In my first two weeks of living with Afghans, I felt an absolute brotherhood with them at first and then, at times, a frustration that bordered on contempt. Sometimes you could go back and forth within the span of hours, depending on how good or bad of a day it was. On the worst days, it was hard not to feel anger. This was their civil war and they were hardly doing a thing
Ramadan (or Ramazan in the Persian pronunciation) started the day after the election. The faithful were forbidden from eating or drinking between sunrise and sundown, although they typically broke the fast as soon as the evening prayer was sung. We would sit amidst all the food—meats, rice, lentils, vegetables, discs of bread, all the while being encouraged by the Afghans to start eating because we weren’t bound by the fast—and as soon as someone heard the azaan singing, it became another holiday feast of tea, cigarettes and Afghan fare. That was the best time of the day. The worst was any other time of day that you tried to get the Afghan military to do their job. They were tired, hungry, grumpy and unmotivated.
Immediately following the ballot, I started as a liaison to the Afghan government. I never expected the new job. When my friend Brian died, I took the position intended for him. I left the logistical world and moved to a small joint compound a few miles down the road. I was in charge of six American soldiers, and we managed a joint radio room and operations center with all four branches of the Afghan security apparatus, plus their local government elements. We ran twenty-four-hour operations; someone had to be at the radio at all times, which meant living together: Afghan military, Afghan government, interpreters and Americans. There was an adjacent US compound in which my soldiers stayed, but the senior sergeant and I lived on the Afghan side with our interpreters. We shared tea and meals; they told us stories. The Afghans loved to talk, eat and drink tea with us. Getting them to take responsibility for things could be difficult, but most of the time things were pleasant when work was not involved.
I would later find myself aghast (and at some times entirely confused) by the vilification and exotic caricaturization of Muslims that I encountered. I had seen them at prayer times. I had watched them make the prayer gesture when we broke the Ramazan fast together. There were times when people had suggested to me that I should convert to Islam and come and live in Afghanistan, but by and large it was never an issue. We were on the same team.
There were good ones and bad ones; there were lazy ones and hardworking ones; there were all sorts of people, and most all of them had beards and wore a shalwar kameez and pantloon and a hat or turban of some sort, but they were just like anyone else when you got to know them. Annoying, opportunistic, long-winded perhaps (all things borne out of their circumstances and culture), but hardly the Koran-toting vampires portrayed in various uncomfortable situations across the globe.
My soldiers would monitor the radios and other American communication systems. So, while the Afghans had ancient-looking FM radios, we could bring all of our communications devices to bear. One of my soldiers was on shift one day in September when he saw a message flash across the screen. He called me into the radio room. “Sir,” he said, “This doesn’t sound good. We just got a message about a MEDEVAC,” a helicopter medical evacuation.
The message was broken down according to the Army system for medical requests, but the third line, the line describing the patient situation, was unsettling. Decoded from the shorthand, it read that six Americans needed urgent surgical care in the next hour or they would die, and one was already dead. They were from the company that lived on the same base where I had worked. I knew all of the leaders and most of the soldiers. There was very little information. We didn’t have any responsibility in this situation—we just had to wait and find out.
An hour passed, and I called our main base on a secure line. I asked if there was any information that I could pass on to the representatives from that company who were on site at our compound. There was little information besides the name of the KIA. It was the platoon leader, a guy named Andrew.
A chill passed through me, and then fury. He was a good guy. We hadn’t always gotten along, but I knew he meant well. He was a prior enlisted soldier with a wife, an eighteen-month-old son and another on the way. His wife was going to get a knock at the door soon. I went outside to smoke a cigarette. I could only smoke half before I threw it down in anger. A soldier from that company, a senior sergeant who had been transferred, came over and talked to me. That was his old platoon that had gotten hit. We shared another cigarette. He was livid. “Why the fuck are we here? Why the fuck do we even care about these people?” he asked me. In that moment, I had no answer.
A year later, on the anniversary of that date, the company commander of that particular unit told me the story of what had happened. It was after Andrew had received a high posthumous award for that day. It was after the platoon’s forward observer, a 20-year-old with no facial hair, a boyish clown, a really nice guy, had been visited by his family in the ICU at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where they pulled the plug on him because a round from an RPK had passed through his skull, because he was brain dead, but at least they could be there to watch him pass. It was time enough to recollect, to form opinions, to gather thoughts, but the commander was still very emotional.
His unit had received a mission to visit a district center in a hotly contested area. It was well understood that any time an American convoy traveled that road, they would get blown up. You knew it would happen, but you didn’t have a choice, so you just went out and crossed your fingers.
