Sure, Operation Mountain Thrust may have sounded like a porno—English-speakers in the country milked it all they could, drawing out the pronunciation into “mount-and-thrust”—but at least it wasn’t Operation Turtle, the even more ridiculously named operation nearby. This mission was seen as crucial, aimed at securing dangerous areas in the south before the United States officially handed them over to various NATO countries, especially since the Taliban was trying to take advantage of that handover. In many cases, the troops were moving into areas they had never before entered, undoubtedly a bit late, almost five years into the war, but who was counting? The war would be won or lost here, in the dangerous and so-far-untamed south. The Canadians had taken over in Kandahar. The British were taking the lead in Helmand, the southern province that bordered Kandahar on the west. The Dutch—the Dutch?—would take Uruzgan, the small province just to the north of Kandahar and east of Helmand. The Romanians would take the lead in Zabul, east of Kandahar and Uruzgan. The United States would shift its primary mission to eastern Afghanistan, but really, it seemed like the Americans hoped to tiptoe out of Afghanistan altogether.
After signing up for another embed, I found myself earmarked for Helmand, ground zero of everything bad in Afghanistan, the heart of both the Taliban and the poppy trade. It hadn’t always been this way. Helmand was once the country’s breadbasket. The United States had spent so much development money here in the 1960s and 1970s that part of Helmand was dubbed “Little America.” But development stalled during the country’s wars, and farmers fell back on the region’s longtime favorite cash crop, a flower that grew well during droughts and earned top dollar, the poppy, the raw material for opium and heroin. While in power, the Taliban regime had briefly banned farmers from growing poppies—largely to win international recognition, rather than for religious reasons. But in the years since the Taliban fled, poppies had returned to much of Helmand, because even though the government had banned the plant, it had not enforced that ban, and many influential Afghans here profited from the trade. Afghanistan now produced more heroin and opium than anywhere else in the world, and Helmand was the epicenter. Consequently, Helmand was one of the prettiest provinces in Afghanistan. During the spring, fields were splashes of brilliant red, orange, and purple.
Neither NATO nor the United States seemed quite sure how to tackle the drug trade. Allow the opium and heroin to flow, and watch the region sink further into lawlessness. Crack down on the opium farmers, and risk driving them into the arms of the Taliban, now protecting and encouraging the trade.
Until now, few of the international forces had spent much time in Helmand—there were simply not enough troops in the country to adequately cover the south. The major exception was the U.S.-led antiterrorist squad, mostly composed of U.S. special operations forces—the men with beards from elite parts of the military whom we were never supposed to refer to nor talk to while on embeds—and the men with beards from government agencies referred to as “other government agencies,” a term that typically included the CIA and other spook-like groups. These men had been operating in Helmand since the beginning of the war, hunting Al-Qaeda and other top terrorists, or so we were told.
As part of Operation Mountain Thrust, the regular U.S. Army was now moving into Helmand to try to secure key parts before officially handing over the province to the British. The army had just opened up new outposts, the major one about three miles from a town called Musa Qala, a stronghold of insurgents, poppy farmers, and drug traffickers.
I had managed to get an embed in Musa Qala, despite what happened with Crowley the summer before. Somehow I had avoided any blacklist. And supposedly I was lucky. Many journalists considered this to be the best embed possible. But I wasn’t thrilled. It sounded scary, much scarier than Paktika.
In late June, after days of waiting on the sweltering Kandahar tarmac, I boarded a Chinook helicopter bound for Helmand. I buckled up, along with several soldiers and a new U.S. military translator, an Afghan American who had grown up on the East Coast. He looked uncomfortable in his fatigues, like he was afraid he might wrinkle them.
“What will you be doing?” I asked the man, who had the highest clearance possible because he was an American citizen.
“Working with the special forces, I guess.” He slumped in his seat a bit at the idea.
“Wow.” I looked at him closer. He didn’t look Pashtun. “Are you Pashtun?”
“And you grew up in the U.S.?”
“You speak Pashto?”
He shrugged. “Yeah. Enough to get by.”
This was not encouraging. His Pashto could have been perfect, but the Afghans in Helmand would not trust an Uzbek or his translation. They would see his very existence as an insult to Pashtuns and an indication of how little the Americans understood. Uzbeks were from the north, known for oppressing the Pashtun minority there. This translator would also be unaware of all the tribal rivalries, of the granular ins and outs that made up every community in Afghanistan, each a universe of petty historic squabbles and alliances that mattered. Besides, speaking enough Pashto to get by was by no means enough Pashto. This was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that I met an Afghan translator who had been dropped into the wrong area.
