Mar 29 at 8:08am by David Tate
Here’s a set of photos I took with British and Afghan troops as we probed the front line south of Musa Qala District Center, Helmand Province in February.
The units involved are 3/3 205th (ANA) and 1st Bn. “The Rifles” (UK).
Mar 21 at 12:12pm by David Tate
Sunday, February 22nd – Kandahar Air Field
Once at KAF I could lay all my stuff out to determine what would continue on with me and what wouldn’t. At this point in the trip, all dirty clothes are gone right off the top. It seems I’m always organizing my stuff. When you travel light, I guess that would be expected. I’m always looking for ways to pack my gear as efficiently as possible, which leads to me never remembering where I put things. That, of course, leads to me always going through my gear in a ferocious cycle. Funny thing is: I have thrown away all sorts of things and my bag is still packed to the maximum and it is still as heavy as ever.
The good news is that my flight back to Kabul is scheduled for the following morning, and with three extra days left in my trip, I should make it to my plane on time come Thursday. In the meantime, I spent most of my time on the boardwalk, enjoying real coffee and the wireless internet service, which allowed me to get plenty of work done.
Later that evening, I met up with one of my Public Affairs Officers to talk about the goods and bads of my embedment. I’m not sure what they do with the information, although I would imagine they use it to better accommodate journalists in the future, as well as use it in an ongoing “file” on said journalist. Regardless, I try to provide constructive suggestions that will help the embedment process grow.
As mentioned before, my embed was a relative success. I was able to hook up with Marines in Farah and Helmand, as well as get a bit of time with the Brits and Afghans. My goal in country is to get as many different images as I can. The wider the variety, the better. Because I contribute to a historical archive, this is a must to be successful.
Of course the downside, which was NOT a big deal at all, was not being able to go the the specific area of Helmand I wanted to go. The fact is, I have a goal as do the Marines who are hosting me, and that sometimes isn’t the same goal. In this case, I wanted to see a front line and the Marines wanted me to see what a majority of their Marines were doing. That is fair, but as I explained to the Marines, they are not my employers. However, as the Marines explained to me, “If we didn’t want you here, you wouldn’t be here.” Fair enough. That basically sums up why the embed process comes under fire from journalist watchdogs.
Monday, February 23rd
One of the PAOs came by to pick me up at 1000 for a 1230 flight to Kabul. That flight was cancelled, but I did make the next flight a few hours later.
The plane was packed with people and gear; no room for a single person more. The passengers included soldiers from at least a dozen countries, which really typifies the world effort going on here. The trip is just over an hour with the last 30 minutes of the trip being unbearable as my morning coffee decided it was time to make its exit.
Stepping off the plane in Kabul was a shock of sorts. Having boarded the plane with just a T-shirt on, I really wasn’t expecting sleet when I got off, but it was coming down good in Kabul that day, not that I cared as I looked for the closest porta-john.
For the next two nights I stayed at the military base located next to Kabul International Airport (KIA), as I was in no hurry to go back into town and Kabul hotel life. Besides, I wanted to hook up with TF Phoenix to get some video of Afghan boot camp, but the PAO was not very good at returning email requests.
The guy that billets the transients told me I had to go by Wednesday because all the bunks were needed, which was better than nothing. After all, there’s decent food, wireless internet and a night club where I could enjoy my first beer in several weeks; Becks has never tasted so good!! And only $1.20 to boot.
Wednesday, February 25th
I spent the previous day working on a post about kidnappings in Kabul, and the region in general, which left me very paranoid about going back into Kabul, alone, with all my gear. I actually gave my wife a deadline for me to contact her, that if passed, she should inform the US Embassy that I was missing.
Currently, at least two western journalists (including a top-tier print journalist), and their local companions, are missing as well as a French aide worker, so all I could think about was the walking bag of money I must look like to some enterprising criminals. While Taliban are a threat here, I more fear the desperate, evil person looking for a ransom.
