December 21, 2009
Posting date: 12/21/09
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Embedded in Afghanistan
Drug cultivation was not something we really dealt with in Kunar. When it comes to illegal trade funding illegal activity, Kunar is more known for the timber trade. You might say the situation with the opium in the south is analogous to that with timber in the northeast mountainous provinces. Undoubtedly, some opium is cultivated in the mountainous regions, but it wasn't something we really saw or dealt with.
What we did deal with regularly was hashish smoking among the ANA. The hash smoking was something I saw much more of at the more austere bases, and not so much at the more developed bases we were responsible for. I suppose you might say the hash provided a bit of an escape from the poor living conditions at those bases.
The fact that the ANA smoked hash was not a surprise to any of us. I'd seen the same thing with the Iraqis, and we were told we'd see it from time to time, if not regularly. One night early on in the tour, I was woken up by an ANA soldier asking me to attend to a sick soldier. So I grabbed my interpreter and headed over to the sick soldier's hooch to have a look at him. When we got there, my terp informed me that the soldier was only "sick" because of excessive hash smoking. I gave him a couple of aspirin and went back to bed.
It was a common experience to smell hash burning in the early evening or at night. We understood that it's a part of the local culture, so we were never intent on eradicating the habit completely among our ANA, but it didn't seem right to completely ignore the issue so we brought up the hash smoking with the different commanders we had. One commander denied that it was occurring at all, so we simply asked him to see to it that the soldiers standing guard were sober. Another commander acknowledged the problem and pledged to do something about it, but not surprisingly nothing changed. A third commander would not tolerate it at all, and sent a couple of guys back to the battalion after catching them indulging.
That third commander turned out to be the worst commander of the group I had during that time period, but have to give him credit for maintaining some discipline with his men.
I can't say I ever saw an officer smoke hash or look stoned, but a few of the NCOs were repeat offenders. Some of those hash-smoking NCOs were actually among the best NCOs we had. We even had an incident where a couple of ANA soldiers beat a terp supposedly for trying to interfere with their hash smoking. It's tough to know what's really going on with those guys sometimes, so the incident may have been over something else. Whatever the case, it resulted in us losing one of our best terps. The two soldiers involved were sent away for awhile, but came back eventually. It's tough to get rid of even the worst soldiers when you need everyone you can get your hands on to fight the war.
As you can imagine, having hash-smoking soldiers on hand during patrols can make for some interesting moments. We often stopped in towns to talk to local leaders during our patrols. We'd often just sit there until all hell would break loose -- an effective if dangerous and uncreative way to locate the enemy. During one of the first times we decided to just stay in the town until shots were fired, several of the soldiers lit up a joint when the wait was longer than expected. We got on their case about it, but a firefight erupted before we really dealt with the issue. I will say the ANA fought particularly well that day, putting several RPGs directly into a house 300 meters away.
One of our worst hash offenders, who I never once saw without bloodshot eyes, was often our RPG gunner. One day on our way out of base, we started taking large-caliber rounds from a ridgeline across the way. Our RPG gunner proceeded to load up his RPG and get ready to fire it with his back right up against a small cliff face, a no-no since the back-blast would likely rebound off the cliff and do who knows what to the gunner in that situation. Luckily, his comrades yelled at him and got him set up in a safe place -- though firing an RPG at a ridgeline 1000 meters away might not be the best use of ammo. In that same event, the ANA platoon sergeant accidentally shot a round that almost blew his foot off while loading a machine gun, and then pointed it right at me while clearing and reloading it.
Suffice to say, there are things we'd rather be doing when enemy contact is imminent or ongoing than chastising ANA soldiers for smoking hash, dodging errant ANA muzzles, and teaching the ANA how to use their own guns. The ANA certainly do keep things interesting, and as long as things don't really go wrong, it's all really a lot of fun.