Afghanistan: Notes from a soldier-turned-civilian

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.

Follow GlobalPost's Afghanistan blog.

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.

The troops receive an intel report that four to six fighters with a big machine gun are heading our way to plant an improvised explosive device (IED) in the road outside the outpost. The Americans and Afghans couldn't see anything in the dust and darkness, but fired some illumination rounds and a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) to try and scare them off. In the morning, the Afghan soldiers found two IEDs buried in the road about 400 meters outside the base. Since they didn't have any disposal resources or training, they fired machine guns and RPGs at the bombs until they went off, sending a mushroom cloud high in the air. In the distance, a fuel tanker on the highway burns, the sky going black all around us. After taking some small arms fire, the Afghans line up on the outpost walls like medieval archers on the ramparts.

One American next to one Afghan, the soldiers stream out of Lakokhel in the morning heat, into the grape rows. Hidden ditches and thick vegetation, ancient gnarled grapevines thick as a man's neck grab at muddy boots. Soldiers hop over mud walls in the sudden humidity.

The soldiers carry enormous loads of ammunition, water, radios, mine detectors, backpacks full of iron and antennas that jam enemy electronics, armor and more bullets. They keep miscalculating their own weight and falling into deep ditches and little streams.

The group clambers over a mud wall and falls into a poppy field, which stands bone dry and flat and open. The poppies were harvested earlier in the summer, but many are still standing to seed next year's crop. Each bulbous seed pod has been methodically scratched to release the opiate sap, the tiny scars now dry and brittle. The brown rattles shudder in the wind and the soldiers hurry through, feeling exposed.

There are more grapes beyond the poppies, and men and boys harvesting them with small curved knives. A middle-aged man who doesn't appear to be working the fields introduces himself as the nephew of the local tribal elder. The soldiers follow him along a narrow path to the village of Lakokhel. Along the way, stunted cannabis plants stand in various states of disrepair until the walls of the village, where hundreds of pounds of hashish dry on a huge tarp. One of the Afghan soldiers asks for some, and a child fills a bag with several ounces for him.

It's incredibly hot and all the soldiers can think about is their core temperature and how much water they have left. The lieutenant asks the villagers about all the drugs, but the questions seem based on simple curiosity. Some of the soldiers say they've never seen marijuana before, and some of them speculate wildly on its street value. Despite the awesome quantity of cannabis in Lakokhel, it is of such poor quality that it would be virtually unsalable in the United States — the plants are in a nearly wild, hemp-like state.

While the U.S. and Afghan soldiers walk together, they seem to become more distant as the mission goes on. Some of them leave formation to smoke hash in an alley with a couple of villagers. A U.S. soldier tries to go through a gate into an open compound but an Afghan soldier stops him and locks the gate. As soon as the outpost is in sight, the Afghans head straight for it without consideration of maintaining a secure formation.

On our return to the base, one of the younger soldiers throws up, and the machine gunners look pale as ghosts, staring into the distance with grim desperation. As body armor is peeled off, steam rises angrily from the soldiers' shirts and their sweat-soaked gear. The patrol, along with sandbag filling details and persistent diarrhea, has cost the platoon more water than expected.

Soldiers gather around the aid station, swapping stories and rumors and drinking Gatorade and smoking stale cigarettes. They talk about the things they've heard about the Taliban, much in the same way that young Taliban fighters might speculate about the Americans.

“I heard those guys think they're gonna get a hundred virgins when they die in battle," the troops say.

"I heard those guys think they're gonna get a Harley-Davidson Night Train when they die in battle,” the Taliban might say.