GARDEN OF EDEN |
April 18, 2007
Hidden in an expanse of barren inhospitable mountains and dry desert valleys, lies what can only be described as the Afghan Garden of Eden. It's not on any map, and you'd have a difficult time finding it if you were looking for it, because it fits neatly within a one kilometer grid square. Most outsiders would find it more by accident than on purpose, and after hours of driving through desolate and sparsely populated wastelands, we stumbled upon it; a green, fertile patch of paradise.
The richness of this field of green was matched only by the variety of animals populating it. Like a staging area for Noah's Ark, it had animals at every pond and in every patch of grass. Horses, cattle, water buffalo, camels, sheep, goats, and purebred Afghan hounds -- all were peacefully feeding or resting in this oasis of green comfort.
And it was this lush paradise, with its peaceful gathering of four-legged creatures, that, through confusion and misdirection, almost resulted in the massacre of hundreds of innocent civilians. Had this carnage occurred it would have been front page news around the world, the Afghan version of Viet Nam's My Lai massacre. And who would have been the mastermind, the bloody cold-hearted murderer who worked efficiently to kill hundreds? Who would replace the infamous Lt. Calley as an example of outrage against the innocent?
It all started when a horse wandered away from its master and trespassed in this land of nutritious grasses and clear water. In previous days, a large tribe of Cuchie nomads had moved into the area bordering this green valley, and one of their animals wandered off, drawn by the sweet humid smells of green grass and warm shallow ponds.
The mostly Pashtun tribes who call this valley their permanent home were not happy about the new Cuchie presence. But they accepted it as a natural part of the cycle of life here in Afghanistan. Like the rising and setting sun, Cuchies have moved through these mountains for generations with a seasonal predictability. But the invasion of the green watering hole by this Cuchie animal was not going to be tolerated. The horse was confiscated, and before long Cuchies had come into the village seeking the release of their property.
Given the cultural need for honor and respect, and the presence of many AK-47s among the Pashtun and Cuchie groups, the confrontation quickly escalated into a violent scene. Who said what or did what during these tense moments is unclear, but when the dust settled empty bullet casings littered the streets, hostages had been taken by both sides, and a small Pashtun boy lay dead, struck by an errant bullet.
Both sides in this tribal conflict collapsed back into defensive positions, the Cuchies spread along the lower-elevation plateaus of the mountain, and the Pashtuns holed up in their village. Both sides preferred defense to offense, and they spent the next twenty-four hours preparing for the worst. All the while, the animals in the Garden of Eden continued to enjoy their sanctuary, oblivious to the escalating violence around them.
The next day saw maneuvering from both those on the mountain and those in the village. The Cuchies, who despite their nomadic and minimalist lifestyle are renowned arms dealers and smugglers, dug in defensive positions on the mountain and produced (seemingly out of thin air) medium machine guns, small arms, and RPGs. Rumors of a Cuchie Dyshka (a heavy machine gun capable of shooting down helicopters and slow-moving aircraft) circulated in the surrounding Pashtun villages.
Not to be outdone, the Pashtuns, aware of an uneven and unfavorable distribution of firepower, used their time-tested cunning and decided to bring in some allies to balance out the uneven force of arms. The Pashtun elders made contact with the regional Afghan National Police (ANP) unit. The message they delivered was as urgent as it was false, a story they knew the police couldn't resist: "This is NOT a tribal dispute. There are four hundred Taliban in the mountains next to our village. HELP!"
The ANP had only one reaction to this startling information. They didn't have the forces to take on four hundred dug-in Taliban: With the enemy in such numbers, this fight would require the ANA, and ultimately the Americans. They immediately sent out word that they needed support.
Back at our ETT HQ in Ghazni, I remember overhearing my Team Chief discussing some tribal conflict out west in an area we didn't even have maps posted for. It would take another day before the Taliban twist on the story would make it to our HQ. It would take two days before I was in the position to kill hundreds of civilians.
