OFF TO MAZAR-E-SHARIF |
February 07, 2007
OFF TO MEZAR-E-SHARIF
Posting date: 2/7/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Time for another mission. This time we're off to Mezar-e-Sharif, all the way up north. We get up early, pile into a C130, and fly like a bat out of hell. These pilots here do not fly like pilots in the States; they want to get up in the air as quickly as possible, and back down out of the air just as fast. So there is no taxi-and-gradual-assent or gentle-coast-down-onto-the-runway. These boys are rockin! They rev the engines all the way, to get up and out of direct fire range as fast as possible, and fly full speed down to the ground and don't hit the brakes until they hit the pavement. The interesting thing is how quickly this becomes routine. The guys around me in the plane are sleeping? I was just trying to keep my lunch down.
We land at Mezar-e Sharif International Airport (they have a flight that goes to Uzbekistan, a point they are very proud of) and climb onto a relatively new Mercedes tour bus with bright red curtains. Nice. And air-conditioning too. But for some reason, once we're loaded the driver shuts off the AC and turns on the heat. I bet he thinks he is funny. I want to go up and smack him.
It's a stifling hour's drive to the Afgan National Army camp, and it takes us right through the middle of the city. All of a sudden there is a thud outside, and the bus stops. Everyone inside quietly secures their weapons; here and there you hear a clicks of the selector switches being put from safe to fire.
"Hey! What's going down?"
It turns out a taxi has run into the bus.The taxi driver is standing in front of his taxi, yelling at our bus driver, who gets out, runs up to the taxi driver and punches him in the jaw. The taxi driver goes down. The bus driver gets back in and we're on our way. Traffic court, Afghan style. Now I'm glad I didn't smack him.
We finally get to the camp, which looks much better than Kandahar. It's clean and the troops look more professional. But the routine is the same -- handshakes all around (I am starting to feel like a politician) and Chai tea. This Afghan unit is definitely better trained than others we've worked with. When I ask why, it becomes clear. The corps general is the area warlord, and these troops, before they were Afghan Army, were Northern Alliance. So basically they have been fighting someone or other for close to twenty years. When we start our inspection their attitude is, "What can you tell me that I don't already know?"
They ask how long we have been in the Army. My battle buddy tells them, "Ten years," and immediately gets a silly-little-boy look from all the Afghan officers in the room. When I answer "Twenty-five years," I get nods and smiles, and they only deal with me for the rest of the interview. Being an old fart helps sometimes.
I look at my watch and it's lunch time. My stomach tightens, and I try to sneak to the mess hall on the American side of the compound. But I am caught and redirected to the corps commander's mess hall. Here we go again. When I walk in it looks like Christmas -- plates of food almost stacked on top of each other. Then I remember that this guy is a warlord. He has money. We eat watermelon, figs, dates, nuts, rice, lamb, some type of meatballs, kebab and of course tea. A great meal, but it had its price.
Later that day someone mentions wanting to go see the fort. What fort? Remember back when the Taliban rioted in a prison, killed Mike Spann the CIA operative, then went into a bunker? And the US troops found an American citizen fighting alongside the Taliban? This is the prison where the riot took place. Well I went there, and I have no Idea what the Taliban prisoners were thinking. They were surrounded by 30-foot walls and armed guards, with another 30-foot wall outside that. Where would they have gone? As we are walking around the place it is spooky quiet, and you almost get the feeling you are walking in a cemetery. We got some pictures and left as soon as possible.
On the way back I felt like I was on parade, with all the children playing and running alongside of us. You don't throw candy, you just wave. Because these kids have no fear, common sense or adult supervision, and if you throw candy they'll run into the path of the vehicle behind you to try to get it. They usually get hit, and that stops a parade real quick.
Next day it's time to leave, and we travel back to the "International" airport. And guess what? Once again, our plane doesn't show up. Someday I am going to find an Air force C130 pilot and strand him on the side of the road somewhere. There we sit, trying to figure out if we should drive an hour back to camp and try again tomorrow or wait it out in the airport, when we hear the familiar roar of a C130 landing. Everyone is on their feet and out the door to the tarmac (no TSA here, walk right up to the plane if you want). Taxing in is a British C130, here to drop off some equipment.
Picture 45 soldiers standing at the fence with all their baggage, basically with their thumbs out. "Sure we will take you. Where do you want to go?" Our Air force could take lessons form the Brits. Unfortunately the plane was set up for cargo, not passengers, so it's "Sit on the floor. Don't worry." The British pilot couldn't resist the opportunity to have some fun with the American stragglers, so right after takeoff he starts to dip and climb and roll and dive and snap and climb -- you get the picture. And remember, we are sitting on the floor not buckled into seats! It's like the tumble tube at the carnival; guys bouncing around, a pile of guys here, a pile of gear there. Guys flying through the air. After a few minutes the plane stabilizes and the British pilot gets on the intercom to congratulate all us "Yanks" on board on our independence. Over 200 years later and some people just don't have a sense of humor.
For the rest of the flight my stomach was feeling uneasy, but I figured it was the rollercoaster ride I had just endured. When we finally land the colonel realizes it's time for dinner. What do we have tonight? Lamb curry. Um, well… I guess so. About three hours later I've become the latest but not the last victim of "Afghan revenge." The doctors figure I got it from the feast the day before. Another note to self: BRING LUNCH!
P.S. The ANA are good soldiers, but spelling in English is not their strong suit.