Embed with God’s Cops: Part 1
The soundtrack to any modern war has to be the awesome sub-bass whine of the Chinook Helicopter. Being the snapper on this embed I am awarded ‘best of house’ seats on our short ride into the Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Wardak Province. Trussed up like a chicken in a safety harness I am privileged to be able to hang out of the back doors with the tail gunner as we thunder across the Shomali plains of Kabul heading over mountain passes, 50 metres above mud villages with numerous destroyed Soviet tanks dotted around the surrounding hilltops. Ride of the Valkeryies is playing in my head. Apocalypse Now? Well not quite, the tail gunner is about 13 and he has just finished eating a mini bowl of Rice Krispies. There are no Viet Cong below, there’s no incoming fire, no innocent villages to Napalm. Still for 30 minutes I transcend my wet liberal, anti-war feelings and forget about civilian casualties and the futility of America’s Imperialist ambitions. As far as a ‘boys & toys’ experience goes this is Jeremy Clarkson territory. This is Operation Enduring Freedom and I want fries and a large Coke with it!
The urgency of disembarking is quite like no other experience; the noise the dust, the scream of the engines and rotor blades even louder than before. Everyone knows what they’re doing. A small platoon of troops in full combat gear, weapons, body armour and rucksacks exit the aircraft with consummate ease. Whilst I am desperately fumbling with straps and trying to escape without looking like a complete tool. Landing to departing takes less than five minutes. Within seconds the thud thud of the chopper becomes a distant murmur as it disappears into the distance. The silence is deafening. I am in another massive Army base. Welcome to Camp Airborne – my home for the next week.
Wardak as I mentioned previously is the new front-line for ‘Obama’s War ’ and reportedly one of the most dangerous provinces bordering Kabul. Camp Airborne is the centre of operations. Home to (redacted ) troops with (redacted ) vehicles and (redacted) heavy weaponry. Sorry – when you sign up for an embed you have to agree not to disclose information that may be useful to the enemy. In saying that, the base is overlooked by imposing mountains and any onlooking Taliban, with a good pair of binoculars would be pretty impressed by the logistics here. If you didn’t know better one might assume that we were about to invade Pakistan as opposed to putting a lid on a minor insurgency in a ‘post-conflict’ country. Still the Americans don’t do things by half when it comes to war.
According to our briefing: the mission is simple. The basic back-story is this is; Wardak is a province bordering the capital and last year the Taliban pretty much made this a place too dangerous to even visit or traverse. Route 1 Highway – the road to Kandahar goes right through here. So strategically it’s very important. But during the harsh winter all the Taliban traditionally head for Pakistan. It’s like a Florida Winter Break for Al Qaeda. Bit of sun, recharge your batteries, some IED training. Only this time their return has been stymied by a massive task force of American soldiers who are determined to win the hearts and minds of the villagers here with a simple Good Cop / Bad Cop routine. Which take the form of two Colonels; one offering reconstruction the other offering an iron fist. “Work with us and we will build your dams, your schools, your roads and culverts”. “Fuck with us and…” Well… I think that’s obvious.
These negotiations / discussions take the form of Shuras – a traditional form of council meeting that is very similar to the UK – lots of talk and no visible outcome. During my embed I attended two of these sit-downs at the Provincial Governors compound. The sight was a pure anthropological delight to behold – 30 bearded-up tribal elders in full Pashto dress facing off a phalanx of follicley challenged senior US military officers.
The Afghan elders have a list of things they want. It’s soooo long it takes an hour to read out. Essentially the Americans want one thing in return – not to get killed. This roughly translates as, “when the Taliban come back… tell them they are not welcome”. This is not as simple as you might think. The ‘bad guys’, as they lovingly refer to them, hang collaborating villagers from trees for accepting help from the occupying infidels. Therein in lies the rub. The answer (this month at least) is the much-vaunted introduction of the Afghan Public Protection Force – a trained army of young men from the villages most at risk of insurgent infiltration. A militia by another name, as most Afghans seem to think, or purely cannon fodder for the resurgent foreign influenced Taliban? Only time will tell.
But that political quagmire is for the serious journalist to masticate over. I am here to wax lyrical about the absurdity of war and not get involved in the Great Game and its machinations.
The Afghan Hound
Next week – Embed with God’s Cops: Part 2