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Thin Air


Our security was the goodwill of the Baloch people.  They are famously independent and famously hard fighters.  An ambush had been set up, almost certainly for us, during our previously scheduled trip some days ago.  Due to an unexpected delay, we didn’t make it.  The ambush took at least 9 enemy (2 more seem to have died in the desert) and a policeman.  Part of the fighting in that ambush took place a couple of hundred meters from this photograph.  The combat started here and unfolded over a period of about five hours, with a running gun battle spanning about 100km of desert.  The enemy fought well and to the end.  I was told the last fighter had buried himself in the sand, Apache style, and made a last stand where the men with us today shot off his head.  The two who vanished, apparently with wounds, set off by foot even deeper into the Dasht-e-Margo.  Their chances of survival are shallow.

The men we were with had chased them down.  Tactically, today, they operated far better than what US Soldiers often witness during joint missions elsewhere.  Tim Lynch is a retired Marine infantry officer.  Tim was there when the “Thin Air” photograph was made, and he was the first to highlight out how well these men operated.

As we headed dozens of miles deeper into the desert, Tim said, “See Mike, how these guys move?  Watch how they expand on flanks when terrain allows; they automatically seize the dangerous ground and collapse back as needed.  They flow like water.  And they are doing it completely without US forces.”

“I’ve been noticing it, Tim.”

The convoy passed through numerous chokepoints, but when the desert flattened the Toyota pickups fanned out, rocketing over the desert, leaving the appearance of contrails from a dozen or more jets flying abreast and in depth.  Sometimes we passed through the wake of dust of a forward truck and then back into clear air.  “This is like the Top Gun movie,” I said to Tim.  Tim answered, “People pay big money in Nevada to do stuff like this.”

A couple of years ago, Tim got the idea of taking rich clients around Afghanistan.  He said, “We could even stage fake ambushes.  Tell the clients this is a dangerous area, then, on cue, fire a belt of machinegun close by, a couple RPGs, let the clients roll out of the trucks and shoot back.  Then we’d egress, go back and give them a certificate saying how well they fought.”  Tim will get you laughing anytime of the night or day.  “What do you think of that, idea, Mike?”

“It’s very funny, but you might not have to stage the ambushes.  And besides, the Taliban will do it for free and you won’t have to pay for the ammo.”  I answered.

The trucks kept rocketing over the desert, front tires sometimes popping off the ground.  Without seatbelts, you’d be flying all over the cab, yet men in the backs, bristling with guns and RPGs, somehow held on.  At any moment we expected one to fly out like popcorn.

Chadd Nyerges, from Redondo Beach, California, was in another truck with a Baloch driver wilder still.  When we eventually stopped because someone got stuck in moon dust, Chadd’s eyes were wide open like two full moons, and he was smiling like he’d just kissed Mary Poppins.  “Dude, that was awesome!”

The day only got more interesting.  But that’s not the point.  Not for now, anyway.  The point was that “Thin Air” is a lucky photograph.  I’m astounded how well it turned out and wanted to share it.  It looks as though the Baloch tribesman is floating over the desert.  These people are a part of the terrain.

Now back to something more serious: The most important dispatch I’ve written in a long time was published on Wednesday.  Many people have posted interesting comments.  Please don’t miss: RED AIR: America’s Medevac Failure.

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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