Feb 26 at 7:07pm by David Tate
February 21, 2009 – Musa Qala, Helmand Province
While there hasn’t been a lot going on here lately, I’m not at a loss for things to do. In the mornings I usually write and log video clips in between meals which makes the days go by pretty good. And, as I mentioned previously, I break all of that up with trips to the Afghan Army post on the other side of the helo pad.
Near the end of the day, I made my way over after declining an invitation to play volleyball, so I could get some food and tea and say goodbye to my new friends.
Like usual, we sit around their poorly lit room doing our best to communicate. This time I brought along my computer so I could show the guys my family and the other pictures I had taken on this trip. They all thought my badcha, Davin, was just adorable. However even more fascinating to them was my wife. Particularly because the only pictures I have of her in the computer show her smoking. They really thought that was something.
During the conversation it came out that they wanted me to learn all of their names… all seven of them. Over and over they rattled their full names off, which was impossible for me to remember. So I asked for their short names and slowly but surely, I got them all: Mustafa, Ashule, Rasoul, Zeffer, Hamid, Amin and Shakur.
Shakur is the inquisitive one. Always asking me questions. Always learning new words. He is the charismatic one of the group and the one who would always invite me to smoke with him. They all got a kick out of the fact I got all of their names. To me, it reinforced a new bond which truly allowed me to connect with them (even though they couldn’t remember my full name, which was fine). To them, I was Mr. Daud.
Daud is the Farsi name I picked up last time I was in Afghanistan. All the street kids called me that and now, so did the Afghan soldiers.
Eventually one of them suggested we get an interpreter in the room, and once we did, the conversation became more serious. I asked all sorts of questions regarding the Afghan Army from issues on prejudice to their thoughts on the upcoming elections. It was at this time I realized the interpreters do not interpret as good as I had thought. I also noticed they omit certain things from the conversation, something I picked up on as my ear came into tune with the Farsi speaking around me.
Some things that came out of the conversation included the fact that they do look at themselves as Afghans and not a group divided by ethnic backgrounds. Most were Pashtun, but one was Tajik and another Uzbek. ”We are all brothers,”said Shakur.
The other main thing I picked up out of the conversation is the realization of just how important Helmand Province is to them. The general gist was that the people of Helmand are pretty much Taliban and/or sympathizers but that the province is too important to the country to let it go. They talk about how Helmand is the breadbasket of Afghanistan, a place necessary for feeding all of the people of Afghanistan. Because of that one simple point, they all agreed that Helmand was worth fighting, and dying for.
As I drank my share of green tea, I realized it was getting late and forgot that I was supposed to meet with their kandak (battalion) commander. Him and I had met earlier in the day, briefly, but he also invited me back for a more formal meeting; something I had totally forgotten about.
So just as the conversation turned to religion, I cried uncle and begged to be excused for fear of disrespecting their boss. I could tell that Shakur really wanted to talk religion with me and it was clear he was disappointed that I was leaving. ”I’ll be back and we’ll finish. I promise.”
He nodded and said “ok” in Pashtun, but I could tell he was upset. Rasoul, who asked the original question, feared he had offended me. I tried to assure him that wasn’t the case.
Col. Mohammed Rassoul
I quickly made my way over to the British side of the base to try to set an appointment with Col Rassoul. To be honest, it is a little tough because he is a very religious man and prays as such five times a day.
Regardless, I set the time with the Brits to meet after dinner, which was about an hour off. There really was no dinner this night, in the sense of a cooked meal, so I went to my room and “cooked” an MRE to bide the time.
After, I made my way over to the Colonel’s quarters and we waited for him to come in. While we did, various subordinates also made their way in and took a seat. After just a few minutes, the colonel himself should up and we began our meeting.
Right off the top the colonel said that he had expected me earlier and that he had planned to get a picture with both of us and the rest of his staff. I immediately apologized, blaming issues that I couldn’t escape from. He seemed to be ok with that, so we started with our conversation.
More than anything, I wanted to thank him for the short notice I gave him in requesting time with his troops. I told him about my experience with the ANA, but he really didn’t seem too impressed. I asked him similar questions that I had asked the other soldiers, but really didn’t get any straight answers. Once again I feel the interpretation wasn’t clear. All I really wanted to know was how the army had progressed over the past five years.
One thing that was clear is the fact that there are issues with the ANA regarding money and billeting. The colonel is quite upset with the fact that Afghan National Police start out making the same as the ANA (about $180 p/month, double the pay of 2004). The problem this poses, he says, is that when it comes time to re-enlist, his soldiers simply quit and join the ANP. It bothers his men that they are deployed so far from home, for long periods of time, and make the same as the ANP who get to stay at home.
The colonel also has issues with the billeting process. Years ago, the ANA was supposed to install a plan that would allow soldiers to bring their families to their duty station, similar to how the Americans work. He wants to see schools and facilities for his men, that he believes, will greatly decrease the will of soldiers from going AWOL in order to get money back to their family. This was the plan in 2004. Obviously it is far from reality because it is still a dream in 2009.
I also asked the colonel about ethnic issues within his ranks, which he denied existed as he quickly pointed around the room toward staff officers that came from different tribes.
Finally I asked about him and his history. Knowing he is a career fighter, which includes a mujahadeen against the Russians, I was fishing for a story that he would elaborate on. Instead, I got a simple rundown of his career that lasted for about 15 seconds.
