Saturday, February 04, 2012

Who knew Kabul got this cold??

 A little early morning exercise today, February 4th, 2012.  Things started out nicely with just a few  inches of snow on the ground but quickly turned to near whiteout conditions within an hour and a half.   Who knew it would get this cold in Afghanistan?  I was certainly surprised. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Tigger House, Kabul

Similar to the compassion I felt for the stray animals I encountered in Iraq, I have grown fond of the helpless cats and dogs wandering around Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the residents of Kabul are no different in their treatment of animals than most Muslim societies that consider cats and dogs dirty and unworthy of being pets.  Here, there are stray dogs and cats wandering the city in large numbers.  Many appear injured and malnourished, often limping and sometimes missing legs or ears. Both children and adults alike ignore the animals or throw rocks at the strays. It's horrible to watch such maltreatment of man's best friend. 

One of the agents living at my compound is deeply concerned with the rescue of these wonderful animals. Amazingly, he found a local shelter situated deep within the city called the Afghan Stray Animal League  ( The shelter is known locally as the Tigger House and is operated by an American who solicits private donations and adoption fees in order to keep the shelter running.  She has a small but dedicated local staff who care for the animals that are brought into the shelter until such time that they can be adopted by American service members or other willing families. Although the shelter appears disheveled and dirty compared to our own standards, the dogs and cats brought to the shelter are safe and cared for until a home is found for them. The shelter has saved dozens of animals from cruel abuse and worse, from being sold to locals who purchase them for the sport of dog fighting.

Yesterday, Brandon, Michelle and I brought a litter of 7 pups to the shelter. The pups were born just outside of our compound and were fed by Brandon and some of the other residents until they were weaned. Unfortunately, they had grown to the point that local Afghans were taking interest in them for dog fighting, so Brandon asked if I would ride shotgun as we drove into the city to the Tigger House. Driving through the pothole-lined streets of Kabul while trying to keep 7 puppies from throwing up in your lap was challenging but worthwhile knowing that these dogs have a future ahead of them that is not filled with violence and hunger.

Flying in Style

Last week, I flew south from Kabul to Camp Leatherneck in the Helmand Province. As the liaison officer to a civilian federal agency, I was fortunate to fly aboard a government owned Beechcraft King Air twin turbo-prop.  It was certainly luxurious compared to the standard C-130 transport commonly used in theater.  When fully loaded with pallets of gear and equipment, troop space aboard the C-130 is usually limited and one often ends up facing another Marine or soldier in a cramped, parallel series of troops seats, your knees interlaced between the knees of the guy in front of you.  Sometimes the C-130 flights are empty and one can stretch out along the canvas troop seats lining the sides of the fuselage. Conversely, the massive C-17's are much more spacious than the relatively compact C-130's and have removable rows of seats like those found in a commercial airliner. The seats can be added or removed depending upon the load. In addition to troops, the C-17's and the even larger C-5 routinely haul large quantities of equipment across the theater.

While the King Air may only seat 8 passengers, its twin turbo props permit the bird to fly at nearly the same speed of the C-130 Hercules.  During this particular flight, just myself and 2 DoD analysts were headed to Camp Leatherneck.  Needless to say, it is a comfortable ride that is usually reserved for VIP's and distinguished visitors; 95% of the troops in theater will only fly aboard the larger strategic aircraft and won't have the opportuntity to enjoy this incredible perk!

From the air, I observed the ridge line that lies along the northern edge of our compound, the same ridge line I've climbed several times since my arrival. The recent blast of precipitation over the last 2 days has since hidden the treacherous peaks under a soft blanket of snow, belying the dangers hidden within the Hindu Kush.   

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Lads of Lima Company

By Cpl. John Scott Rafoss, HQMC 
HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan - Dec. 25, 2011  — We “yomped” forward. Carrying two days of rations, including six liters of water and hundreds of machine gun rounds, mine detectors, grenades, ladders, radio equipment, heavy javelins, and other explosives; their packs were heavy. My pack was just the bare necessities – water, a few meals, and my camera.

The sky was gray. It was raining, muddy and cold. I’m tired. Everyone else must have been tired, too, but the Royal Marine Commandos are elite – they weren’t showing it.

