Night Into Day
Sangin, Helmand Province
Finding the Enemy
29 July 2009
Orders are given before every operation. The orders filter down through various unit levels involved, until each platoon finally recieves its specific mission. The concept for this mission came down from the 2 Rifles Battlegroup (battalion) to the companies, including elements of the Afghan National Army and their British counterparts from the Welsh Guard, and down to each 2 Rifles platoon involved. So for any mission there might be literally dozens (or more) orders and rehearsals until each man and woman knows the perceived enemy situaton, their specific tasks, and much more. While soldiers here at FOB Jackson received orders, undoubtedly pilots and others, stationed far away, perhaps on an aircraft carrier or even farther afield, were finalizing related plans.
On 23 July, the afternoon before the mission, a call came into headquarters that two British soldiers had been wounded by two IEDs, and that the American helicopter medevacs known as “Pedro” had been called to extract the casualties. Pedro is a potent morale booster; British soldiers know that their American brethren in the medevac helicopters will come for them anytime anywhere, guns blazing if needed. Medevac is dangerous work; earlier this month, a bomb detonated, killing and wounding soldiers from 2 Rifles, and when they moved to prepare for medevac, another bomb exploded. In all, five soldiers were killed and many wounded. Yet the soldiers know that if they can get their buddies while still alive onto Pedro, chances for survival are dramatically increased. In addition to carrying outstanding medical crew, Pedro would roar back to Camp Bastion’s first-rate trauma center in about fifteen minutes. Night or day, gunfight or not, Pedro will be there.
23 July 2009, at 1600 hours: Corporal Kris Griffith, from British 2 Rifles FSG Snipers, receives his mission. The gear is already prepared. The weapons are spotless. All that’s left is one last round of checks, and then to try to sleep until about 2345 hours.
At midnight, soldiers arrived in the mess tent for breakfast.
After breakfast, the soldiers pulled on their body armor and what seemed like dozens of sorts of weapons: rockets of various sorts, different types of machine guns and rifles, grenade launchers with odd sorts of grenades, hand grenades, pistols, knives, radios (probably most deadly of all) and lots of attitude. A few soldiers smoked last cigarettes and then we trod on foot into some of the most bomb-laden stretches of Afghanistan. Everyone wore night vision gear, but it was so dark that I left the PVS-14 flipped up, on standby mode, and used what little ambient light was there.
Even at 3200 ISO, f1.2, 1/8s, precious little light was registering on the camera sensor.
The camera was nearly useless (as the shot above will attest), but in fact the enhancement below shows the eerie apparition of the soldier as we headed into the battlefield. With water crossings ahead and the darkness, the camera was better stowed in the waterproof bag inside the rucksack, so was soon tucked away.
Each soldier had been told to carry at least six liters of water, and so I carried 8.5 liters. Everyone carried medical kits, including bandages and tourniquets on the right side, and an un-cracked infrared chemlight on their helmet, and a blue chemlight for casualties. Twenty British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan this month so far [the number since this mission has increased], and probably another hundred to hundred and fifty have been wounded. Ingress was dangerous, with land mines and other bombs planted in every route the soldiers were likely to take, and so we set off through the most unlikely routes that the commanders could manage. All roads and paths are mined or laced with IEDs, at choke points such as bridges and easy ground. And so we slogged through muck and soft ground, and crossed irrigation canals by ladder or wading through in the dark. The soldiers were quiet and used no lights, though some used the night vision monocular that would leave a faint green glow around one eye.
This is an active battlefield—even as I write these words on 27 July an Apache is firing down with its 30mm (killing four Taliban) nearby and combat occurs many times per day—and so this mission can only be described in general terms. In broad strokes, the mission on 24 July was to bait the enemy to take certain actions, and there were multiple moving parts to our side, making it difficult for the enemy to keep track of our combat elements. Though we would leave obvious boot tracks through fields and neighborhoods, our units split and went here and there, and so despite that the enemy had home field advantage, we could still achieve relative surprise for at least short periods. As the soldiers quietly sweated and moved through the darkness, dogs barked in the night; the canines sometimes go nuts at quiet but high-pitched emanations from the metal detectors.