With that I thanked the colonel and we parted company. I knew that I needed to make this meeting, because if I didn’t, he would feel disrespected. Unfortunately, I think he felt that way anyhow: No tea, no real substance and no real connection. While he did invite me back anytime, I feel I offended him severely with my tardiness
I hurried back to the US side of the base so I could keep my promise. In doing so, I grabbed one of the interpreters and we made our way, through the dark,toward the ANA outpost. The door leading into the compound was closed and locked, so I knocked several times. There was no answer.
Two more times that night I went back and both times there was no answer. I was unable to fulfill my promise, and worse yet, I was unable to say good bye to my new friends. As I stood there looking at that door for any sign of life, I just hoped to myself that “Mr. Daud” will be the American they will always remember.
Feb 26 at 1:01pm by David Tate
In the six years I’ve been doing this, I have received but four negative emails regarding what I do, and all four have come this week. Obviously I have hit a nerve, where I certainly didn’t expect to. With that said, I have pulled the offending posts in hopes of curbing whatever harm I have seemingly caused; whether real or not. I have not heard from SPMGTF Public Affairs, so as far as I know, I have done nothing wrong and certainly meant no harm if I did.
I worked extremely hard getting posts out in a timely manner thinking that they were positive and something that could help families feel closer to their Marines. In fact, since I have been posting on this trip, I have received 10x the number of support comments as I have negative, which has been quite gratifying.
I think what bums me out the most is that the guys in Musa Qala seem to be the most offended; guys that I found to be very easy to get along with and accepting. It bums me out that I have written something that makes them feel betrayed. I have never had this happen to me before and I hope it will never happen again.
I was open with everyone about what I do and how I do it and heard no objections to this. Of course I have to believe the “Random Memories” post is the problem (even though I was trying to interject some fun), so I pulled it.
I have also pulled my “Vacation Pictures” post, because the meaning of the post was completely missed. As explained, I posted the pictures, not out of a need to stroke my ego, but to prove I was actually in Afghanistan, as one naysayer has alluded I wasn’t. I made fun captions to the pictures, keeping with the “battlefield tourist” theme, just trying to have some fun as I left the country. Don’t worry, my wife doesn’t think I’m funny, either.
At this point, all I can do is apologize and hope that it is accepted. It seems the more the situation is discussed, the more it is misunderstood, and that is getting frustrating in its own.
Know this: Regardless of this written issue, the video clips I took are going to an eternal historic archive, which is what I do. Also know that I am the only person that is adding these clips, from both Iraq and Afghanistan, to this archive. I do not know why more don’t do it, but I am proud as hell being the one that does. This isn’t about me or Marine families or my family. For me it’s about preserving history for generations to come, something I am very proud to say I get to do, even if it is part time. After all, part time is better than no time.
As for the OpSec concern: As far as I can tell, there is no OpSec concern, regarding me talking about either Golestan or Now Zad. Information regarding these two places was freely given to me when I started my embed, during and after. It was never given to me in confidence whatsoever. Both places are full districts and cover many square miles; which is how we agree to describe an area per embedment rules.
So, if there are OpSec issues, I would appreciate hearing it from the PAO instead of a Marine Parent/Wife who might think they are right, but may not be so.
I have done my best to right this situation (in the eyes of the offended) and all I can say beyond that is that I am truly sorry to have offended anyone. That is not my intent; never was, never will be.
Feb 26 at 12:12am by David Tate
Wow… I’m starting to take a beating from a few folks, and to be honest, it’s a bummer. Below is an opinion by one MC Mom, with my answers following.
For future attacks, please at least be informed before you launch. Much of this complaint is answered in many places and many ways throughout this blog; which is a blog about how an embedded journalist sees the war he is covering, the problems he has with his life in doing so and how covering said war affects his family. Sacrifices do not come just from those fighting the war.
I would urge all military families to chime in for a full perspective of this particular discussion.
Did I misread? You need a firefight because those pictures sell well and you need the cash flow? Have you given any thought to the fact that, if engaged in a firefight while on patrol with our military, instead of concentrating on the firefight and keeping themesleves and their brothers alive, these Heros are going to be focused on keeping you alive? (Where was that in the job description for these military men?) Are you sharing the cash flow with the Marines who are providing the material for your “cash flow”? Do you have any idea what their monthly cash flow is? How much money do you estimate you have made off of your photos and how much of that has been sent to the Wounded Warriors or Semper Fi Fund – two organizations to help our wounded and the families of our deceased heros. Thank heavens our men are there for more than the paycheck they receive or none of them would be in the military.
Your blog fails to report the conditions and sacrifices that these men are enduring to protect our country. Do they have blow up mattresses like yours? I read your comment about Cable and Barnett’s “escapade”…while you may have found this amusing, I am sure they were mortified if they saw it in print. Your blog makes this sound like a Boy Scout camping trip (not to offend any Boy Scouts). I would rather you concentrate on reporting the conditions and sacrifices these men are making instead of it being a “poor me, I’m making sacrifices and so is my family in order to make more money off of pictures so send me money to make it worth my while.” Where is the information on the number of these Marines that have been injured or killed in combat? To read your report, I wouldn’t know that there were any casualties.
Your tidbit on the conversation with the Captain…was that an “official” radio? What was the point? That these men don’thave anything better to do than gossip about celebrities? I hope to know better.
The true story is that these Marines and Brits are making sacrifices to protect our freedom – even the freedom to write bad blogs. On average, these men are 19 years of old, away from home for the first time, have yet to meet the children that have been born since they deployed, have yet to live with their wives (because they were getting ready to deploy) and this is either their first combat deployment or first deployment period. Some of these guys haven’t spent any holiday home in five years (the old timers) and the “young Marines” any since they enlisted.
Why do you only focus on who avoids the wag bag facilities and how they achieve it? I would think that a real journalist could find something more substantive to report on.