“That’s what we do, we yomp,” said Sgt. Noel Connelly, of the Royal Marines.. “Just like the Falklands in ‘82. We’re bootnecks. That’s what bootnecks do… yomp.”

We stopped and rested on the side of the road. Reports over the radio were saying the tanks couldn’t get through because insurgents have dug ditches in the road. The tanks had to find a new route and that would take time. So we waited and endured the mud and cold rain.

“Hey USMC, do you want a smoke,” said Connelly, platoon sergeant for Royal Marine’s 9th Troop, “L” Company, 42 Commando, as he took out some English cigarettes. “These are healthy cigarettes.”
We all huddled underneath improvised cover and the Royal Marines talked about football in England. They asked me questions about the U.S. Marine Corps – What is my training like? Is boot camp like the movie Full Metal Jacket? “What do you do?” said Cpl. John Owens, an assault engineer nicknamed Johno.
“I’m a combat correspondent,” I replied. “I’m what the Americans call a POG – personnel other than grunt.”

“Well, you aren’t a POG right now,” said Johno, as we looked down at our muddy boots. “You’re with us now, mate.”  After smoking about four cigarettes, we got the call to move forward. The tanks had found a route through a field. So we picked up our packs and started to yomp to the village of Zargon Kalay. Our superiors said Zargon Kalay is filled with die-hard enemy insurgents, but they said that about the last village and nothing happened.

The mosque, which is in the center of the city, was becoming more visible with every step. We were a few hundred meters away when Lima Company split up into different parts of the open ground in front of the village. It was farm land. 9th Troop moved to the right flank and we maneuvered along the edge of an irrigation stream.

We approached a compound and the bootnecks at the front of the patrol positioned themselves on the roof to get good arcs for their machine guns. The rest of the platoon waited in the open outside of the compound.

I sat by the edge of the irrigation stream, bored. All of a sudden something flew past my head and it had a distinct sound. It was the first time I heard that sound. Cracking and whizzing – bullets sound a lot different when they are coming at you.

Without even thinking, I jumped into the irrigation ditch. I looked up and saw Marines jumping off the roof. The trees behind them were being ripped apart.
My heart was pumping while I sat in the stream. I looked at the plants in front of me and thought about staying alive. “Am I dreaming?” I thought. “This can’t be real. A picture isn’t worth my life.”  I was embedded with 9th Troop, Lima Company, 42 British Royal Marine Commando during the 18-day combat operation known as Sond Chara, which is Pashtun for Red Dagger. An outsider, and the only reason I was with them is because of my eagle, globe and anchor, and my camera.

It all started like the beginning of an American football game – like we were getting ready to run on to the field. We were all pumped up in that helicopter. We felt like Spartans during the Battle of Thermopylae. But this wasn’t a game, or a movie, or a book about legendary battles in the past. This was now.
I felt like I was in a Higgins Boat heading toward Normandy. I looked up and saw the crew chief scanning the horizon for insurgents with his night vision goggles.

We landed in the desert and it was quiet. I couldn’t see anything. Everyone else had night vision goggles. I didn’t even have a night vision lens for my camera. All of the bootnecks were silhouetted and we moved towards an Afghan compound a few hundred meters in front of us.

We stopped in our tracks when we heard gun shots in the distance. It was Kilo Company. They landed about an hour before us and they were already in a firefight. There was a lot of gunfire. But this wasn’t the O.K. Corral, it was Helmand Province.

“They have a casualty,” whispered one of the radio operators. “He was hurt from the back blast of a javelin.” My stomach started to sink when I heard that. But I kept quiet and kept moving forward with the bootnecks. Johno blew a hole in one of the walls of the compound and the bootnecks rushed in to the clear the compound of insurgents, but there were none.

I moved in and dropped my pack immediately. I was already tired and we were only two hours into the operation. I took a seat by one of the walls, and one of the Marines on the rooftops opened up his machine gun. An Apache came in and dropped a bomb on top of the insurgent vehicle he had stopped. The sky glowed from the burning car and I listened to the rounds cook off in the car.

