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Death in the Corn: Part III of III

British 2 Para snipers search for the local “sniper” taking potshots at FOB Gibraltar.

On 02 September, the enemy sniper was at it again, and so five British snipers (in the photo above, one sniper was behind me) were searching for probable firing positions. At one point, there was credible information that the Taliban told the sniper that they could provide him an American scope. The sniper said he was happy with his iron sights. He was a terrible shot, but sooner or later he might get lucky.

The Brits know exactly who the sniper is. About half a dozen fruit trees occluded fields of fire, so the soldiers cut them down. The Brits offered to pay for the trees, but were bound by regulations on how much they could pay. Major Adam Dawson told me the amount was something like $20 per tree, which of course is tantamount to zero. Achmed, an Afghan neighbor, came to collect the money, but the owner of the fruit tress had told Achmed not to accept payment. The owner was livid, saying: “I can’t believe Achmed let them cut down my trees! I’m going to go @#%& his wife!” I don’t know if anything happened to Achmed’s wife, but I do know that the Brits said the owner of the fruit trees bought himself a sniper rifle. He’s been shooting at Gibraltar ever since.

The British go by a chart that details how much they are allowed to pay for certain items they destroy. A tree, a car, a house, even a life—everything has its price. In Iraq, the payments truly could assuage anger at times. Few transgressions inflame the passions more than a sincere feeling of being manhandled and treated unjustly. The perception of injustice—especially coming from Americans or British, who many people see as monetarily omnipotent—can earn a bomb in the road, or a bullet in the head.

During 2005, the 278th Tennessee National Guard spent considerable time one day in the boonies of Iraq’s Diyala Province trying to find a shepherd to pay after they accidentally ran over a sheep with a Humvee. I also saw shepherds in that same area, on numerous occasions, waving down the 278th to show them mines or ammo they found. Time and again the shepherds collected large amounts of ammo, and sorted it by type for easy accounting and destruction. The 278th paid the shepherds and blew up the caches out near the Iranian border. Everyone was happy. The Iraqis made money. We didn’t get blown up.

But at another American unit, I recall officers grumbling and haggling over how much they would pay Iraqis for ammo they were turning in. These weren’t the rich Iraqis who sent their kids to Sandhurst or Paris for school, but the poor, uneducated ones who worked in dirty places where they sometimes found explosives, or perhaps earned some money planting them. And I thought what a shame—those Iraqis might, after all, sell the same explosives to terrorists, or get paid more to just bury bombs in the roads. Such bombs killed or wounded literally tens of thousands of Americans and Iraqis. But there is a natural tendency among people the world over: few among us seem to like to pay poor people a fair price for anything. We think poor people should work for next to nothing and be happy for it. I have seen this kind of contempt for the poor throughout the world. Rich Iraqis do it to poor Iraqis. Rich Americans to poor Americans.

In Afghanistan, it’s probably only a matter of time before the man who lost the trees shoots a British soldier, or a British soldier shoots the man’s head off, all for a pittance. The British soldiers are extremely competent, professional, and treat the Afghans well. They are soldiers that the British public should be proud of, and Americans are always proud to call them friends and allies who can be relied upon when bullets start flying. But the accounting department at home is putting these British soldiers into a rough situation and creating lethal enemies.

Struggling with his heavy gear and Javelin missile, this soldier was stuck like a turtle, and needed help getting up. That’s him, facing.  The soldier is very strong, but the Javelins and ammo are extremely heavy.  The soldiers in 2 Para might be the fittest I’ve seen anywhere. These Javelins were fired in combat. Cost: over $2 million.  A Javelin costing about $130,000 might one day be used to kill the Afghan sniper, who is angry about not getting a fair price for his trees.

C-Company, 2 Para, has fired 17 Javelins in combat during this tour. The soldiers are very fond of the missile system, and are reticent to talk bad about Javelins for fear they will not get any more. But out of those 17 Javelins, one went errant, and another failed to launch. The other 15 struck their targets.

The 2 Para soldiers take pride that they assault through the Taliban ambushes. During one particularly fierce battle, the 2 Para men were closing in and ready to destroy the Taliban who had ambushed them, but a British Apache helicopter—apparently not realizing the soldiers could move so fast—accidentally fired on the soldiers. Nine were wounded, but luckily, none killed. The accident happened in July, but troops still mentioned the incident to me at least once a day while I was at FOB Gibraltar. They showed no anger toward the Apache crew, but in each case seemed disappointed that they hadn’t been able to continue the attack. The soldiers told me that the Taliban ambush had been well executed, and it took much effort for the Brits to maneuver into positions to pin the enemy, and prepare for a final assault to kill them. But that’s right when the Apache fired.

