Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Winnable War

Reflections from 36,000 ft
Afghanistan Dec 2009

The Winnable War

The irony is that the largest explosion I heard in terms of enemy attacks in this war in 30 days on the frontline was this morning on the day we were to leave Kabul. In the capital not 300m from our bureau/residence, Greg & I were just editing our final piece before 10am when suddenly the whole room and building just went blank.

Describing a bomb blast like this morning is like trying to explain the first time you hear or experience a car crash. For a second your world collapses down into microseconds, as your brain comprehends before you feel the shock wave of the actual explosion. The sound traps you before the concussion holds you, and this all takes place inside a few seconds and then realizing that you have survived the next mode of capturing the story and pictures kicks in.

It is if your mind is in a fog for those first few seconds, reality is the sound of the explosion, which is not as loud as Hollywood makes it out, but your senses combine in that one moment to terrify you before you realize that you have survived.

Welcome back to Afghanistan Conor Powell.

Half undressed, half asleep Conor looked thru the window, as I looked the camera lens. Conor our Kabul/Afghanistan Correspondent had been back in the country less than 24 hours, arriving only the late evening before after a months holiday back in the states whilst Greg Palkot & I covered for him.

Conor has seen and experienced bombs in Kabul before so being thrown out of your bed by a morning explosion is nothing new, but the look on his face portrayed that this suicide bombing is yet one step closer to the our reality of living and working in Kabul.

A city so corrupted by corruption, that to find someone not asking for a bribe is the exception. Example for a quick ten dollars at the airport the check in guy will reduce your excess baggage quota, hard cashes no questions. Just hand over the dollars quietly.

Want to drive your car thru check points with a suicide bomber ready to go, would not require much more. In we had heard that there were three bombers/bombs ready and in place in Kabul prior to this mornings attack. And that is only the media’s grapevine; as per usual all the so-called security experts with their contacts knew nothing or had any warning.

Reality check. Foreign or International Security Companies in Kabul/Afghanistan are now (8 years into this war) are having trouble holding onto there own staff. Run by foreign companies that are only in Afghanistan to suck money from International organizations from the NGO’s (Non Government Organization’s) to Multi National Companies. These Security companies under pay their local so badly that it is now common knowledge that the Taliban pay a monthly salary that is 25% more than foreign security companies offer the majority of its security staff.

The Taliban is clearly and openly offering better employment opportunities, rather than the corrupted official channels or even worse foreign security companies who are sucking the blood out of the capital and this country.

It is pathetic to try and grasp how bad it has become in the capital, you are know at this point that honestly, it is dog eat dog. Yes you survive for today is today, tomorrow is tomorrow. Nobody cares as long as someone is making more money.

This is the “Winnable War” reality check.

Flying back to London offers no solace for within months no doubt I will be back there and it will only be worse.

Military & Govt Officials will massage figures to give the appearance of it is all going to plan in the coming months, I have honestly given up on truth in any respect to do with Afghanistan.

Covering war zones I get to see a very small but honest part and after a month in country the gut feeling is that after 8 years of rebuilding, reconstructing, retraining, 98% of the population hates and loathes the US and its Allies, for what it has done and is doing now.

In regard to the other 2% I have seen, all is well, by the way in a mountain village high in the mountains of Southern Afghanistan with no water or power the local school bus has a farm tractor and you know what children laugh as they climb up to go home.

A six year old asks nothing more than a chance to grow old and prosper. In Kabul on that, 8 people lost that chance and multiple more injured will never get the chance to grow old and prosper.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Highway to ($)War

Zabul Province

It is not the fighting season, but more than anything the war of words thousands of miles away seem to dominate issues here. Sitting in a FOB (Forward Operating Base) in Southern Afghanistan we have been affected by weather for the last week, missions planned are cancelled due to weather. So far we have had everything from rain to snow and freezing winds blowing off the mountains, which means that air assets cannot fly and without air all missions are grounded.