“This isn’t normal,” I thought, and tried to get some sleep.

We stayed at the compound for a couple of days and were mortared everyday, but I was slowly getting used to the bootneck lifestyle. We were given orders to take the village we called KK. We left at about four in the morning. It was about an eight-kilometer hike, yomping through the farming fields, with a break about halfway. My boots were covered in mud. I tried to scrape it off, but the mud had a funny smell, and when I brought it up to my nose, I realized it was manure. We picked up our packs and yomped on.
We got to the village and everything seemed normal. Children were running around playing. Afghan men were working in their fields. Tractors were transporting goods. Camels were walking by bundled up with supplies. The locals said the insurgents had left the day before. So it was a good day – a quiet day. We rested in the village and got ready for the next hike.

We hiked another eight kilometers to Forward Operating Base Argyle. When we got there, we stayed on the outside of the FOB inside an old fortress, which was built by Alexander the Great thousands of years ago. It was a beautiful ancient fortress. We rested there for a day and started yomping again, this time about six-kilometers hto the Village of Zargon Kalay.
After we were shot at in the field near the irrigation ditch, we moved forward to another compound. I set my backpack down by a wall and moved into one of the rooms to take a break and eat. Then I heard the cracks again.The insurgents were dug in and were firing rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and small-arms fire.

A Royal Marine ran inside to get supplies. Connelly asked him what what the situation was outside. With typical combat humour, he replied, “We’re all going to die!”

I was shaking. I’m not sure if it was because I was cold and soaked from the irrigation ditch or because I was scared. When the fighting died down a little bit, I ran outside for my pack. I needed my smokes. When I got to my backpack there were bullet holes all over the wall above it. I grabbed it and ran back inside.
We drank tea and listened to artillery, tanks and helicopters take down the insurgents in the village. It sounded like they were using everything they had in the UK arsenal.

I wasn’t used to this kind of thing. In my mind, this was the kind of stuff soldiers and Marines did in Vietnam, World War I and World War II. I didn’t realize how bad war could be in Afghanistan. I was used to drinking coffee at the beer garden in Kabul or eating at Pizza Hut in Kandahar. I normally took pictures of handshakes and ceremonies, not combat.
We got the order to move forward to the next compound. But there was a problem. We had to move through an open field where an hour ago, little lead hornets were buzzing around. But one of the bootnecks had a good idea.

We popped smoke grenades and ran behind tanks. The first try didn’t work, because when we went into the open, we were fired on. But it worked on the second try. We ran for our lives behind those tanks. I thought it would make a good picture, so I put my head down next to the tank’s exhaust and took pictures with my camera over my head. I wasn’t even looking at where I was shooting.

“This is World War II shit,” yelled Connelly, as we ran behind the tanks. He was joking, but I didn’t laugh.
We made it to the next compound, and puffed down cigarettes. It was the best cigarette of my life, but it was hard to smoke because my lungs were filled with tank exhaust.

7th Troop moved into the outskirts of the village that night and we stayed back as over watch. We listened to them fight. They were getting some – we had already gotten ours.

The next morning we moved forward into the village. We met up with 7th Troop at a compound. They pushed forward street by street and made it a few blocks away from the Mosque and now it was our turn to move forward.

The village was quiet. Everyone had fled and I hoped the insurgents were all dead. We moved into a burned-out school right across the street from the mosque. I tried to get pictures of the Marines patrolling though the mud, but getting good images was the last thing on my mind.

We started taking small-arms fire from the west of the city. We moved through the village, forward to the sound of the guns. I thought human beings are supposed to run away from the sounds of guns, not yomp in the mud toward it. I thought to myself, “these Lima Company bootnecks are the real deal.”
I looked up and watched a javelin missile fly high up into the sky. It was shot off by Marines on the roof of the school, who had locked onto the insurgents. I was happy the javelin did all of the work for us and we moved into a compound behind the mosque and stayed there the night.

“We still have the Triangle of Death,” said Johno, as we smoked cigarettes in the compound.  “It sounds like a video game,” I joked. “The Triangle of Death … the last level of Operation Sond Chara.”