Along the way, Rifleman Ryan Grieves busted his ankle, possibly breaking it, so the British soldiers pushed out into security positions and my section of eight (seven men, one woman) pushed through a canal and forward. We moved up to a compound and there an incadescent light made me very uncomfortable and I tried to melt into a shadow near a rifleman who was doing the same. A British soldier moved toward the light – many times soldiers just whack out the lights – but he carefully unscrewed a few twists and a more comfortable darkness returned and we moved forward.
Other sections pushed forward and entered a compound where more than a half dozen Afghan women and girls were sleeping in the open on a raised platform, under the Milky Way, where it was cool. The lights inside bathed the compound with an amber glow.
The interpreter explained our situation to the women and girls, who hardly seemed startled and not the least bit afraid. Everyone knows that women and children will be treated well, and I kept the camera mostly out of sight and away from the women. The British soldiers stayed away from the open area where the women and girls just watched us from the platform, though a couple of them seemed to fall back asleep.
Rifleman Grieves had been on point—an extremely dangerous place to be—and was unhappy to suddenly be carried by his buddies and to slow down the mission. But that’s the way it goes; the ground was favorable to a broken bone or two, and Rifleman Grieves had drawn that straw and busted the ankle. (Later we learned it was not broken.)
Medic Lance Corporal Beth Sparks is on her job, while Rifleman Karl Dresser talks to Ryan Grieves who is on his back. A soldier took Grieves’s weapon and cleaned it spic and span; the barrel got stuffed with mud, which can be a problem out here, and you’ve got to pay close attention, especially at night. Firing the weapon with mud in the barrel will cause it to explode, which takes the rifle out of action and possibly the rifleman, too.
Corporal Lee Edwards with Molly the bomb dog. Everyone loves Molly. First off, she’s a cool dog that likes to swim in the river with the soldiers, and secondly she trots into combat and has found a lot of bombs that could/would have blown people up. Molly can cross ladders spanning deep ditches, or when needed she piggybacks on Corporal Edward’s shoulders. It seems that every working dog in Afghanistan is treated better than the soldiers. Molly is no exception. Corporal Edwards treats Molly like the Queen of Sangin.
Up to this point, there had been no gunfire, but first light was coming at 0440, and we needed to get into position before light. So my section of eight left the compound while others stayed behind with Rifleman Grieves.
Corporal Kenny Copeland 2 Plt A Coy 2 Rifles.
We moved another two hundred meters through low corn to another compound, which was occupied by a family. The man of the “house” asked if he could leave, and if he could take his wives and children. The British soldiers treated the family respectfully saying they were free to stay or to go. I kept the camera low. After all, the man was not known to be Taliban, just a farmer, and it’s bad enough that we would commandeer his compound for half a day, much less that someone would start to take photos. The soldiers were respectful of the little property, though there was practically no property other than a few filthy blankets, nasty pillows, one light bulb, and just enough cooking utensils to fill up a brown grocery bag. The family tantamount lives in a barn with three cows, two donkeys, some sheep, chickens, and what appeared to be a fat dove-like bird in a cage hanging above their filthy blankets. Corn, okra and other vegetables were growing within the compound.
The compound, rooms and all, covered an area about the size of a tennis court. Tomato slices were laid out drying on a chest-high wall while human and animal feces dried just near the bottom of the same wall. Fred Flintstone would call the place primitive.
The compound had been selected because the commanders thought Taliban might stumble into us while the Taliban were, let’s say, reacting to some other initiatives. If the Taliban ran into us, the soldiers were to kill them, and by now various elements were scattered smartly about to make the Taliban feel like a pinball, only instead of getting hit with flippers, it might be machine guns, rockets, mortars, howitzers, and fire from aircraft. The Taliban are trying to snare us with mines, bombs, and SAFIRE (small-arms fire), and basically we try to do the same, only we don’t use mines, and our bombs often come from the sky. The Taliban are very brave, but they are ignorant brutal men who murder locals who do not support them, and brave doesn’t stop bullets.
After we occupied the compound and the family walked out, the soldiers heard some activity and were keen to check it out. Compound walls are incredibly resilient and can stop 30mm rounds, so AK-47 bullets make little more impression than do mosquitoes on windshields, but that doesn’t stop people from tossing grenades over the walls or popping up from tunnels.
