Afghanistan on the Cheap
22 weeks in a Helmand Checkpoint.
One year ago this week I was lying face down in a ploughed field with 7 others while a Taliban ambush opened up on us from about 150m away. This time the rounds were falling a bit closer than usual. Both lads in front of me had near misses – the first one had a round graze the inside of his forearm while the guy immediately in front of me managed to stop one with his helmet, the round ricocheting harmlessly into the ground in front of him. Afterwards he said it was like getting hit with a sledgehammer.
“Paddy, Paddy, I think I’ve been shot in the head!” Was the memorable line as we hugged the dirt. I crawled towards him, trying to remember how exactly you were meant to treat bullet wounds to the brain. Feeling around his headgear for, well, cracks & blood but relievedly found nothing I told him to stop being a fanny and we took it in turns to get into hard cover. The Taliban’s fire had died off and we soaked in, but the feeling was one of resignation – another fleeting unseen enemy attack with no desire to take us head on in a firefight. Or so we thought.
Bounding forward to ‘exploit the enemy firing position’ – or in normal English having a nosy around and hope the insurgents decide to re-engage us – we seen a compound owner come out and as if to make the point he wasn’t scared, started to furiously harvest crops while we were taking up arcs in the ditch beside him. This time the Taliban came back. Previously it had been 4 months of shoot and scoot and IEDs. Now, at the beginning of Ramadan, on patrols the ICOM scanners were picking up chatter along the lines of ‘now is a good time to die’ and apparent activity was increasing.
We welcomed the change. Aiming my rifle in the direction of the enemy threat I pulled the trigger for the first time in anger since first being trained in it’s use 10 years previously. Being honest, it was a relief to finally be putting all that training into practice.
The firefight lasted 3 hours that morning, a series of pitched battles along our southern demarcation border with the USMC that had us mounting by-the-book section attacks at an enemy that wouldn’t be pinned down and had demonstrated at least some training – they used pairs covering fire, and in truth their threadbare loadouts meant we would always be struggling to match their manoeuvrability over unfamiliar ground. Apaches turned up too late to intervene – although spotting a gunman they wouldn’t open fire as he was apparently running away and so judged ‘not a danger’. We ended up 600m into the US Area of Operations before our OC reigned us back in. If we were allowed to keep going we’d probably still be chasing them today.
The patrol had seen X-ray’s first major contact of the tour. That we had trudged through these fields so many times over the summer made the shock of sustained attack all the more vivid. That combat high stayed with us for the next few days and then resided, and in it’s place came the desire for the next one. Probably the 2nd most addictive rush I’ve felt, they say your best contact is the next one. And 2 minutes before it kicked off I was sat in that field agreeing with another Marine on how shit everything was.
But that’s the Afghan way. Early one morning looking out from my observation point on the super sangar over the Green Zone fields to the West, where two farmers were tilling their fields, one stopped and looked across the irrigation canal and beckoned the other over in that informal local pashto that seems to shorten words to a series of effortless grunts. The second basgah looks up and works out of his hunched position standing upright, a weather beaten, thin and lonely figure. He moves out of his field and onto a track running parallel with the water. The canal is about 12 feet wide but a large drop to it’s surface from ground level makes it a not inconsequential gap. The man observes silently as the morning sun lights up the golden fields before him, then in a split second a temporary maelstrom erupts around this solitary figure, his kameez turned into a whirling dervish as the farmer flings his spade across to the man on the far bank with surprising and energetic violence. And equally as fast the morning stillness prevales once again.
This is the Afghan way. The simple, quiet methods can fool the casual observer into mistaking this place for one of tranquillity, only for fleeting but powerful displays of action to highlight the true nature of the place. People will wait here a long time seeing little sign of progress, only for loyalties and courses of action to be decided in the blink of an eye.
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This was our home for the duration of Op Herrick 14. The satellite image is from last summer – we cut those tracks patrolling through the field to our North East.
On the face of it, each checkpoint looks after their own admin save the weekly airdrops or vehicle moves dropping off supplies to each base. The constant juggling of these checkpoints and patrol bases and the subsequent logistics & manning issues means at times some checkpoints effectively become supply donkeys for others. Ours, being troop strength (30 mean) – which was quite high for a checkpoint – meant we did a lot of these admin patrols. In the early days of the tour we had no jackals so this meant batteries, water, etc. was to lunked about on foot. We had two smaller compound structures east and west of us that couldn’t set foot out their door due to lack of numbers. One guy I knew spent the first four months inside the same 20x60ft mud brick walls. To compensate for their lack of patrolling every man in our checkpoint did two patrols a day for the first few months.