The Triangle of Death is an area about four kilometers behind Zargon Kalay. We called it that, because on the map, it looked like a triangle. Reports were coming in that all of the insurgents were fleeing there. That made the Triangle of Death Taliban land.
We hiked through more of the surrounding villages before reaching the Triangle of Death. But the insurgents had heard about Zargon Kalay and many of them were fleeing for their lives.

In the early morning hours of Christmas Eve, we headed into a village we called Yellow Four. It was the beginning of the Triangle of Death. However, it had been quiet for the past few days and I was beginning to think the insurgents had learned their lesson.
Yellow Four is a little village holed up next to a big river with a big rusty crane in the center for exporting and importing goods. On top of the crane was a huge white Taliban flag. It seemed like an old trading port. But when we got there most of the villagers had fled.
We moved into the village with ease and took positions at an Afghan compound below the crane. I was pretty tired and I grabbed a few blankets to get some rest.

“It seems pretty quiet; hopefully they won’t attack us. What do you think?” I asked Royal Marine John Baiss, 9th Troop medic. “They are just observing us right now,” he replied. “Give it an hour.”

I didn’t want to believe him so I put my head down for some rest. An hour later I woke to gunfire. Smalls arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars were everywhere. I immediately put on my flak jacket and Kevlar helmet. I grabbed my rifle and camera and then sprinted outside to see what was happening.
“Someone put a wet on,” yelled Connelly, in the beginning of the firefight. We all laughed a little bit. A wet is British slang for tea.

Bootnecks were on the rooftops shooting and screaming. They were climbing on top as fast as they could to get more rounds downrange.  “I see them … I see them,” screamed Lance Cpl. Paul, as he unloaded his machine gun. “They are in the tree line.”
I was getting used to gunfire, so I was confident when I started snapping away – trying to get some images of the lads in action.

I climbed up on the rooftop with the help of some of the bootnecks who pushed me up. I crawled up next to Paul and tried to get a view of the insurgents in front of us. There was a ceiling of small-arms fire over our heads. I looked up and saw a rocket propelled grenade fly over our heads. I followed it with my eyes in slow motion.

“Get a … LASM down there,” someone screamed, which is like a rocket launcher.  Lance Cpl. Ben Whatley grabbed his LASM and went forward. We all bent down because of the backblast.

“He’s hit, he’s … hit,” screamed one of the bootnecks on the ground. I looked up and saw him lying motionless in front of us. Once the bootnecks next to me saw what had happened, and with out hesitation, they stood up and moved forward through the small-arms fire to save him.

The firefight went on for about half an hour more. The bootnecks kept fighting, knowing their friend was badly hurt.

We found out a few hours later that Ben was dead.
After Christmas Eve, we no longer called it the Triangle of Death … just the Triangle.

On Christmas morning we moved forward into the heart of the Triangle. We yomped toward the white flags – insurgent flags. We were surrounded by white flags. This was their stronghold. It is a very eerie feeling walking through open ground, seeing white flags in every direction.

But it seemed the Taliban had learned their lesson once more and we weren’t attacked that day. So we moved into a compound for rest and to get good arcs for our machine guns on the surrounding area.
It didn’t feel like Christmas.

Once in the compound, Marines Greg Bennett, a machine gunner, and Denbigh Hopkins, an infantryman and former South African hunter, had smiles on their faces. In the back of the compound was a room filled with turkeys.

“Looks like it’s going to be Christmas after all,” said Capt. Oli Truman, commander of 9th Troop, Lima Company, 42 Commando.

That night we sat around the fire, ate grilled turkey and enjoyed each others’ company.  “Camaraderie is very important,” I remember hearing Paul say with his face glowing from the fire. “We should do this more often. It’s good for the troop.”

It wasn’t the best Christmas I ever had. But, spending Christmas with bootnecks out in combat, I grew a better appreciation for it.

The lads of Lima Company are special. They have something most people in the world will never have or understand – their brotherhood. 