The roads were just packed earth, and the drainage lines of a deforested and desertified plateau meant that just about every semblance of a road needed dozens of culverts to make it even modestly usable. Insurgents made their own explosives from urea, ammonium nitrate and other fertilizers readily available in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They could easily pack hundreds of pounds at a time with a few hours’ labor. Often times the actual diggers were just locals hired by insurgents—they weren’t really traceable back to some terrorist high command. They were impoverished Afghans looking for a job.
The commander had chosen a slightly different route in order to make their approach less predictable. As they got closer to the district center, they passed through areas in which the road was lined on either side by high adobe walls protecting either farm fields or qalat castles, replete with curtained windows in their towers. Everyone was watching, but no one could be seen. The orange mud walls created a funnel effect. The lead vehicle in the convoy struck an IED; it blew off the mine roller attachment and most of the engine. No one inside was seriously hurt, aside from moderate concussions. They would need to be seen at the aid station once everyone got back.
However, the destruction of the vehicle, as terrifying as it was, immediately segued into maddening frustration. Now they were obligated to conduct vehicle recovery. They would either drag the vehicle out themselves or, if that were impossible, call for a wrecker to move down and assist them. It might an hour before they arrived; it might be four hours. The Army would not tolerate them abandoning the vehicle under any circumstances—its technology is far too secret. They wanted to get out of there as soon as possible, so they tried to hook up the damaged vehicle to another with chains and a tow bar as soon as the smoke had cleared and an attack had not taken place. Everyone was trying to help. The platoon leader was on the ground watching, along with the first sergeant and other soldiers. They were still assessing the damage. Maybe they were arguing. Maybe there was some heated discussion. Maybe it was just joking around, the macabre black humor created in situations like these. And then, from behind them: allahu akbar!
In a nearby qalat tower, a man fired a rocket propelled grenade at the group formed around the truck. Andrew saw it coming and knocked another soldier out of the way—shoving him to the ground. The round impacted against the vehicle’s side and the explosion blossomed killing Andrew instantly. The blast broke his neck and the resulting shrapnel shredded his armor, his upper back and his spine. The company first sergeant was knocked unconscious, his jaw ripped off. Four other soldiers were similarly wounded. One had broken arms and missing teeth; the platoon sergeant was unconscious and was later found to have a grade III concussion. All were peppered with shrapnel wounds. At that moment, the shooting started.
It was a massive ambush. There were multiple men with assault rifles and machine guns positioned nearby. They started firing, and it took a few seconds for the platoon to begin firing back. The commander described it as the worst situation he had ever experienced, but he said he felt unnaturally calm. It was like it wasn’t him that was making the decisions. He heard himself call in reports, talking to aircraft, directing drone platforms. They burned up thousands of rounds of machine gun ammunition. It would be calm for fifteen minutes, and then another wave of attacks. Insurgents started to shoot mortars at them from a nearby field. The commander observed rounds fired from a nearby US compound and directed them onto the origin of the attackers, silencing them. He dispatched a two-vehicle element to move the casualties to a field where they could call the MEDEVAC. He called in the information himself. He had lost his first sergeant, his platoon leader, his platoon sergeant, a squad leader, his fires chief, a forward observer and a riflemen. Four hours later, they finally made it to the district center.
I wasn’t there; I only heard about it later. But I knew Andrew. I had blown off the chance to eat dinner with him a few weeks earlier, and I now I would never see him again. I couldn’t shake the image of his wife getting the visit from the notification officer. It was bound to happen; she had to find out eventually. That was it. It bothered me for days. The next day I had to meet with Afghans who were trying to file a complaint against the government for defrauding them of money in a trucking contract with the Americans. It was a hot day, and our compound was swarming with hundreds of fat, black flies. Sitting in our conference room, hearing all the Pashto invective through the awkward English of my interpreter, swatting at flies, I thought to myself, I really don’t give a fuck about your stupid problems.
But if I had kicked them out, I would have just been feeling sorry for myself. My friend was dead, but the war most certainly kept on. You had to get over it, or you would fail at everything. Plus, you’d lose your mind.
Four days later, I was awakened at 5 a.m. when a truck bomb detonated less than a hundred meters from the room in which I was sleeping. It was the loudest noise I had ever heard. It blew out my windows and flung open the door. I thought a rocket had hit our compound, or a car bomb had detonated at the gate. Outside of my room was a thick cloud of dust. I could hear the Afghan police beginning to shoot wildly. Our compound could have been overrun; there could have been incoming rockets. There was only one way to find out. I put on my armor and helmet before running out the door. I couldn’t cross my fingers, but the spirit was the same.