Which reminds me. In February I pulled a post regarding the major journalist missing (read above) at the behest of family and friends of the victim. I’ve also been informed that my future presence in Kabul would be met cooly by my colleagues for disclosing this kidnapping publicly. Regardless, while I will not name names out of respect for the family, let it be known my stance on this situation.
A Lesson in Ethics
When a journalist goes off to interview the Taliban, they take on inherent risks. Several western journalists have recently tried; some have been successful, others have not. One who has not is a Canadian woman being held in Pakistan after trying to report from the tribal region. The other is a well known investigative reporter who most recently worked for one of the biggest papers in the country. He disappeared in November trying to meet the Taliban south of Kabul.
Since his disappearance, the western press as a whole has decided not to report the incident. I am not part of this “agreement”, so I do not know the reasons for the self-censorship, but judging from the response I got following my post, it seems that money and the man’s life are the key concerns.
“I have heard it will cost a fortune to get him out,” said one Kabul journalist who has been one of the few to openly report the story. Everyone wants to be quiet so not to upset the negotiation process, which involves the lives of three men; three men who made the decision that led to their capture.
And that’s where the money comes into play? I’m just guessing, but I assume the more publicity there is (and there would be) the higher the ransom. This is where I just can’t let it go. Let us just say a ransom is paid (the Canadian woman’s kidnappers want two million).
The question I have is: How many people will die from the weapons bought with the ransom money? Seriously, an untold number of farmers, soldiers, teachers, etc… will die because of ransom money paid to these criminals. People who did not make a very poor choice of trying to get a face-to-face interview with the Taliban.
While I hope these journalists get out alive and write books about their ordeal, if it is done with ransom money, the blood of many innocents will be on their bill in debt. The journalists keeping hush hush about this need to keep that in mind.
Of interesting note: One of the journalists who is ignoring the story is a famed writer, on the Afghan beat, and colleague of the missing. Ironically, a week before her friend went missing, she wrote a large story on the rise of kidnappings in the region and focused on the kidnapping of the French aide worker who was taken the day before (who is still missing).
End of Rant and Moving On
So after getting rid of anything extra, I slung my bag over my shoulder and headed out the front gate, not knowing if I’d be able to get a taxi or not. Last time I walked out this gate in 2004, I hitched a ride with a truckload of Afghan Police (much to their delight), however things have changed here and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Fortunately, luck was on my side and I had a taxi within just a few minutes and was on my way back to the Mustafa Hotel for my last night in Afghanistan.
I was glad to be back at the Mustafa. They are extremely nice, catering and fair. While there are no armed guards, there are a dozen machine gun-toting cops just outside the front door manning a checkpoint. So other than it being a little chilly (the heaters they provide seem deadly to me, carbon monoxide-wise), I love the place, as does my wallet ($30 p/night).
I spent much of this day looking for small gifts to bring back to certain people. My primary thinking was to get silk scarves for my wife. So I headed down Chicken Street to the main drag, in the area, and headed toward Shar-a-Now where my favorite carpet shop used to be. I hoped it, and my friend Fahrad, would still be there.
Finding the shop was easy and walking in was like walking in five years ago. Looked exactly the same, as did Fahrad. ”You look the same, Daud.” We did some catching up as we sat on the floor, drinking green tea and looking through the scarves. I had $50 to spend and wanted to do the best I could, in the sense of numbers and colors. In the end I found a great lot and ended up with seven silk scarves. Not bad at all (and yes, Heidi loved them). Thanking Fahrad, I headed out onto the street.
“We are your bodyguards,” they would say. The hotel owner said they always say that to westerners. I can’t go anywhere without getting an army of children following me. I think some of them genuinely like me, but for the most part, they want bakeesh… money. This time in Kabul, the begging was stifling. I would literally have 10 kids following me as I warded off burqa-clad women attacking from the front, all holding the saddest looking babies. “Badcha,” they would say, which means, “baby”. I would spend 15 bucks every time I left the hotel. I gave money, bought cakes, food, medicine. I even gave away my cell phone. It was unbelievable to the point that I didn’t leave the hotel but a few times after that.