And the next day we yomped forward …

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Climbing the Moutain

For a bit of local adventure, I joined one of my DEA counterparts this morning to climb the mountain ridge located behind our compound in Kabul. Locally, the Asmai and Sherdawaza mountain ranges dominate the landscape, ringing the city of Kabul in all directions.
A view of the surrounding mountain ranges reveals a staggering number of peaks already covered in snow. Surprisingly, more than 49 % of the total land area in Afghanistan lies above 6000 feet elevation. Here in Kabul, the elevation averages just over 5,800 feet, with the mountain crests adding to the total. The average elevation in the state of Virginia is only 950 feet, which certainly requires a temporary adjustment period that one definitely feels when engaging in physical activity.

The mountainous areas are mostly barren, or at most remain sparsely sprinkled with trees and stunted 
bushes. True forests, found mainly in the eastern provinces of Nuristan and Paktiya, cover barely 3% of the country's area. Even these small reserves have been disastrously depleted by the war and through illegal exploitation, with less than one million acres surviving today.

During our climb, we passed several rock walls and 
hand-dug gun emplacements that were once used for cover by the mujahadeen during their fight against the Soviets. The ground remains littered with all types and sizes of rifle casings, while signs warn of the dangers of straying off the trail as you climb toward the crest. A local goat-herder discovered the unfortunate result of straying too far from the path when one of his goats stepped on an unexploded land mine and blew itself up. I am unaware of anyone human doing the same thing.
Along the way, I stopped numerous times to take in the view of Kabul, hardly believing that the city I was seeing was the same one I'd driven through. From 6,000 feet, it looks like a typical sprawling city spread out over thousands of acres, a thin layer of smog hanging heavily above it. From my vantage point, I could clearly make out the Kabul International Airport and saw at least a half dozen jets, both military and civilian, climbing slowly toward us as we continued our ascent.

From atop the ridgeline, the view of the surrounding area quickly deteriorating as the morning progressed. The haze seemed thicker the higher we climbed and obscured the higher mountain tops in the distance. On the opposite side of the ridge, a vast expanse of desert plain lay before us, apparently an unfriendly area to our coalition forces.

The previous night’s rain had made the usually dusty climb more tolerable than normal, however, resulting in a number of other adventurers braving the cold to reach the peak. Joining us at the top were several Brits, one Lithuanian, a team of FBI agents, and several contractors, many of whom were also on their first trek up the mountain. Although some of the climbers had dressed in PT gear, I noticed most were armed, with some even wearing their armored vests. By the time I had reached the top, I was certainly glad I’d left my vest behind.

While taking in the view, we noticed several individuals climbing an area of the mountain that was unmarked and without trail. Using the magnified scope atop my rifle as a makeshift set of binoculars, I determined the people were simply collecting firewood and placing it in cloth bundles strapped across their backs.  I had no idea where they came from and even less of an idea where they were headed to after reaching their limits. 
The walk down the mountain proved tougher than the walk-up, at least on my knees. Regardless, it was much quicker than I anticipated, with plenty of time left for breakfast. Unless the weather fails to cooperate, I'll likely make this a routine event.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Change in Scenery

I recently moved from 350 miles N from Camp Leatherneck to Kabul. At first glance, Kabul international airport seems very modern, as there are actually several civilian aircraft parked along the runway. The airport is partially blocked off to allow military aircraft access, with restrictions set in place to separate military from civilian aircraft.

Despite the initial appearance from the outside, it more closely resembles third world airport inside, with few amenities, most of which are in place for official military use only, such as encrypted telephones, weapons and baggage transfer points, ID card scanning stations, etc. Outside the front doors, the mountains loom ahead, very steep, jagged and foreboding - some already covered in snow at higher elevations. Lately, the airport has been relatively safe, whereas the American Embassy endured a 20 hour attack in September.

Leaving Kabul International Airport, the environment quickly turns sour.  The roads I traveled were full of deep potholes, no pavement anywhere to be seen once I left the airport perimeter. A variety of "businesses" inhabits the slums and shanties sitting off the sides of the road, with a crazy mish-mash of buildings, garbage, trash piles, junk cars, and rubble all mixed together in some odd form of apparent civilization. I actually think it's worse than Iraq...there is still much destruction left over from not only recent fighting, but from the Soviet occupation 20 years ago. I am told that the opposite side of town is much more modern, but I have yet to see it.

