylight, on the main ring road. These AOG fighters call themselves Taliban but they are not the Taliban we read about training and infiltrating out of Pakistan. The “Taliban” elements who routinely attack military units and oil tankers along the route south are local people who may or may not be sympathetic to the Taliban cause. Many are local criminals who the Taliban pay to do their bidding which is most ironic. The Taliban got their start back in the 90’s in Kandahar by hanging an Afghan soldier (and his commander) who had raped a local school girl the day prior. Mullah Omar was the leader of this group of religious students which entered the Army camp reportedly armed with only the Koran and self righteous indignation. I guess that makes Omar sort of an Afghan version of Gandhi because showing up unarmed to lynch a few miscreants is as close to non violent protest as Afghans are ever going to get. Now instead of protecting the faithful from criminals they are using criminals to prey on the faithful.
The road out of Wardak descends down to the plains of Afghanistan and the ancient city of Ghazni. Ghazni was once considered the greatest military fort of its day but that fame was short lived after the British Army arrived in 1839 and stormed it rather quickly with little effort. Here is how it looked when the British first arrived:
And here is a picture of the city today
The Ghazni PRT, which is run by the American military, sits outside of the town astride the main road. Not all the PRT’s are manned by Americans, our NATO allies are responsible for over half of them. Here is a map of the PRT’s which I pulled off the Wikipedia. Like many things on Wikipedia it is wrong the Swedes have the PRT in Mazar, the Canadians in Lashkar Gah and Pul-i-Khumri belongs to the Romanians.
Knowing which country is in which PRT is critical for internationals working in Afghanistan because each nation in ISAF has its own set of caveats covering which missions they are authorized, by their respective governments, to do. This is a fancy way of saying that many of our allies are not allowed to leave their compounds and come to the rescue of internationals in distress. The American PRT’s will always respond to calls for help anytime and in any conditions. I understand the Brits, Canadians, and Aussies have identical rules and attitudes. As for the others.you are on your own. Needless to say these caveats have contributed to glacier like pace of international reconstruction.
Like many of the bases situated in unstable areas the Ghazni PRT has an aerostatic balloon for surveillance and controlling fires.
These aerostatic systems are impressive – some friends and I got to see how they work at FOB Lonestar right down the road from the Taj in Khogyani district. The technology is impressive, the capabilities unbelievable and the details best kept on the down low, but trust me this is one piece of technology worth every penny spent developing it.
Ghazni used to be the last safe place to stop for any needed vehicle maintenance which we did on one of our trips in the summer of 2006. One of our vehicles had a tire problem and we wanted to fix it before heading into Indian country. There are no tire stores here, just stands on the side of the road with a compressor. The stand we pulled into was run by a young boy and his even younger brother. Here they are diagnosing the problem.
After diagnosing the problem it is up to the younger of the two to get the tire off which he does using a pry bar and tackle rig.
It was well over 100 degrees that day if we came back during the winter months these two boys would probably be wearing the exact same clothes. The people here are that poor, my friends, and if you think this looks sad you should see the beggars and trash dump kids. Having patched the tire the younger child fills it while his brother prepares to mount it on the car. This pit stop was over in 5 minutes, the boys worked with the intensity and speed of a NASCAR pit crew.
Heading south out of Ghazni towards Qalat you run through a series of villages that even back in 2006 were not safe for foreigners. One of the most notorious was Shah Joy and it is the scene of the only attack against us if you could call it that. I was in the trail vehicle when out of the corner of my eye I saw a frag grenade sailing towards the truck. We were doing about 70 kph so hitting us with the thing was not going to happen and the bazaar was packed with local people I watched in utter amazement as it went off, clearly injuring some of the bystanders who did not even react when the grenade landed in the middle of the road. How weird is that?
But the Taliban is not the only threat on the Kabul to Kandahar road. The terrain and weather conspire to turn this route into a real pain at times. The only way to build roads in this part of the country is to build them to withstand floods. The easiest way to do that is to allow the water to spill over the road in traditional areas of flooding. We discovered during a November trip that there are 23 such spots on the road and here is the first one you run into when heading from Kandahar towards Kabul.
We were already late and clearly not too happy about this. The locals were of good cheer as Afghans almost always are and offered all sorts of advice. Understanding when you are in danger and when you are not is a key skill and these people were not a threat and seemed to enjoy having us stuck there too.