The rustling next door was just a family going about their business.
And so we waited, and waited. While other British and Afghan elements did their work. Our job was to wait for about ten hours to shoot any Taliban who stumbled by, or maybe call in an air strike or cannon fire.
Lance Corporal Kevin Bowen, from Jamaica, mans the radio after carefully checking/cleaning his machine gun and laying the brush down. Kevin’s accent is easier to understand than some of the British accents.
Riflemen Jamie Massey and Jordan Farrer checked their weapons and zonked out. Everyone was wet from the canal crossings and sweat, and so the morning was chilly.
The ladders are used to get on the roofs. This family was so poor that they did not even sleep on a raised platform, and didn’t seem to have a radio, but they did have the fat dove-like bird in the cage, which apparently was their only song.
Corporal Chelsea Williams and Color Sergeant Kevyn Diggle ('Diggs') clean their weapons.
'Diggs': ready for action.
As earth warmed under the rising sun, flies began buzzing about. Kevin Bowen was ready for the onslaught.
Kitchenware: This represents nearly the entire extent of the family’s utensils and tools. There was little more besides a shovel and a pump sprayer for herbicide/pesticide, and they had the few blankets and pillows. A small stack of poppy was drying by the front door. How can anyone be blamed for joining the Taliban when they live like this? (We have no idea if this guy was Taliban.) Sangin is a fester-pot of the Taliban: Isolation, poverty and distilled ignorance create ideal conditions for the cult.
U.S. B-1 bomber roars miles overhead. During the mission of 24 July, hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of aircraft covered us at one time or another. The B-1 above is departing at 0631 local, when this photo was made, while sporadic SAFIRE and machine-gun fire competed with the birds chirping.
Impersonal view of Sangin from approximate bombing altitude of the B-1.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General Stanley McChrystal put sharp restrictions on the ROE (Rules of Engagement), which caused many armchair generals to throw tantrums that we are endangering our troops. (Years of loose ROE clearly did not work; during the cowboy years since 2001, Afghanistan got worse.)
Secretary Gates, General McChrystal and troops all over Afghanistan are making difficult decisions. Only time will reveal if McChrystal and crew can turn the war around. If our folks – the Coalition in general – can reverse the slide, they will deserve the same respect that was earned for the turn-around in Iraq.(emphasis mine)
It’s great to know that Almighty is up there, yet it’s also clear that Almighty needs to keep those bomb bay doors closed most of the time. Down here, this could not be more clear. We can pulverize the Taliban from now until we are ready to go home, but if Afghanistan is to be brought into the first millennium, we need the resources to build, the patience and stamina to see it through, and greater wisdom than has so far been brought to task. And sometimes Almighty. These Afghans on the ground need education and development. Without education, we will develop only richer more confident enemies.
At about 0700 hours, a couple of mortars or rockets explode close enough to cause me to step inside a mud room. At 0708 hours, a B-1 again roars over and disappears. A report comes on the radio that Afghans passing through an ANA (Afghan National Army) checkpoint say that Taliban are warning families to leave the area around us. Meanwhile, a man neatly dressed with a robe drives by at various times (during the day) on a motorcycle.
A soldier on the roof sees families leaving nearby compounds. At 0711 two fighting-aged males move into a compound nearby. I ask Chelsea Williams, who is military police, if her family and friends know she comes out into combat. Chelsea laughs, saying her family thinks she is on Camp Bastion, which is about the safest place in Afghanistan. I say to Chelsea that she should never tell her family what she really does because they won’t believe her anyway. Chelsea laughs and there is sporadic small-arms fire from different directions, but nobody is shooting at us. What’s the use in Chelsea trying to explain all this? At 0717 there is a controlled three-round burst from a machine gun, and a couple of sparrows land on a wire in the compound. Less than a minute later, another controlled machine-gun burst and the sparrows glance around and chirp but hardly seem to notice. It seems certain that the sparrows live better than does this family. The machine-gun bursts must have been either British or ANA trained by British; Taliban would have let rip the machine guns in longer bursts. I ask the radio operator if he knew who was firing and he answers that it was ANA. Two minutes later intel comes in that Taliban are in a compound just near us and are “ready to go.”
