Adventures Outside the Wire

End of the Game
End of the Game

This blog post is a bit of a departure from FRI’s normal topics no embed reporting, no strategies on how to win the Global War on Terror (GWOT), no great empowerment projects (aka the Fablab) to talk of, but I hope you’ll find it interesting none the less.

 

Tim and I go back about 3 or so years beginning with our time together with a company called WSI (a bad experience for both of us) and then as partners in a Private security company – VSSA. For the lion share of my time I was based in Mazar-i-Sharif (Northern Afghanistan) working as a Security Coordinator, while Tim was based in Jalalabad doing identical work. Now that I am back in country (after a much needed hiatus in Australia) I find myself at the Taj catching up with Tim. Whilst I was sitting at the Taj bar Tim asked if he could source some photos for the FRI blog from my time in Northern Afghanistan. After viewing a few shots somehow I volunteered to write an article for him not sure how that happened!

 

It took me some time to think about a worthy subject to focus upon. During the thinking process I reminisced about the good times had in Afghanistan and how much fun was packed into the little downtime available. This somewhat pedestrian topic then grew a life of its own and became yet another example of the vast difference between risk adverse deployments / organizations and the more low profile operators / organizations who live and work outside the wire in Afghanistan. I suddenly had my topic!

Living and working within the Afghan community definitely gives you a better idea of the culture and the feel of the people toward you. What is amusing is talking with some International Military personnel on the various bases about living within the community. Normally when you tell them you live off base down town, their bottom jaw drops to the ground with shock. I guess their perception is that once outside the wire it’s certain death which is certainly not the case, demonstrated by the numerous internationals and organizations that continue to live in the community with few problems. This topic is something Tim has talked about on numerous occasions regarding having the military living off the bases and FOB’s and amongst the community, which I fully support.

Another topic Tim has raised is the ability to move through much of the country in a low profile manner. With the exception of areas along the Pakistan border and Southern Afghanistan much of the North and Northwest remains quite permissive. The biggest risk factor in these permissive environments is probably being the subject of criminality (after dark on the highways) or involved and hurt in a traffic accident. If you’ve ever experienced Afghan traffic you’ll immediately know why, and what I mean. For those new to Afghanistan the traffic can be both a disorientating and disconcerting experience. Seeing cars overtaking each other on blind corners with inches to spare while avoiding the goats, chickens, cows, handcarts, taxi’s, donkeys, donkey carts and camels sharing the same bit of road gives you some indication of the chaotic nature of Afghan traffic. It can be a little freaky at first, but like anything, you get use to it and over time actually start driving that way too! The best advice I can give is to drive yourself, and not to travel the highways at night.

An Afghan Buzkashi player with the Buz (carcass) riding toward the flag at this end of the Buzkashi field.  Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan 2007
An Afghan Buzkashi player with the Buz (carcass) riding toward the flag at this end of the Buzkashi field. Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan 2007

A couple of years back I bought a video camera along with a Digital SLR Camera to record my time and experiences in Afghanistan. I had done this specifically for family and friends in order to allay their concerns and fears about me being in a war zone. In those early years family and friends back home simply didn’t know what it was like on the ground in Afghanistan.  The mainstream media depicted car bombs going off, pitched gun battles with insurgents, and soldiers being killed on a regular basis. Although these things occurred, they weren’t a daily occurrence and rarely occurred in Northern Afghanistan where I was posted. However, family and friends back home thought these things were going on everywhere in Afghanistan mainly because of what they saw and heard in the media. So armed with my new cameras I set out to show the folks back home what life was like for me in my little world. In doing so I captured some fantastic photos and videos to share with them.

What triggered all this camera activity off arose from a question posed by my brother back home – What do you do for fun in Afghanistan?’ I answered his question at the time, but thought by showing him, along with other family and friends it would give them a better understanding of my Afghan experience.

