Friday, August 14, 2009

That Day

I apologize in advance for any incoherence or rambling in the following post. I’m a third of the way through a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label and not slowing down yet.

If the definition of a “good day” in Afghanistan is a day that you don’t get shot at, then Thursday was, well, let’s just say it wasn’t a good day.

I’ll let that line sink in a little. It’s OK. Go back and reread it.

Yep, that’s what I’m sayin’. Today, for the first time since I’ve been here (almost six months now) I got shot at. And not in a minor way either. More on that later.

The plan for the day, in the works for about a week under conditions of extreme secrecy, was to move about thirty TCNs out to a new project in eastern Afghanistan.*

*TCNs’, by the way, is Third Country Nationals, meaning anyone not from Afghanistan and not from one of the countries currently engaged with NATO/ISAF in Afghanistan.** In this business, it usually means Nepalese or Indians, and occasionally Filipinos, Columbians, Samoans, etc. For our purposes here today, TCNs meant a platoon of ex-Indian or ex-Nepali army Gurkhas.
**Those guys are called expats, although that’s more often a shorthand way of describing anyone working here who is Western, regardless of which Western country they’re from.

Now, Gurkhas, for those of you not familiar with the term, come from select regiments of the British, Indian and Nepalese Armies. The original Gurkhas earned a well-deserved and fearsome reputation in World War Two as masters of close-combat, especially with curved knives known as kukris. Obviously, by this point, there are no serving Gurkhas with battle experience in WWII, nor are there many left with actual experience in the British Army Gurkha regiment. However, there are quite a few from the Indian and Nepalese Armies, highly prized for their discipline, ferocity and dedication. Because of their temperament and skills, they flock to places like Afghanistan where their background and training are properly compensated.

So, we recruited about thirty of these guys and this morning put them on a bus to go out past Jalalabad and report to work on a firebase. I won’t say who the client was, or which firebase it was, but I will tell you that the client has been in the papers a lot with some legal difficulties, and that the name of the firebase is the same as the nickname of one of the larger states in the U.S. That should be enough for some of you to figure who and where I’m talking about.

This particular outpost is in a region of Afghanistan called Tora Bora, a mountainous area made famous back in 2001 as the place where Osama Bin Laden was allegedly holed-up before he bailed across the border to Pakistan. Judging from the looks we received as we passed through the district, good ol’ Osama is still a favorite son among the locals.

It’s about a three hour drive from Kabul to Jalalabad, and then another hour up into the hills to the firebase. The first part of the journey was expected to be uneventful. The road to Jalalabad is the same road that eventually reaches Torkham Gate and the fabled Khyber Pass into Pakistan. It’s heavily traveled, especially now that USAID money has widened and paved it. Still, it’s pretty dicey, strictly from a motoring perspective, as it passes through several high passes and an uncountable number of switch-backs. Much of it runs along a precipice that is a sheer drop off to the river below. A single mistake, or a brake/steering/transmission failure could very likely be fatal. So I was looking at the first leg of the trip as fairly routine, but still potentially dangerous, especially given the traditional Afghan love affair with speed and passing trucks on blind corners.

It was the second leg, from Jalalabad to the work-site that had me concerned. We were traveling through a district with known sympathies for the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami.* The client, who is permanently based at this outpost, warned me that they regularly take fire when traveling through that area. Of course, they do it shiny new Land Cruisers with blacked-out windows, so everybody knows their Westerners. We were going in a bus, and not a nice one at that.

*Collectively and colloquially known as “booger-eaters.”

The thing that had me worried was the fact that our party was mostly Nepali and Indian. The locals are not that fond of these guys, since they feel (with some justification) that the Gurkhas are taking jobs that could go to Afghans. Never mind the fact that you won’t catch a Gurkha sleeping in a guard tower or smoking hash while on duty. Afghans believe themselves to be consummate warriors (not!), so they are jealous that security jobs often go to imported TCNs. Add into that the fact that I (a pretty obvious Westerner) was traveling with them and we had a recipe for trouble.

We were supposed to pick up weapons in Jalalabad, not a full load but enough to arm about a third of the guys, which would have been more than sufficient to scare off anyone who aggressive. Unfortunately, as we were pulling out, The Rug Merchant tells me that his contact has failed to come through, so we’ll have to make the trip without weapons. Or more precisely with one weapon, the pistol I carry with me when I leave Kabul. Not exactly an impressive show of force.