If anything this has given me time to look behind some issues in this war, whilst Senior Administration figures continue their drive to put more troops into the battlefield here, figuring that more numbers will solve the war here, it is also a desperate gamble of a punter on a losing streak who believes that eventually luck will turn his way

Perhaps it is time to start looking at issues that they would like to ignore for on the ground the reality can be only to obvious.

It should be noted that the US Government via the Dept of Defense is funding the Taliban. Forget the Opium and Poppy trade that is small money compared to what Uncle Sam is indirectly giving the Taliban.

Food, water, toilet paper and anything else you care to think about has to be trucked from the main US Military Base in Bagram, just North of Kabul to the main battle arena of Kadahar and Helmend in the South. There exists one and only one road, Highway 1. A never ending procession of trucks bring supplies down this route every day.

As part of reconstructing the economy of Afghanistan it was decided to award the trucking contract to six local companies. All very well connected with the upper echelons of the Government here, via family or tribal connections. The value moving the logistics required to fight the war is estimated to be worth close to $2.2 billion.

These civil convoys by law are not allowed to arm themselves with anything more than a rifle such as an AK47. And the warlords who control vast stretches of these roads have no such morals, together with the Taliban they control the Highway to War.

Thus the local trucking companies who want to ensure their lucrative multi million dollar contracts are happy to pay between 10 and 20% to ensure that their convoys reach the battlefield. Taking the low percentage 10% of $2.2 billion dollars, means that the $220 million dollars is going indirectly from Uncle Sam to the Taliban to support their war efforts against the foreign troops here.

It is not a matter of the US Military turning a blind eye to the issue, they know it is happening and whilst it annoys them deeply, they are with like so many other issues in Afghanistan, powerless to end it let alone figure out how to stop it.

In the coming months, thousands more troops will be deployed, meaning that more trucks will be making the trip down the “Highway to War”. More trucks, more corruption, more money for the Taliban. Whilst we wait out the winter, the Taliban may not be as active fighting the war, but their war chest will be reaping the benefits of the surge, one truck at a time.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Life in Gitmo


Starting another embed involves moving sometimes accross the country on mujltiple flights taking days, Saturday's move to our next embed was a simple matter of being picked from our hooch/bunkhouse/room driving five minutes across the airfield base and turning into another camp, within a base.

Now not all room are created equal and our room was basically a 10 x 8 feet (not meters or yards) plywood box, in a building that must of been built around Sept 12th 2001. These were without doubt the oldest buildings I had come across at Kandahar. within the block there are 6 identical plywood boxes, no windows but a plywood square over a hole cut in the wall.

Sparsely decorated is a way to describe the bunk bed and nailed up table in the corner. For Greg and I it was easier if either one of us wanted to get anything out of a box or bag for the other to step out of the suite. After Greg had lost the pick which hand the bullet is in as to who gets the bottom bunk in Khost a couple of weeks ago. He immediately grabbed the bottom bunk, the only thing he forgot was that the only heater in the room was directly above the top bunk, effectively he had chosen the coldest spot in the whole Gitmo cell with a cold breeze coming in through gaps in the plywood.

By 4:30 am, he could stand it no more and asked to change bunks a i was lying there with barely my sleeping bag on. Given that any movement on the top bunk made enough noise to wake the dead, we swopped over. I barely noticed the cold and slept for a few more hours.

Come 7 am I wanted to get a run in before the day started and we were to move to another province with the embed. Closing the door to the Gitmo cell i put the latch across as i did not want to let the door swing open and cold air in the cell.
50 minutes later getting back from my run the door is till closed, I open it to find Greg there cross legged holding up a water bottle that is green in color. I had by mistake locked him in the cell and the call of nature in the morning had found him a prisoner.

So another night was over and if anything a funny start to another day in the war zone.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Under the Boardwalk

Kandahar Air Field

There is no doubt that General Mc Crystal is not happy with the lifestyle of troops at the ISAF base here in Kandahar. The reality is that whilst many consider that Kandahar is a key strategic location in the war, the place at times resembles a shopping mall.