There was significant traffic getting out to the compound where I  currently reside, with cars jockeying for positions to pass each other on the roadway, all trying not to bottom out in some of the largest potholes (more closely resembling craters) I've ever seen; cars were sometimes spaced 2 to 3 wide across the road; at other times, there might have been 4 or 5 side by side, each headed different directions, a near disaster. Here, the biggest car wins, and most of them are owned by westerners - military, contractors, or government of some sort.

Throughout the drive, I viewed a variety of compounds obviously built for coalition forces or foreign contractors. They are obvious, as all are surrounded by huge walls, concertina wire and hescoe barriers to discourage attacks. Host nation guards are visible at most gates and block entrance to the compounds. Regardless, you never feel absolutely safe in this environment. 

Situated on the slope of a large mountain, my particular compound lies at nearly 5000 feet elevation and has a great view of Kabul. Nearby, the mountain steeply rises another 1000 feet where an ANA (Afgh National Army) outpost rests along the ridge line looking directly down at us. 

The mountain is littered with unexploded ordnance left over from the soviet invasion. Just last month, a goat allegedly managed to get away from his herder and blew itself up after stepping a few feet off the well traveled trail leading up the mountain. Several of the compound residents here have climbed the same mountain, but make the climb with body armor, long guns and a heightened state alert for safety sake. It makes the climb a little harder, but the view is apparently worth the climb.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Long Road Ahead

I am currently serving with some superb U.S. and British officers in the Current and Future Operations section, where operational orders are drafted developed and published. These guys are the truly brains of the command and conceive all of the rough draft orders and concepts of operations that upon approval, form the basis of operations conducted by the combined military forces utilize in this region.

The office is a pressure cooker, with planners putting in 12-16 hour days every day of the week. What keeps them going is a bottomless coffee pot and a great sense of shared humor among the members of the group.

Nothing in a military environment is executed without a written order, and in Afghanistan, our forces have to coordinate closely with higher headquarters in Kabul, as well as the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, referred to as GIROA.  it's a very complicated and extremely cumbersome process, but somehow it works. 

This command's particular region of interest lies within the Helmand Province, one of 34 provinces in Afghanistan. It is one of the largest Afghan provinces and arguably the most unstable. To make matters worse, the Helmand province yields the highest quantity of illicit opium, morphine, and hashish in the country, all of which funds the insurgency and the Taliban via illegal "taxation" of the farmers. The illegal flow of narcotics out of Afghanistan destabilizes the government and hinders the transition of military operations from coalition forces to the Afghan National Security Forces, or ANSF.

Each regional command (RC) has thousands of soldiers, Marines, and coalition forces working as mentors/trainers and partners to the ANSF. The ANSF not only includes the Afghan military, but also incorporates  the various Afghan National Police forces, including the Afghan national police, civil order police, counter narcotics police, and even local and tribal police. The poppy problem alone is enough to keep the police forces busy, which make the training and mentoring piece a huge task as we lead them to self-sufficiency.

Back to the officers of the FOPS section - one particular Marine officer assigned to assist in the transition of counter-narcotics operations from the coalition forces to the Afghans is Major Sean Dynan, an Annapolis grad who has is on his 5th deployment. A former company commander right here in Helmand, his company operated only a few miles away from where we currently work. In 2008, Maj. Dynan had a PBS reporter embedded with his company. Although reporters often sensationalize their experiences or inaccurately portray their subjects, this particular PBS reporter appears to have conveyed a very realistic and accurate portrayal of what is still occurring on a daily basis in Helmand Province. The report shows how  military operations have radically changed from the WWII, Korea and Vietnam eras, when the military man was simply a war-fighter. Today, our Marines are not only war-fighters, but also peace-keepers simultaneously filling military, civil, law enforcement and humanitarian roles.

Although the video is nearly 3 years old, it could have been filmed yesterday. The situation portrayed in 2008 remains the same in much of the Province. You'll see The blurred civil-military mission continues in Afghanistan today.

Here's the link:  Reporter Embed in Helmand