There were some tense moments when we got lost on the way to the site (map reading is an unknown skill here, but getting lost was still mostly my fault), but we eventually managed to pitch up at the right place and get our guys deployed. It’s a good post, well built and secure, with some very nice amenities. Every room has air-conditioning, which seems like an unthinkable luxury to me.

By the time we managed to do the obligatory meet-and-greet with the staff and get back on the road, it was getting towards late afternoon. Leaving the thirty Gurkhas behind, myself and five Afghans set off back for Jalalabad and the main road to Kabul. I confess we were all pretty tense on the way out. Bad district, bad roads, bad light, and only my pistol for protection. At one point, we ran over a rock which bounced up into the undercarriage and rattled around for a few seconds. It sounded, to our over-stressed brains, like an IED going off right under us. I’m pretty sure a couple of the Afghans pissed themselves, and if I’d had a round in the chamber, I probably would’ve blown my foot off. Nevertheless, without incident, we made it back to the blacktop road that runs between Jalalabad and Kabul. Normally, I would have elected to stay in Jalalabad for the night, but its Thursday, which means tomorrow is an off-day. I really didn’t want to spend half of my only day off driving in a shitty bus through the mountains.

The way we figured it, we could make the far side of the Surobi pass before it got dark, and then it was only a nice coasting ride down into Kabul. It’s important to remember that, at this point, we had negotiated the difficult mountain passes out to Jalalabad, managed to locate this remote firebase despite poor directions and worse map-reading, and drive into and back out of a very unfriendly district, all without serious incident or violence. We were, to put it simply, home-free and convinced of our invincibility. Funny how the sound of a heavy machinegun can shatter that illusion.

Roughly half-way between Jalalabad and Surobi, we’re cruising along in typical Afghan traffic, being passed by Toyota Corollas and in turn passing the various sizes of “jingle trucks” that constantly navigate this road.*

*Jingle trucks are so called because they are festooned with hundreds of trinkets and decorations and talismans, all of which jingle like a string of keys as the truck moves. They’re also usually brightly painted in a psychedelic rainbow of colors that look like something done by an interior decorator on a very bad acid trip.

I had finally relaxed and sat back to have a smoke, about my thirtieth of the day, but the first of which was actually relaxing. On our right was a short drop down to the river and a high mountain ridge on the far side. A pretty scenic view, by Afghan standards. All is good, I figured. That’s when the Taliban decided to ruin our day. The first indication was the popping sound of gunfire from up ahead. Hard to tell where it was coming from at first, but it was definitely AK-47s.* It seems that the Taliban had come over the mountains and taken up a position to our right, on the slope across the river. There was a green ANP Ford Ranger parked across the road about two hundred meters ahead of us, with a couple of guys ineffectually popping off rounds into the mountains.**

*”The preferred weapon of your enemy. It makes a distinctive sound.” – Gunny Highway
**ANP=Afghan National Police, for those of you who weren’t paying attention earlier.

The first reaction to that situation is to turn around and vacate the area. The bad guys aren’t after us, per se, they’re just looking to light up somebody on the road. Better not to be in the line of fire. So the driver wheels the bus around in a three-point turn (no mean feat given the constraints of the road-bed) and we start back toward Jalalabad as fast as the rickety old bus will take us. Then we hear the deeper thumping of a heavy machinegun (probably a DShK, but I can’t be sure) coming from the mountain across the river.

It’s at that point that we see the primary target of the attack, a couple of tanker trucks about one hundred meters behind us (now in front of us, since we’ve turned around). The “booger-eaters” love to pop over the mountains a fire off some rounds at the tanker trucks full of fuel destined for Kabul, in the hopes of getting lucky.*

*It’s not that hard to get lucky when you’re firing a heavy machinegun at a truck full of 10,000 liters of gasoline.

Apparently, the Taliban have set it up so that the first group opened fire on the ANP and the random vehicles on the road (including us), knowing full well that the traffic would back up behind us and the valuable tanker trucks would be forced to come to a dead stop. Much easier target when they’re not moving. So now we’re trapped between the first group, firing on the ANP, and what must be a second group of Taliban, trying to detonate a tanker truck with tracer rounds.

Here’s where it gets bad. The first truck, the driver probably in a panic, decides to retreat and promptly jackknifes his truck into the riverbed. The second driver, with nowhere else to go, decides to drive through the ambush. This is generally not a bad idea, if one is not driving a truck full of explosive liquids and if the road ahead is clear. Unfortunately, in this case, the road is not clear, and the tanker truck reaches no further than the traffic backup before it comes to a dead stop. Right next to our crappy bus.

