Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A little historical perspective...

Friday, September 09, 2005

A little historical perspective is a good thing to add to our discussion about war and its inevitable consequences. Without a good basis upon which to rest our assumptions we may cast about blindly like children chasing bubbles on a windy day. So, with this in mind we need some background on the Afghan nation. So after years of war it begs the question?
Is Afghanistan today merely the shattered remnant of a country destroyed by two decades of horrible war whose society is now struggling to re-create itself?

Certainly. Afghanistan today is one of the poorest and most troubled countries in the world. No longer can the mountain ranges that once separated and safetied the tribal regions guaranteed to hold back the masses hell-bent on raping not only the population but the land itself. Afghanistan once again finds itself a critical geographic crossroads. It began the twentieth century as the buffer state that separated the British and Russian empires; it now ends the century as the linchpin to trade and political development in Central Asia. Afghanistan may be the key to peace and stability, economic development and growth, despite its own reoccurring penchant for self destruction. Thus, it comes as no surprise that all of Afghanistan’s neighbors are deeply involved in manipulating its internal affairs.

Pakistan and Iran, Russia and India, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia, even Turkey and China: all have significant interests in Afghanistan and most have supported at least one of the many parties contesting for power in that country’s interminable and devastating civil war. As you probably noticed we have yet to even acknowledge the Soviet intervention.

The Afghan War has been one of the deadliest and most persistent conflicts of the second half of the twentieth century. Nearly 2 million Afghans have been killed so far (as well as at least 15,000 Soviet soldiers during the 1980s), and 600,000 to 2 million wounded. More than 6 million Afghans fled to Pakistan and Iran, producing the world’s largest single refugee population since 1981, while at least 2 million more Afghans were internally displaced. Thus, more than 50 percent of Afghanistan’s indigenous population became casualties—killed, wounded, or made homeless by the war.

Every region of Afghanistan has been touched by the war. Even residents of the government-held urban centers like Kabul, Herat, Kandahar, and Mazar-e-sharif were not safe.
The countryside was ravaged, with widespread destruction of villages, fields, orchards, and irrigation systems. The Soviet army in Afghanistan and the Afghan communist government planted an estimated thirty million mines throughout the country, most of them completely unmarked and unmapped. These mines were mostly sown by air to drive the population into the cities. There they were easier to control by the Russians who preferred to build their bases close to urban centers. Then in the vacuum left by the Soviet withdrawal, the Taliban moved in and placed a political/religious strangle-hold on the people still reeling from the savagery of the last conflict.

The education system and other modernizing sectors of Afghan society were completely disrupted, and the struggle for control of the central government delays efforts to improve the situation. As the elections for Parliament draw near, we are finding the old hatreds and animosities are still very much alive. Political killings and the strong arm tactics by tribal leaders wishing to gain or keep power are daily occurrences. Afghanistan, a desperately underdeveloped country attempting to modernize throughout the twentieth century, finally caught up to the modern world—in high-technology warfare. The result has been the ruin of the country and society and very nearly the destruction of the people and their culture.

Another central factor limiting unity, which is lost on most that have never spent any time living here, is Afghanistan’s rugged topography, including some of the world’s most forbidding terrain. The Hindu Kush Mountains descend from the Wakhan Corridor and the high Pamirs effectively splitting Afghanistan into a northern and Southern plain. These mountains average 14,000–19,500 feet in the zone around Kabul, with some peaks as high as 25,000 feet farther northeast. In the center of the country the Hindu Kush broadens out into the high Hazarajat plateau, which descends and disappears into the western deserts on the Iranian border near Herat.

Although passes through the Hindu Kush and Hazarajat make movement between different regions possible, harsh winters and high altitudes have made interregional mobility almost non existent. Only the completion of the Salang Tunnel in 1964 made overland traffic between Kabul and northern Afghanistan possible during winter months. Many remote valleys exist that are virtually inaccessible to the outside world. Afghanistan also has only one major road, the “Ring Road” that begins in the north at Mazar-e-sharif and runs clockwise south through Kabul to Kandahar then on to Herat. After many years of war and virtually no funding for reconstruction, most of this road now consists of broken pavement or merely dirt and gravel.

My experience with travel along the “roads” here is more along the latter. Most of the roads stop directly outside of the city limits and continue to degrade the farther from the center you get. I was part of a convoy riding to Chagcaran [Che-cher-ran] to check on my teams there last week. Chagcaran lies almost midway between Kabul and Herat high into the formidable Hindu Kush. After doing a map check and seeking the best route [see the only available road.] We started off at 04:00 attempting to get a head start on daylight toward the 210 mile trip ahead. Using up armored HUMVEEs and light armored vehicles we began our trip by driving through Herat then heading east to a gravel path that would run near the Hari-rud [river] all the way to Chagcaran.