One last question, since when was the location of these Marines made public? I was shocked when I first read your blog and saw it in print. You have put the security and safety of these men at risk!
If your intent was to focus on nothing of importance to the Marines or the Brits, congratulations. You succeeded.
I will take the time to reply to your long comment:
“Did I misread? You need a firefight because those pictures sell well and you need the cash flow?” – Yes, you misread. I never wrote that I need a firefight. In fact, just yesterday I wrote that I do not wish for firefights and have encouraged young Marines to do the same. What I did write is the fact that those images do sell better. If I do not make sales, the chances of me coming back shrink. Simple business equation.
Journalists on the battlefield: This is nothing new. Photojournalists have been on the battlefield since the 1850’s. If a Marine is surprised to see a journalist in their midst, then it is simply out of ignorance to the fact that we are, and always will be, in the mix.
Marines protecting me: Before most patrols, I work out a pseudo-plan for “what if” and it never involves Marines catering to me. I am confident that a Marine would save his buddy’s ass long before he batted an eye in my direction. In fact, I have been told by at least two service people over the years that they would do the exact opposite.
Do I share my proceeds? No. In fact, I have yet to make enough at this job to make it a full time situation. Simple business equation. Keep in mind that I am here out of a love for history and the military and not for the paycheck. I’m pretty sure my posts make that clear. I solicit donations from readers because, for most, I am providing a great service to them that costs me a ton of money. Please read previous comments.
“I would rather you concentrate on reporting the conditions and sacrifices these men are making instead of it being a “poor me, I’m making sacrifices and so is my family in order to make more money off of pictures so send me money to make it worth my while.” – I have written more than 25,000 words, in the past three weeks, bringing you stories that do just what you ask. I urge you to take a look at them and not focus on the one tongue-in-cheek story that you constantly refer to. Also understand that I am a videojournalist and this blog is just extra work that I do for free. I do not see anything wrong with getting $15 a year from people who benefit, enjoy or are regular readers of my work. I suppose I could password it and open it to subscribers only. This blog was designed to give interested readers an idea of the ups and downs of getting embedded and staying there. The military view is simply gravy that most others enjoy. This blog is MEANT to be self centered for this reason. MANY other miliblogs provide the reports you are seeking. This blog is unique in this regard.
“Your blog fails to report the conditions and sacrifices that these men are enduring to protect our country. Do they have blow up mattresses like yours?” – Again, I suggest you read the previous posts before sticking your neck out. As for the air mattress: Most do not, but I suggest they get one and have written so in the past. I bought mine based on my experience of wishing I had one on earlier embeds.
“I am sure they were mortified if they saw it in print.” – Actually, Sgt. Cable invited the story into the blog which became the groundwork for this one off color post of hundreds that I have written. I was trying to bring some amusement onto the stage. I accept your disagreement, however (my Dad hates these stories too). As for the 20 second radio conversation: It is the only conversation of that type I heard. I wrote about it because, at the time, it was truly very funny and I wanted to remember it. This is my blog afterall. Post duty can be very long and boring and it was fun to hear the guys break up the boredom with a little humor.
“I would rather you concentrate on reporting the conditions and sacrifices these men are making instead of it being a “poor me, I’m making sacrifices and so is my family…” – Again, I have written extensively about these “conditions and sacrifices”. However, this blog is about being an embedded journalist with the military, not the other way around (although I do write quite a bit about the men I embed with).
“Where is the information on the number of these Marines that have been injured or killed in combat? To read your report, I wouldn’t know that there were any casualties.” – In my extensive number of embedded days, I have only been involved in two incidents in which someone was killed or injured within my embed. Both times, I wrote extensively about it. I do not write about casualties just to write about casualties. You can get that info anywhere else. To add: There were no casualties during my embed this year, however, one Marine was killed in Bakwa shortly after I left and due to embed restrictions, I was not allowed to report on it.
“Why do you only focus on who avoids the wag bag facilities and how they achieve it? I would think that a real journalist could find something more substantive to report on.” – Once again you are focusing on 1% of the words I have written. I would hope you could be more thorough next time you decide to attack me.
“One last question: Since when was the location of these Marines made public? I was shocked when I first read your blog and saw it in print. You have put the security and safety of these men at risk!” – Not only do I not know which Marines you refer to, this statement is completely incorrect. Everything I have reported has been legitimate and in no way have I broken any embedment rules in doing so. Never have I been told not to report general locations, which is what I did. For instance, I do not report specific villages but I do report, in a general picture, of being “in Bakwa District, Farah Province,” as dictated by my embedment rules. If I thought I was putting Marines at risk with certain OpSec disclosures, I would not report it, even if I was given the green light to do so.
Understand that this blog does not generate much income for me. In fact, it simply started as a way for my family to stay closer to me while gone. The fact that it has become popular for military families is residual, albeit welcomed. However, this is my blog, about my travels, and my observations.
While I disagree with a majority of your opinionated, but uninformed letter, I hope I have been able to properly answer your questions and assertions so that have learned a little more today.
Kind Regards and Semper Fi,
ps – I advise that you buy a small, durable air mattress for any Marine you have going on deployment. They weigh less than two pounds and are worth their weight in gold.
Feb 24 at 3:03am by David Tate
February 20, 2009 – Southern FLET, Musa Qala, Helmand Province
With as much as I could do with 3/8 LMT, I found myself with a number of idle days waiting for extraction. That left me checking into the possibility of getting out with the British Officer Mentoring Liason Team (OMLT), which mentors 3rd Kandak, 3rd Brigade, 205 Corps of the Afghan National Army headquartered out of the base I was currently on . The OMLeT is made up of soldiers from 1st Battalion, Rifles.
