Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Logar Road

Back before I went to Dubai for the board meeting, I took a quick day-trip down to Logar Province. The purpose of the trip was a site visit to a US Army FOB* which is contracting out their perimeter security to locals.

*There I go again with the acronyms. FOB= Forward Operating Base; the massive fortresses of concertina wire, Hesco barriers and steel blast gates that are the home-away-from-home of most of the American troops in A-stan. Usually comes complete with a chopper pad, a MASH unit, satellite communication links and about a battalion’s worth of troops. Some even have coffee shops and PXs.

Logar is the province immediately south of Kabul, but the destination was about two hours drive, well outside the security blanket that exists in the capital. We did pass a couple of forlorn looking ANP checkpoints, and actually got stopped and searched once, but other than that there wasn’t much evidence of local security forces. That is, until we got close to our destination and got trapped behind a US Army convoy.

Much to the disgust of the locals, US Army protocol dictates that convoys travel with approximately a 200 meter security buffer. That means that no vehicles are supposed to approach closer than a couple of football fields. The nature of Afghan roads (narrow, twisty and in generally poor repair), and the fact that the convoys travel at about thirty miles an hour, means that when an Army (or ISAF) convoy is on the road, traffic stacks up behind it for miles. A massive queue beat-up Corollas, mini-vans and 4x4s, all pressing and fighting to get to the front of the line, only to find that they can’t go any further.

You see, although that 200 meter exclusion zone is often reduced to 100 meters or less by manic Afghan drivers, approaching any closer than that would be suicidal. ISAF troops in general, and American troops in particular, have a well-deserved and very nasty reputation for opening up with everything they’ve got if they sense even the slightest threat. Since these convoys move with an up-armored Humvee in the lead and another in the tail, both mounting either a M2HB .50 cal machinegun or a Mk19 automatic grenade launcher*, a nervous 19-year old from Goat Lick, Arkansas can really ruin your day.

*For the uninitiated, one round from a .50 caliber machinegun can blow apart an engine block and still have enough kinetic energy to cut the driver in half. The Mk19 is even more nasty, spitting out 40mm grenades in a veritable storm of death.

Not that I fault the troops in those convoys. They come under attack regularly out in the provinces, and a single Toyota Corolla loaded with old Soviet mortar shells can annihilate several vehicles at once. Their nightmare scenario is a car full of Afghan women who get to close, and a young soldier who hesitates to pull the trigger because he doesn’t like the idea of shooting women. Car goes boom, and the Department of Defense has a lot of letters to write. So, the Army policy is 1) point the big guns at anyone who gets too close, 2) shoot the car if they don’t stop, and 3) then shoot the driver (and anyone else who happens to be inside). The rules of engagement are well documented and easily understood, but it still comes down to a 19-year old kid under stress in a foreign land with less than three seconds to make a decision. Sometimes, they get it wrong.

Anyway, being stuck behind the convoy cost us a hour on the drive down and we missed the meeting and the site visit.*

*Not to mention the stress of driving through rural Afghanistan for three hours staring down the barrel of a grenade launcher.

On the way back, my local guide couldn’t resist stopping and showing me the recently patched crater in the road surrounded by scorched brush and blackened gravel. About ten days before, the Taliban had tipped over a truck full of lumber. Knowing full well that wood is more valuable than food in this country, they had placed a massive IED in the bed of the truck and, when the locals came running to gather free firewood, blew them all to Paradise. Total of twenty-four killed, including twelve local schoolboys who must have thought this was the luckiest day of their lives. Right up until the bomb went off.

This is what the area looked like shortly after the blast.

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