Dinner was served to a half dozen Afghan soldiers, five British and the interpreter, Mr. Flemming, who sat to my right while Colonel Wadood was to my left. Major Guy Stone wisely retired for some sleep so that if we had serious combat in the morning, he would be better prepared for quick decisions.
The conversation with Colonel Wadood and the Afghan soldiers ranged over the war in space and time. As with our dinner the night before, Colonel Wadood clarified that his view of success is two-dimensional: kill the Taliban and the war is over. Of course, the Taliban is one of many enemies here. This was my second dinner with Wadood wherein he seemed uninterested in development and related all problems to the Taliban and drug lords. ‘Kill them. There will be peace.’
Colonel Wadood’s 2IC, Maj Zelgai, who recently spent nearly two weeks in the United Kingdom, stayed the night at the home of Major Guy Stone, telling Major Stone’s wife not to worry, as he would take care of her husband. And one might suspect that Colonel Wadood and the ANA mean just that; no British soldier I have spoken with questions the courage and ferocity of Wadood or his men. American soldiers will further confirm that Afghan soldiers are ready to fight. There are exceptions – bad units wherein the Afghans often prefer to smoke dope than to fight – and there are other impressively negative narratives. But again, many of the units, such as Wadood’s, earn praise.
The dinner conversation meandered from one interesting vignette to another, with British soldiers explaining, for instance, how they were “mugged” by mobs of Afghan boys. The boys appear from the market and rush in, stealing anything they can grab, including one soldier’s wallet (why did he carry a wallet?), and a hand grenade pin from a live grenade. Luckily, the soldiers keep the grenade spoons secured, or the soldier would have been killed along with the kids. The soldiers and Mr. Flemming, the interpreter, talked about the Mi-26 that had been shot down and the burning bodies and the heat and how they thought one of the children who had burned to death was not a girl, but a boy as first assumed.
Over dinner, at 2015 hours, there was a distant explosion, sounding like an RPG, which nobody bothered remarking about, because it would be like bringing up something as common as a mosquito or a fly. I said that President Karzai’s brother has a restaurant in America, and the ANA soldiers laughed, saying that President Karzai himself had been a restaurant owner, until we made him President, and they joked not to bring any more restaurant owners to become Presidents. Still, they agreed that Karzai is a good President. Two of the soldiers are from Jalalabad and one had been a Mujahadeen fighter, while Colonel Wadood had fought on the Russian side, and so they laughed that they had been enemies, yet now they fight the Taliban.
At 2115 we heard what sounded like a jet, but I was unsure, and then BOOM!, a large explosion. At 2125, there came word via radio: five Taliban had been killed by a Hellfire launched from a Reaper prowling invisibly in the dark skies. About five minutes later, the Apaches were overhead and then came four thumping bursts from the 30mm turrets. No flame or tracer could be seen, just darkness and thumping and the sounds of the Apaches, also prowling invisibly in the ink above. Four minutes later a pen flare arced just outside our perimeter, and at 2140, there were two very loud explosions approximately one second apart. We were told later that the second explosion was from an enemy bomb that detonated after our bomb had hit it and killed some men. I say in English, “Someone is not happy tonight,” and Colonel Wadood and the Afghan Sergeant Major, who speaks English, both burst into laughter, “Yes, yes…someone not happy tonight.” Seconds later, there were two more bursts from the Apache 30mm. We are later told that the Apaches were chasing squirters. Our radioman called back to the JOC (Joint Operations Center), and they said, “the aircraft are attacking people who are laying IEDs.”
Word comes a little later that the Taliban are saying we bombed people who were eating watermelon in a field. The Afghans responded by telling us this was a lie, because they know how careful the British and Americans are with their fires, and they also knew that Afghans do not sit in fields around here this late at night eating watermelon.
I’ve witnessed too many missions (several in the last week) wherein British or Americans refused to fire because they could not positively spot a weapon, despite it being flagrantly obvious that we were tracking actual enemies. It’s very frustrating for me at times because I want to say to an American or British commander…Take the shot! This is too obvious! But that is not the place of a writer. The strategic wisdom behind the Rules of Engagement can be difficult to contest, though tactically, those same ROE can be fantastically frustrating. Tactically, the restrictive ROE endanger our troops every day, but strategically there is no doubt that strong ROE save the lives of even more.
I needed to place another satellite phone call to a friend regarding replacement of some camera gear that was stolen in Kabul. While we were talking at 2151 hrs, the Apaches began firing again. The attack sounded like nine or so distinct bursts of 30mm, though I was unsure.
There was time for possibly four hours of sleep before heading into hell, just a few minutes away. Sleep would not come, so I watched the big screen of the Milky Way for a couple of hours as it drifted from left to right across the sky. During this interim, I saw nearly twenty meteors slit the vast black screen, like a white-hot torch, sometimes leaving a trace. And I wondered how many people might die in the coming few hours.
As the earth continued to revolve around our tiny star and lie seemingly insignificant within the billions of lights overhead, a rooster crowed at 0215 as a couple of gunshots rang in the distance. Finally, there came sleep. And as if time had slipped by unnoticed, Major Stone woke me at 0400 and I packed immediately, in case there were combat.
As indigo seeped from east to west, with gradient hues of lighter blue, closely followed by yellow, the British soldiers were all ready to go, as were the ANA. We waited as the sun rose over the horizon, and with it the temperature.
Time elapsed and nothing happened. The raids turned up very little, and so I walked inside the building to talk with Colonel Wadood and eat breakfast with the ANA.
