Common sense dictates that a unit deploying from the west coast to Central Asia would fly west. However, military flights can’t fly over Russian or Chinese airspace, even when disguised in the livery of contracted civilian airliners. So we flew east, first to Germany and then, finally, to Kyrgyzstan. We landed in the dark, and before we could board the buses to Manas Air Base, a Kyrgyz policeman had to board the aircraft and verify its contents. His Red Army-styled green uniform and monstrous cap gave me a jolt of instant recognition: we were in the former Soviet Union.
Later, at Manas, we received a rules brief. There was a bar on post, but only permanent Air Force personnel could drink. Army personnel were not allowed alcohol at any time in the theater of war, and certainly not transient personnel like us. There were soldiers heading to Afghanistan and others heading home, and you could tell the difference by the cleanliness or disrepair of their uniforms. On TV screens throughout the facility you saw advertisements for upcoming morale events. You could go hiking and horseback riding in the Tien Shan Mountains. You could take cultural tours to Bishkek and eat in restaurants. You could watch a Kyrgyz rock band perform. That is, if you were permanently stationed there. If you were transient, you could eat, sleep and wait for your flight, wherever it might take you.
Two days later, we boarded a three-hour flight destined for Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan. We landed late in the evening. Airmen filed us off the immense flight line and into a large tent. They told us we could not move on to our final destinations until we received mandatory Operation Enduring Freedom briefings—a class on improvised explosive devices and mines, a class on sexual assault prevention and a combined spiritual fitness and suicide prevention briefing, none of which would take place tonight. We’d sleep on cots in old oilcloth Army tents (with mercifully well-fueled heaters).
Jet lag kept me awake. I left the tent and followed the signs to the dining facility: a gigantic convex structure, like a three-story Quonset hut, with at least fifty long tables inside. A head counter took your military ID at the door and scanned it. You could probably seat six hundred people inside, and there were four different lines for the meals at hand.
It was a KBR venture. At the time, they ran all of the life-support activities in Afghanistan. I had heard about them for years, and about their enormous government contract. My first meal in Afghanistan was roasted beef brisket; the portion of meat was cut for me by a KBR guy making three to five times the salary of an American soldier. All the stories were true: they had a self-service ice cream sundae bar, five different flavors of milk, all of it free. Everyone deployed to Afghanistan eats for free.
I figured this couldn’t be the norm, and it wasn’t. As I’d find out later, Bagram was not Afghanistan.
The next day, they bused us to a muddy field on the south side of the runway for our improvised explosive device awareness class. They showed videos, confiscated from insurgents, depicting Americans getting killed on mountain roads; vehicles exploded and rolled down the embankments, first responders were shot, all punctuated by insurgents screaming “Allahu Akbar!” They walked us around a massive dirt-floor hangar full of disarmed bombs cadged from the countryside, and they had constructed mock culverts like the ones on village roads. The instructors told stories. It was midwinter, and the cold penetrated our attention.
Next: the sexual assault briefing. We drove to the Operation Enduring Freedom Chapel, on the north side of the runway, squarely in “downtown” Bagram on Disney Drive. Going counterclockwise around the base, the fence butted up against an Afghan village. The adobe houses looked the same as pueblos that I had seen as a kid in the desert southwest, with wooden ladders allowing access to roofs and windows. Kids were out flying kites and stomping around muddy fields. Boys ran alongside the bus and threw rocks, but they bounced off the wire fence separating us.
Disney Drive, named after Specialist Jason A. Disney (according to a memorial plaque, he died there in February 2002 after being crushed by a piece of heavy equipment), was paved and lined by one sidewalk. Scrubby pine trees sprouted along huge drainage ditches. Afghan laborers stood on beat-up scaffolding lining massive concrete buildings. There were neat stacks of shipping containers, dozens of tidy rows of plywood houses, ancient Army tents, apartments built out of shipping containers and green security netting over fences topped by concertina wire. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of people on the street; over 20,000 people lived at Bagram. Everyone in uniform was carrying a rifle, some very awkwardly. Civilians wore suits or sweatsuits. Flatbed trucks hauled dozens of turbaned Afghans perched in a low squat. Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” played over the speakers of our old Blue Bird Bus, courtesy of the American Forces Network. In the distance was the stark, white rise of the Hindu Kush Mountains.
A low cloud of smog hung nearby a sizable park of diesel generators built inside shipping containers, with rusty, filthy smokestacks protruding from the top. We passed the infamous prison, known to us as the BTIF, or Bagram Theater Internment Facility, and then a small shopping center with an Orange Julius and Dairy Queen stand, with small crowds of soldiers waiting in line. It was like my life had become an opening scene from a shitty war movie that would be filmed in the future.
