a week in afghanistan

This is a lightly edited diary of the Parliamentary Defence Exchange 3-13 April 2012 to Al Minhad, Tarin Kot, FOB Mirwais and Kandahar Air Field. Thanks in particular due to Captain Simon Petie, whose patience and generosity in looking after four special needs individuals made this trip so valuable.

Day 1 – Al Minhad Airbase, UAE

It’s about 8:30pm local time, on a bunkbed with the sound of an air conditioner and the roar of cargo planes for company.

Stand out memories of the day: Dubai from the air. Freeway lanes inscribed in straight lines across the desert, geometries of colonies and highrise, blocks and spires marching out of empty sandlots, and the impossible needle of the Burj Khalifa, distinct from the structures around it.

Two trestle tables under shadecloth, three decades worth of murder weapons laid out in neat rows.  This is the first proper briefing at Al Minhad – all of it dragged back from Afghanistan. Cluster bombs, plastic buckets full of fertilizer, mortar rounds, Soviet shell casings fashioned into charges full of ball bearings.

Three taut-faced soldiers deliver a clipped overview of the tools of the Improvised Explosive Device (IED) trade: everything from plastic bottle fuses to pressure pads made out of old truck tyres. These, against attack helicopters, drones and armoured vehicles guided by satellite; the 21st century fights the 19th and somehow it’s still a contest.

In the background, gaunt silhouettes of Dubai stacked in the grey air, and training jets blasting into the sky in series.

We’re taught how to apply a tourniquet – to ourselves – in the event of something bad happening. We meet Major General Smith, who runs the whole Middle East Area of Operations (MEAO), and his deputies. A blizzard of acronyms, all delivered with crisp certainty, some whole sentences delivered in capital letters.

An Army Captain is our guide here, cheerful, thoughtful and entirely professional – just doing a job of course, but it’s much more than that it seems. How would you ever go back to a normal life if you made this business your occupation?

First briefings in which the handover is progressing pretty well and the Afghan National Army, at least, will be ready for handover and command by 2014. And the political strata, civil society? Blank. Not really their job.

Tomorrow, very early, lighting out for Tarin Kot. Have been fitted out for body armour and a Kevlar helmet, not something I thought I’d ever have to wear.

On the road outside the ‘welfare hut’ tonight, piles of duffel bags and knots of people in khaki waiting for rollcall for tomorrow’s trip into Tarin Kot and Kandahar. The air has cooled off and if there’s tension here it’s subliminal, like the background thunder of the cargo planes. 24 hours ago I’d never heard of Al Minhad, now I suspect it will be lodged permanently in the odd assortment of places a long way from home that I seem to be finding myself in.

Day 2 – Tarin Kot, Afghanistan.

10pm, in a cramped little bunk room in the transit chalets.

Early start today – three hours in a C130 over hazy white mountains, like being inside a mechanical rhinoceros in the company of dour riflemen. There’s barely room for people in this noisy swaying bucket, which tilts over on its wingtip on final approach and there’s a flash of green through the porthole – irrigated fields along the Tirin River.

Down the ramp into brilliant sunlight and two blackhawks have followed us in, hanging there with tangible menace with a wall of mountains framing them.

This is a small city now – coffee shop, souvenirs, unknown species of earthmovers, cranes, bulked out trucks and personnel carriers, and the sound of aircraft everywhere.

It’s a day of demonstrations and fairly intense briefings. The war goes well we’re told. I wonder whether the peace is nonetheless going to be pretty nasty.

I’ve spent the last 12 months researching drones, or more correctly Unpiloted Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and here they are, on their own little runway off to one side – small surveillance platforms controlled by two guys in a shipping container. In the last decade, somehow toy remote control planes got very, very serious.

Somewhere in the maze of prefab, shipping containers, blast walls and barbed wire, a reintroduction to the ‘things that will kill you’ workshop – antique weapons and home made bombs, and the teams that deal with them. “There is no peaceful way to die here,” during one frank briefing – we’ve brought a new kind of violence to a violent place.

Suddenly kitted out in a blast suit and told to disarm a pretend bomb – this thing must weigh 20 kg and has an air conditioned helmet – then off you go to lay a couple of slabs of explosive next to two antique mortars. Now try and imagine it’s 20 degrees hotter, and if you screw it up you might not even realise it before you’re blown apart.

We pass the Afghan army compound on our way back to our quarters, and it looks like a bombed out slum. WTF is really going on here?

Day 3 – Tarin Kot

All day on base today. I just took a walk around the block to try and clear my head. This place is achingly strange at night – away from the lights and people, a dusty wilderness of sheds and shipping containers, roaring generators and alien vehicles.

