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Afghanistan: Notes from a soldier-turned-civilian

An Iraq veteran, now a GlobalPost photographer, finds his nerves tested.

COMBAT OUTPOST LAKOKHEL, Afghanistan — There are 30,000 small villages in Afghanistan; Sansigar is the one we can walk to from our base in 20 minutes. It would be another unremarkable collection of mud brick huts and walled compounds if it weren't home to the mosque where Mullah Omar taught before he founded the Taliban movement. Sangisar is where the Taliban hung the warlords' thugs from the tank barrels.

Combat Outpost Lakokhel is a tiny square of Hesco barriers and sandbags right next to the farming community called Besmullah. The U.S. soldiers from B Company, 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry, 101st Airborne Division have been here a month but have not met any of their neighbors save one — an elderly man who came to the entrance, looked around, and said almost nothing.

Soldiers watch the corner of Besmullah from small holes in their guard towers' camouflage netting and occasionally dodge single rounds fired by a better-than-average Taliban marksman hiding in the nearby ruins.

For every U.S. soldier at Lakokhel, there is an Afghan National Army counterpart. The two platoons live in tents on opposite sides of the installation, about 150 feet apart. They have their own supply chains, but the Afghans sneak over to steal ready-to-eat meals (MREs) and Gatorade, and the Americans ask them for roast goat, tea and fresh bread from the Howz-e Madad bazaar, eight kilometers to the north on Highway 1.

Having spent more than two years as a soldier in Iraq, pitted against unbelievably wily and determined foes, the security situation at Lakokhel makes me nervous. While it would be irresponsible to comment on all the force protection shortcomings the soldiers there must live with, I will say that it was quite unnerving to wake up to see an armed Afghan soldier slowly open the door flap to the U.S.-enlisted sleeping tent, peer inside, then dash away.

The level of trust and restraint that the U.S. soldiers display is a testament to how much faith they have in the Army's current counterinsurgency doctrine. They are willing to accept much greater risks than they would in a combat-focused engagement, because they believe their mission would fail without such close partnership with the Afghan troops.

When the local Taliban marksman sent an AK-47 round into a guard tower one afternoon, the Afghan soldiers, led by their rambunctious first sergeant, let loose with everything they had. Nearly 1,000 rounds of 7.62mm and 5.56mm machine gun rounds tore into the surrounding grape fields, which are now being harvested by local men and boys.

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When the machine guns run out of ammo, barrels smoking, the first sergeant picked up a grenade launcher and let several 40mm grenades fly. It's unlikely they hurt anyone, but the U.S. soldiers consider the reaction a destabilizing force and refuse to replace the Afghans' rapidly expended ammunition.

At night the soldiers fire illumination rounds from grenade launchers and small mortar tubes. The stars here are bright and bold and clear and wild, the Milky Way stretching in sharp relief from Besmullah to Howz-e Madad. It's cool and comfortable, and I'd prefer to sleep atop the bunker, though at first light I'd likely be shot off it by the Besmullah sniper. A soldier from the previous unit was up there one morning messing with some fuel cans, and a round sliced his shirt open without touching him.

After a night in the junior enlisted tent, I might prefer to be shot. The three-hour guard shifts mean the 30-man tent is lit and moving and shouting and joking and watching bad movies and fighting and snoring all the time. Howling PFCs careen into my cot and I open my eyes to the platoon sniper standing over me, bathing himself with baby wipes.

When there are no missions, which is most days, you wait. Wake with the morning light, wash your face with the clear and cold well water, walk back to the tent, read for awhile, chat with the medic in the aid station for five hours, eat part of an MRE, stagger back to the tent exhausted and defeated by the sun.

There are two dogs here, the soldiers say, but I only see one. Dishka, named for the absurdly powerful Russian machine gun, sleeps most of the day in whatever shade she can find. Sandbag is nowhere to be seen, and I suspect that he is actually a figment of the soldiers' imaginations, brought on by the heat and exhaustion and terror and boredom. The dog (or dogs) kill everything. Rats, goats, birds, cats — the dust is littered with the bones of their prey. The soldiers swear there is a puma that sometimes slinks past the guard towers at night. While pumas are confined to the Americas, there is an extremely rare subspecies of leopard that may range into western Zhari. It seems more likely that it's a big dog, or perhaps it's Sandbag.

While there is a freezer chest at Lakokhel, it is irretrievably broken. The Americans still bring steaks out from time to time — a thoroughly frozen steak will keep for about four days in the chest. One of the squad leaders has a proprietary spice blend that seems to be paprika, onion powder, pepper, salt, and something citrusy. Grilled perfectly under the stars, the steaks bear no resemblance to the shoe leather served at dining facilities across Afghanistan. It's shocking to learn it's the same meat.

The Stryker unit, which operates a huge armored vehicle, that left here last month got pretty chewed up, and the stories they told Bravo Company circulate with an air of dread.

On the day the Strykers brought Bravo in, they got into a four-hour firefight, ran out of ammo, and had to break contact. Since the Strykers left, it's only a single shot now and then, but everyone knows it's only quiet while the bulk of the fighting is just to the east in Arghandab. Soon they will start patrolling more and pushing into the lands that the Taliban rely on, and start closing in on Sangisar.

Two years ago, Canadian soldiers fought a huge battle to clear Sangisar and set up a combat outpost, but it was abandoned shortly thereafter. No one at Lakokhel knows if it's still there, or if it was dismantled. The soldiers, many of them on their first deployment, are well aware that the land they stand on has seen violence of unbelievable ferocity over the past 30 years. Many Russians, Afghans, Canadians and Americans have died in the immediate vicinity of Lakokhel.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/afghanistan/100729/combat-outpost-lakokhel-afghanistan