It was a war we thought we’d won. But after eight years of escalating violence, the Afghanistan conflict has morphed into something perhaps unwinnable. U.S.-led forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to deny sanctuary to Al Qaeda, a goal we’ve largely achieved. But in years of occupation, Washington has apparently conflated counter-terrorism with nation-building. Now the U.S., NATO and their allies are struggling to destroy a deeply-rooted insurgency in country with a corrupt, ineffective government, poor infrastructure and few prospects for everyday people, but to fight. David Axe visits U.S. forces to see for himself.
by DAVID AXE
Able Troop, 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry, part of the 10th Mountain Division deployed to Logar province, 50 miles south of Kabul, is way too small to cover the entire district of Baraki Barak, where its Combat Outpost is located. So the company uses observation posts, strung out along the district’s mountain peaks, to keep an eye things between patrols. Each OP is outfitted with sensors, rockets, machine guns and, most importantly, radios for relaying sightings of Talibs or other dushman.
It was October 16, and the OP on spur near Route Georgia needed a generator to keep all this equipment running around the clock. It wasn’t quite enough to warrant calling in a Chinook helicopter from Bagram. Instead, the job of hauling a 300-pound generator up a 1,000-foot, 30-degree slope fell to 3rd Platoon, the “Dirty Dingos,” who promise that “the Dirty Dingos get it done.” Someone had the bright idea of using the generator delivery to improve relations with the local residents. 3rd Platoon was allocated $100 — a month’s wage to most Afghans — to rent a donkey for the day.
Everything looked great on paper. They’d meet the donkey and its handler at the base of the hill, tie a sled to the donkey, place the generator on the sled, and escort the beast and its burden up the hill. Should take an hour, estimated Sergeant First Class Donald Coleman, the platoon sergeant. But this is Afghanistan, where nothing goes as planned.
The first sign that Operation Donkey Haul might prove an, ahem, pain in the ass, was a low, muttered, “Uh oh,” from the platoon interpreter, Z. There were apparently two donkeys available for the job — a good one and a “sick” one, to use Z’s descriptor. Wouldn’t you know it: the handler showed up with the sick animal.
So began a comedy of errors, illustrated below, that demonstrated perfectly the challenges of conducting a counter-insurgency campaign in rough terrain, with limited resources:
OP Spur, seen from below.
Our cast of characters.
Donkey, meet generator.
The donkey strains to pull the sled.
Progress is good until the road runs out.
Halfway up the slope, the donkey quits.
3rd Platoon decides to CARRY the generator the rest of the way.
For an hour, the soldiers take turns carrying the generator.
It’s Specialist Ryan Pascual’s job to hook up the generator once it arrives.
At the OP, Sergeant First Class Donald Coleman praises his soldiers.
What should have taken an hour, ended up taking two. Pascual hooked up the generator, turned it over to make sure it worked, and everyone sucked water then headed back down the hill. Halfway down, the OP radioed down: the generator had died. So Pascual climbed back up the hill, where he remained the rest of the day, tinkering with the finicky machine. Trudging back to their trucks, the rest of 3rd Platoon could only shake their heads. The Dirty Dingos get it done, but whoever was supposed to maintain the frickin’ generator sure dropped the ball.
(Photos: David Axe)
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