That’s ok because I would spend the evening having a nice party at the Mustafa, with everything I needed right there.
Mar 19 at 2:02pm by David Tate
The Coalition reports that 30 anti government fighters were killed during a combat recon patrol in southern Afghanistan.
The battle happened in Greshk district, Helmand Province after a joint Afghan National Army/Coalition patrol was attacked during a reconnaissance mission into known enemy territory.
A Coalition press release says the joint force moved into an area “of known enemy presence” and were met with heavy machine gun and rocket propelled grenade fire.
After the initial contact was broke, Coalition troops continued their pursuit until a second firefight broke out which ended when air strikes were ordered.
While the release does not mention the nationality of the coalition troops involved, the area of the battle is supported by British troops.
One Afghan National Army soldier was wounded in the engagement.
Mar 15 at 7:07am by David Tate
Here are all the pictures from my time in Bakwa, Farah Province. The unit is 3/8 Marines from Camp Lejeune. While I have been putting out a lot of content, it has been tough going, so in the following weeks, please be patient and check back often. These pictures are from the second week of February 2009, and unknown to me at the time, part of Operation Pathfinder.
Mar 14 at 12:12pm by David Tate
This is the first of maybe 10 videos that I’ll be releasing in regards to my recent trip to Farah and Helmand Provinces. This particular story is a video version of this post: Four Hours With Brits and Afghans.
This 5:00 story is a natural sound package and has no voice track in it. Hope you like it.
Mar 12 at 4:04pm by David Tate
February 22, 2009 – Musa Qala, Helmand Province
The Marines like to move early and my embed extraction would be no different. In pre-dawn darkness, you could hear the huge CH-53 “Super Stallions”, but couldn’t see them. They were supposed to be bringing in some vehicles that would be dropped onto the landing zone (LZ).
Once the vehicles were dropped, the huge heavy lift choppers would be offloaded, and then loaded, for a trip to Bastion. This would be the first of several support trips for these chopper crews in what sounded like a busy day.
The choppers made several passes before finally dropping their loads; each time we would hunker behind a HESCO or vehicle as ill fated protection against the wind and sand blasting us as a result of the heavy blades coming in.
Once the choppers were unloaded, and reloaded, we filed into the end of the chopper with no room to spare. It was the exact opposite of the trip in.
Also different this time around was the temperature was no where near as cold. Of course this time I’m ready for it.
Back at Bastion
The trip to Bastion from Musa Qala isn’t very long at all. The plan was for my PAO to meet me at the helo pad and then get me into position to catch a flight to Kandahar.
Once at Bastion, I watched as everyone but myself and an interpreter got picked up… and we waited.
Not being one to wait too long, after I inquired, the PFC at the pad offered up a ride to the flight line; an offer I took after just a few seconds of thinking. I knew there were three flights on this day, the first coming in just an hour or two, so I decided to make my way over in hopes of manifesting myself on the flight.
Once there, it was just a matter of handing over my passport for identification and manifesting on the flight. After a short wait punctuated by hockey puck coffee, I was in a line of about 15 troops and contractors making our way across the tarmac to the rumbling C-130 that would take me to KAF (Kandahar Air Field).
I landed at KAF around 1100 and was making incredible time. I had built an extra week onto the schedule to get out of country and I was well ahead of schedule. It is at this juncture that I start worrying about time. While there may be a lot of flights scheduled for Bagram and Kabul, many are cancelled due to the weather. In this particular week, weather in Kabul was wintry, so I anticipated a few days in Kandahar.
I was expecting someone to meet me at Whiskey Ramp, where the plane taxis to, but again, there is no one waiting. It really didn’t bother me because I had already gotten this far on my own and the communications are being crossed, so there was a good chance the Marines didn’t even know I was at KAF yet.
I quickly found a couple of SPMAGTF Marines at Whiskey Ramp and got them to give me a lift to the other side of the airfield. The trip takes a slow, windy path all the way to the tip of the runway , where vehicles cross, before backtracking down the main street toward the headquarters section. By speed limit the trip is 20 minutes; impossible to have humped.