Losing the Good War

As in Iraq, the media battle in Afghanistan is of vital importance. Domestic and international opinion can affect—or even determine—the outcome of this war. Right now, in the United States, Afghanistan is seen as the “Good War,” the one that was forced upon us, while Iraq was a war of choice. We’ll see how long that feeling can be sustained in America and Britain, while casualties mount and the war drags on. The Taliban have embarked on a strategy to split off our allies. Forces from countries seen as weaker in their support of the war are being targeted. If the Taliban can succeed in getting, say, France to withdraw from Afghanistan, they will have landed a blow to our effort, with serious consequences to the war here, as well as the NATO alliance. I read a secret document detailing the deaths 10 French soldiers who were killed during a Taliban ambush. American “Green Berets,” and much airpower, were involved in helping to break the attack on the French. Yet from the secret document and other reports that ring credible, the French lacked the necessary tools – sufficient communications gear, for example – to mitigate the attack. Some of the French apparently had run out of ammunition and were captured, killed, and their uniforms stripped. Several showed signs of being killed at close range. One of them had his throat slit.

The Taliban is apparently actively trying to split off the Canadians, and may well succeed. Some serious military thinkers feel that Afghanistan is not of sufficient strategic consequence to continue fighting for, and it’s clear that much of the Canadian public is ready to quit. Enemy leadership is fully aware of this, and are trying to exploit the Canadian weakness.

So far, the British are hanging tough. While their troops’ morale is high, back home in the United Kingdom there seems to be a growing resentment that the Afghans do not appreciate the price the British are paying, in blood and treasure. Many of the British soldiers have served multiple combat tours. And Afghanistan is more dangerous than Iraq for British troops. There were very few suicide bombings in the areas where the British served in Iraq. Now they are faced with this threat in Afghanistan.

On FOB Gibraltar, some 2 Para soldiers told me about their own experience with a suicide bomber. They were on patrol when a man holding a bag over his shoulder walked toward them. (A suicide bombing that killed the three other soldiers from 2 Para at nearby FOB Inkerman had put them on alert.) A British soldier said that he told the man to stop. The man pulled the bag in front of him. “And disappeared,” said the soldier. I asked if his ears were okay, and the soldier said they were fine. It was amazing that he didn’t get fragged. A soldier further back in the file got fragged in the hand, but luckily the injury was minor. They told me they brought the bomber’s leg back to the FOB. Usually the dogs get what’s left of the suicide bombers, and the bombs in Iraq seemed to be like a dinner bell for stray dogs. The soldier who told the man to stop said the man looked confused just prior to exploding. Was he doped up on some opium derivative? This happened frequently in Iraq, as car bombers drove erratically before detonating (sometimes with their hands duct-taped or handcuffed to the steering wheel) or vest-bombers appeared disoriented or stoned, blowing up without engaging a target.

Reporting the deaths of three British soldiers in June, the Independent newspaper called suicide bombing “a terrifying new phenomenon in this conflict.” The suicide attacks are hardly new. The first two suicide attacks that I was close to in Afghanistan happened in April 2006 at the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Lashkar Gah. Those were the first two in Lashkar Gah, but that was more than two years ago.

The Independent reported that “troops serving in Helmand had a one-in-36 chance of not surviving a six-month tour of duty. During the Korean War, the death rate stood at one in 58. In Vietnam, it was one in 46; during the Falklands War it was one in 45.”

We cannot win a war of attrition in Afghanistan.

Furthermore, the war is not just in Afghanistan, and should more appropriately be called the AfPak war. Al Qaeda got monkey-stomped Iraq, and their center of gravity is now back with its central leadership in the lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) over the border in Pakistan. Insurgencies often rely on porous borders in lawless or friendly lands to support their efforts and give them safe haven when things get too hot in their target country. While many people argued that Iran was to blame for much of our problems in Iraq, that cross-border threat was vastly exaggerated. Yes, the Iranians supplied Explosively Formed Projectiles (EFPs) that killed our troops, and supported and trained some Shiite militia groups. Yet the main threat to Iraq’s stability was internal, and greatly exacerbated by al Qaeda. In Afghanistan, the situation is much worse, and more complicated.

“Although the insurgency has support in and draws strength from elements within the Afghan community, the support of foreign-based networks in providing leadership, planning, training, funding and equipment clearly remains crucial to its viability.” That’s what the UN Secretary General said on 06 March 2008. Pakistan is key to the immediate future of Afghanistan. Political turmoil in Pakistan has undermined its already inconsistent and mostly ineffective efforts against the Taliban, who continue to cross the border back and forth. We use that border too. Some 80 percent of the supplies to our troops pass through one of the most dangerous regions of Pakistan.

