War on Terrorism

Monday, February 22, 2010

30 Days Through Afghanistan: Found One! – Day 12

By U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Nathan Gallahan, ISAF Joint Command Public Affairs

February 22, 2010 - Strong Point Khyber. I would love to say I found the IED today, but I’ll have to wait until I’m an 80-year-old grandpa. For now I have to tell the truth, the Afghan National Army soldiers we were with found it.

It wasn’t much of a surprise, the Canadian soldiers who are partnered with them told us last night the ANA find nine out of ten of them. It’s because they’ve been doing it for more than six years and they know these roads and the Taliban.

We woke up this morning and got our armor on and started walking. It’s great to be outside of the wire to see the sunrise. It’s a type of beauty that can’t be expressed through a photograph. The way the oranges glint off the Soldier’s binoculars as they look for bad guys or the way the heat from your body floating up through your body armor mixes with the cool breeze to create a rather refreshing feeling on your neck. There’s nothing like a good IED hunt in the morning.

I’m new to searching for IEDs, so I walked in the tracks of the armored vehicle grinding along in front of me. I knew my family was probably sensing I was doing something dangerous and I didn’t want to get blown up on my first trip looking for one. Soldiers were searching for IEDs with metal detectors, eyeballs and a beautiful Doberman Pincher mix was sniffing away. There were more soldiers watching every direction from the armored vehicle ready to take down any confirmed bad guys. Then there was Ken and I in the back with hearts thumping and video cameras recording.

Experience is the best teacher, so the ANA were always out front. They can spot the things a lot better than any of the coalition forces can. So we walked and searched and walked some more. The streets were completely empty. There wasn’t a child or adult in sight. We owned the morning. I’ll admit, it was very surreal and it would have been quiet if it hadn’t been for the extremely noisy armored vehicle.

I built a friendship with one of the interpreters and we walked together for quite awhile. He’s been on countless searches and gave me a personal tour of the “battlefield” if you can call it that. “Do you see there?” he asked. “Where wall is broken? Talib plant IED there and blow himself up.”

“Here is where bomb exploded four meters from me.”

“IED planted under tree right here.”

“You see that building where grapes dried? Two months ago Talib attack from there, big firefight.”

It was amazing. As I was hearing one of these war stories, the sun crested the mountains and marked a new day. My eyes captured beauty while my ears caught hell.

The places where the various little streams flow under the road are amazingly dangerous. They all have grates blocking the culverts underneath, but they are still very carefully inspected. The group pauses a moment at each one and it’s checked and we proceed with the mission.

We turned around and started walking back. This time, I had a chance to walk with a Canadian captain. We talked about his first mission and how nervous he was and how he grew to really respect the ANA and their abilities. He told me about how their training was very limited. They’ve only received a two week engineering course but now they’ve been out here for six years and are experts at finding IEDs. We talked about the various cultural differences between the ways ISAF conducts business and how the ANA does. Just because it may be different than our own, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It’s the way Afghans choose to conduct business, that’s their right.

The Afghan sergeant in charge of Strong Point Brown, the fort down the road from ours, asked us in for some tea and we eagerly accepted. We entered the fort and dropped our armor. Five seconds after Ken and I sat down next to a warm heater, we heard the crisp crack of gun shots, then more, and then a few more. Before the third set, every Soldier (and Airman) was running for their body armor. We suited up and started hoofing it down the road towards the gun fire. It turns out that the ANA who continued searching for IEDs up the road from the fort, found one. They saw the trigger men in the distance and fired warning shots to stop them, but they got away.

Ken and I followed quickly behind the Canadian captain until we ended up at the IED site. For safety reasons we kept our distance. I wasn’t about ready to risk my life for a picture of mortars. The IED had a simple pull string detonator on it, meaning you pull the string and it blows up. The ANA walked up earlier and snipped the string. Their bravery is astounding. Once we were on scene, we watched as the ANA and Canadian Soldiers worked together to search for any more IEDs or evidence in the area. Another group of ANA Soldiers were off questioning some local Afghans about the incident.

We walked around this building, jumped over this stream and walked about 100 yards before we reached where the trigger men would have been laying in wait for their target. We waited there until the suspected insurgents were brought over for questioning. It’s a strange feeling to look one in the eye.

After all of that excitement, things quickly died down. A quick response force was called in along with a counter-IED team. The QRF could be heard for miles away. These massive Leopard II tanks appeared from the mountains and grinded down the road as their turrets moved left and right, all while the orange glasses of the tank commander peered down at you. It’s a creepy good feeling seeing these bad boys drive by, but it almost seems too much in a counter insurgency. Overwhelming firepower is always a good thing though.

So then counter-IED started working in all types of ways that I can’t talk about and then the mission completed a few hours later.

Now, Ken and I are back in Masum Ghar. Looking back on my experience in Strong Point Khyber, I can now say I’ve seen Taliban country and what the “front lines” look in a counter insurgency. It’s nothing like I expected and my perceptions of this conflict have been forever altered. Looking forward on the rest of my trip, I can’t wait to learn more.

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