It’s a disconcerting mashup of prefab and handmade, and in the dead of night I could almost hear the silence of the valley behind the generators and helicopters lifting away.

Strangest and most arresting moment so far. Our little contingent on the hill doing weapons practice, blasting away at a near hillside with a steyr rifle and old pistol, and less than 60 seconds after we finish, the hillside is swarming with raggedy Afghan kids on motorbikes, charging up to the razor wire. It’s the brass shell casings they want, for melting down in town. We’re busy emu-picking the ground and putting them in bags, but these kids have been watching off to one side, and as soon as we’re done they’re on us…

Right then, close enough for ‘salaam’ and a wave, I feel like I might as well be from a different planet. Who are these kids, for whom inhabiting a firing range and collecting spent rounds is the best way to pay for the fuel in the bikes? It opened up an unimaginable gulf – me in my travelling cocoon, snapping an uncomprehending set of photos; them heading home to… what?

Today is fragmentary – the morning with Cathy, the formidable base commander, touring us through her edgy domain, a township fortress of 6500 people, its power station, poo ponds, firefighters and engineers. An air traffic control tower looking along the runway, helicopters in their fortified slots. The afternoon in a careful and detailed briefing with military commanders on exactly how they see the situation in Uruzgan.

Behind everything, this wide, wild stone valley. There will be landscapes like this on Mars.

Today I’ve driven a six-wheeled monster, felt the ugly kick of a steyr and watched the bullet impact on the hillside, and gaped at attack helicopters pulling away to god knows where.

Our last session, with the commanding officer of the SOTG, special operations task group, who very calmly removed any lingering innocence we might have had as to the point of this place: he has more than a hundred special forces soldiers in the field tonight. They’ve been in Helmand killing fields and are making their way back to their extraction point. The briefing is careful and technical; later we see on IR feeds from surveillance drones the villages in their area as a cursor on a map lights up their position.

20 or so Afghans are dead. The Australians are on the ground alone in the badlands of Helmand, on foreign ground about as far from home as it’s possible to get. But they also have access to predators, F16s, Apache helicopters, fixed wing gunships and aeromedical evacuation.

The kids they fight inhabit a different century entirely – no-one from their side tracks their movements on widescreen TVs and calls in air support or medevacs them home.

Maybe they wondered about Australia, where it was, why they were being hunted by people from so far away. Probably not. Who knows. They’re dead now, and my fact finding tour won’t uncover their names, who they were or what war they thought they were fighting.

It’s 20 to 11. Maybe I won’t hear the return of the blackhawks carrying the Australians back, from inside my blast-proof lodgings – although just as I write this something is passing overhead. What a crazy, lonely place this is. Tomorrow, all being well, I’ll be a passenger on one of those helos.

Day 4 – Tarin Kot -> Kandahar

This is odd: I miss my shipping container bunk in TK. Where we are now is described cheerfully by locals as a shithole – KAF, Kandahar Air Field.

25,000 people running the world’s busiest single strip airport. It’s a confusing dusty metropolis of storehouses, hangar complexes and yards, ubiquitous shipping containers and all possible species of vehicle.

The people here are mainly supporting helicopter and drone flights in and out of Kandahar, and logisticians running gear to TK. Whereas that camp has a certain baroque charm, KAF has yet to show its appealing side.

Today we were flown up the Chora Valley to a small Forward Operating Base (FOB Mirwais) about 20 minutes in a Blackhawk to the north-east of TK.

This is really a unique landscape – mud quadrangles and mosques with their backs to the lunar mountains, fronting neat geometries of brilliant green fields with the stony riverbed running like a vein down the centreline.

Here, I am an alien species, looking down on them past the barrel of a machine gun from a thumping great helicopter, at courtyards and cooking areas inhabited by people I can barely guess at.

Pausing at the FOB (the only moment of hostility so far – “Which one’s the Green? You can wait outside the base,”) in structures dimly familiar from deep childhood memories. Mud architecture and people on the street just the other side of the razor wire – I momentarily lost the sense of being a creature from a different century.

Then it was back. Guy from central Queensland describes picking up the remnants of a suicide bomber, assembling them on a plastic bag and realising it is a 12 or 13 year old kid. This isn’t really a war. This is something else.

The guys running the base are solid, resourceful, funny and hospitable (with one exception 🙂 and we have them camped halfway up the valley on the threshold of terrible violence, training up the Afghan National Army to take over when we leave.