Part of my mission on this trip is to set up the unfolding story of coalition forces escalating their presence in Afghanistan to numbers of foreign troops to some 70,000 personnel. To fully capture this story, I desperately needed to get to one FLET or another. FLET stands for Forward Line of Enemy Troops. In other words, I needed to get to the front line.
In USMC 3/8′s area of operations, the only defined FLET is in an area of western Helmand called, Now Zad. While not promised to me, I did make it known that was one of the areas I wanted to go. Unfortunately once here, I was told (and other journalists as well), “That’s not the story we want to push.” While I did put up a bit of an argument because of the ethical issues involved with such a statement, I was repeatedly denied an embed in this area and I finally dropped the subject until my debrief, when I once again stressed my issue with their decision.
Since journalists aren’t allowed in Now Zad, I can only paint a picture from the stories I have heard. Basically the town has been abandoned for three years now, with the villagers living displaced around a nearby village. The town’s infrastructure is crumbling and it is a virtual “free fire” zone in the sense that the only people left in it are Taliban.
The FLET in this area is a wadi (most likely due to the fact that wadi’s are large flat areas with no cover) that is not crossed, due to the understanding that you will be fired on. With a company of Marines operating there, it isn’t enough to take control of the area, but is enough to hold until more coalition soldiers/Marines can come. I expect that to be the case sometime in the near future.
In the meantime, Marines do some presence patrols, have encountered IEDs and the occasional direct contact, but for the most part life in Now Zad is austere and boring. This entire assessment is made based on dozens of first hand accounts from the Marines who have served there at one time or another or who have access to the reports Marines file from there.
Adapt and Overcome
With no chance of visiting a FLET within the Marines’ AO, I started to try to achieve this goal through the British Army once I made it to Musa Qala. I went to Musa Qala to see Marines training and mentoring Afghan Police, but ended up only getting the mentoring part because the police were dispersed throughout the area for pre-election security. Because of this, as mentioned before, I was left with a number of idle days that needed to be as productive as possible.
When I mentioned my desire to hook up for a bit with the Brits, the Marines told me that would end my embed with them and the Brits would have to be in charge of feeding and housing me. Since I was already living on a British base, eating British food, that didn’t seem to be that big of an issue. Unfortunately, as my luck would have it, the British PAO at Musa Qala was on leave, and to make matters worse, TF Helmand (Brit HQ) would not return my emails that would give me direction. Frustration was again starting to set in.
Finally, one day, news came that the British PAO was back from leave, so we set up a meeting. Very little good news came out of the meeting except for the possibility of getting, at the most, an overnight patrol/experience with the OMLeT team. Had I had more time, had the PAO been at Musa Qala and had the British returned my months worth of emails, I would have gotten time with the Ghurkas as well as the OMLeT. The cards just did not fall right for anything prolonged, so I accepted an invitation for a joint Afghan/Brit patrol that would at least allow me the ability to get some imagery.
Field Trip, of Sorts
I met up with the British at 0800 for the 7km trip down to USPB (United States Patrol Base). It is called that because at one time it was a US base; it is now the southern most Afghan base in Musa Qala.
I climbed into a Vector, dubbed “The Death Trap” by the guys I was riding with. The vehicle is a medium-sized troop carrier, which on this trip, held seven of us. The ride was slow, bumpy and crammed with me having the ass of a British soldier in my face the entire trip (he was the top gunner). The trip lasted less than 30 minutes in all before we rolled into the PB.
The plan called for the team that brought me to wait for me and the OMLeT/Afghans to conduct a patrol, we would then load back up and head to the District Center. In and out, quick and simple.
The mission itself involved the joint patrol moving up to the frontline and pushing through that line so the troops could recon a potential site for a frontline Afghan patrol base.
We left in two columns, maybe 30 men in all, with me near the front with the Afghans and the British in back mentoring from the rear. The British officer was very accommodating to me and my request to be up front, with no hassles whatsoever.
We moved quickly across the fields and past farmers managing their poppy crop who would just sit there and stare at us. Greetings in Pashtun were answered with silence. The area we were moving toward had turned into a no man’s land where villagers did not dare to go anymore, putting these farmers literally on the frontline.
There was a little confusion on this point, however, because local leaders had brokered some sort of agreement that would allow villagers to come and get their belongings. However, in this war, the enemy looks just like civilians, making such a deal quite the grey area for troops operating here.
Once we made it to the large red container that marks the frontline, the soldiers began disbursing and taking cover. At this point you realize how serious things are and the adrenaline really starts to flow.
Several figures could be seen across the field looking back at us, which prompted the Afghans to reposition themselves for better vantage points. I ran with my squad around a building and down an alley as we started flanking left for better position.
We made our way to the last building before it opens up into a field to our left and front. Across the field to the left, we could see the southern most British base where elements of the 2nd Royal Ghurka Regiment is located, which protected that flank and offered us superior cover fire in the event we pushed forward, as expected.
From our position, a British sniper and machine gunner set up to recon and cover any advance, which at this point, was strictly up to the Afghans. The Afghan commander of the patrol, a sergeant major, told the British that his commander authorized them to only go as far as they had.
“I see a man picking up a sack and running…,” called out the sniper. The man was one of three the sniper was tracking as the debate continued.
Over the next few minutes, the Afghans and British mentors would discuss the situation. The Brits wanted to push for the objective and the Afghans didn’t. Eventually the Afghan commander offered the Brits one squad of men if the Brits wanted to lead the assault, which they did, but couldn’t.
