48 HOURS OF BLUNDERS: PT 2 |
November 23, 2010
Posting date: 11/23/10
Stationed in: Afghanistan
This post picks up several hours after 48 HOURS OF BLUNDERS: PT 1 ended -- weapons back on safe, everyone sleeping with one eye open, on the JTAC.
After the excitement of the night, it was a bit of an anticlimax, getting rained out of bed in the morning. Rain is something that comes infrequently in Afghanistan, and generally not under conditions where it can be appreciated in its proper context (this is to say, from the comfort of shelter). In this case, rain obeyed the cardinal rule, and waited until it was good and cold, then came down and drenched everything / everyone, further reinforcing the lucky nature of our mission.
I couldn't help but notice that the JTAC had cleverly positioned his cot under a tree, so that he managed to avoid the worst of the elements -- being at the mercy of concerns and worries in his sleep, and perhaps in every waking moment as well, the JTAC (as expressed by the jarring incident that woke us all hours earlier) used his hightened sense of alarm to plan for every contingency. I know that it was petty and pointless of me to notice and begrudge him his preparedness, but such is the way of things. Ultimately I suppose I would have seized on any pretext to envy the sleeper who avoided getting soaked.
Almost as soon as we'd finished packing up, wringing the water out of our gear and clothes and storing it in our bags, then throwing the bags disgustedly in the back of our vehicles, we had the day's first piece of positive news. For anyone who's worked with the Afghans - -this probably goes for the Iraqis, and any other third-party national who's working on standing up a working Army -- establishing an early-morning time-hack is best-guess under the most ideal circumstances. You say: "We'll all meet up at 0500, and leave at 0530," and you expect them to show at 0700. 0700's still way better than last time I was here, in 2008, when they'd show up when they wanted to, if at all.
At any rate, on this day, they showed up at 0500, like we'd agreed on the night before, and they were ready to move. We did final checks on equipment, talked through the plan one last time, and began moving at 0530, also as planned. This put me in a great mood. We were moving toward the objective village and it was just getting light. Our luck, it seemed, was changing.
It was all new territory for me as soon as we turned off the main road. I don't go in much for the smaller reconnaissance operations, unless it's tied to the certainty of enemy interruption or there's a chance something could go wrong. I leave it to the Platoon Leaders to establish their own areas, and explore the trails I don't have time to see myself -- I can't be in three places at once, so I have to assume some limited risk, and besides it's good to empower them.
In this case, things didn't work out the way I'd hoped. We got to the previous limit of advance, where the Platoon Leader had ceased his reconnaissance, and discovered that the culverts had been destroyed, taken down by the local villagers to build new, stronger culverts. This was good news for us two months from now, but not great news at the moment, as there was no way we were getting across the irrigation ditches without culverts. So, there we were, having invested hours of planning and coordination, standing at the edge of two great ditches with our hands on our hips, strung out on a road, with no obvious way onto the objective. I told the PL to get with the ABP and figure out if there was any other way into the village, which he did. He came back after a five minute huddle, and the look on his face was promising.
"Hey sir," he said, "The ABP say there's a trail into the village..." he cracked a kind of smile, "but it's through the mountains."
I couldn't believe my good fortune. Next to clearing a village of Taliban, (which was clearly not going to happen on this day), the best thing, my favorite activity in Afghanistan, is a mountain trail recon. In the first scenario you have violence of action (the ultimate challenge for the soul) balanced with positive change you can measure, and there are few things more rewarding than seeing villagers thank you after you've booted thugs out of their town. In the second scenario you have beautiful landscapes, no chance of contact, cut off communications (so a sense of freedom and limitless potential), and no IED threat. I can't tell you how liberating that last piece is -- driving without really having to worry that there might be a bomb in the road. That's the best part about off-roading. No bombs, no worries. Almost euphoric.
As you can imagine, when I heard that the ABP were thinking of taking us into the hills, I immediately leapt on the opportunity, and sent the report up to higher: "We're heading into the hills, to recon an alternate trail into the village." I knew -- I mean, that trail, like the paved road, never leads into the village. It doesn't work like that. It leads to some other village, or dead-ends, or gets too narrow. Something takes you off course. In the history of Afghans knowing a secret trail through the mountains that could hold U.S. vehicles, not once has the trail in fact led where the U.S. forces expected it to.
I was fine with this. In my mind, we were already conducting this village clearance sometime in the future. It wasn't happening today. Today was going to be a fun mountain trail recon, where we didn't accomplish a damned thing apart from identifying some routes that our vehicles could use, and confirm that the trail did not, in fact (I mean, there's always the chance) run into the village.
True to form, the day worked out exactly as I'd imagined. We rolled around in the mountains for the better part of six hours, stopping to climb a couple of them. Saw a few shepherds, a few abandoned qalots (one with a tree growing in the middle of it), and no end of breathtaking scenery. I saw a gray fox, although I have no idea how it could survive in a barren, inhospitable place like the hills. The scenery was amazing. The JTAC, who brought a camera, left without giving us any pictures, so the photos I hoped to post proving what a special and extraordinary journey we took must remain the product of your imagination.
The end of the reconnaissance deposited us in a small meadowed valley, which was dotted by caves -- not the type I've seen in other Islamic graveyards, and no conspicuous tracks leading into the valley. It reminded me more of the early buddhist caves I've read exist in parts of China. We turned around, got out, looked at the grass, made sure there was no way forward, and turned around to move back to the FOB.
Technically this qualifies as a "blunder" because we should have stayed out there. It was awesome, and put me in a great mood for the rest of the day. Unfortunately, this mood was, like all things good and joyful, doomed to an early demise, through circumstances very much outside my immediate control...