Mr. Flemming the interpreter came with me to breakfast with the ANA, as the British soldiers stayed by the vehicles outside, ready to crank and roll. Over a breakfast on the floor of bread, yogurt, jam and tea, the ANA intelligence officer said that he feels the morale of the Taliban in Sangin is slipping. They lost another seven nearby last night, and another five upriver at Kajaki, making twelve enemy killed in a single night and we did not get a scratch. We talked about the world and a little about America, and I asked if they knew that Michael Jackson had died. Four Afghan soldiers said yes, they knew, they saw it on television, and one said “we are sorry to hear this.” Colonel Wadood said somberly that Michael Jackson was “a good artist” and another ANA soldier said “I never know if he was male or female” and everyone laughed. I asked if they liked to watch wrestling, and yes, they love wrestling “competitions,” which they said are televised every night from Kabul.
I asked Colonel Wadood what he thinks about a British idea to negotiate with the Taliban and he said it was a good idea so long as everything is open and nothing is hidden, and he said, “War has exhausted the people of Afghanistan.” (They don’t seem exhausted to me.) And then he launched into something about President Obama, saying the whole world has positive views of Obama and “almost all people of entire world have bad memories of Bush and family.” Later I said to a British officer, just wait until I report the words about Bush and Obama, and watch the daggers come out, and the British officer said something like, “Yes, but you are free not to report it and they will be angry that you did.” As Colonel Wadood spoke of the Taliban and Obama and Bush, a curious coincidence flowed into the dusty room from the shortwave, as Secretary Clinton’s voice could be heard in a sound bite, and she was talking about talking with the Taliban.
I asked Colonel Wadood if the people of Afghanistan understand Democracy and he said yes, but not the people of Helmand, who “understand only Swordocracy,” and everyone laughed. And then spontaneously, Colonel Wadood said, “We have the best Democracy with Islam. Our religion is one of brotherhood and oneness. Our religion is about equality, no status.” He said these things, and more. Colonel Wadood continued, pausing long enough for me to write, “Women have the right to education, to have a job, to be a candidate in elections.” Colonel Wadood paused, and continued, “If we applied these things it is the perfect democracy and perfect religion. Killing people is forbidden. Drug trafficking is forbidden. Cruelty and brutality is forbidden. Attacks that Taliban execute are all against Islam and Sharia. The best Muslim never harms anyone with his eyes, his tongue or with his hands. He should only be useful not harmful. We cannot kill infidels without reason. But if they invade our honor, our religion, our land or our pride, we can kill them. Same condition applies to Muslim too. If he does these things we can kill him.”
Colonel Wadood said that “Muslims in their deed, character and ethics should make the best example, and this does not just apply to Muslims but all humanity.” He said, “people should have fair and good relations with people around the world.”
I asked the Colonel about the Sangin economy, and he answered that first they need a paved road, with actual tarmac, and the road should link to Kajaki, then Musa Qa’lah. But then comes the crux, the crux according to Colonel Wadood: “We cannot build the roads until we destroy the drug lords and drug factories.” The drug lords depend on ignorance and so they do not let girls and boys go to school, and the Taliban, at least in the beginning, were their enforcers. (In fact, on 30 July I went on a mission with Gurkhas in the British Army, and we walked to a school that the Taliban had blown up and which the British were constructing.)
“They need ignorance,” said Colonel Wadood, in reference to both drug lords and the Taliban. “The government failed to provide opportunity, so the drug lords provided their ‘opportunity,’ but they needed security. So they hired the old Taliban to fight while the drug lords carried on with their business. Pakistan noted that this was in their vested interest, so they started to support the Taliban.” Colonel Wadood called this “The second rising of the Taliban,” and I’ll just call it the Resurrection.
We watched the Resurrection blossom with each passing season and, essentially, insofar as tangible outcome is concerned, did nothing at best. At worst, we aided the drug dealers by doing little or nothing while building infrastructure that aided them. I made photos in Urozgan Province in 2006, of road construction paid for by us, and those roads were going straight through fields of poppy. In 2006, poppy was growing within a slingshot range of the Provincial “Reconstruction” Team in Lashkar Gah, and in 2009 it grows abundantly around Sangin. This year’s opium harvest is already on the way to market and the corn that replaced much of the poppy is not yet tall enough to hide in.
I asked Colonel Wadood how many big drug dealers there are currently in Sangin. He said there are 10 or 12, and added that “A month ago, Taliban commanders south of Sangin nearly ran out of ammunition, and so the drug dealer [whose name Wadood gave me but the British asked that I not print] donated almost 5 million Pakistani Rupees to three Taliban commanders to purchase more weapons and supplies. Those Taliban commanders are [M1], [M2], and [M3].”
I asked how long we should stay. Colonel Wadood answered that we should stay until Pakistan interference is cut off, but in the current atmosphere we need to help with engineers, reconstruction and mineral extraction. “After 30 years, we are backwards.” (Before, over two dinners, Wadood talked only of killing Taliban, but over breakfast he talked about development.) “We are hopeful that Pakistan influence will soon be cut because we don’t want to lose Afghans or Coalition because everyone has family.” I asked what the Afghans think of India and Wadood answered by saying the relationship is good, and so I asked about Iran and he said they are the same as Pakistan but Pakistan is the first priority. I asked how long the war will last and Colonel Wadood said he did not know, but that he has been fighting for 30 years and hasn’t been absent a single day.