Just being in Afghanistan is an event in itself and finding ways to entertain oneself was a popular downtime activity. There are no nightclubs, bars, movie theatres or shopping malls in Mazar-i-Sharif (in the western context anyway), so expatriates like myself made our own fun, which typically was on the weekends. Fun experiences consisted of visits to ancient ruins in Balkh District, trips to check out the drug fields (also in Balkh District), picnics, swimming, watching and participating in Buzkashi, eating at local restaurants and party’s/dinner party’s in each others guest houses. The running of the Mazar Social Club (MSC) was an important part of the weekend process that provided much needed expatriate interaction. Unlike the Taj Tiki Bar which is static, the MSC was basically a roving bar invited to various guesthouses for a night of dancing, drinking and merriment. Most MSC nights ended around 0300 hours and for a lot of those parties I was there to the end. I couldn’t help it because I was the chief barman and a member of the MSC organising committee. Still, people couldn’t believe I hung in there till the end because I’m a non-drinking. What they didn’t realise was that after my 4th Pepsi or Coke I couldn’t sleep due of all that caffeine racing through my veins. I typically stayed on till the end of the nights proceedings because I was high on Coke (the black Panadol type not that other version from South America). Another reason I stayed was for the sheer comedy, pure and simple it got funnier as people got drunker!

Welcome to the MSC Bar  Wodya want!!!!  The MSC (Welcoming) Committee minus the author who is taking the photograph circa Winter 2008.
Welcome to the MSC Bar Wodya want!!!! The MSC (Welcoming) Committee minus the author who is taking the photograph circa Winter 2008.

 

In 2007 I hooked up with an Aussie called Mat who was heading up the northern office for a European Union (EU) funded NGO at the time. I have to say Mat is one of the funniest dudes I’ve met he cracks me up all the time. With cameras in tow, I started recording our little outings. These recorded events morphed into a little video blog I put together called The Un-Named Adventure.’ It was called The Un-Named Adventure’ because basically I didn’t know what we were going to do before we did it purely spur of the moment stuff. Nothing was planned or scripted it just kind of unfolded at the time. It has a comedic thread throughout because 1. Mat cracks me up, and 2. I wanted it to be fairly light for the folks back home. This was a creative way to the further answer my brother’s question and outline what life was really like here in Afghanistan.

 

I am a little hesitant to release this material in the public domain. It’s one thing to just have family and friends looking at it, and a totally different animal when people you don’t know check it out. On the other hand I am quite curious to see other peoples take on our little adventures. Although I do have some misgivings I think showing these adventures will support my case that living outside the wire is the way to go in Afghanistan. I recall the adage – ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ so in this case I’m hoping moving pictures tell 10,000 words.

A word of warning, the show is politically incorrect and has some swearing in it, so if you are easily offended you probably won’t want to watch it. The key to the show though is not to take it seriously, we certainly don’t. Just take it for what it is pure comedic genius (I am biased)! We are fair though – we take the piss’ out of ourselves and those around us.

Buzkashi player at the end of a match.  Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan 2007
Buzkashi player at the end of a match. Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan 2007

The two (2) Adventures I’d like to share are

 

1. Adventure # 3 – Buzkashi, and

2. Adventure # 5 The Tabasco Dare.

 

Adventure # 3 The Buzkashi Adventure. Mat and I attended this particular Buzkashi game in Mazar-i-Sharif circa 2007. For those who don’t know, Buzkashi is the Afghan National sport. The game originated in the Central Asian steppes and is normally played in the winter months. It involves horseman trying to get a headless calf, goat or sheep’s carcass around a flag at one end of the playing field and depositing it in a circle at the other end. Riders wear heavy clothing, specialised riding boots and headwear (usually ex-Russian Tank headwear) and use whips, both on the horses and each other. Rules are you can’t trip the horses, apart from that – anything else goes.

As outlined in this adventure our take on the game is it’s the Afghan NASCAR’ everyone comes along to see a crash and/or carnage.

 

Adventure # 5 The Tabasco Dare. I think you’ll just have to watch this one, it’s pretty self-explanatory.

 

There are many more Adventures produced of free ranging outside the wire, but I hope you enjoy the little selection of episodes linked to this article. I also hope this gives you who are not here a better understanding that it’s not all doom and gloom; you can live, work and have fun here. LIFE’S SHORT LIVE IT TO THE MAX!!!

 

If you lot out there like these samples I may post a couple more Adventures down the track.

James – Guest Blogger.

Fab Lab Surge and ABC News

The Fab Lab team has arrived and is now hard at work.  They are blogging daily and you can monitor their progress here. They’re doing cool stuff like fabricating antenna’s to share our fatpipe with the local schools and NGO’s. They’re  raising money to buy XO Laptops for every 6th grader in the local (Bagrami) school. They’re setting the local kids up with a tee shirt business to fund the Jalalabad FabLab operations and the local kids are beside themselves with opportunity that just landed on their doorstep.