Consider what is on the main area known as the boardwalk, a wooden enclosed square purpose built entertainment area. Starting by the Tim Horton’s (Canadian) Coffee shop overlooking the rink, where hockey and football are played. Past the Kebab shop whose slogan is Gyros for Heroes, next to the 24/7 Pizza Hut, which attracts a crowd of all night and day. They also offer home delivery to your bunkhouse or office. Then there is the Subway store and the Burger King, which has a sign apologizing that the Whopper is not available at the moment.

Sunglasses or lingerie no problems available at the Oakley franchise on the corner. Continuing along there is the Canadian PX store, no to mention the German PX and the French PX, which also includes a patisserie offering smoked salmon baguettes and croissants freshly, baked. The Dutch PX is off the boardwalk but like the French is a two storey complex where Play Station and Plasma TV’s are available.

The American PX is modest by the standards set by other nations, offering the necessities of life here similar to other American PX’s in Afghanistan.

If there is a danger at Kandahar then obesity rates higher than the threat faced by Taliban. Watching soldiers from various nations shoveling pizza down at 8am is not unusual, and these are not guys who are dirt encrusted from days out on operations.

When you consider that to put a US soldier into the war her costs approx a million dollars per deployment, you do start to question what the hell is the need for a shopping mall in war zone. It seems like some are more concerned with the frills of life than the mission.

There are DFAC’s (Dining Facilities) all around the base offering food and drinks over four meal sittings a day. All fully paid for and staffed by third world nationals earning a minimum wage catering to troops based at Kandahar.

For soldiers on the frontline a meal from a bag and water sustain them and they enjoy a far greater satisfaction from their efforts than the troops based at Kandahar Air Field. If as much effort was put into the war itself and less emphasis on maintaining a lifestyle enjoyed at home, then after 8 years would we still be bogged down in a war that is going from bad to worse with each passing month.

I have learnt to tune out to the words of Senior Officers as they describe how well it is going, because I heard the same words eight years ago. One soldier barely twenty years old by his appearance told us that the US defeated the Taliban after seven months. Which puts the war at an end in July 2002. Well a 300% increase in attacks on coalition forces between 2007 to 2009, a figure stated by General Mc Crystal reveals the ignorance of some soldiers, as to how the fight is going.

Perhaps that is why we are hearing that the boardwalks days are numbered and whilst it may only be a small step, hopefully actions like that may refocus some soldiers minds on the operation, because if things have not turned around drastically within a year the war can be clearly be termed a complete failure and hundreds of lives will have been lost for no reason and the Taliban, like the Viet Cong in Vietnam will claim victory and world opinion will be with them.

I never doubt the resolve of the young soldiers I meet and film at Combat Outpost’s for they are true heroes. But for a dose of reality the big news of Boardwalk yesterday was that donuts were once again available at the Tim Horton’s Coffee Shop.

The war continues.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Airport Chaos

Kabul Airport
The fact that a taxing plane wing misses the terminal building by less than a meter. Gives you any indication of the safety standards that operate at the airport.
Travelling here is never easy and lets face it flying from Kabul to Kandahar is not a route or destination of ones own choosing .
It was decided yesterday that we should cover the troop surge announcement from Kandahar rather than the bureau in Kabul, which was a former brothel called Paradise. Now online or telephone booking is impossible because you cannot factor in bribes and corruption online .
So a 4:30 start involves traipsing to the airport waiting in the cold damp dawn whilst our fixer does what he has become an expert at obtaining the impossible at a benefit to the airline staff, paying twice the ticket price and getting a boarding pass that has no destination, no name and no seat number.
As he said just sit anywhere
Another day in Afghanistan begins

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Night Letters

Khost, Afghanistan

Like shadows in the night, they deliver warnings to villagers, side with the foreign forces and we will kill you and or your family. Whilst US Forces in Khost Province in South East Afghanistan, may claim they have superior technology and thermal cameras to protect themselves and their bases. Out in the villages the Taliban deliver their messages with no one capable of preventing them.