“That would defeat the purpose of us being here,” said the British captain. ”We’re here to mentor, not to lead.”
While the discussion continued from the cover of the house, I found a relatively concealed spot between the sniper and machine gunner so I could actually get video of the “front line”. I set my camera, hit record and laid as flat as I could, waiting for the impact of a round or the crack of a rifle or something. Nothing came. I got two good images of the line, including a man about 200m away watching us watch him, before dashing back to the safety of the house everyone else was hiding behind.
Shortly after that, the decision became final and we started to withdraw in a different direction from which we came.
The direction we took was toward the enormous wadi that ran along the western portion of the AO. This too was a FLET, with coalition forces often receiving harassment fire from the other side. Nonetheless, we made our way along “our side” of the wadi; again just waiting for plumes of dust and the report of rifles, indicating we were under fire. None came.
As we continued, I stopped a few times to get some clips, one of which included a former Taliban trench line. Each time I stopped, an Afghan soldier would stop with me until I finished and then we would run to catch up to our squad (we were not last, the British were trailing behind us to the right).
Once back at USPB, I watched the ANA test fire their heavy “Dishka” machine gun, which they did into the mud wall of their base. The Afghans were amused at my form of ear plugs which were two cigarettes sticking out of my head.
After a quick interview with the British captain, I was offered a chance to stay the night. I knew that my chopper wasn’t coming for another two days, but I was concerned about the Marines having a tizzy since I was technically out of their care at the moment. I decided to head back, content with the days’ clips, and convinced that by not staying the night, the Marines wouldn’t be too pissed. I can’t imagine a four hour jaunt could be construed as “embedding” and I never heard otherwise.
Where I am, the Action is Not
As I write this, I have spent roughly 275 days in various war zones in Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan. Not once have I seen a firefight, and God knows, I have tried (I have actually seen a firefight, from afar, just never been in one). I have been under sniper fire, almost hit with indirect rocket fire and almost electrocuted by a falling wire after an IED detonation, but never in a firefight.
Figures that as soon as the sun went down, I watched from the roof of the White House as artillery and illumination flares lit up the southern sky. Turns out the place I had been just hours before, was taking fire from multiple firing points and answered with said artillery fire, small arms and a Javelin missile. The worst part about it was there were two British journalists in the middle of it on their very first day in the field.
I’ve always worn my Red Wings hat for good luck when I go out. I’m seriously considering retiring it.
Feb 23 at 12:12am by David Tate
February 18, 2009 – Musa Qala, Helmand Province, Afghanistan
One of the things I like the most about traveling, the way I do, is when I get immersed in something exotic. In my case, since I deal with conflict, it can be hard to immerse in the culture you’re visiting. This time around I’ve been able to do quite a bit of interaction with the locals, in very personal detail. Those stories to follow.
How appropriate that on the day I’m about to pull out of Afghanistan, I find myself in the same 10X30 mud hut that I have often visited over the past few days. This time, though, the subject of conversation is my apple computer, which has allowed me to start this story as soldiers from the Afghan National Army hang around me, talking away and laughing at the American guy sitting here, waiting for green tea and writing to you.
Musa Qala is just “ok”, in the sense of me getting work done. Pretty much, once you’ve done a few patrols, it is all the same. With that said, I have a “day off”, if you will, and have decided to head over to a small outpost on the west side of the base that houses a squad of Afghan National Army soldiers. I’d visited the post a few times before, but this time the visit would turn into an all day affair.
For several hours I played volleyball with the guys (which by now included the interpreters). At first I tried to play in my sandles, but that wasn’t working so I went bare foot and got quit grubby. I didn’t do too bad, considering I hadn’t played for years, however I was certainly the butt of some joking because my bumps never quit seemed to go in the right direction. Of course being 20 years older than the average player, I thought I did well.
The court we play on is actually the courtyard of the soldiers little compound with the game area taking up most of the space. The ground is hard packed with a lot of small rocks that I constantly have to clear away to keep the pain to a minimum.
After, we all sat around a table adjacent to the court, trying to communicate and teach each other a few words of English/Farsi (Pashtu is very difficult, so I tend to try to learn Farsi). We drank tea and smoked as the day slipped away. Often times I found myself in a trance thinking about all sorts of things, especially my family.
As the sun was going down, the call to prayer sounded off in the distance; then another from a different direction. Several of the soldiers answered the call and disappeared to pray. I remember listening to the chant (which can be very eerie, yet beautiful), being drawn into my own little world when a high flying jet made it’s way overhead.
I think it was a French Mirage, not sure, but the sound of the jets mixed with the sound of the call for prayer was very poignant at the time. Quite an irony, I thought. I was looked up as the jet flew by, seemingly in slow motion, with a blanket of grey clouds as a back drop.
About that time I had an inspiration to pray myself. This is a weird thing for me, but I have been searching for my own answers for the last year or so. All of a sudden, the desire to talk to God was very strong.
I leaned over to Mustafa, the last soldier remaining, and tried to tell him I wanted to go to the top of the compound that overlooks the Helmand River wadi. I’m pretty sure he didn’t know what I wanted and continued to press for me to stay while the other guys prayed. I stayed for a few more minutes but the pull was too strong and I left his company making my way up the stairs to the roof (with Mustafa following).
As the sun was setting I sat myself on a row of sandbags lining the edge of the roof with my legs dangling over the side. From here you get a great view of the base and the river bed; which at this time is shrouded in a haze from the massive fire pit next to the base. In the wadi itself, children play soccer and congregate in the afternoon sun. You can hear their laughter a mile away.