Amy and her roomate Kieth from MIT - the Fab Lab advance party
Amy and her roommate Keith from Harvard – the Fab Lab advance party

We have had to run up to Kabul and back several times to get all the Fab Folk to Jalalabad. The Jalalabad to Kabul road is a vitally important supply route to both the military and the government of Afghanistan. There were several attacks on the road this past summer and there continues to be problems on it now despite the winter weather. We saw several interesting things along the route and the first was the number of French Army troops transiting from Kabul to Surobi.

French troops on the road outside of Kabul
French troops on the road outside of Kabul

Surobi is a large hamlet half way between Kabul and Jalalabad, last August the French suffered a humiliating defeat in the Uzbin valley which is just to the north of Surobi. The town has long been considered to be sympathetic if not supportive of Gulbiddin Hekmatyar and his party Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG.) We see sunburned adult males with high-water trousers, tennis shoes, and black turbans every time we pass through Surobi. They could be Sheppard’s or gold miners but it’s a safe bet their Taliban fighters hitting Surobi in for in-country R&R (rest and recreation).

The French have been serious about establishing a presence in Surobi since their first unfortunate encounter with the Taliban. They are keeping units in the field 24/7; have launched several operations which have netted some prominent local commanders (according to UN incident reporting). It’s good to see our ISAF allies taking the initiative, going on the offensive and clearing out such an important area.

But after you clear an area you have to hold it and it will be interesting to see how (or if) they do that. The operations in Surobi are not impacting the repeated attacks on the Kabul/Jalalabad road – with one exception. We’ve heard from reliable sources they tracked down and killed The Mechanic. It appears to be true too because it’s been months since we’ve seen his signature long range pin point RPG shots nailing tankers. The tankers are still getting nailed but only other portions of the road that allow ambush from rifle and machinegun range.

As noted in previous posts these occur in the Tangi valley area east of Surobi and in portions of Laghman Province below the Tangi. Both the ANP and ANA have posted small units along the road to augment the numerous permanent police posts. As you can see from the pictures below the positions they have set up are weak at best and their patrol routine, which appears to be sitting by the side of the road, is not proving very effective.

Typical ANP deployment on the Jbad - Kabul road
Typical ANP deployment on the Jbad – Kabul road
ANP machinegun crew - they are not dug in and they don't move so they are not accomplishing much
ANA machine gun crew – they are not dug in and they don’t move so they do not really accomplish much

Here is an intel report from one of the PSC’s (the private security companies in Afghanistan do a lot of intel sharing with each other.)

Laghman Province, Qarghayi District, Route 1-area of Tangy

AOG Vehicle Checkpoint 05 January 2009, between 1630-1700 hrs

A doctor who works for a NGO was returning to Jalalabad from Kabul alone in his private car, when his vehicle was forced to stop by a group of armed men. The doctor was then questioned about his work and personal behaviour. He was finally allowed to proceed unharmed when, on seeing the cassette player in the vehicle, the armed men instructed the doctor to play a cassette found in the vehicle. The cassette played was a religious tape and satisfied the requirements of those who had stopped the car. Despite reported increased security force deployments, this is the third reported instance of AOG activity on Route 1 in the Tangy area since 31 Dec 08. All three incidents have occurred in daylight hours and two have been attacks on military vehicles. These incidents should demonstrate to all the risk of travel along Route 1 between Kabul-Jalalabad at any time of day. Any international staff using Route 1 should expect further instances such as that outlined in this report and seek alternative means of travel between Jalalabad-Kabul.

Along with the above report, we have made several trips the past few days along the route. A few ANA vehicles have been pulled off the side of the road about half way back to Kabul, and the soldiers were in a defensive posture behind their vehicles, weapons pointed at the high ground. Most likely some pot shots taken at the ANA as they passed thru.

