Yesterday morning there was a running gunfight spanning 100 kilometers on the Nimroz Province side of the Dasht-e Margo (Desert of Death.) It started just outside the little hamlet of Qala Fath, which is home to the only reliable source of drinking water near Zaranj and also houses this spectacular walled city which once guarded a portion of the Silk Road. Or it guarded the water source; or something else; because nobody in Nimroz Province has a clue when it was built or by whom.
The fight started when Haji Mehedin, the commander of the Afghan Highway Police, turned off the Lashkary Canal road heading towards Qala Fath. Once you exit the Lashkary road you enter into a canyon with 30 to 40 foot high sandstone cliffs right next to the single track road, and this is the one area in southern Nimroz Province I hate driving through, because it is too easy to ambush vehicle traffic from almost point blank range. Haji Mehedin was alone and saw a vehicle with armed men about 100 meters down the track to his front. The armed men fired warning shots into the air. Haji Mehedin grabbed his rifle and started firing at the men in front of him. He was then engaged from his right flank by an RPG and more small arms fire. He conducted a one man fighting withdrawal back to the Lashkary Canal road where he linked up with a two-man ANP guard post and called for the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) from Zaranj. The ANA and ANP and every Highway Patrolman in the area converged on Haji Mehedin within an hour, and the chase was on. The road in that part of the province heads one way – into Charborjak District, running about 110 kilometers astride the Helmand River, where it ends at the start of a massive irrigation project we just finished last week.
The posse found Haji Mehdin’s police truck, which did not make it far because its radiator had been shot up. The villains apparently set it on fire and were now crammed into one Hi Lux truck. The posse fanned out and raced across the Dasht-e Margo in pursuit.
The villains’ vehicle broke down about 14 kilometers outside of the Charborjak District Center, and they abandoned it, leaving behind large quantities of explosives and ammunition. The QRF fanned out and started heading toward the highlands, away from the Helmand River. The villians then struck with a pretty impressive RPG shot which killed the driver of one of the ANP trucks. That shot was the villains’ undoing, as dozens and dozens of trucks loaded with infantry, cops, and highway patrolmen moved in for the kill. And kill they did – 9 of the 11 insurgents died on the spot. Two got away but were leaking blood, and they headed into the desert where chances of survival are slim. They carried no identification papers, were clearly not local people, and the best guess is they were Pashtuns from the South.
The total weapon count from this group was 11 AK 47s, one RPG with 8 rounds, a few pistols, two plastic jugs full of HME (home made explosives) and an old PPSh-41 submachinegun. The PPSh-41 fires a 7.62x25mm pistol round from a drum magazine; it is an open bolt weapon, just like the Uzi and the old American M3 Grease Gun, but it has a dangerous design flaw. If the bolt is forward on an empty chamber with a full magazine inserted into the magazine well, the gun has an annoying habit of going off if you’re riding in a truck which is bouncing along on poorly maintained dirt roads. The Americans, for this exact reason, modified their M3 Grease Guns by attaching a peg to the bolt and cutting a groove for the peg in the ejection port cover, which prevents the bolt from functioning as long as the cover is closed . Older Afghan men who know a little bit about weapons hate the PPSh subgun, and it is interesting that this group of scumbags had one. They really suck.
There are several things about this story which interest me. The first is that my guys and I, and the Provincial Governor, and a well known journalist were supposed be on that road yesterday morning to conduct the opening ceremony for our irrigation project. That project employed every working age male in the district, and because we dug most of it by hand, we kept these men employed for almost a full year. More importantly, we built reinforced concrete intakes, water control points and three bypass sections, allowing for portions of the canal to be closed for repairs as needed. Most importantly, we did not dig secondary canals. We said up front we could bring the water inland but bringing that water to farmers’ fields was their job, not ours; and keeping the main canal up and running is again their job, not ours. I’m a little proud of that given the number of times local men came up to me to ask if we could dig a canal into their village and I just laughed and said no. Politely – I’m a culturally sensitive guy.
Given the way the villains were set up, they could have intended to ambush the rather large convoy heading out to the ceremony. I honestly now wish we hadn’t changed the date – 11 knuckleheads with AKs, one RPG launcher and a dog of a subgun? Given the number of ANP who were going to be with us, I’d take those odds any day. I have the flame stick dialed in for 300 meters and this may have been my only chance to bust a cap into a real honest to God villain. Besides, we would have moved through there hours before noon, so I’m not so sure this was an attempt on the governor’s life, which is what the buzz on the street is saying. Had these 11 idiots brought along a heavy machinegun or two that would be a different story; nobody wants to get caught in a narrow draw while being stitched up by machinegunners who, at that close distance, would have had to try really hard to miss. Had we not been traveling with the governor’s escort, we would have never entered the draw – we use multiple outriders who would have alerted us long before we got there. We have one drill for potential ambushes – and that drill is called turn around and run. We’re not here for gun play, and despite a long year of moving low-pro throughout the most dangerous provinces in this country, the Ghost Team record of never being ambushed stands. Except for that time Crazy Horse got lit up in Paktiya, but he was with Chief Ajmal Khan, and it wasn’t that big of an ambush, so I’m still thinking technically we have a 100% movement success rate.