The helicopter drowned out any hope of more conversation. Our pair of Chinooks took off, flying low over rolling hills. Every time the Chinooks flew the two-hour distance between Kandahar and Helmand, they took a different route over different hills, to avoid possible insurgents. The copilot handed me a headset so I could listen to the banter up front.
“Look. Even the girls are throwing rocks at us,” the pilot said, pointing at the hillside below. Indeed, the girls were.
“Everyone throws rocks at us,” the copilot answered. We all laughed.
Our helicopters landed outside a tiny base in the middle of the desert, kicking up sand into a swirling cloud of beige as we jolted to the ground. Quickly we climbed out the back, where the sand soon clogged every orifice, my eyes, my nostrils, my ears, my mouth, choking me and erasing the bulk of my senses. I pushed through the beige, following the dark outlines of the translator and other U.S. soldiers, wearing one backpack, carrying another with my right hand, my helmet slipping sideways on my head. I saw shapes of people waiting to board the helicopters back to Kandahar. One shape grabbed me by the flak vest.
“Are you a journalist?” he shouted over the roar of the helicopter.
“Yeah. You’re a photographer?” I shouted back, noting his camera.
“I’m a German photographer,” he corrected. “This place is hell. Get out while you can.”
The shape then turned and ran for the helicopter. I stared after him for a few seconds, wishing I could follow, then, resigned to my fate, pushed through the hot dust fog toward a truck, where I dumped my bags gratefully. We then trudged inside the base. I saw the Uzbek head off with some men with beards. I never saw him again.
“Hell” was a compliment. The temperature here soared higher than 120 degrees. The new base was modest, a few big tents that each slept fifty or so people and kept getting blown down by the winds, which whipped through the camp like a thief, leaving behind a fine dust the consistency of talcum powder. Barbed wire and a ring of HESCOs, large bags filled with sand, protected the camp. Sentries stood on a hill above the camp and in guard towers. In the desert that stretched forever, seeing anyone approach was easy. It was not that obvious what the soldiers were doing out here. Their goal was supposedly to clear the territory of bad guys, hold the territory, and build stuff for Afghans. Yet barely enough soldiers were here to fill a movie theater, let alone clear anything or hold it. And the closest town, again, was three miles away.
The media handler, an affable soldier with thick Mr. Magoo glasses, introduced himself and explained the camp and its rules. He pointed out two large guns on the side of the base, 105-mm howitzers, and told me not to be afraid if I heard loud blasts in the middle of the night—the Americans were firing the howitzers into the desert, letting the Taliban know that they were there. He told me women could use the showers only at certain times, which I promptly forgot. Showering here would be like trying to beat back the Taliban with Karzai pamphlets, as pointless as a pedicure in Kabul. Mr. Magoo showed me the tactical operations center (known as the TOC, pronounced like “talk”), the only place with air-conditioning on the base. Outside, other air conditioners sat unused and dusty, with no generator to power them. The Taliban had just destroyed the base’s new large refrigerator unit as it was being driven through Musa Qala, along with containers of Red Bull and Gatorade and many soldiers’ personal belongings.
I was told to find a cot. One tent had two rows of green cots, with only a few women takers, and I dropped my bags on an empty one, sending up clouds of dust. I walked outside the tent and looked for water—different bins set up across the base held thousands of bottles of water, all instant-coffee hot from the sun. I carried a bottle back to my cot. An embed was essentially a test of patience. Too eager, and a reporter risked alienating soldiers. Too passive, and a reporter risked sitting around reading leftover thrillers. As I had just arrived, I waited for the soldiers to come to me. It did not take long. They called me “ma’am,” and asked where I was from. They showed me how to cool down my bottled water—take a sock, wet it with a splash of the hot water, drop the bottle inside the wet sock, and tie it to a bed frame or tent post near the wind, which was everywhere. The water was lukewarm within minutes.
The soldiers called their new home Camp Hell or worse. Some referred to the nearest large village, Musa Qala, as Taliban Town. The base, its satellite, and the supply route had been attacked every few days. The soldiers were first ambushed outside of Kandahar, as they were leaving to set up the base. A gunner had been shot dead when his convoy was ambushed. A medic, who always carried a picture of his wife and newborn son, was killed when an old land mine exploded. The fighting was the reason I had to wait days in Kandahar for a helicopter ride.