One way to tell if they are a threat is to look for high water pants and tennis shoes. Afghans wear open toed sandals, tennis shoes are normally seen only on male children and fighters transiting the area. The high water trousers seem to be a style statement but I do not know why. In this type of situation if you saw a group of men in tennis shoes the best thing to do is walk up and offer a formal greeting. If the men do not immediately break into wide smiles and offer a return greeting chances are they are Taliban or associates. When that happens guys like us get in our trucks and turn around because unless they produce a gun we can do nothing. We operate with the same rules of engagement as our military but unlike our military are also subject to the laws of Afghanistan. Do not be fooled by the main stream media writing stories about armed contractors being able to do anything they like in Afghanistan. There are expatriates sitting behind bars in the big house at Pul-e-Charkhi to prove the media reports and agenda not facts.
The truck was followed by a small passenger car which triggered a mad rush from our side of river.
Qalat is the provincial capital of Zabul Province and also the home of another impressive old fortress. Qalat has an American PRT co-located inside an ANA base and they were always very hospitable when we dropped by. Here is what the town looks like as you drive in from the south. Every hilltop in this country seems to have a fort or outpost built on its crest the one in Qalat is really cool when you see it pop up on the horizon.
Heading south from Qalat there are just a few isolated compounds and no major bazaars or towns. In sparsely populated areas like that attack by AOG fighters are rare. Taliban do not like humping around in the boonies much and confine most of their activity to populated areas. That makes sense because the civilian population is cover and concealment for the bad guys. Moving out in the desert away from the protection innocent civilians provide is very risky for insurgents.
Our trips south always terminated in Kandahar city home of the Continental Inn. We could find a bunk out at the Kandahar Airfield but would have to leave our escort to fend for themselves which is uncool. Here is a shot of the Continental which has slow internet but a super cook who excels at making curry.
Before hitting the Continental we would normally pull into the Kandahar Air Field (KAF) which is home to about 15,000 international troops and is a rear echelon establishment extraordinaire. Gyms, restaurants, fast food stands, a boardwalk, stores, a hockey rink, and field music on Sundays.
A vast majority of the troops on this base will never set one foot outside the wire during their tour. Many from allied nations are obese and have problems so fat they have problems with the heat even though they do not wear body armor or carry weapons on base. For my padres and I KAF means getting a double double at Timmy Horton’s and Burger King. Afghans love Burger King and we like the Timmy Horton’s.
We do not run down south without at least one if not two escort vehicles filled with Tajik fighters from the Panjshir valley. We use Sediqi Security Services (SSS) exclusively for work in both the south and west for two reasons. They are great fighters who battled the Taliban back in the day and the bad guys hate them more than they do us. This is an age old technique for outsiders operating in central Asia. If the north were as dangerous as the south we’d travel the north with Pashtun escorts for exactly the same reason.
We use the same guys on all the high risk trips we have done over the years and needless to say we are a tight crew. The owners of SSS are young mid thirties and as children would sneak into Taliban lines to steal disarm and then steal anti personnel mines. They would then sell them to the Northern Alliance. Below is a picture of them leading the way back to Kabul.
That is a PKM machinegun sticking out of the back window which is a good piece of gear to bring along on trips south. The new laws being written for private security companies in Afghanistan will prohibit us from owning or using machineguns. That is taking stupidity to new and higher levels but the laws here are designed for one thing only and that is to make the people writing them rich. In that respect the Afghan law makers are just like their democratic counterparts in Washington only a little more up front about it.
Kandahar had a large population of expatriates in 2006 who lived and worked inside the city. There was even a starbucks influenced coffee shop run by an Afghan American which was very popular with the locals. The internationals are almost all gone now; those who remain live in heavily guarded compounds and rarely travel. On our last trip down we were leaving the Continental to head back to Kabul and I took this snap shot of the street.
Suddenly the next block was empty, the shops shuttered and the hair on the back of me neck was standing tall. I took another picture before picking up my weapon. Here it is:
When you roll down a street that looks like this you are heading for big time trouble. There was only one way out of the city, so we had no choice but to keep on moving north, but Jesus it was a scary 10 minutes. Nothing happened that day and I don’t know why the street cleared out like it did but I’ll tell you what. Don’t think we’ll be heading back to Kandahar anytime soon.