Talk with any Afghani and without hesitation they tell you things are getting worse from security to corruption. The optimism of 2002 – 2003 has long gone, from translators to waiters we hear nothing but negativity in regard to the future of Afghanistan.

Transpose this with what the US Military continue to tell you in countless briefing after briefing and honestly you start to think they are talking about a different country to the one they are in. Reality is an inconvenient truth that every officer seems to ignore.

Things are getting better, we are working with the Afghan Army and Police to develop an effective and stable nation, is a mantra that is well past its use by date. Eight years on in this war, and yet the Afghan Army is in any way capable of enforcing security.

The Police are despised and loathed by every local, and petty issues are more important than major events. The other day we went out on a patrol and the Police did not come along, not due to staffing or morale issues but because they could not be bothered. The Afghan Army set up a roadblock outside of a small village and started checking cars. Sure enough fifteen minutes later two men are caught with an AK 47, four magazines, two pistols, a knife and two hand grenades.

The question then arose did the army have the authority to seize he weapons, what would happen to the two guys. It short it was a balls up, in the end the Army flexi cuffed the two guys and took then back to their base and not the Police Station.

Once the Police heard about this they were pissed to say the least, the main reason they were annoyed was that the Army kept the weapons and would not hand them over to them. The two guys well they were friends of someone in some high position and within half an hour of getting to the Army base they were drinking tea and having a good old laugh by all accounts.

Whilst this incident is one small event in the grand scheme it also highlights the simple fact that on the ground these are the issues that the Afghans deal with because it is something they control and each and everyone has there turf. The locals here do not care what is happening in the next province because it has never affected their life.

Everyone knows that each US Unit is only there for around a year and that after they leave another Unit will replace them and try to reinvent the wheel. With new ideas and new plans, again a simple case of taking four steps backwards follows the progress of the current unit.

The incident that best captured the lack of respect the Afghan’s have for the US Forces was etched on hundreds of faces the other morning. The celebration of Eid-ul-Ahza is on the Muslim calendar a major holiday and everyone goes to the Mosque to give thanks and enjoy friends and family, as they were leaving their Mosque to go home for lunch. The US troops decided that they had to go back to the main camp, so loaded up in four MRAP’s they drove through the people tooting horns and waving guns to get out of the way, cursing them for walking on the road and getting in their way.

The look of disgust for these foreign invaders was all to clear to see, but the soldiers in the vehicle I was in were blind to the obvious, a mission had to take place. For all the goodwill they believe that they have created they have once again set themselves back another year in this valley.

People will not forget the disregard for their religious holiday soon and those letters in the night will not seem as threatening.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Listening to Leaves fall

It was bad enough to see the General goose stepping, as the President inspected the guard of honor, what was even more funny was when he realised he was on the wrong side of the President and had to break step trot behind and commence the goose stepping again.

In yet another complete failure of democracy. President Karzai was today inaugarated for his second 5 year term. In any flourishing democracy the inaugaration ceremony is a time when the people can share the moment, cast your mind back to the scenes in Washington in January, when President Obama took the oath of office.

Today in Kabul, under a crisp winter sun, you could hear the leaves fall to the footpath. The solution to any potential problem here is to close the city and ban cars, to prevent suicide and or car bombs. The ceremony was such a controlled event that even TV cameras were not permitted into the Palace, and as such we were herded into the old Radio Television studios built in the classic Soviet style of the 1950's. the walls adorned with old black and white pictures from what looked like the 50's and 60's.

Technically it was a nightmare, but the staff there did there best with old equipment then told us about there new facility which was a state of the art gift from a foreign country. Why we could not use the new facility is still a mystery. The quality of audio reminded me of watching television with a deaf aunty, whose solution is to turn the sound up fully when there is no sound then to have it tear your ears apart when something actually does happen.

The guests can best be described as a b grade status of nations, the only other leader there was from Pakistan, whilst most of the nations involved in fighting the war here were represented by their Foreign Ministers. The Inaugaration speech was written for the West and the first clapping from the audience came after 13 minutes when Karzai promised a crackdown on corruption, but everyone here knows that words are cheap. Corruption is far more profitable.