Other militants attacked, but one of the most telling was a lone militant on a motorcycle, later dubbed by my friend Sean as the stupidest Taliban insurgent ever born. Three days after troops arrived, a man rode up on a motorcycle. Guards in the towers tracked him with binoculars for what seemed like a mile, always coming closer, carving an obvious path in the flat desert. The Afghan then stopped and pulled out a mirror from his pocket. He turned the mirror toward the base and flashed it quickly, as if to get the soldiers’ attention. Flash, flash. Flash, flash. Flash, flash. He drove a little farther and repeated his performance with the mirror. Attention caught, the U.S. soldiers on guard duty sent out an Afghan army truck to investigate. As the truck sped toward the man, he whipped out a Kalashnikov from under his outfit and began firing at the truck. He barely got a shot off. An Afghan soldier manning a heavy machine gun started firing. And firing. And firing more. He kept firing until his tub of bullets was empty and the motorcycle man had long stopped posing a threat. An American watching the scene unfold decided he had to talk to the Afghan soldier.
“Why did you keep shooting?” he asked the Afghan. “And why did you use all the bullets?”
“The Taliban killed my brother,” the Afghan replied, grinning. “I really hate them.”
And that showed just how impossible everything was out here. This was a war in which an Afghan militant thought his best option was to attack an American base alone on a motorcycle. And an Afghan soldier thought he was equally wise to unleash all his precious ammunition on a dead man, while Afghan soldiers in other parts of Afghanistan complained of having no weapons and no bullets and were even being killed for lack of ammunition. Figuring out the bigger idiot was tough.
Other Afghans trekked out to the base—but they were all elders, complaining that they did not want the U.S. soldiers to come to their villages anymore because everyone was scared of them and afraid of Taliban retaliation. It was a tough crowd. Hearts and minds were not on offer. A medical convoy tried to give free medical help to the village of Sarbesa. But the elders said the U.S. soldiers scared the women and children and asked the medics to hold their clinic somewhere else.
Unlike on other embeds, the officers here were so strapped, spread so thin, they had no time to worry about what I was doing or writing. They sent me on patrols with guys who had seen their friends die in Afghanistan, into a place that was by no means secure. The soldiers were nervous, which made me nervous. Any car, any person, major panic. Nobody waved. Children did not crowd around the Humvees, asking for pens and candy, as they did in the rest of Afghanistan. When we drove through a village, the women and children ran away. This was never a good sign.
On one patrol, we visited a clinic built through the U.S. schools-and-clinics program, the pet project of Zal, the former U.S. ambassador. The program was largely considered a debacle. The new buildings came in shoddy, late, and over budget. The lead USAID contractor, the Louis Berger Group of New Jersey, reportedly charged U.S. taxpayers an average of $226,000 for each building—almost five times as much as Afghans and European nonprofit groups had paid for similar buildings. Louis Berger officials told journalists that their buildings took longer to build because they were required to train Afghan contractors to do the work; the buildings cost more because they were earthquake resistant. In reality, most of the money probably got chewed up along the way. USAID contractors like Louis Berger spent a lot of money on highly paid U.S. staff and couldn’t supervise projects in difficult areas, increasing the likelihood of fraud. And even though Louis Berger hired Afghan contractors, those companies often subcontracted to someone else, who sometimes subcontracted to someone else. Corners were cut. Many buildings were already falling apart. Some roofs had caved in from heavy snow.
We sat with the elders at their new clinic.
“Do you use it?” an American staff sergeant asked.
“Well … we have no medicine,” an Afghan answered, then added, almost as an afterthought, “And we have no doctor.”
In other words, no, they did not. I went on these missions when the soldiers did them, but sometimes they didn’t, and sometimes they didn’t invite me, like when it seemed too dangerous. Their mood was the opposite of the mood on my embed the year before, when I wrote primarily about the forgotten war. The men still felt like no one was paying attention to Afghanistan, but here they knew that their enemy was serious, and that someone should have maybe figured that out earlier.
On the base, conditions were so backpacking basic, we were all reduced to the same sexless, miserable, dust-covered robots, amused by fights between camel spiders and scorpions held in cardboard boxes. The soldiers filmed the fights and replayed the highlights, much like they watched videos of their recent firefights. The winner in Ultimate Fighter Afghanistan was a particularly large camel spider, which practically ripped the head off any scorpion found to challenge it.
I was occasionally bored, yet constantly exhausted. I rested in my cot and read my neighbor’s bad spy novels involving heroic Americans with names like Jimmy and Ace. I couldn’t watch videos or write. I couldn’t risk taking my computer out of my backpack, because of the omniscient and omnipresent wind, which carried the dust with it. The wind was always in the room, a participant in every conversation. The dust coated soldiers when they napped for an hour, and by the time the morning came around, all of us looked gray and dead. Not that we could sleep, for the heat, for the wind. Putting in contact lenses every morning was like scraping my corneas with a bunion remover.