The Kabul to Jalalabad route is one of the most important in Afghanistan. The effort being expended to secure this route is currently being wasted because the troops are being deployed in poorly sited positions and being tasked to do nothing other than sit there. There is an easy fix and that would be to embed and infantry squad into the Qarghayi District ANP headquarters with a mission style order. It should sound something like this; “Sergeant you’ve got six months to work with these guys and stop any and all attempts to attack this vital route, go down there scout it out, come up with a plan and I’ll see you in five days so you can brief me on your plan. ” Winning the IED battle requires that you kill the IED makers and you can only do that if they are unmasked by the people. To reach the people with the consistency required to gain that level of cooperation requires that you leave the big armored vehicles and spend time (lots of it) among the people. I am pretty sure that if you consult the Pentagon’s counterinsurgency manual you’ll find that it says more less exactly the same thing.

It is always a good sign to see American soldiers getting a handle on the recent attacks
It is always a good sign to see American soldiers getting a handle on the recent attacks along the Jbad to Kabul road

There is hope for those of us who use the Kabul Jbad road frequently and that is the appearance of a small American patrol right in the heart of the Tangy valley visiting the local ANA checkpoint. Inshallah they will be spending some time and effort trying to help the various small unit commanders develop a more aggressive plan to secure the route. We did not encounter any problems on our numerous trips to Kabul and back. What follows is some photo blogging about the Fab Folk we are hosting and some of the things they are up to.

Dan the Reconstruction Man is back with James the Kiwi
Dan the Reconstruction Man is back with James the Kiwi – we have a lot of James’s here (James the Brit,   James the Aussie,   James the Marine, and James the German)- chatting with Dr Dave from the Synergy Strike Force
Kieth, Steve and Carl from the Fab Folk team. Carl is from South Africa, Kieth and Steve are Americans. The Taj manager Mehrab is pulling interpretur duty - he is between Steve and Carl
Keith, Steve and Carl from the Fab Folk team. Carl is from South Africa, Keith and Steve are Americans. The Taj manager Mehrab is pulling interpreter duty – he is between Steve and Carl
Miss Lucy, a former US Navy officer, getting ready to cross the Kabul river from Little Barabad
Miss Lucy, a former US Navy officer, getting ready to cross the Kabul river from Little Barabad
Here is a better shot of Lucy
Here is a better shot of Lucy
Smari and Andres - Fab Folk from Iceland
Smari and Andres – Fab Folk from Iceland
Steve and Keith getting ready to cross the river to Little Barabad
Steve and Keith getting ready to cross the river to Little Barabad
The Fab Folk took a box of stuffed animals with them to Little Barabad. Here is a great shot of the girls watching them cross the river
The Fab Folk took a box of stuffed animals with them to Little Barabad. Here is a great shot of the girls watching them cross the river
We hosted ABC News reporter Martha Raddatz at the Taj yesterday.
We hosted ABC News reporter Martha Raddatz at the Taj yesterday. She interviewed myself and Dr. Dave, the Fab Lab Folk, saw a school built by the La Jolla Rotary Club, and made the river crossing to Little Barabad. She had a big day and shot lots of tape.   More on our day with ABC in the next post.

Here’s a link to Martha’s first news story from her visit to Jalalabad.

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.

Kala Jangi Fighter Fortress

Mazar-i-Shariff is home to the Kala Jangi Fighter Fortress which was the scene of a famous battle in November 2001. Unfortunately I only have one picture of the fort’s exterior which does not do it justice. My good friend CC (code-name Cautious Citizen) and I were in the area on a site visit. He is one of the few guys I know who served in the very top tier of our Special Operations establishment which is why I don’t use his real name. He probably could care less but you never know about those tier one guys and I’d hate to have one mad at me. He and I got a tour of the portion inside Kala Jangi where the fighting occurred. The remainder of the base was off limits when we were there which was in June 2007.

Just last week the Shem Bot and Michael Yon tried twice to get inside but were denied entry. The Bot speaks good Dari which the Afghans appreciate and it is most unusual that he was unable to BS his way in. The Eid holidays were last week and the commander was home with his family which may have been the reason Shem couldn’t get past the gate. It would be a shame if American or British visitors are no longer allowed to see where their special operators fought with such courage and ability. Fortunately I have spent a few afternoons wandering around inside and have plenty of interesting photos to share.

CC and I outside the fotress

On November 25th, 2001 two CIA agents went to the Kala Jangi fortress to interview the Taliban who had surrendered to Gen Dostum’s Northern Alliance fighters the day before. While interviewing a group of prisoners the Taliban suddenly attacked the agents and their Northern Alliance escort. One of the agents and all the Northern Alliance fighters were killed. The 300 prisoners revolted and armed themselves with weapons and munitions the Taliban had stored in this portion of the fortress years before. What followed was a three day battle reported to the world in near real time.