Between 0719 and 0825 is sporadic SAFIRE and machine-gun fire (probably a few hundred rounds) and occasional booms from RPG shots.
Sangin: everything that is not under our direct view is under heavy Taliban influence. The Taliban still control Sangin more than we do. The entire surrounding area is under Taliban control. The British are confident they are making progress, and my initial impression is to say they are in fact making progress, though the journey will be long.
As the sun rose higher, the soldiers stuck it out on the sweltering roof. Many of these soldiers have been to Iraq, and it was much hotter in Basra, but still the temperature would climb to about 110 degrees in the sun. They were chugging the water but without complaints.
With the family gone, the animals became thirsty and hungry and broke out of the pin and started ravaging the family garden. It seemed fruitless to try to stop the animals, but Diggs was the defender of the family plot and kept herding the animals until finally he rounded them all back up. The Afghan man came back with a couple of his burkha-clad wives, apparently for the animals that needed to be watered and fed, but the soldiers made what I thought was a smart decision and didn’t let them back in. The man already knew our strength, and allowing him in would show our posture.
The brown splotches on the wall (upper-center) are manure that is dried and used for cooking.
The pin is made from mud and sticks and reminded me of Red Riding Hood. In Afghanistan, a home made of mud is practically bombproof against violence that would shatter a home made of bricks, but unfortunately, the Big Bad Wolf that once nearly swallowed the whole of Afghanistan is the Taliban, and Sangin truly is part of the Taliban belly. (Yet in one telling indicator of Taliban weakness, we are in their belly and there is little they can do about it. They are trying to expurgate us, but they are growing weaker, slowly weaker, in Sangin.)
Soldiers not on guard were trying to sleep because good infantry soldiers never miss a chance to fill canteens or sleep, and they already had filled canteens. At 0835 there was a brisk salvo of something bigger than RPGs, sounded like 105mm howitzer. Whoever had fired went straight to FFE (Fire For Effect) and skipped any adjustment, indicating the fire came from a fixed base onto a pre-registered target. At 0837 another salvo popped off and though I was half-asleep, it sounded like about 35 rounds, but I lost count and it might have been mortars. A radio call said our guys were trying to cut off some Taliban and trying to push them into a different area that favored our side, so that they could be hit by ambush or air strike.
Off and on we could hear “Green Eyes,” a UAV, buzzing like a lawnmower overhead. I got up and at 0842 the guard on the roof again spotted “two geezers” moving about 50 meters from us. The fields were completely dead. No farmers, nobody. By 0900 it was starting to get warm and bright so I switched the clear Oakley lens to the amber. It’s important to wear ballistic eyewear because eyes are more expensive than Oakleys. Plus it will be harder to write if my eyes get blown out. The British NCOs are strict that the young soldiers wear the glasses and gloves. There continued sporadic fights from various directions, but we were uninvolved, though a bullet zinnnged overhead (sounded like it came from many hundreds of meters away). At 0921 a proper firefight broke out and the radioman relayed saying ANA was in a big fight, which was doggone evident. Other than that, I didn’t realize it was ANA; some shooters seemed to be controlling fire and some weren’t. There were some explosions and the firefight seemed to subside after a mere three minutes.
By 0925 all of us are sweating in the shade. My water inventory: 2.5 liters gone, 6 liters to go. The soldiers who are awake are in good spirits, as if this is just a picnic that they do every day. I try to go back to sleep as the firefight resumes at 0930. I look around the sad compound and realize that even birds make better homes.
There is a large explosion and I have no idea what it is, and at 0935 more explosions, and between 0936 and 0937 more explosions—maybe mortars—while I try to sleep, and by 1015 it’s quiet but the cloudless day is growing hot. At 1104 an Apache comes overhead then flies away. The soldiers on the roof must be cooking, but not nary a word of complaint from anyone about anything.
The only cupboards were simple recesses in the mud walls.