Once at HQ, my public affairs Marine brought me to my quarters. This time around, the smaller 30 man tents were all taken so I was taken to a large berthing warehouse, for lack of better word, that could hold at least 300 troops. While there weren’t that many troops here at this time, I’d never been in a barracks like it.
Inside I found contractors and various soldiers on various missions. One particular officer was extremely frustrated with his situation. Part of Task Force Phoenix, he was a National Guard soldier called up for just a few months. He claims he had a heck of a time getting to his unit because of various issues, both natural and bureaucratic and was finally on his way to his unit with less than a month to go in his orders. ”Biggest waste of tax payer money I’ve ever seen,” he said. Quickly followed by, “I won’t volunteer for this again.”
Another interesting conversation I had was with an active duty Army officer working as an embedded trainer with the Afghan National Army. He tells of how life in Zabol Province is getting worse.
He claims that last year, an IED killed two Americans in Zabol, which included a senior officer. After that attack, US Special Forces supposedly caused quite the stir by killing some innocent folks in a nighttime raid, which has since left public relations in southern Zabol in a state of FUBAR (I have no idea if the incident is the same where Afghan Police were accidentally killed in the same region).
This, he says, has made his job much more difficult. ”We never know when they (SF) come or where they’re going. We’re just given a date and a box of roughly XX square kilometers… (as to where they’ll be).”
The officer also talks about a place in northern Zabol, near Ghazni Province, where anti government forces supposedly have an Rn’R location centered around an abandoned Afghan Army base that couldn’t hold the ground.
“SF doesn’t even go up there, and when they do, they take fire from the time they go in until the time they come out.”
Sounds like at least one province is about to step it up a notch on the violence scale. Actually… I think this is going to be a long year of fighting in Afghanistan, period.
Within the next month or two, be sure the news coming from this country is going to be quite sobering.
Mar 8 at 1:01pm by David Tate
Ok, I’m going to try something new, because frankly, it is more time efficient and I have little time. So I’ll be posting my embed pictures on Facebook. I’m still going to put them in SoundSlides… just when I get more time.
Here’s the first group of pictures I put together. Most are from Musa Qala, some from Kabul and the rest Farah.
Hope you like them.
Mar 7 at 11:11am by David Tate
As I finish up the final few posts from my most recent embed, I thought I would take a quick second to get the word out regarding an offer I have for combat vets and their families.
While I cannot accommodate everyone, I can invite at least two families, this summer, to enjoy my family’s prime camping area, located in the beautiful New River Valley in southwestern Virginia.
I have tried to figure out some way to give back something to a community that has helped me so much and this is what I’ve come up with.
What I am looking for is a combat vet and his/her family to come spend as much as a week at our property. The site is well maintained with a very nice covered deck/gazeebo overlooking an awesome mountain creek that we stock with rainbow trout.
Just four hours from Fayetteville, N.C., this could be the perfect getaway for decompression and enjoying your family.
If you’re interested, just drop me a note telling me why and the dates you would like. I’ll pick two families for this summer within the next week or two.
I encourage ANY combat vet from the coalition to apply.
Mar 1 at 3:03pm by David Tate
Ok… I can’t take it anymore. Surge this, surge that. Whatever. Ever since the surge of 2007, as the Battle of Baghdad was raging, the media has had a penchant for this word and it is making me dizzy.
Let us get this straight because history needs to know what is, and what isn’t, a military surge. The media is back with this darling of a word and I’m going to get them to make this right.
surge |sərj|noun - a sudden powerful forward or upward movement, esp. by a crowd or by a natural force such as the waves or tide : flooding caused by tidal surges.• a sudden large increase, typically a brief one that happens during an otherwise stable or quiescent period.
Simple as that: ”A sudden large increase, typically a brief one that happens during an otherwise stable or quiescent period.”