The American military and their CIA colleagues had arrived in Central Asia mere weeks after the attacks on our homeland. The Pentagon and Langley had been pushed by Donald Rumsfeld to go quickly. No military professional likes to execute ad-hoc seat of the pants combat operations half a world away but the Pentagon let loose the dogs of war allowing our SF teams aided by CIA paramilitary, CIA paramilitary contractors and advance elements of the US Army 10th Mountain Division to operate independently with mission type orders and without micro management. The result of this initial phase of our campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda was a brilliant success.

This appears to be what the Marines would term a “Tactical Air Control Party” in action on the north wall of the fortress. They are probably from the 10th Mountain Division. It is interesting to see the old war belt load bearing rigs which were being phased out back then in favor of the load bearing vests in use today.

It is hard to conduct such a fluid wide ranging battle where all the targeting and ordinance delivery is based on inputs from ground controllers in contact. The fog of war is a powerful performance inhibitor which affects all men on the field of battle and the fog of war inserted itself on the battle of Kala Jangi when a 2,000 pound JDAM hit adjacent to the team who had called it in. It was a miracle that none of our troops were killed by this blue-on-blue SNAFU. Dozens American, British and Afghan soldiers were injured, five Americans required medical evacuation and British casualties are unknown because the UK never releases information about SAS operations. The Northern Alliance reported over 30 KIA from this JDAM strike.

Point of impact of the arrant JDAM crater as it appeared in 2007

 

This is the view from the SF teams position when they were calling in the JDAM’s. The Taliban occupied the line of buildings to the front which are 300 meters away. It takes real balls to call in air-delivered ordinance this close to you and I mean real balls.

I remember watching this unfold through the video of a German TV crew who had the good luck to be on hand when the fighting started. I was amazed that we were conducting such a ballsy mobile warfare style campaign and had gotten there so quickly. Checking out this old battlefield was as opportunity I could not pass up.

“devil Taliban” – have to love that.

 

The portion of the fort where all the fighting took place is the southeastern quarter which was right behind the gate next to the sign pictured above. The battlefield is essentially untouched since the battle. EOD teams did remove or destroy most of the UXO (unexploded ordinance) but our Afghan Army guide was adamant that we stay on the many paths through the brush least we step on some live ordinance or a cobra. We were there in July and apparently snakes are a problem in that area during the summer months.

Gen Dostum’s men had not searched the Taliban nor the portion of the fort where they put the Taliban (who had owned the fort until just days before they surrenderd) when American CIA agents arrived to interrogate the captured Taliban fighters they had no idea they were being held in a portion of the fort that the Taliban had used for weapons and ammunition storage. I am certain that they had detected in previous encounters with the Taliban a certain battlefield rhythm and part of that rhythm was acceptance of surrendered Taliban of their POW status. For whatever reason the Taliban in Kala Jangi were in no mood to accept their fate and they revolted killing a CIA agent (and former Marine Corps officer) Mike Spann and a dozen Northern Alliance guards. They then opened up the weapons storage containers they had put there previously and the fight was on.

A CIA agent identified in the media as “Dave” using the sat phone from a German TV crew to call the K2 base in Uzbekistan for reinforcements.

In response the the call made from a CIA agent identified as “Dave” a mixed group of 9 American special operators, 6 British Special Boat Service operators and a nine man advance party from the 10th Mountain Division arrived on scene.

The Taliban weapons stores remain there to this day although the Afghan Army has rendered the weapons un-serviceable. The second picture below is of one of the shipping containers which received much attention from an AC-130 gunship during the night of 26 November.

The weapons in this conex were here in 2001 and functional
Inside a weapons conex that got some AC130 love  – it looked like Swiss cheese it was so shot up

Although the battle lasted for three days it was essentially over after the AC-130’s pounded the Taliban on the night of the 26th. On the morning of the 27th the surviving Taliban retreated into the basements under the mud huts which line the southern wall.

This is a shot from the Taliban perspective looking north towards the allied positions.

You can still find medicine bottles, primitive field dressings, torn and bloody clothing, and a ton of rusty un-serviceable small arms ammo down in the these basements.