The animals needed to be fed and watered, but what were we to do? The Afghan man of the compound sent his three children to another compound, where another British section waited in ambush and where Grieves waited to be extracted with his messed-up ankle. The kids, a boy and two girls, were trying to say something to Captain Nick White, who pulled out his notepad and a child drew the picture above. Captains Nick White and Aaron West realized that the kids wanted to feed the cows, and told the kids it was okay to come back to our compound. The kids gave the sketch to Diggs who let the kids in.
As hours dragged by, the fields were empty, and sporadic firefights continued around us while I slept in the feed storage room and the soldiers slept here and there. Each time a soldier walked on the roof, sand and dried mud rained on my sweating face. Another firefight broke out, apparently again with ANA, and this time some bullets whizzed overhead but we were out of the action. The motorcycle driver had gone by probably ten times by that point.
At 1343 came a BOOM shoooooosszzch BAM! Diggs said that some kind of rocket had just been fired and he told the radio operator to call it up, and as it happens, my watch was off sync by about 2 minutes, and it was in fact a Hellfire launch at 1340 from an American Reaper who was helping us out. I didn’t know what had happened other than that someone fired a rocket. Turned out that a Reaper—flying too high to be seen or heard—had been tracking Taliban who had been responsible for some of the shooting we had been hearing. The Taliban had been shooting at the Welsh Guard British OMLT (Operational Mentor Liaison Team) and their ANA counterparts. The Reaper had watched as the Taliban took their weapons into a mosque and came out unarmed, but the Taliban mistake had occurred when they went to another compound and picked up some weapons and got back into the fight. The Reaper used its own laser to designate the target and was cleared to fire by LTC Rob Thomson, Commander of 2 Rifles, and launched a Hellfire missile whose seeker head locked onto the laser reflection. At about the last half-second, the Taliban heard the missile and bolted like deer trying to jump the bow, but it was too late for two men who were killed. The third might have escaped with injuries, but if he did he’ll need new eardrums because the strike was very close. Interestingly, the enemy had avoided the bait that had been laid for them, and had gone for a hook (the team the dead guys had been firing on was there to ambush Taliban), but it did little good because the Company Commander in the Sky—this time Reaper—took the shot. (Thanks “Team Reaper,” wherever you are. Probably Nevada. The soldiers love to know that Predator/Reaper has arrived.)
The corn is not high yet, but as it grows it will provide excellent cover for friend and foe. There are so many bombs around here that last week a Taliban accidentally stepped on one of their own pressure plates and got blown to pieces.
In summary, the 24 July mission netted two Taliban killed by the Hellfire missile from the Reaper but that was just another day. On the 25th, soldiers at Kajaki killed two Taliban. On 26 July, here, just near FOB Jackson, Sniper Team Kris Griffith and Justin De Lange dropped another Taliban from 1,100 meters with the .338 rifle, and were themselves barely missed by a Taliban “sniper” who fired two shots, but remained concealed. I was not involved in the firefight but was close enough to hear the firing and explosions. During the same engagement, the mortars and 105mm howitzers fired 15 rounds each and killed three more, for a total of four Taliban killed. The sniper kill on the morning of 26th was the fifth confirmed for the two sniper teams during this tour. This morning, 27 July, while finishing off this report, the enemy fired an RPG at a British helicopter but missed. Later at Kajaki, a British soldier was killed by an IED. A U.S. Reaper came back on station in Sangin and was tracking armed targets that I saw on the monitor. The kills would have been easy, but the British commander here, LTC Rob Thomson, and the Reaper crew, were looking for a good shot that would cause no civilian casualties, and eventually an Apache who fired 60 rounds from the 30mm. Later in the day we received nine casualties in Sangin, and the A-10s came in and were firing their cannons, and as the dispatch is finished late afternoon on the 28th, a vibrant firefight is unfolding outside the perimeter. An RPG just fired.
I cannot operate in the war without your support. If support does not substantially increase, I will be forced to abandon war reporting in September. There has seldom been much interest in the Afghanistan war. True interest has been starkly reflected in the support for this mission. Each journey into Afghanistan, since 2006, has bled out resources from my operations. Reporting from Afghanistan is not sustainable at this rate.
Nevertheless, I continue to crack on: Please consider signing up for free Twitter updates at Michael_Yon (not Michael Yon), for the most timely snippets possible.