One night I escaped to the only dustless place in the whole base, the TOC, to talk to the man in charge about everything that had happened. He was interrupted by a whisper about a TIC in the TOC—in other words, troops in contact that could be monitored in the tactical operations center.
In addition to Musa Qala, a satellite U.S. base had been set up in the north. That evening, the Taliban had attacked a U.S. patrol near there. The troops retaliated, backed by a B-1 bomber. Soldiers then spotted fourteen Afghans fleeing to an alleged known Taliban safe house. A Predator filmed the men running into the house, which was surrounded by mud walls. In the well-lit control room, we all watched the grainy Predator feed of the safe house on a large screen on the wall. The captain I had been interviewing verified the target with the men on the ground. He called his superiors; he was approved. So he told the B-1 bomber to drop a five-hundred-pound bomb. Yes, a five-hundred-pound bomb seemed a bit of overkill for a mud hut, but that was the only ammunition the B-1 had, and the Predator had nothing. On the screen, we watched the bomb hit, sending up a giant plume of smoke. The men cheered briefly. Then the smoke cleared.
The bomb had missed the house by about two hundred and twenty yards, a large gap that no one was able to explain, destroying a patch of trees, perhaps some animals, and hopefully no human beings.
“He missed,” the officers in the room said softly, incredulously, almost in unison. A few men put their heads in their hands. Then, slowly, everyone turned their heads toward me, the reporter standing in the room like an elephant. I held up my hands.
“What can you do?” I asked. It was a rhetorical question.
“Somebody’s messed up,” the captain muttered. Now he had to get approval to drop another bomb, which took hours.
The insurgents stayed in the safe house, allegedly, and this time, when the bomb was dropped, it hit the right target, setting off secondary explosions, likely from ammunition inside.
The Taliban had started seizing on such mistakes, especially in a hostile zone like Helmand Province, where people were more than willing to believe the worst of the U.S. military. It didn’t matter that much of Afghanistan was backward, occasionally primitive. Most Afghans seemed to have an almost religious faith in American technology, talking about how U.S. troops could drop a bomb on a two-inch target, and how if they missed, they missed on purpose.
The next day a patrol was sent to the site to inspect the rubble and talk to nearby villagers. The story was the same as elsewhere: No Taliban here. Security is fine. Please leave.
After four days, during which I bathed with gritty wet wipes and figured out the long odds, I got out of Camp Hell. I had seen no real government and little aid that mattered. The United States had set up a tiny base in the middle of Taliban territory and started firing off howitzers every night, a move that probably terrified any Afghans who might have wanted them around. The base wasn’t protecting anyone or able to win any hearts or minds. Instead, it stirred up a hornet’s nest, with no conceivable way to calm it down, no real alternatives to poppies, no government authority. The United States did not bear all the blame. The lack of resources and troops here was the product of years of outrageous neglect by the entire international coalition.
Soon after I left the Musa Qala outpost, set up at considerable expense by the Americans to pave the way for the British, the British arrived. Almost immediately, the British closed the base, deeming that they needed to actually be with the people in the town of Musa Qala to do an effective counterinsurgency. So the base was moved, but that didn’t really work, either. The Taliban constantly fired at the new outpost’s landing zone. Worried about being shot down, many helicopters simply turned back to the main British base, Camp Bastion.
With obvious supply problems and no reinforcements, British troops had little hope of dealing with the Musa Qala threat. The Taliban fought hard and dirty. The Brits spread out, fighting in the districts of Garmsir, Sangin, and Gereshk. The Danes relieved the Brits in Musa Qala, but were quickly replaced by the Brits again. So the British commander made a controversial decision in the fall of 2006—again, a few months after I was there—to respect a truce between the weak Afghan government and the tribal elders of Musa Qala, who swore up and down and promised a hundred times over that they would keep the Taliban away. The Taliban allegedly agreed. After the deal held for a month, the British moved out their troops, much to the consternation of the United States. These truces had been tried repeatedly in the tribal areas of Pakistan, had been criticized repeatedly by NATO and Afghan officials, and had failed repeatedly. Nonetheless, this time it would be different, the British maintained.
Months later, in February 2007, the Taliban took over Musa Qala and jailed all tribal leaders who had agreed to the truce. It would be another ten months before NATO could reclaim Taliban Town.