What is left of the stairs leading down to the basement rooms.

In order to drive the surviving band of die hard fighters out of the basement Dostum’s men flooded it. And when they did out popped Johnny Walker Lindh and another 80 or so surviving fighters. There are few absolutes in life but the death penalty for traitors to our great land is one of them. Lindh should have been hung a long time ago. In public. Nothing personal but the same principal applies here as it did to the murdering horse thieves in Lonesome Dove. Gus and Captain Call had to string up the group they caught which included their life-long friend Jake Spoon. The didn’t want to do it but they had to because it was their duty under their code. There are some things a man cannot tolerate if he is going to call himself a free man. Horse thieves and traitors are two of those things. Again this is not personal – I can understand the ennui which drove young Walker to Islam. I can admire his courage and fortitude in leaving home at such a young age to venture into the northwest frontier of Pakistan alone. But he turned traitor and at that point all the understanding and empathy in the world is irrelevant. The issue becomes black and white. Just like a Panda.

Johnny Walker Lindh moments after being recaptured
Picture taken after the battle which I lifted off the net along with Lindh’s pic. Apparently nobody knew the Taliban had an arms cache inside that portion of the fort because Gen Dostum used it to stable his horses.

I arrived in Afghanistan four years after this battle and can only imagine what it was like for the American and British operators who drove into the breach back in 2001. They were free to operate as they saw fit based on what they developed on the ground. The Afghan people were 100% behind our efforts to rid them of the Taliban scourge. They must have been greeted like liberators everywhere they went and when the Taliban tried to stand and fight they were able to defeat them in detail with precision direct and indirect fire. What could be better than that?

Visiting Northern Afghanistan is a trip of a lifetime but if you want to make it you better hurry.

Travelling North: Salang Pass to Mazar-i-Sharif

The northern regions of Afghanistan are the safest areas in the country. A majority of the population in these provinces are Tajik or Hazara and were not known for supporting the Taliban. We routinely travel in the north without body armor or rifles and have, on occasion, left the side arms at home out of respect for the local leaders and populace. All my trips into the north have terminated in the fabled city of Mazar-i-Shariff where our main client JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) has an office and several programs.

The trip north starts by crossing the Shamali Plain (Shamali means “windy” in Dari) which saw much fighting during the Soviet invasion in the 80’s. As a point of interest, the main road from Kabul to Bagram airbase used by our armed forces today was built by the Soviets so they could stay out of the Shamali plain as much as possible. The Soviets fought hard and often all along the main road to the north. After the Northern Alliance and our SF teams drove out the Taliban in 2001 there has been no fighting or attacks on the international or Afghan military on the plain or anywhere else along the route to Mazar-i-Shariff.

Shamali plain just north of Kabul

In 2006 an American army convoy caused a fatal traffic accident where the roads above terminates inside Kabul. They opened fire on the crowd that gathered at the accident site sparking an entire day of rioting in Kabul. Unruly and agitated crowds are a staple at Afghan traffic accidents which occur frequently and tend to be gruesome given the speeds at which Afghans drive and their propensity for stuffing extra women and children in car trunks or on roof racks. Firing into the crowd that day (I saw it live on Tolo TV) is a symptom of the big base big army mentality that infected our efforts here as soon as the regular army took over the fight. The solider I saw unleash his 50 cal into the Afghan crowd at point blank range was scared. He was scared because he did not understand Afghanistan or its people and he thought the crowd was after him and his fellow soldiers. This was four years after we first set foot in the country. Today, some seven years into the fight, a majority of the soldiers are just as clueless about the Afghan people and their customs as the knucklehead on the machinegun that day. But I digress.

Istalif Pottery

Halfway across the plain is the town of Istalif which is famous for its pottery. With a little haggling and good humor you can buy any of these pieces for just one dollar although after haggling and completing the sale I always give a tip. Haggling is fun but a couple extra dollars thrown in at the end of the deal is fun too. Afghans seem to enjoy foreigners who are of good humor and fair.

After getting through the Shamali you have to climb up the Salang Pass which is 12,723 feet up into the Hindu Kush Mountains making it one of the highest roads in the world. Here is a view going up the pass and looking back towards Kabul.

