Taliban Alley

BY Herschel Smith
2 years ago

Richard Johnson makes an entry at National Post that is well worth the study time.  Richard is embedded near Tur-Muryani hill, which, if I am not mistaken, is near Sheykhan in RC East.  Some of Richard’s report is included below.

The mission on the face of it was simple and straightforward for the Afghan National Army’s (ANA) 6th Kandak – drive out to a specific highpoint overlooking the intersection of two rivers and build an outpost on Tur-Muryani hill. Unfortunately, the confluence of the Arghandab and Mizan valleys is home field for Taliban sympathizers, facilitators and the Taliban themselves — and is a main route for the materials of their war. They were likely to be less than happy at the more intense scrutiny from this new outpost, right in their back yard.

There were also a couple few hundred civilians – sympathizers or not – living in each village in the valleys to protect.

I have been living, drinking, sleeping and sharing wet wipes with U.S. Security Force Assistance Team (SFAT) 42 for the past week.

The U.S. SFAT mission here now is less aggressive, less invasive and much less visible to the average Afghan than the previous U.S. Army doctrine of military ownership of the battle space. According to their SFAT Standing Operating Procedures Manual (Feb 2012) their task now is to “improve the operational effectiveness of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), expand security gains throughout the region” that will “ultimately lead to the ANSF defeating the insurgency.” Nothing to it.

In the very early morning light the 6th Kandak and elements of their Engineer Corps from the 2nd Kandak readied itself for their mission. Men were rushing from side to side. Orders were shouted. Heavy equipment was loaded. Trucks were being fuelled. All within the narrow confines of the base.

I really felt like I had bonded with SFAT42 during the last week, but they dropped me from their road crew in lieu of someone actually useful — an interpreter. ‘NICE!’ guys?. They did arrange alternative wheels for me along with the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) team commanded by U.S. Air Force (USAF) Staff Sergeant Justice Stevens alongside USAF Senior Airman (SRA) Frankie Larez on the Common Remotely-Operated Weapons System (CROWs).

All of the U.S. SFAT and support elements moved out of COP Mizan behind the ANA units, but not until a suitable time had passed. This was an ANA mission after all. The road to the hill was a bumpy one. I concentrated on the seat in front of me and talked to JTAC SSgt. Stevens.

Staff Sgt. Stevens had been along on the last SFAT operation into the Arghandab Valley back in April. SFAT42 plus ISAF support elements, and the 6th Kandak had been air dropped by Chinook into an area near Rabajuy village on the other side of the river from where we were now headed.

“The initial mission was planned as the first unilateral Afghan operation. All we were supposed to do was support them and advise them in how to operate. I am there to just give them the ability of air support, so we don’t put them in a situation where they are getting creamed” said Staff Sgt. Stevens.

On that day Staff Sgt. Stevens — along with SFAT42 Major Ethan Allen, 6th Kandak Colonel Altafullah and Cha-Cha, (Major Allen’s interpreter) — eventually situated on the top of a ridge line watching the ANA clear the villages below.

“We were in a circle. And the interpreter stood up and an IED detonated. It was like one big thud. I thought at first it was a mortar strike. Next thing I knew I was laying on my side. It blew my headset all to shit but it probably saved my hearing … the Major and the Colonel were initially blown unconscious by the blast … the interpreter had heavy damage to his head and leg. Then the Taliban started shooting at our location. At that time I requested an immediate show of force from two F16s on station just to suppress the small arms fire. Specialist Crooks and Second Lieutenant Collins arrived. Then we dragged everybody below the ridgeline out of the line of fire.”

The interpreter had a gaping head wound and a severed leg. Lieutenant Redlus arrived and helped me with him. We bandaged his head first. At one point I had my hand in his mouth to stop him swallowing his tongue while I synched the tourniquet on his leg. I synched it so much the pain brought him around..”