When I pray, I do so to God or my creator. I generally tend to be thankful for life and ask for the health of my family and colleagues. As I said, it is a little strange for me, but I do find comfort in simply expressing my thanks for the things I have, particularly when I’m in a place where so many have so little.
Later that evening, I joined the soldiers for dinner. They live in two small rooms, roughly 10X30, that are kept very clean considering the rooms are mad of mud. In the middle is a small wood burning stove that has an exhaust leading out to the roof. There’s just one plastic-covered window that allows very little light.
Around the sides of the room are the soldiers’ sleeping bags with their meager belongings either hanging from the wall or stuffed into cubby holes. The walls themselves are lined with giant posters of Pakistan’s Swat Valley. Up to just a few years ago, Swat was known as the Switzerland of Asia.
The posters show a lush, green golf course with a beautiful hotel in the background. It’s quit ironic that in recent days the Pakistani government has ceded control of the valley to the Taliban. Hundreds of people have been murdered and all of the schools burnt to the ground. It’s an area outside of the Northwest Frontier Provinces (or Tribal Agency) and is indicative of just how bad Pakistan is spiraling out of control.
As we all sit in a circle with legs crossed a large chunk of flat bread is flopped down in front of me, which in Afghanistan, also doubles as your silverware. Breaking off pieces of the bread, we all start digging into the large bowls of communal food in front of us which consists of a very standard rice, potato, grease and lamb meat combination. The entire time we work to communicate with one another; pointing out colors and comparing the items in the room.
After dinner, green tea is served with chocolate and raisins. The Afghans decide they want to watch a “Bollywood” movie; which is India’s version of, you guessed it, Hollywood. I don’t really understand Urdu (the language) from dogs barking, so I just sit there with a smile on my face just being “one of the guys” and trying to take in as much of the moment as I can.
It really is hard to explain the feeling you get when you immerse with the Afghans like this, but it is something that is tough to duplicate. These guys are just like anyone else; normal, young and believing in what they are doing.
I’ve had many Afghan “experiences”, but this one will stand out for many reasons, all listed above. For me, it’s nights like this that make leaving my family and spending thousands of dollars to do so, worth every cent and minute. These are experiences that very few people ever get to know; experiences that make me, as a person, so much more complete.
Feb 19 at 12:12pm by David Tate
February 16, 2009
I’ve always believed that the key to “winning” in Afghanistan is standing up a functioning military that can deal, on its own, with national security issues. I really don’t believe that means Afghanistan is a “loss” if it can’t be turned into a peace loving, everyone’s-on-the-same-page type of society. The fact is, that is not going to happen in our lifetime. What will happen within the next 20 years (yes, 20 years), is the ability for the Afghans to stand on their own, albeit embroiled in never-ending tribal disputes and local insurgencies. If that is the case, the world will have done all they can for this country, from a military standpoint.
Police Mentoring Team (PMT)
I usually get up around 0730, get some breakfast and head off to the internet access while the rest of the Marines sleep. At that time, folks in the states are just going to sleep themselves, which enables me to get a fresh story online by the time you wake up (do not hold me to this standard).
Patrols heading out into Musa Qala vary in time, obviously due to security reasons. On this day, we were “stepping out” in the mid-afternoon for what would essentially amount to a “presence patrol”, meaning exactly that.
In general, these patrols follow a simple pattern:
Using the Afghan National Police at the front and back of formation, the unit pushes out from the center of town into one direction or another for anywhere from 2-5 hours. In that time, the Marines are projecting a competent, professional looking police force, mentoring said police, providing presence security and conducting census interviews.
We walked past the voter registration site on the way out of the the base, which has been quite busy since I got here earlier in the week (Afghanistan’s second presidential election is rescheduled for August).
We worked our way around the HESCO barriers that protect this particular gate and straight out onto Main Street. The Afghan Police were ordered out into the street to prevent traffic from coming to close to the patrol, allowing everyone to file out into the road.
The patrol doesn’t allow people or vehicles to approach it while in the city, forcing everyone to stop while they past. The Marines operate with an escalation of force philosiphy that begins with hand and verbal commands, then escalates to the firing of “pin flares”, then on to warning shot until the final step of deadly force may be used. Things happen quickly in these situations and decisions must be sharp.
“STOP! STOP!,” immediately followed by the sound of a bottle rocket and a loud “POP!”.
The pin flares are shot at the motorcycles and other vehicles that, for whatever reason, push the boundaries.
“We’ve split a windshield and almost set a roof on fire with these things,” referring to the flares, which are fired from a small tube using a spring device for a trigger.
As we move along main street, it is absolutely clear that there are many people that are either sympathizers of, or actual full fledged Taliban. The stares coming from some of their faces were as cold as I’ve ever witnessed. No doubt a casual walk into this city unescorted would mean certain kidnapping or death.
For some reason, though, the LMT Marines have had no trouble since they got here. Much of the speculation about that is that the District Center is the economic hub of the enemy and they have a vested interest in NOT bringing the fight here. In any event, I am constantly watching for the guy with a bomb-laden motorcycle, or even worse, the average pedestrian that is packed with hand grenades and nails.
As we pushed down main street and stopped by one of the ANP posts that are set up at each end to monitor, and usually search, those coming and going through the DC. We spent a few minutes there as the Marines check in with the commander to see how things are. I take the opportunity to get some video clips as well as a few bites of an Afghan lunch consisting of a very greasy meat, rice and nan (very common combination).
Away From Main St.