As far as an end to the war and foreign troops, five years from now will become the mantra, as the President pledged that Afghanis will take control of all of the nations security by then. As he spoke a car bomb went off in a Southern Province killing two US service members.

As left we tried to gauge the mood on the streets, using the most ineffective method known to poll, known as Vox pops only to be told by the first person we asked as to whether he had watched the ceremony

"No, we had no electricity, I hope to be able to see it later tonight".

In a city that was empty of life, apart from Army and Police on every corner, an historic day has passed and yet failed at the same time. But it was nice to listen to the leaves fall and rustle along the footpath for a change.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Clock Ticking to Failure?

“Westerners are occasionally targeted by criminals or Taliban sympathisers, and kidnapping can be a threat. The target of suicide bombers are mostly military convoys, stay far away. Riots happen occasionally and are often accompanied by looting - stay well away from them as authorities will respond with lethal force. Avoid walking after dark, and vary your routes during the day. Kabul is generally considered one of the safer parts of the country, but bombings have increased somewhat since late 2006”

You would at first read consider the quote to have come from a security briefing, or a travel warning issued by a Government source. But no the above actually comes from the inflight magazine of Safi Airways, which flies into Kabul, from Dubai.

Not exactly a happy picture of a destination that is to be home for the next month. Then again it reflects a true picture of just how bad things are getting here in Afghanistan.

This is my third trip this year to Afghanistan and no matter how I try to reflect on the positive side the negatives of the situation here outweigh everything. Yesterday we met with US military and Western Diplomats, for once it would be good if they were to give an honest and truthful account of just how bad it is going here.

Forget the war for one moment and consider the domestic issues. Here you have a population that considers it’s own Police force not as partners in society, but as predators and according to a senior US Military Commander, “People here consider the police as worse than the Taliban”.

The level of corruption starts at the very bottom and extends to the highest levels. In fact whilst filming a story on corruption, we walked away from our vehicles to film in the market. Only to find out that the local police had shaken down our driver for 200 Afghanis or 4 dollars.

Want a passport, pay the bribe. Need hospital treatment then consider a donation as a precursor to treatment. Need to register your car then take extra to the office. According to diplomatic sources the average person here is spending a minimum of 20% of their annual income on paying corrupt officials.

In fact the Government department that is charge of monitoring corruption is regarded as “Inept and Useless”. To placate Western donors the Government has relaunched for a third time a task force to investigate corruption. Laws here do not have any legal status for any official to declare any of his assets. On a previous trip we learnt that govt officials on a salary of approx $600 a month had somehow managed to get assets worth in excess of 20 million dollars. .

You get tired of hearing Diplomats and Military Leaders saying “It’s a start” or “They have good intent”, whenever there is a relaunch of a taskforce here.

There has only been one issue on which everyone has agreed, the clock is ticking down to failure here. Victory will not be measured in Military success but by the willingness of Afghan’s and the West to “settle for an imperfect state” according to sources here.

Certain failure and the complete collapse of society is predicted to be less than twelve months away, unless things change. Eight years in the war here and the reality of expectations is at an all time low.

One reality check for Afghanistan, is that is now ranked 179th out of 180 countries in the world for “Corruption” according to the monitoring group “Transparency International”. The only country that is considered worse is Somalia.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Operation Eastern Resolve Day 2 - Compound Day

Operation Eastern Resolve 2
Day 2
Dahaneh, Helmand, Afghanistan

It was the flies that woke me up before dawn, lying on the floor of a filthy piece of carpet covered in dirt and broken glass. These were not the type of normal domestic flies, but the ones that seemed intent on landing on the corners of your eyes or the edge of your mouth.

The day had not even begun and the filth of deprivation had begun.

You become so exhausted that any gunfire outgoing from the roof of the compound does raise anymore of a thought than I must film some more of that later.

There is no cup of coffee, no breakfast and for a toilet, go and relieve yourself on that old car tire in the corner of the compound. The concept of even changing clothes is not on the cards, I had bought on extra t-shirt and a pair of trousers but decided to save them, as there had been no talk at all about when we would be able to get out, as this was only the morning of day 2 of the Operation. So I wanted to save them for a future day.