Over the next 15 minutes, Staff Sgt. Stevens and two ANA soldiers carried the wounded interpreter down off the ridgeline while under sporadic fire. Eventually – Sgt. Barraza the SFAT medic – arrived with a litter and they moved down the hill to the casualty evacuation point. Staff Sgt. Stevens then ran back up the hill.

“I went back up the hill to coordinate an airstrike on the enemy. But we could not locate them. Didn’t know where the ANA where either. So even if we found the guys we thought were Taliban we couldn’t fire in case we hit the ANA.”

It was a frustrating first mission for SFAT42. Staff Sgt. Stevens was hoping that the taking of this Tur-Muryani hill would be different.

Progress was slow on the drive. I’d felt ill all day, and had taken gravol. As we drove I drifted in and out of nausea and consciousness. In the Mizan Valley on our left the ANA were clearing the villages. I barely noticed much of this as I kept nodding off, drifting in and out listening to the radio chatter. The ANA discovered an IED. Asleep. A “boom” as they blew it in place. Awake.

When we finally reached the base of Tur-Muryani hill, I felt sturdy enough to at least get out of the vehicle. I watched the Explosives Ordnance Disposal (EOD) guys sweep the area. I think I stood for an hour like this in the shade of the truck, breathing diesel, squinting into the bright light before finally venturing farther.

Six of us in a line climbed straight up the hill, with me dragging at the end – sucking water from my Camelbak. It was the hottest part of the day.

It wasn’t much of a hill really. Not by Scottish standards, anyway. But by the time we got to the top, we all were wheezing. Everyone collapsed for a while and found a rock to lean against. The view from the top was nothing short of spectacular. For 270 degrees we could see everything in both Valleys. I could understand why the Taliban might contest this ground.

The view into the valleys was quiet and idyllic, peaceful and green. No sign that this basin was the launching point for the almost nightly mortar, recoilless rifle, and machine gun attacks on the Afghan National Police (ANP) checkpoint on a hilltop behind me. There were some goats, a lot of pomegranate orchards, some grape fields and … laundry.

An hour or so later – trying to keep out of the way of the soldiers busy setting up the security perimeter – I sat down with “Doc” Sgt. Frank Barraza. Doc is the medical part of the SFAT42 team. One part of his job is to attempt to bring the ANA field medic skills up to speed. He was happy to be feeling at loose ends right then. He has a love-hate relationship with his job. He loves to help but hates seeing what he sees.

“I have been giving them (ANA) classes on field sanitation and disease prevention. They can stop hemorrhage but disease prevention is where they fall down. They are at about Vietnam level.”

The ANA don’t have medivac helicopters to speak of, and so even though they may stop someone bleeding out on the battlefield, they struggle to get their wounded to hospital. According to Doc, a wounded soldier that would likely be in surgery within 20 minutes within ISAF could take 150 minutes at best by ANA vehicle. This is Doc’s chief area of concern.

“It is one of the things we are asking them. How are you going to get a casualty from point A to point B if he is urgent surgical? They said, ‘We won’t.’ Without American help, they die,” he said.

The ANA also struggles to find and keep good doctors and medics.

“They are in an education slump right now. The medics are some of the brightest in the country. So they are willing to learn and they want to learn. But they (ANA) are afraid to send them to schools because they are worried they will quit the army and go into the civilian world.”

This AO has always been one of lacking effective or regular patrolling or force presence.  The Taliban were supposed to have a difficult time coming back to this AO in the spring, but of course, this has been the case since there has been a Taliban, and a spring, and great expectations set in place by the ISAF.

Read the whole report.  But one remarkable thing from the report is the degree to which the ANA is dependent on U.S. air power, MEDEVAC and logistics.  There is the problem of green on blue violence, but even if one ignores those problems, it isn’t obvious that Afghanistan will last a half year out of Taliban control without U.S. troop presence.




You are currently reading "Taliban Alley", entry #9012 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan and was published September 6th, 2012 by Herschel Smith.

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