The sexual assault brief was regrettable (and infuriating in the sense that soldier-on-soldier rapes are common enough to warrant it). The spiritual fitness brief, given by an Army chaplain lieutenant colonel, told us how to cope with deployment: hobbies. Guitar. College coursework. One of my soldiers had deployed to Zabul province in 2006 and spent an entire year living in mountain redoubts, eating bagged rations and dodging insurgent rockets, and he knew we were in for the same. He looked at me during the speech and whispered, “What the fuck is this guy talking about, sir?”
It took us four days to finally catch a flight to our final destination, a smaller airfield in the east. The next three months passed slowly. I was an infantryman stuck in a logistical job, and I only got to leave the base a few times on very short trips. We conducted inventories with the unit we were replacing; since everybody does one year deployments, all the heavy equipment, vehicles, communications systems and even weapons stay in Afghanistan and get passed from owner to owner. You get about two weeks with the unit you’re replacing, and then they go home and you figure out from experience what they didn’t tell you. The Army calls it a “Relief in Place” and “Transfer of Authority.”
The unit that we replaced was atrocious. Their strategy for keeping civilians away from vehicles in a convoy was to throw rocks from their truck turrets to smash the windshields of people who got too close. The equipment that they handed off to us was so poorly maintained that we actually had to get our higher headquarters to open an investigation: weapons wouldn’t fire because of deeply embedded rust. Vehicles had been stripped for parts and left on blocks. Working vehicles were full of fetid trash and loose, unfired bullets. Inside a forty-foot container, I found over three hundred abandoned 120mm white phosphorus mortars.
One of our companies departed to occupy their base in the far south. They signed for ten new vehicles, each valued at $1.2 million, and began the sixty-mile drive. It took them over a month. Behind American combat vehicles and mine-clearing engineer elements, hundreds of Afghan cargo trucks followed with containers full of American equipment. The convoy struck thirty-two roadside bombs in thirty hours and preemptively destroyed dozens more. Bombs ruined four of that company’s new vehicles—two burned to the ground. No Americans were badly hurt. However, five Afghan drivers were killed. In one case, after the convoy came to a halt, insurgents on motorcycles rode up to a truck that had pulled off to the side of the road, pulled out the driver, doused him in gasoline and set him on fire. They were gone before any of the American elements in the convoy received any word.
Our brigade commander was furious that the convoy had been delayed and so much equipment had been lost. He called my battalion commander to say that something had to change. “Whatever you’re doing,” he said, “Do something different. This can’t go on. Otherwise, we’ll all lose our jobs.”
I thought of these words when I tagged along on a mission to conduct a “battlefield hand-over.” The commando units near to us had captured a significant insurgent financier. We arrived at the compound where they had detained him while it was still dark. The sun would be up in an hour and the commandos would be leaving. They’d done their jobs well—absolutely no one was hurt, and they had segregated the suspect men from the family. I remember walking into the qalat through a blown-open door to find thirty women and children squatting on blankets. The inside courtyard smelled like wet straw and animals, and it was much smaller than I expected. Farm implements lay about the yard near an open-pit well. The grainy green imagery of the night vision made the children’s eyes look unnaturally wide and dilated; all around them were crackles of radio traffic in an unfamiliar language spoken by the armed men inside their home. They were visibly terrified. The commando leaders told my company commander what they had seen and done, and within ten minutes helicopters whisked them away.
After sunrise, I got a better picture. All the men were tied up and wearing blindfold hoods, and most were shirtless. They had been numbered with permanent markers, some of them on their heads and some of them on their bodies. It made it easier to make note of things: “Man number one had this in his possession. Number two, that.” And so on. This made sense tactically, but try explaining that to the recipient.
The man of the house told us that we had the right guy. It was his business associate; he had asked him for shelter. Pashtun hospitality would not let him refuse. But yes, he was involved. We took the owner around the house to make sure he noted any damage or theft from the raid. Clothes lay in piles on the floor where the commandos had dumped the rooms. The children’s bedroom had two-dozen backpacks hanging on the wall: Afghans have big families. The man saw no damage. He told our interpreters it was a lawful search and that he had no complaints.
We had no business with the women and children. Our Afghan National Police counterparts herded them back indoors to a room we had already searched, and we left them alone. One by one, we let the children come out to urinate. Most of them were very young. One boy, about thirteen, walked out and glanced at the tied-up men of the house, seeing them for the first time in the daylight. He then stared at me, tears in his eyes, looking hateful and nauseous.
The insurgent financier, it turned out, was also a snitch on the payroll of the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security. He was released a few days later.