But here is something else of interest – Haji Mehedin is a Baloch (most of southern Nimroz is Baloch), and they, for the most part, dislike Pashtuns and hate the Taliban. Haji Mehedin has also not been to one of the multimillion dollar regional training centers where they cram powerpoint classes about things which an Afghan policeman will never do, would hardly understand, and couldn’t care less about. He doesn’t need instruction from US Department of State contractors to tell him what to do to bring order and the rule of law (Afghan style – which is a little different than the standards in western law enforcement) in his own damn district. Which is, of course, another great point – it is his district, where he grew up and knows all the residents. Do you think men like Haji Mehedin will tolerate his troopers shaking down truck drivers and other civilians for pocket change?
Back in World War I, the British had a problem, and that problem was German agents were moving through Balochistan and into Afghanistan where they were trying to get some traction and allies to fight with them. Three of the four major Baloch tribes had gone over to the German side when the Germans told them their country had converted to Islam and that they had giant airships which travel around the world leaving death and destruction in their wake.
The British sent out what they had: a lone Colonel, his London born driver and 23 Sepoy’s (Indian infantry) who had not been trained or issued any weapons. I read the Colonel’s fascinating account of how he bluffed the insurgent Baloch tribes into coming back to the British side by telling them he led a huge army and had mountain guns, and all the holes in the radiator grill of his now beat up car were machinegun barrels with which he could kill them all in the blink of an eye. These bluffs, as bluffs always do, did not last long, but by then the Colonel (who had promoted himself to general, so he had more juice with the natives) did get a couple of mountain guns. He also got a cavalry troop with a British officer, a squad of Seapoys who were trained and had rifles, and I think maybe a machinegun platoon – I returned the book to its owner and now have to go on memory. Once he had a little firepower behind him, the now-General summoned a few of the rebel chiefs to his mud brick fort, had a quick military tribunal, found the lot guilty and ordered them to be hanged in the morning. One of the bandit chief’s wives – reportedly the most beautiful woman in Balochistan – asked the General to come to her camp, where she presented him with a magnificent white horse (it was his horse and had been stolen earlier in the year.) She promised him that her husband would never again fight against the Raj or the crown and would from that day forward be a trusted ally.
That’s about as far as I got in the book before I had to return it to its owner – so B, be a good friend and fill us in after you read this. I’m pretty sure the bandit chief turned around and attacked the small garrison after his stay of execution and subsequent release, which prompted the British General (his self-promotion was approved during his first year there) to mobilize his army. That army was a few infantry, one field gun, a cavalry troop and 600 camels, and they marched to the winter camping grounds of the tribe, where he threatened to let his camels loose on the wheat fields and vegetable gardens. Six hundred camels would have consumed every bit of the winter fodder these nomads had grown, so the threat posed by the Brits was literally a death sentence for the whole tribe.
Compare and contrast the responses of a cash strapped, over-extended British military almost 100 years ago to the response of a cash strapped over-extended United States military today. The Brits send in a field grade officer with an enlisted driver and push him whatever horse, small mountain guns, infantry and machineguns they can spare, and throughout the entire war they could spare less than 100 men total to send into Balochistan. We start by spending billions and billions of dollars to set up high speed training centers staffed by people who know absolutely nothing about this land, culture or people, and even when it is recognized from on high (as it was in 2005) that these training centers accomplish next to nothing what do we do? Double down and spend billions more.
Haji Mehedin demonstrated something that old British General knew and something we could not learn in a million years due to the slow thinking, one size fits all problem solving of Big Government, which wholly owns and manages our Big Military. That something is that we don’t need to spend billions building and manning regional training centers full of ex-cops who cannot possibly teach much to their students because they have no idea what those students really do all day when they are out on the job. Nobody needed to train Haji Mehedin how to fight or what to do when ambushed by Taliban. He’s a Baloch tribesman, a tribal leader in fact, and to be honest he would have probably done better if we have given him an old Enfield bolt gun instead of the piece of shit AMD 65 that is standard issue for Afghan police.
We no longer send colonels out into the wilds of lawless lands like Balochistan with a single enlisted man assigned to them and a written order which says something like “stop the Baloch from raiding our supply trains, and if they won’t stop, kill them.” Or words to that effect – they did come from the British so I’m sure his written orders were a little more polished than I remember. We once knew how to fight a counterinsurgency while having to deal with a dysfunctional host nation government and fight on the cheap. We can’t do anything on the cheap now and we’re broke.