The helos are back, shooting us across to FOB Hadrian with this goggle-eyed Western Australian anti-war campaigner pressing his nose against the window.

Razorblade mountains, helicopter pilots with their beetle helmets and cyberspace feeds, children in bomb vests, shredded for the guy from Queensland to piece together.

Full moon tonight. I can’t see the mountains from here because the air is full of shit and fine, powdered dust, but I bet the mountains in the Chora Valley are as sharp as knives in the cold light.

Here is somewhere liminal, perched between mundane horror and violent hope, the worst nightmares of different centuries colliding with satellite imagery and homemade pipes full of ball bearings.

We’ll see what tomorrow serves up. I’m thinking that if KAF disappeared off the map and everyone was instantly teleported home, never to return, the world would be a measurably better place.

Day 5 – Kandahar

I guess the place is starting to make an evil kind of sense.

The Australian contingent here is smaller and more focused, a tighter cog in a larger machine. And what a machine.

Today we went from the storeman and movements people, keeping meticulous track of a whirlwind of gear, to the Heron unit flying drones all over southern Afghanistan.

Two teenagers in a shipping container fly the vehicle, entirely immersed in its extended nervous system. Next door, intelligence officers call what they see, helping the ‘pilots’ steer the cameras and relaying their interpretation to the field.

While we’re there, they’re soaking up the ‘pattern of life’ in two compounds 6km west of TK – suspected weapons caches with a convoy of Australian soldiers on the way toward them.

From up here, all of the tiny black figures moving between the orchards and the courtyards look suspicious. Look like targets. The dusty terrain below is an abstracted field of pixels and possible threats – not a cultivated river valley, but a clinical battlespace. The Afghans below are ‘LNs’ – Local Nationals – and some of them may die when the convoy arrives. In the meantime, they smudge their way around slow pans at various resolutions, awaiting deletion or passing over, their unthinking fate transmitted to these kids intently watching them from the safety of big Samsung monitors.

Their unit commander is affable and very competent, and the Israeli-built drone in the hangar is streamlined and clean. It can hang in the air for 20 hours. Anything it sees can be incinerated in very short order by any number of capabilities called in by the people we’ve met over the last few days.

To lighten the mood I’ve been photographing graffiti – some of it very good – stencilled mainly on the concrete blast walls. Zero Six, whoever you are, you’ve provided the only humanising touches to a thoroughly dehumanising place.

We spend the afternoon at the boardwalk – a piece of pure Americana transplanted into the sands south of Kandahar city. Fried Chicken, steaks at TGI Friday, stalls and shops, a football pitch, and tides of troops and contractors ambling along with their mates and their weapons. A small piece of the Midwest grafted uneasily into a war zone; as we arrive, to complete the weird, a predator drone is lifting away behind the rooftops.

Kandahar is fucking weird. The sightlines are long and dusty, the roads clogged with traffic, and the air grey with diesel fumes and the thunder of air movements.

Last night in Afghanistan. Just spent a great hour playing cards with Simon, Alex, Steven and Alex – they’ve been good company. But my god. What is to become of all this?

Drawdown? Transition? People just laugh at that. KAF is here to stay, until something major forces a change.

The dust has got into everything, including perhaps my sense of clarity. It’s time to go.

Day 6 – Kandahar – AMAB (AKA Camp Cupcake)

The air at KAF today is a fine grained blend of hydrocarbons, dust and fecal matter. You can smell it – shit rising from the ponds on the edge of camp, diesel fumes, powdery dust.

We visit the rotary wing group and learn about flying Chinooks in and out of situations – a visit out to the hangar, but the choppers are in the field.

It’s our last few hours in Afghanistan. By now the weather is closing in – a foul curtain of brown haze sweeping toward this benighted place. We wait an hour – every imaginable kind of aircraft flying in and out of the smog.

It’s actually raining shit – a few drops wrench from the tortured air, and somehow it just adds to the immense dusty sadness of the place. Occupied Kandahar.

We wait, in the company of blackhawks hanging like malignant wasps, monstrous cargo planes and a tiny passenger plane carrying a senior US military official. On the flight line, a ceaseless procession of spyplanes, jet fighters, passenger aircraft;  further back again, the dusty forms of Chinooks and Russian heavy lift helos.

This is all in the service of the people of Afghanistan, is it? Really?

Our Hercules arrives and parks in front of us – visibility is now appalling, but at no time does the pace of activity cease. We struggle back into the air, strapped in and dazed, aftertaste of shitful Kandahar air coating the back of the throat.

Half an hour in Tarin Kot, the air relatively clean and fresh.

