THE RANGE |
August 14, 2009
Name: CAPT Benjamin Tupper
Posting date: 8/14/09
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Syracuse, NY
Target practice is a relatively easy task for a group of soldiers to accomplish. It requires a remote and unpopulated area in which to shoot, paper targets, and wooden target stands. In America it would take a few dollars, a quick trip to a hardware store, and a couple of hours to build the latter.
Things take a little longer in Afghanistan. We were tasked with conducting a weapons qualification training event for Afghan soldiers, but executing this simple mission took weeks.
First off, we didn’t have a Home Depot out in rural Afghanistan, so building the wooden target stands had to be contracted out to an Afghan carpenter. At our base a white-bearded elder we called “The Godfather” controlled all such contracts through a mix of threats and patronage, price-gouging and delaying any project to ensure his desired level of graft. Then there was the issue of quality control. We drew up plans for the wooden target stands and gave them to the carpenter who the Godfather had selected for the job. But when the stands arrived, they had not been built to the needed specifications.
More days passed before the proper frames were built and delivered. The final price for the wooden stands was so inflated it would have made an American defense contractor envious.
Another obstacle was the Afghan soldiers themselves. They had a strong dislike of training of any type, and the idea of target practice left them unimpressed. We would schedule a date for the weapons qualification, and they would cancel it. The excuses for the cancellation varied; it was too cold, or there was not enough fuel in the vehicles to get them to the range location. My favorite was when the Afghan supply sergeant informed us that all the ammo was locked up, and the officer with the key was on vacation for two weeks. This really caught our attention, because we were living in a war zone, where the ability to have extra ammunition handy is about as important as having oxygen to breathe.
In time we came up with a way to get the Afghan soldiers to show up for training events. We bribed their leadership with odds and ends like printer cartridges, pens, and dry erase boards, which they would receive if they delivered their soldiers.
After weeks of waiting for the stars to align, all the ingredients were in place and we conducted our weapons qualification. But as the first groups of soldiers completed their firing, the paper targets revealed very few hits. Shooting tips were given, and weapons were re-sighted, but this failed to improve results. So with limited daylight remaining, our group of American advisors decided to do the only thing left to improve scores; we moved the targets closer to the shooters. When this produced the same inadequate results, we moved the target stands even closer.
The poor results were enough to convince the Afghans that they needed more weapons practice, and seeing as we already had the target stands built, future weapons qualifications would be easier to conduct. That is until someone came up with the bright idea to shoot higher-caliber weapons at the targets. Within minutes, machine guns and rocket propelled grenades were blazing away, and when the smoke cleared, our over-priced wooden target frames had been reduced to smoking splinters.
To complete this comedy of errors, it was only then, when we began packing up to leave our firing range, that anyone noticed the funny little red-painted stones that were peeking through what remained of the light snow that blanketed the ground. We had picked the site for our range because it was close to our base, and because it was in an area that was unlikely to be attacked by the Taliban. When we did our reconnaissance on it, the layer of snow had obscured the fact that the area had been marked as a mine field.
It was a miracle that no one stepped on a mine, as we had over one hundred soldiers on the range. Suffice to say that as we left the area we laughed out loud at our silly mistake and good fortune.
This Weapons Qualification Range experience was a pretty good metaphor for the war as a whole: lots of time and planning to accomplish a mission without fully achieving the desired results; an over-expenditure of resources and, ultimately, a loss of investment; exposure to unknown and unpredicted dangers and the luck to survive them.