Beyond the hustle and bustle of main street, we turn along a large wadi and then cut back toward the DC which turns into a maze of alleys that have been created by the dozens of walled compounds that extend out from the center. Those compounds are augmented by smaller mud walls that create boundaries and the irrigation system used to water whatever crop that is growing. In Musa Qala, it is either wheat, a form of hay and poppy.
As we move through the maze, some adults are questioned for census information by the Marines while others, especially those on motorbikes, are searched for weapons or other war contraband by the Afghan Police. Marines here have no orders to interdict drugs, making it a non-issue.
For a few hours we make our way through the fields, over ditches and down the “alleyways” of Musa Qala. All along the way the Marines continue passing out toys, mittens and school supplies while I run back, and forth from the front of the column to the back, getting video and photos of whatever interests me.
While the adults aren’t always nice, the children seem fascinated with the Marines; maybe they genuinely are or maybe they just want a handout. Regardless, one thing is for sure; just about every one of them knows at least one word of English and that’s “pen”. They all say, “pen” as you pass them. Often times in shy voices accompanied by the thumbs up sign of universal approval
The Marines know there’s a long way to go in setting up a fully functional police force: One that doesn’t steal, doesn’t shakedown shop owners and is professional in job and appearance. Up until two weeks ago, it was difficult to get the men to wear their vest plates and kevlar. Sometimes, when a top commander goes missing, so does the police force itself.
The hurdles are huge, but ultimately the most important part of this conflict, because without security, there’s no farmers bringing products to market, there’s no freedom of movement to allow these people the chance to feed their families. Without security, there is nothing.
Feb 17 at 11:11pm by David Tate
February 15, 2009
One of the Taliban’s main objective in their war on Afghanistan is education. Last year, scores of coalition-built government schools have been torched, female students have been attacked with acid and if to make a capital point, just two weeks ago suicide bombers attacked the Ministry of Education in downtown Kabul.
In Musa Qala, the British have spent quite a bit of money, and time, building the school that sits in the District Center; a project, from the outside, that seems to be moving along flawlessly.
Teaching is Hazardous
While the Marines here are tasked with mentoring the ANP, on this particular week, most of the mentoring has been shelved because most of the ANP are disbursed throughout the district in preparation for the upcoming presidential election no rescheduled for August. In the meantime, the Marines are also tasked with securing the district center.
The Marines had been hearing stories that the teachers in Musa Qala are being threatened with death for teaching the children of the area. With that in mind, we all geared up for the short walk to the school to find out what was going on first hand.
The school is two long buildings with a breezeway in the middle that echos with the sound of young boys playing, learning and laughing. On the outside everything seems normal. Once at the school, we are met by several older men, and a few young men, who are the teachers of what seem to be several hundred boys (I saw no girls and was not surprised). While the Marines conversed with the elders and delivered school supplies, I knocked on the door of a classroom and accepted an invitation in. Immediately the boys’ attention came to me, most smiling, all certainly interested.
Just like I do in the states, I gestured for them to pay attention to the teacher as I took a seat so I could get some good shots of their daily life. The teacher, like most Afghans, stood proudly before me waiting for me to take a picture. I have noticed that Afghans do not grasp the idea of carrying on, instead, they like to “pose” whenever a camera comes out.
I gestured several times for the old man to continue, which he finally did, and I got some excellent, candid video of the education process. These are the types of memories I keep with me forever. I cannot explain the satisfaction of being a “fly on the wall” in a place so far from my own regular world.
The next half hour, or so, was spent exploring the place, trying to converse with the kids (who were often getting in trouble for doing so; nothing a stone from an old man didn’t fix.) and getting some pictures. It went by rather quickly and before I knew it, we were ready to leave.
As the Marines had heard, the teachers are terribly afraid for their lives. Taliban “night letters” have been showing up at local mosques warning of dire consequences for teaching these children anything but religious instruction. It’s amazing what a handful of zealots can do to the psyche of so many.
“Today was hearts and minds,” said one Marine. ”Tomorrow we’ll do more security work.”
Feb 17 at 2:02am by David Tate
February 14, 2009
For some reason, whenever I have to move lately, it comes very early. This time, I needed to be up by 0330 for a 0500 flight to where I will start an embed with 3/8′s Police Mentoring Team in Musa Qala, a Taliban stronghold in east central Helmand Province.
With the sky still dark, I waited in a HMMWV (Hum-V) for the chopper to arrive, which came in right on time. The huge Marine CH-53s are designed to carry as many as a platoon, but on this cold morning, just myself and another Marine were picked up and whisked away.
The gunner’s doors were open which sent a 120 mph+ frigid wind straight through me, reminding me of a time in Iraq when I made the mistake of sitting in the “hurricane seat”. I had to dig deep to turn off the cold for the short 15 minute ride to Musa Qala.
Once there, I was led into the “White House”, which the Marines say was an old hotel and former Taliban compound. Most of the Marines were out for the night, so I spent the day catching up on some writing and gear maintenance.
Musa Qala (Moo-sah Kah’lah)
When the Brits first came here a few years back, they simply occupied the town center which quickly turned into a “Fort Apache” situation, eventually forcing a withdraw. Skip two years ahead and the Brits, Afghans and US Special Forces came back for good, en force, and remain here to this day.
The town is in what is called, “The Green Zone”, although right now it is brown and drab. That will soon change as crops start to grow and the trees regain their leaves. Located in the Helmand River Valley, this strategic town is the epicenter of Afghanistan’s poppy trade. Like Kabul, Musa Qala is an island of sorts, with British Ghurkas (from Nepal) fighting near daily battles to the north, west and south of the district center.
The British base here is a medium-sized base, much larger than a COP, which also contains an adjoining Afghan National Army base, Afghan Police headquarters, the Marines and the district jail. The “White House” itself sits next to the helo pad which is the only way for coalition troops to get in or out.