So, now I’m stuck between the Taliban ahead of us, still lighting up the ANP from across the river, the jack-knifed tanker truck behind us being hit with tracer rounds in an effort to detonate the cargo, and another tanker truck right next to us, with a driver who has apparently lost his fucking mind. Not, overall, a pleasant situation.

With the exception of one, my Afghans collectively lose their fucking minds as well. The driver can’t decide if he wants to go forwards or back, regardless of the fact that he can't really do either. Two of my supervisors alternate between jumping off the bus to try and sort out the traffic jam, and screaming at the rest of us to jump back on.* The third simply wanders around with an idiot grin on his face, as if this is all some entertaining game. I'm pretty sure he's retarded. Needless to say, I and the last Afghan take shelter in the rocks on the far side of the road. I'm exremely pleased that I remembered to take my cigarettes with me.

* I’d rather not be in the bus (certainly not next to a tanker truck) when it takes a RPG through the windshield.

Eventually, we all clamber back on the bus as it’s turning around, and move back down the road about fifty meters. Not very far, but at least we’ve put some distance between us and the two primary targets of the attack. That’s when the first RPG comes in. I’m pretty sure they were shooting at the truck, but with a few exceptions, Afghans are not particularly good with RPGs. In this case, he was either really bad or just having trouble picking his targets properly. The first rocket landed about forty meters from us, on the far side of the river. Close enough to rattle the windows on the bus, and force us to promptly vacate the vehicle in favor of the rocks. Things were getting distinctly dodgy. Sitting there by the side of the road with my only weapon a pistol, I confess that I felt distinctly helpless. Unless the Talibs decided to come down off the mountain, cross the river and climb the slope to the road, there wasn’t much that a pistol could do for us.

The second rocket was a little better, both from my perspective and the Talibs. He missed the ANP, not by much, but it was a couple of hundred meters from me, so that was cool. By this point, the rest of the locals are either hiding in the rocks or madly reversing and turning their vehicles in an effort to clear the traffic jam. Needless to say, it didn’t work. We were stuck where we were for the foreseeable future.

The third RPG round was definitely an attempt at the tanker truck which had jackknifed into the riverbed. Would have been a glorious shot, but the scumbag misjudged the range it just plopped into the water. Some fisherman will probably drag that up years from now and lose an arm or worse.

The ANP at the front of the traffic jam had disappeared. Their truck was still there, half blocking the road, but the cops were gone, probably taking cover in the rocks like the rest of us. Incoming RPG rounds will do that. That heavy machinegun was still thumping away at something, but I’m not sure who they were firing. From the sound of the ricochets off the rocks, they probably knew where the cops were hiding and were just trying to keep their heads down. The reason for that became clear when we spotted the RPG teams displacing from their position in a small valley across the river. They must have fired all their rockets, because they were boogieing back up the slope, trying to escape over the mountain.

The driver, who doesn’t work for us, figured this was as good a time as any to get moving again. With the police gone, the road was partly open and a few brave vehicles were winding past the abandoned Ford Ranger and tearing up the highway. Without waiting for us, or even bothering to tell us the plan, the bus driver decides to try it himself.* As he pulls away, thereby depriving us of our cover, we all scramble to get onboard, running alongside as the bus picks up speed.

*I don’t think we’ll be hiring this guys services again.

Anyway, we all manage to climb back into the bus as it pulls away, and drive out of the killzone at max speed. Probably did more damage to the transmission in those two hundred meters than we did on the entire rest of the trip. Once past the Ford Ranger, we just hauled ass, waving away other vehicles headed the other way which were unwittingly driving into an ambush. Behind us, that DsHK continued to hammer away at something, but we weren’t sticking around to find out what.

About ten minutes and five kilometers later, we saw a column of Afghan National Army troops headed towards the ambush site. Suffice it to say that they were quite obviously not in a hurry to get there. Can’t say I blame them. Next time we drive that road, we go heavy.


Desert Sailor said...

Damn glad that road wasn't tighter as well as an enemy who's aim sucks. That's always better than the alternative.

No new holes dude!

Martin said...

Glad you made it out. I don't trust this rug merchant, I'll put you down for 1 arsenal of medium to heavy arms on my christmas list. Though from the way you described your position, you probably would have done more harm to yourself by firing back even if you did have the right equipment. Though I could be wrong. Either way, someone was looking out for you that day.