Herat itself lies in the basin of the Dasht-E-Yalan plains and looking East one can see the twin mountain ranges flow away from the river looking much like the wake of a boat going at a slow speed. As the convoy traversed the valley toward our destination the walls of the mountain range slowly close in until it may be no wider than 150-200 meters across. There you must finally cross the pass at the Kohe Syahcowas mountain range at an altitude of nearly 10,000 feet. I never made it that far.

While the journey is both beautiful and awe inspiring it is also treacherous. Numerous small villages dot the landscape wherever small springs enter the watershed. These small oasis’s from the desert land that surround them are like a step back in time. Starting at the edge of the perimeter lays the crop fields and open areas used to dry and separate the grain for harvest. Men and boys work under a cruel sun daily to chaff the wheat kept in large stacks the size of a small home. On into the center of town where large green trees line all the avenues to help keep the moisture from leaching out into the arid land. Near one of these villages on the outskirts of Chesht-i-Sharif my driver, who was looking out over the ledge at the river below, struck a bolder about the size of the right tire. It was large enough and heavy enough to stop us cold and knock the goggles right off my gunner up in the turret. Unable to stop and check the damage due to the precipitous location we were at, we drove another five to ten miles until the land opened up enough to handle all the vehicles in the convoy. There we checked for damage and found nothing out of the ordinary so we switched drivers [me this time] and continued up the mountain.

We were the last armored vehicle in line along with a truck with six ANA soldiers bringing up the rear. As we waited our turn to try and climb an especially steep pass, the sun was setting on a road that had multiple sharp curves like a serpent lying in repose waiting to strike. Up we went in low gear, engine screaming into a sky now tinted cherry red, along a narrow path better handled by donkey than machine. About halfway up, in an especially sharp left inside turn, my steering locked and I was just able to stop about a foot from the edge of a steep ravine. As I looked up the rest of the convoy rounded the next turn and disappeared from view. I began trying to test the steering by wrenching it back and forth with ever increasing vigor. All seemingly to no avail, it was stuck and more stubborn than the donkey I now wished I had. While one of my other soldiers tried to fix that, we now had a bigger problem. The convoy had driven out of line of sight and crossed a ridgeline so I was unable to contact them on the small handheld radios we carried.

As luck would have it my vehicle had the new Blue Force Tracker unit mounted inside. This marvelous little wizgigit, thing-a-ma-jig box is a GPS/Email/signaling/mapping wonder that probably makes Julian fries too. [If only I could find where to stick the potato.] However hunger was the farthest things from my mind as I watched the convoy icon on the screen continue to move away from us. I quickly sent an “E” message to the convoy commander indicating we had broken down then, I raised the hood to examine the engine compartment and look again for anything unusual.
Now, anyone who knows me KNOWS it’s a bad thing for Paul to go anywhere near machines. Motors stop running, computers glitch, satellite signals fail, as if I’m a walking electromagnetic pulse or something. [My tool kit is a ball peen hammer, duct tape and a bottle of aspirin.]

So I decided to take up the task of securing the perimeter.
By now the sun had set and the sky began to look purple and blue like the color of old bruises, intermittently dotted by stars born of some great celestial sneeze. My immediate concern was hum….let’s see: I’m broken down on the side of a mountain in the middle of the Afghani desert with one other American and a group of a half dozen ANA soldiers that don’t speak English and the only other group of friendlys within 100 miles are DRIVING AWAY!! Yea, I think that about sums it up.

Most of the Afghanis are young men and quite frankly, given there meager education and there penchant for superstition, began seeking comfort in numbers like small children on the playground the first day of school. This is dangerous and tactically unsound. So, first I got the ANA soldiers to form a small perimeter by scaling the steep draw on the South side behind us then sending a single guard on either end of the visible roadway as observation posts then, I get to try to restore order because by now every Hajji with a donkey cark or three wheeled vehicle is lined up trying to pass my HUMVEE on this one mountain pass in a million miles of God forsaken wasteland.

We let them pass by maneuvering the Hummer back and forth twenty times and gaining a little room to go around us. By this time the commander had gotten the message and sent a team in route to help us secure the area. I told my gunner to get into the turret and shoot anything that didn’t identify itself. The hours it took the team to arrive seemed like days and I must admit I was glad to hear another American voice.

Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story. The vehicle could not be fixed so we had to wait for two days on the side of that mountain for a rescue convoy to arrive and tow it back to Camp Victory AND since the others were full of gear and personnel we had to ride back with the rescue team. So, after all that we never made it to our destination but, we now have a clearer understanding of our limitations regarding the terrain we patrol. It can be as viscous and demanding as any enemy weapon.

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