Meanwhile, let’s not forget India. If Pakistan tips from instability into chaos, it could feel more threatened by India than anyone else. The recent bombing of the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan killed more than 40 people, and was apparently an effort to stoke latent hostilities between these two enemies. Both India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons. Just this last Saturday, two days ago, a massive bomb destroyed the Marriot hotel in Islamabad, killing about 40 people.

All this, and much more, adds up to an extremely delicate political and strategic challenge. Of course we need more troops in Afghanistan. But along with an increase in troops, we need a coherent strategy, one that considers the unique circumstances in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and the larger region. We can win every engagement and still lose the war. That’s why we see continued tactical successes against the Taliban, and high morale among troops like 2 Para who are fighting them every day, while the overall situation grows worse. The soldiers are doing their job.

Back in 2003, General David Petraeus realized that the Iraq War was as much about politics and money than anything else. After he took command in early 2007, we saw victory in Iraq. (General Petraeus will not declare victory in Iraq, but I will do it for him.) General Petraeus also realizes that the AfPak war will largely be fought in the politosphere. Once General Petraeus has a chance to fully take the reigns at Centcom – which is exactly where America and our allies need him – a wise person will do well to listen closely to what he says.

General Petraeus has ordered a Joint Strategic Assessment Team (JSAT) to evaluate Centcom’s area of responsibility. He did this upon assuming command in Iraq, and that JSAT significantly contributed to the new strategy that proved successful beyond our wildest dreams. Heading the Centcom effort will be Colonel H.R. McMaster, a brilliant officer whose command of 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tal Afar in 2005 was seen as a model for counterinsurgency in Iraq. The JSAT will be an opportunity for General Petraeus to develop a new strategy for AfPak, while not ignoring our responsibilities in Iraq, and elsewhere.

One of General Petraeus’ first challenges in AfPak will be organizational, creating at least unity of action, if not unity of command (which at this point is beyond his power), in order to better coordinate the strategic efforts of the different forces engaged in Afghanistan. More than forty nations are here to “fight” the Taliban in Afghanistan. While Centcom only controls the American contingent, General Petraeus’ political and diplomatic skills will be needed in order to keep the alliance together and make it more effective. His experience in mentoring the Iraqi Security Forces also should prove valuable in fielding a stronger Afghan counterpart.

In Iraq, the money challenge was to rebuild the economy. In Afghanistan, the economic infrastructure is largely non-existent. Opium cultivation accounts for a great part of the Gross Domestic Product, and much of that money goes to the Taliban either through direct profits or tribute. Helmand Province, where FOB Gibraltar is situated, produces more than half of the opium in Afghanistan. According to some reports, the Taliban is present in all thirteen districts of Helmand Province, and controls six of them. In areas like Helmand where opium production is on the rise, security becomes much more precarious. During 2007 and the first few months of 2008, Helmand saw more direct fire, indirect fire and IEDs than any other province. There is a direct correlation between opium cultivation and security risk. Yet if we destroyed the opium crops, we would only be turning the locals into enemies.

We have been successful in killing many Taliban, and even taking out some of their leaders, yet the insurgency is splitting off into a distributed network that is learning how to survive and adapt. While the Taliban used to stage pitched battles which they would invariably lose, now they are fighting asymmetrically, mostly against the Afghan National Security Forces and civilians as part of a strategy of political attrition seeking to discredit the Afghan government. This strategy includes terrorist attacks, kidnapping for profit, murdering humanitarian aid workers, and developing criminal enterprises that intimidate the local populace and bring in needed revenue.

The enemy grows stronger with each season. Recently, I drove through a village between Kabul and Jalalabad with two very experienced expats, who pointed out Taliban as we drove through the village. The Taliban were close enough to hit with a rock. We were close enough to be hit with a rocket. They were in the open. We were in the open. We were in an unarmored, single vehicle, and so did not draw much attention. About two minutes down the road were Afghan soldiers. Along the road from Kabul to Jalalabad were charred places where, I was told, vehicles had been ambushed. Every single person I talk with in Helmand, Kandahar, Kabul and Jalalabad — whether Afghan or expat — can see that the Taliban are growing stronger, and nobody respects the government in Kabul. It’s patently obvious that we are losing this war.

03 September 2008

A patrol launched from FOB Gibraltar. The objective was to tempt Terry into a fight, which he gamely accepted. As mentioned in the Death in the Corn: Part I of III, the 2 Para have only a handful of major modes: fight, exercise, clean weapons, eat and sleep. Their gym is slap in the middle of three mortar pits, and one mortar is even set up inside the gym. (Several smaller mortars are not in pits, and were set up after the 81mm mortars started having “hung rounds,” which means the mortar bomb gets stuck in the tube and does not fire.)

Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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