When the ANA formally received word of the appearance of a large Taliban force, they sent a platoon of ANA soldiers west, where they linked up with the ANP. The officer in charge, both brave and stubborn, decided to test the validity of the Pashtun elders' Taliban story. It is worth noting that reports of "hundreds of Taliban" are common, and are almost always wildly inaccurate. The ANA Commander on the ground was skeptical of such a high concentration of enemy in such a remote location.
It was his skepticism and doubt that allowed this ANA Commander to execute a direct attack on four hundred alleged Taliban with only thirty soldiers. The Cuchies, expecting the Police and Army to come as neutral negotiators, instead found themselves under fire by these very forces, and responded with their impressive firepower. The Cuchies quickly repelled the police and army forces, and inflicted numerous wounds among the ANA and ANP soldiers. One ANP soldier was shot in his groin area, resulting in the violent and instant removal of his testicles from his body. Even more disturbing, one ANP soldier was killed in the short-lived and unsuccessful assault.
This foiled attack did accomplish one thing. It proved beyond a doubt that there were hostile and well-armed forces on the mountain. A call back to Ghazni was made for reinforcements. This time, we would be joining a larger force of ANA on the long dusty drive to the now "confirmed Taliban" mountain stronghold. The next morning, two ETT gun trucks joined the ANA reinforcements as they drove west towards what was shaping up to be a large-scale battle.
After about five hours of bone-jarring driving through rocky desolate terrain, I remember turning a corner around a large rock formation and seeing an incredible vista of green. The collection of animals, the smell of damp earth, the vibrant shades of plant life, were pleasant and breathtaking. We didn't have much time to marvel at the spectacle, because we quickly climbed a small hill and the Afghan Garden of Eden was gone from view.
On the other side of this small hill lay the first of the Pashtun villages. Within minutes we had arrived at our objective, a rudimentary village center. It was populated by a gas station that had no gas pumps -- only a handful of old plastic bottles filled with gasoline, lined up on the ground in front of the simple mud-constructed building. There was also an Afghan version of a corner store that sold some locally-made snacks, candies, and sodas. And there was a medical clinic, which the ANA and ANP had made their Command Post. It was a fitting location for their headquarters, as it allowed them to monitor the status of their wounded, who lay inside the clinic in varying states of pain and consciousness.
Approximately five kilometers to the North, in full view, stood the enormous and wide-based mountain, populated by the alleged enemy fighters.
Our first task upon arrival was to coordinate MEDEVAC of the wounded ANA and ANP soldiers. U.S. helicopters will not land unless there are U.S. personnel on the ground to confirm the wounded, the injuries, and the safety and security of the site. Now that we were on the ground, CPT Cain, my ETT teammate, began coordination of this mission, and within an hour the wounded ANA and ANP were loaded on a Blackhawk and outbound for treatment at a U.S. base.
As the helicopter made its way south, escorted by an Apache attack helicopter, it was clear the sun was also an opponent for us, as we only had a couple hours of daylight left to work with. Night would create an opportunity for this enemy horde to escape, and we knew that with the MEDEVAC helicopters' visible presence, the enemy knew the Americans had arrived.
With my interpreter by my side I collected the stories from the Pashtun elders, who made a convincing case for the danger of the Taliban in the mountains. CPT Cain also met with the ANP and ANA leadership, as well as more village elders. From all quarters the story was the same. There were Taliban. There were lots of them. And now, with the arrival of the American ETTs, it was time to commence a much more lethal level of hostilities.
I got on the radio to my HQ and relayed the information from the scene. All signs pointed to an incredibly lucky opportunity to kill a lot of Taliban, as they regrouped and re-armed themselves in this heretofore-unknown mountain base camp. The Pashtun elders personally told me stories of Taliban groups stockpiling heavy weapons and ammunition in these mountains for months. One only had to look as far as the wounded ANA and ANP soldiers being carried in stretchers onto the Blackhawk helicopters to see the obvious truth of these claims.