Center of Gravity
The district center itself falls under the guidance of the small Marine team stationed here that are mentoring Afghan Police in a bid to establish government authority. The Marines are operating well out of 3/8′s AO (Area of Operations) and is really a legacy of USMC 2/7, who operated here prior to 3/8′s arrival late last year. 2/7′s mission was to control district centers (DC) throughout the area, including Musa Qala, hence the carry over.
Two days before this platoon arrived, a massive car bomb exploded in the bazaar, killing a police commander and nearly two dozen other Afghans. Since then, however, things in Musa Qala’s DC have been relatively quiet.
Some of the Marines are content with their mission here, others want to put their “skills” to use. It doesn’t make it any easier for them as nightly they watch illumination flares drift through the night sky, enhanced by the sound of occasional explosions just outside of their area.
Feb 16 at 2:02am by David Tate
The US-led coalition reports that the top Taleb leader, and eight other high ranking members of the insurgency in Badghis Province, have been killed in an airstrike.
Through intelligence sources, Mullah Dastighir was located in Daraya-ye-Morghjab, a village on the border with Turkmenistan, and killed with a precision strike. Dastighir is believed responsible for a considerable escalation in terrorist activity in the far northwestern province, including a well planned ambush in November that killed 13 members of Afghanistan’s security forces who were escorting a resupply convoy through the province.
From my 11/29/08 story:
A miles long resupply convoy in northwestern Afghanistan was attacked November 27 by up to 300 militants resulting in 13 dead and another 16 missing. The casualties are a mix of security forces, including Afghan National Army.
The 70 vehicle convoy was making its way through Akazai, Badghis Province carrying winter supplies and other needs for Afghan Security Forces (ASF) in the province. According to local security officials, the fighting lasted more than three hours and nearly two dozen vehicles, with supplies, were also taken.
International troops called to the scene say as many as 40 of the militants also died in the battle. That assessement offered following supporting airstrikes.
While one report says 16 government troops have been captured, local security leaders remain cautious. “It is not known if they have been captured or have gone into the mountains and taken positions,” said regional police chief Ali Khan Hussain Zada.
Updated 1100 EST 2/16/09.
Feb 16 at 1:01am by David Tate
February 11, 2009 – Bakwa district, Farah Province
I awoke to the sounds of wind blasting through the tent, not really a good thing when you are dealing with a dusty desert. That forces everyone to hide their electronic gear so it doesn’t get ruined even quicker. It’s especially troublesome for me because of the camera equipment I work with. After all, I just spent $12,000 updating my editing system and camera to Hi Def, so believe you me, I start tripping a little. Things were not helped by the fact that the Marines decided to play a sandlot football game in front of my tent; every single slight movement (and it was not slight) sent plumes of baby powder dust straight into our tent.
Like I often do, I made my way to a nearby guard tower to talk to the sentry. Sentry duty is boring as hell and it seems as though my visits break up the monotony. Once up there, I noticed a group of me, most in white turbans, making their way toward the COP with a small contingent of Marines going to meet them.
“They were standing on the far side of the field waving,” said the Marine. ”Looks like they want something.”
At first I wasn’t going to go out. I’d already taken plenty of pictures of meetings like this. But then I thought it may be good, for information sake, to sit in on the meeting. I climbed back down, put on my flak and headed out to the Afghan version of a town hall meeting. I was pretty sure what this meeting was about. After all, just two days before, the Marines detained an 80+ year old village elder and I expected such a visit.
Knee to Knee
By the time I got out there, the meeting was in full swing. Captain Hoffman was already in place, sitting before the group of roughly 30 Afghans with flak and helmet off, weapon laid to the side and a squad of Marines holding a security perimeter.
The meeting consisted of a couple of issues: First, the elders wanted the old man back. They say the explosives found are used for construction due to the hard, cement nature of the ground here. That was the first the Marines had heard of this and was not the story being told by the suspects, so it was an unconvincing argument.
“If you people have explosives and weapons, we need to know about it,” explained Hoffman. ”These explosives are killing my Marines.”
The other major concern of the elders was that the helicopters scared the children. This issue was recognized as understandable, but one that could only be dealt with by reassuring them the choppers are there for their protection. The elders seem to think that the helicopters would strike at random farmers tilling the fields, something Hoffman denied.
“If you’re digging, we can see if you’re digging in your field or planting an IED,” said the Captain, referring to the Marines’ use of observation drones.
The other major point of contention was the well being of a local man, who a few days before, was caught planting an IED and attacked by a Cobra gunship. The man was attempting to flee on a motorbike and was strafed. He lost part of his foot when it got tangled in the bikes’ chain as it flipped. He also suffered a nasty chest wound. He is lucky to be alive.
The man’s father has been trying to find the young man ever since, even going all the way to Farah city where his son was originally taken for medical treatment. ”He’s been moved to a hospital in Helmand,” explained Hoffman. ”I’ll make some calls and if you come back tomorrow, I’ll will tell you how he is.”
The conversation moved back and forth around these subjects for at least an hour before the meeting adjourned on a simple note, that seemed to garner agreement from the elders.
“The more information you give us, the more we can help you.”
Note: This is my last dispatch from 3/8 India Co. and I’m moving on to 3/8′s Police Mentoring Team in Musa Qala, Helmand Province. If you have found this series helpful, please consider a small donation through Paypal: firstname.lastname@example.org. I will also provide a snail mail address if requested. Thanks to those who have contributed and the others that have provided blessings. My work would be worthless without you. Dave.