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Afghanistan: Notes from a soldier-turned-civilian

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

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.

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