The fact is, in regards to military surges, there have been three large scale surges, in either Afghanistan or Iraq, since either war began. What we face today in Afghanistan 2009, is actually an escalation and it needs to be recognized as such.
escalate |ˈeskəˌlāt|verb [ intrans. ]increase rapidly : the price of tickets escalated | [as adj. ] ( escalating) the escalating cost of health care.• become or cause to become more intense or serious : [ intrans. ] the disturbance escalated into a full-scale riot | [ trans. ] we do not want to escalate the war.
Surge of 2004
The first true surge during the war in Iraq and Afghanistan came in spring 2004 in Afghanistan. At that time, the coalition was struggling to get security into place for the upcoming election, which would be Afghanistan’s first, free presidential election in its history.
One province that had seen no real coalition presence was the south central Taliban hub or Oruzgan Province; a major opium producing region that is the birth place of AQ #2 Mullah Omar himself.
US Marines from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) landed there in early March, continuing military operations (and northern Kandahar Province) through the month of July. When the Marines left, they were replaced by an Army unit that was already in country, which started the process of turning it into the Provincial Reconstruction Team, as well as the center of operations for the Dutch-led task force, TF Oruzgan.
22nd MEU was in Afghanistan for roughly six months before being pulled out and not replaced by an additional unit, qualifying this event as a surge.
Surge of 2007
In early 2007, President Bush announced his intention to launch a surge into the war in Iraq that would prove to be the death blow for Al Qaeda in Iraq during the pivotal Battle for Baghdad that had been underway for some time. The surge he ordered would see the troop numbers swell 30,000 to more than 160,000 troops, a wartime high.
At least 10,000 of those troops had extended tours of 15 months and were not replaced once those tours were up. I would qualify this as a sustained surge, because the fact is, post-surge levels are at 150,000, down just 12,000. Subtract that from the 30,000 surge and you see what was replaced. That number is now shrinking daily as the US finally shifts focus to Afghanistan.
Surge of 2008
In late spring of 2008, the 24th MEU landed in Kandahar and launched a massive assault on the Taliban’s logistic base, Garmsir, in the southern Helmand River Valley. After almost five straight weeks of fighting, the battle slowed, as frontlines set in and many of the regions residents returned to their homes and bringing life back to the pivotal District Center.
When the Marines were pulled out of southern Helmand, they were relieved in place (RIP) by British and Afghan forces as USMC 2/7 continued to set the foundation for the Special Purpose Marine Air/Ground Task Force (SPMAGTF) which is currently in place.
Why This is Now an Escalation Phase
Once additional Marines (2/7) augmented the 24th MEU (surge force), this conflict escalated in troop numbers which set the American level at a wartime high of 33,000. This force eventually became the SPMAGTF.
3/2 Marines are currently preparing a prolonged RIP with the current combat element of the the task force, 3/8 Marines, which will sustain the Marine presence in Helmand and Farah Provinces.
With President Obama’s authorization of 17,000 additional troops, plans are now underway to send the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB), which will permanently add approximately 8,ooo additional Marines to the mix currently fighting in southern Afghanistan.
Surge of 2009?
The surge of 2009 is the addition of troops that are coming in relation to the August election. For instance: Germany is sending an additional 600 troops in time for the election. If those troops are pulled after the election, those troops would be “surge” troops.
Currently, the 22nd MEU is once again out and about, cruising around the world to a destination(s) unknown. The current good odds bet on my chart would see the 22nd MEU landing in Helmand Province for a renewed push, south of Garmsir, to continue where the last combat MEU left off. If they are not replaced after 4-5 months of combat ops, they too would be a surge force.
However, there is a school of thought that suggests the MEU cycle is about to go into a steady Afghanistan replacement format, which would make that another escalation of boots on the ground (unless it is something already built into current plans but has not been released).
So in a nutshell, the current “surge” actually started with 24th MEU in spring 2008, was augmented by USMC 2/7, becoming an escalation in force when they were replaced by the current SPMAGTF in November of last year.
There’s my pitch. The surge is out, an escalation is in as a new catch word. Whataya think?