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Spraying for bugs on FOB Jackson, Sangin.

The next Afghan elections are scheduled for 20 August 2009, so the Commander’s intent for the mission on 28-29 July:

“Disrupt insurgent activity across Sangin in order to create sufficient security for elections.”

This OMLT consists mostly of short soldiers in 3 Company from the Welsh Guards.  They are short because the tall soldiers are sent to the Prince of Wales Company, while the short ones, called “Little Iron Men,” are sent to 3 Company. Tonight, the Little Iron Men would accompany the ANA.

Coalition nations have largely wasted nearly eight years in developing the Afghan Security Forces, and so today we are left outnumbered as much by terrain as by foe.  American special operations forces, for instance, spent more than a half-decade on the greatest manhunt in recent memory.  Today we have little to show for the Great Manhunt other than bumper crops of opium and an increasingly powerful array of enemies.  The press had focused on Iraq while handing out hugs and lollipops on Afghanistan, leaving governments free to operate with practically zero critical outside auditing.  Surely it was the war of their dreams.  They fumbled it.  When I reported with twelve dispatches during 2006 that we were losing the Afghanistan war, the United States government denied my return to Iraq.  Today, in mid-2009, there are no Afghan Army forces in Ghor Province to the north of Helmand.  Here in the 4-km2 Sangin district of Helmand, 100 ANP are authorized but only about 36 are available.  This, after nearly eight years, is typical across the country.

Instead of peace, tonight’s intelligence-driven mission was to unfold in an area of Sangin that the British call Wishtan, a most brutal corner of today’s war.  Wishtan is particularly perilous because of the people and their dwellings and the maze of passages and alleys and doglegs and canalizations between the compounds.  Routes are predictable and bombs are easy to hide in the walls or in the ground, and the channels created by the walls contain the men and the blasts.  During firefights there is little room to maneuver.  Wishtan is a big series of fatal funnels, or in the words of British Army Captain Alexander Spry, “Wishtan is like something from a Freddy Krueger movie.”  Captain Spry believes that Wishtan is almost certainly the most dangerous place in Afghanistan.

The OMLT was to link up with Afghan soldiers under the command of Colonel Wadood, a Tajik from Kapisa Province, whose goals are simply stated.  Colonel Wadood told me all the problems will be solved by killing the Taliban and going home.

Captain Andy White came from the Australian Army into the British Army to fight in Afghanistan. Jason Crabb will drive the second WMIK Land Rover: the vehicles are mostly unarmored and so avoiding bombs is especially important, though of course we are canalized by the roads and so avoiding bombs is a function of securing the roads, which can only be done in a limited fashion for short distances.  Our movement is severely restricted by countless bombs. Departure is scheduled for1900 hours.  Coincidentally, just before we depart, there is a ceremony for a 2 Rifles soldier just killed up at Kajaki, and so the soldiers stood at attention and then we loaded up.

We drove down the bumpy road to Patrol Base Tangiers, which was only about a seven-minute journey through a market where an ANA soldier had been shot in the arm last week, and there were plenty of other dramas of note.  We passed by the spot near the gate where a suicide bomber had blown himself up in March, leaving behind only his legs and some scattered parts that were collected and dutifully photographed.

Along the way I could not see out of the WMIK, and so just closed my eyes and hoped that if we hit a bomb it would be big and fast.  The final dispatch would not be written by me.  BAP!, we hit a bump and my helmet cracked into the turret overhead. A few seconds later, as my heart rate began to approach normality again, we came into FOB Tangiers, where we would wait.  Our part of the mission was “relatively” safe: if the British soldiers and ANA conducting raids were to be blown up or got into a serious fight, we would come for the casualties.  That would be the dangerous part.  Despite the extreme danger, the OMLT soldiers and the ANA exuded confidence and were ready to go within a couple of minutes.  The British soldiers praise the courage of their Afghan Army counterparts, and the respect is mutual.

Patrol Base Tangiers, in Sangin. ANA collect for evening prayers as the cries come from distant loudspeakers and another hot day melts into night. Patrol Base Tangiers is situated in ramshackle accommodations in a bombed-out compound.  ANA use a British 'Mozzie net' as a window.

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