Kabul side of the Salang Pass

The Soviet Union built a tunnel through the pass back in the 60’s which is 2.6 kilometers long and scary. The road bed is pitted and often filled with slush, the evacuation fan system stopped working decades ago, it is dark, and the Afghans have no ability to deal with vehicle accidents or any serious injuries. In 1982 an explosion in the tunnel caused the Soviets to block both ends as they thought there was an attack in progress. Those trapped inside kept their vehicles running to avoid freezing, the resulting buildup of carbon monoxide and smoke killed as many as 700 Soviet troops and over 2,000 Afghans.

Northern entrance to the Salang Pass

Once you’re through the Salang tunnel it is a steep drop down into the valley floor where one can find the best fresh fish in Afghanistan. Here is my favorite seasonal fish stand seen from the road above:

Approaching the valley floor on the northern side of the Salang Pass

Like I said it is a step grade down the north side of the Salang.

My two new friends and I enjoying fine Afghan dining al fresco

The guys sitting behind me in the picture above are truck drivers who wandered over just in case I ate like an Afghan which is to automatically share food and drink. I have been here long enough to understand that so the three of us tucked into the excellent fish and engaged in conversations with a mix of basic Dari, American slang, and sign language.

The drive from the Salang Pass to Mazar is pleasant and fast over good roads. The largest city along the route is Puli Khumri which has little international presence but also few AOG (armed opposition group) incidents. One of the more interesting aspects of driving around the country is to discover how the industrious Afghans can be with found objects. The picture below demonstrates that point well and is also the best use of old Soviet BTR’s I’ve yet to see.

Fuel station a few miles south of Puli Khumri built on top of old Soviet BTR 72’s that were stacked into the river, covered with dirt and rock, compacted and leveled – one way to get a land title in Afghanistan is to create your own land.

From Puli Khumri it is about three hours of  driving through one small hamlet after another. It is not a good idea to move off the main road in areas where there are no villages or towns. Every natural choke-point has an old Soviet command post and the terrain around them could still be seeded with anti-personnel mines. Most of these areas have been cleared but the sign below provides a warning that remains applicable today to the smart traveler.

A warning from HALO trust (de-mining NGO) in Dari and English explaining the land off of the main highway in this pass contains an active mine field.

The Afghanistan state-controlled media back in the Soviet days called Soviet soldiers Quay Dhost which means “friendly forces”. When we rolled up to Afghan police checkpoints we’d smile and introduce ourselves as Quay Dhost which generated a look of surprise followed by a big belly laugh.  Afghans love jokes and funny foreigners who make an effort at speaking Dari.

I took this picture at an old soviet check point on the main ring road in 2005. It was gone when I was last up north in 2007.

Mazar-i-Sharif is a small city famous for the Blue Mosque which is supposed to contain the remains of Hazrat Ali, who was a son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad. Islamic scholars believe the real grave of Ali is in the Imam Mosque in Najaf Iraq.

 

Checking out the Blue Mosque in Mazar

I have read and also heard from the locals that the Mosque was buried to prevent its sacking by Genghis Khan in 1220 and not uncovered until the 1480’s. I have no idea how the locals could have done that back then but I also don’t know how the Egyptian Pyramids were built so maybe it’s a true story. For us foreigners this is as close as we can get to the Mosque which is fine because the real treat when visiting the North is checking out the Kala Jangi fortress which was the scene of a big fight on 25 November 2001.

There is also work and in Mazar and that means looking after Ms Tani san of JICA who runs the women empowerment program. The picture below is of Tani san issuing a critique to one of her woman’s groups who have been slacking on keeping the cows and barn that the people of Japan provided them clean and functional.

JICA’s Woman’s Empowerment Program in action. The woman huddled in a school circle are catching hell for being behind the maintenance of their new cattle barn

While she is in the villages the police guard and I hang out with the males of the village often  sitting in the closest field for a little nan and yogurt. If we check up on five villages that’s five lunches of nan and yogurt and sometimes kabob that you can’t not eat because it’s impolite for guests to refuse hospitality. The life of an independent international security operative often looks like this:

I’m going to get fat if I keep doing this. The cold mint yogurt tea is damn good though and I’ve never tasted anything like it.

The eggplant we are eating with the nan (bread) is called Borani Banjan and is absolutely delicious; greasy as the day is long but delicious. Next stop will be the Fortress but it deserves a post of its own.