Imagine: the valley in rain – great columns of grey stalking the south west, mountains zig zag shapes against a soft sky – when the thunder hits the base moments after the flash of lightning, it’s like the final word on this hideous ‘war’.

Then we’re away again – flying into turbulence with the messy but disciplined chaos of TK falling behind, no doubt to reappear in dreams.

Most of the way through the flight we’re invited up to the front.

Two cheerful pilots are bringing us back to AMAB, the sun dead ahead, and sheets of soft cloud fleeing away below. Beautiful. Sit in the jumpseat and watch as this grey behemoth makes its way back to Al Minhad, Dubai’s alien profile rising through a horizon of smog, the airfield taking shape up ahead and the pilots’ coded banter.

It’s a spellbinding way to leave the country: in the cockpit of a C130 Hercules, with the imprint of six big days just starting to settle.

Day 7 – AMAB

Last full day here and a quiet one. Debrief in the morning with our group and a quick hello to Minister Stephen Smith, to whom the ADF have taken a dislike over his handling of the skype scandal – although a couple admitted quietly that the extra transparency demanded by the Minister may have been good for Defence.

A quick look around AMAB – this quiet and orderly cube farm is dismissed as ‘camp cupcake’ by those further forward, but it’s an essential staging point for Australia’s interventions across the MEAO.  We meet the comms people, fire crews and force support unit running base. By now our team is probably feeling a bit jaded and powerpointed out.

The afternoon is long and quiet – the guys with blue passports are going to Dubai – having not been asked to bring it I’m stuck behind the wire and strangely ok with that.

Sleep through the heat and then there’s time to think about the future of this war and the relationship between Parliament and the military.

If this was about Al Qaeda then it’s been over for years. There are no AQ in Uruzgan and only a handful left in Afghanistan it seems. So we’re done? Unless we only do occupations after horrific attacks, we now need to invade Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and probably a few others.

One thing is pretty clear. The ADF will do what they’re asked – this is a focussed, professional, task-driven organisation and the people at the sharpest end of it spent their lives training to be sent into harm’s way. They are completely, unambiguously aware of the risk – they’ve all attended ramp ceremonies where their mates’ casket is repatriated to family back into Australia.

All the same, there’s an eagerness to prove themselves. The further forward you get, the happier crew are to be there and the less interested in being pulled back into safety. Having spent years training, most of them really, really want to be in theatre.

“This is a great battle lab for us.”

“Al Qaeda has been removed from the battlespace.”

“This is mostly about the US alliance.”

“I’d do this whether you paid me or not.”

At what point does the ethic of service combine with institutional inertia to simply keep us there no matter how far sideways the mission creeps?

This is indeed a great battle lab for us, the United States and the parasitic encrustation of contractors, mercenaries, middlemen and arms suppliers who have turned Kandahar Air Field into a city larger than Kalgoorlie.

Was it also a battle lab for the twelve year old who blew himself apart in the Chora Valley?

“What’s the definition of an insurgent?”
“Someone who takes a shot at us.”

Leaving, by this erudite definition, will end the insurgency. Will that tip Afghanistan back into a misogynistic, feudal hell hole? No-one here seems to know.

If we leave in 2014? What about 2020? 2030? When exactly, will this stable and compliant Afghan liberal democracy be properly baked? They. Don’t. Know.

The military don’t get to decide whether they stay or go. They get a signal from the executive, which right now is taking nearly all its cues from the United States. Nearly.

The decisions then, the real ones, are taken by people who never get shot at. Who never smell the blood and shit. Us – the politicians who, if we’re lucky, get to spend a week there under heavy protection so we can go home and say we saw it, we get it, we support the troops.

Funny word this. Support. Classy sleight of hand there, as if supporting the people in the line of fire was ever the question. Having met them, eaten with them, shared bunkrooms with them, ‘supporting’ them is so remarkably the wrong question to ask.

What kind of supporter would leave them in there indefinitely, another dozen or two to die between now and 2014, training an army to serve a democracy and a civil society that is nowhere in evidence?

That’s the calculated blind spot in this remarkable trip – the only Afghans I spoke to were serving coffee and selling gemstones, the only ones I saw were running up the firing range toward the razor wire. We’ve been in a perfect cocoon.

“If we did a poll of the people I suspect the coalition would be asked to leave”.

But of course no-one has done a poll.

All this in Uruzgan, an area three times the size of the ACT, with most of the blood spilled in Helmand and parts east. I think we’ve been played. All of us.

Scott Ludlam April 18, 2012