Shortly, Close Air Support (CAS) was confirmed to be available, providing we could meet some Rules of Engagement conditions. With such a large target, we would likely get a B-1 Bomber for an initial series of bombing runs, followed by Apache helicopters to clean up any squirters who managed to survive the initial pounding.
Before any CAS package could be sent to us to unleash any armament on the enemy forces below, a technical rule had to be satisfied. In order for us to use CAS, we had to have "eyes on" our target. In other words, an American soldier had to be able to tell the bomber on the radio "Yes, the bad guys are at grid XYZ. I see them. Bombs away." But at this moment in time, all friendly forces had pulled out from the base of the mountain to this Command Post approximately five kilometers from the enemy positions. No one, be they Afghan or American, had eyes on the enemy.
Knowing that any movement by our small and outnumbered force to put eyes on the enemy would only result in more friendly wounded or killed, I did my best to try to find a middle-ground solution. Perhaps an Apache could come do a low altitude nape of earth fly-by, and either visually confirm the enemy locations, or engage them personally if they fired upon him. This was not approved.
So we watched the sun slowly setting while levels of command well above CPT Cain and myself debated this problem intensely. What appeared to be a pointless bureaucratic rule was the only thing standing between killing hundreds of Taliban, and letting them escape.
Thank God for pointless bureaucratic rules, because in the minutes while this wrangling was occurring, a handsome, well-dressed young man in his early forties, and with a striking black beard, approached CPT Cain. With his equally well-dressed and well-armed entourage, he introduced himself as a member of the Afghan National Parliament.
In a calm and relaxed voice he explained that he was a member of the Cuchie caucus in parliament, and that he had received a desperate cell phone call from a Cuchie elder directly involved in the conflict. With a serious face, he made a startling revelation for all the military and police personnel present to hear: "There are no Taliban on that mountain. They are Cuchie civilians."
While CPT Cain was having this conversation about twenty meters away from me, I was still by the Humvee, on the radio, and in the final phases of executing a compromise solution to the problem of having no eyes on the enemy positions. Higher had agreed it was not wise to "endanger the brave men on the ground with a high risk reconnaissance on the mountain." So they wanted us to at least get close enough where we could warn the bomber if we saw any civilians moving in this area, but remain out of range of the enemy's powerful Dyshka machine gun. If we could do this, the bomber would then make a pass at the mountain.
Finally, a carefully negotiated plan to deal a death blow to this huge Taliban force was in place. I was tweaking with the excitement and power of playing god with the lives of hundreds of enemy combatants. It goes without saying that when CPT Cain told me to stop everything and put CAS on hold, I was dumbfounded.
Instead of sending our planned military recon force down towards the valley and the occupied mountain, the Cuchie Member of Parliament, with his entourage in tow, climbed into a dusty but new Toyota Land Cruiser, and headed off in that same direction. Everyone else, so close to an orgy of destruction, scratched their heads at the strange turn of events. Instead of the excitement of watching a battalion of Taliban be obliterated, we settled in for a cold, tedious, and sleepless night, awaiting the return of this Cuchie politician.
The sun eventually rose. Not another bullet was fired, nor were any bombs dropped from any aircraft. My innocent and unsuspecting attempts at bombing the mountain were thwarted, and as a result (thankfully) there was no Afghan My Lai massacre by the Garden of Eden. The Cuchie politician proved himself to be a sophisticated dealmaker. He managed to get both sides to agree to negotiations. Hostages were released that same day, and compensation for the slain child and the confiscated livestock was arranged.
While neither group in this remote area had a newfound outpouring of love for the other, they had settled the issue non-violently and with honor.
As we drove out of the small village center and slowly climbed up the small hill heading home, the Garden of Eden again came into view. But like the mythological Garden of Eden, spoiled by Eve's selfish indiscretion, this small green paradise had also become tainted, by spilled blood. Instead of a curious woman, this paradise had been ruined by the thirst of a horse. We made the turn by the large rock outcropping, and the green space disappeared from my view forever.