Perhaps if there was one luxury I could point too, was that there was a well. Yep a plain old fashioned, been around for two thousand years type of well, hole in the ground, bucket on a pulley, lower it and lift it and you have water.

Water that was actually cool and you could wash in, as for drinking it. Well no one tried, as there was only one WAG room and hundreds of Marines.

Morning is often a time for reflection; everyone after the adrenaline of yesterday’s firefight was flat. Those who could not claim that had a shot a Taliban were jealous of those who had, and those who had been on the trigger on the roof knew that they had shot a lot of rounds into mud brick walls but would not admit it.

The greatest damage to the Taliban the previous day had come from the sky, via a large J Dam bomb. One enormous explosion but given the situation in the village no one had been out to try and assess the number of Taliban that had actually been killed. Even when they did get out no traces of bodies were ever found or reported on, numbers were always so vague and variable that I did not bother to write down them. The estimated claim for the first day had been according to Operations Commander Captain Zachary Martin had been “at least a dozen Taliban have been killed”.

Logic would have it that any operation in the heat, given that it would rise into the high 120’s within hours, should logically take place earl in the morning or later in the afternoon. But enter the ANA (Afghan National Army) of which I wrote about in the entry “Rambo’s Pink Mirror”. The ANA would not be able to get ready before 11:30am and thus the mission to search every compound in the village would take place during the hottest period of the day.

The Marines privately would not hold back in their stinging criticism’s and complaints about the performance of this ANA unit, turn a camera on and ask a question and it was as if they discussing a completely different army.

This mission was dangerous by any definition, apart from the threat of having your legs blown off by an IED or shot from the hills around the village as you tried to run across fields between compounds. A third threat was that we would be going out and trying to get the ANA to enter the compounds and conduct the searches for the Taliban.

To win the hearts and minds of the residents of Dahaneh, well those who had remained after the first day, during which they had been bombed, strafed from Apache helicopters, had more ammunition fired within their homes than in history.

It was considered politically correct for the ANA to enter and search the Compounds, putting an “Afghan Face” on the operation, whilst the US Marines would provide security outside.

The Marines were ready to start at 11:30 and standing in the sun slowly cooking inside our body armor and Kevlar helmets, we waited and waited for the ANA to get ready. They had no desire to leave the shade and start anything.

The operation was divided into 2 patrols, and Greg and I were with the second patrol. As the first team left they were greeted with gunfire and from behind the walls of the compound it was not a nice sound to hear.

Finally after getting the half a dozen ANA assigned to our patrol to get into formation we too walked out and made for the first compound. As the gunfire began around us, you just kept low and kept moving searching for a wall to provide shelter. The Marines maintained tight formation, the ANA for their part did not have a clue and it was not unusual to hear a Marine screaming at an ANA soldier to stop pointing his weapon at a Marine. The wording of these pleas soon descended into out and out swearing, which mattered little to the rag tag fighters.

The Marines would kick or blow in a door and stand back; the ANA would then enter and find the first piece of shade and somewhere to sit down. We would wait a few minutes them in frustration enter and try to get them to search. It was repeated time after time.

The heat was now at its zenith and every movement was becoming soul destroying. Each run across the open drained me to the point of exhaustion. After one sprint the Marine medic with us dropped to the ground and vomited everything in his stomach up, losing any precious liquid in his body.

Two hours into the search and I was finished, my body was just closing down in the heat. I had stopped sweating and my skin was dry, I had trouble even focusing my eyes and leaning against a wall, I realized that heatstroke was rapidly overcoming me.
I had the video and material we needed and after the patrol returned to the sanctuary of the compound I collapsed. Removing my body armor my t-shirt crusted in sweat and salt I knew that to go back out would have only endangered my own life and potentially those of the Marines if I collapsed.

Drinking water hot enough to make coffee in, is no cure and I dropped for half an hour,

The patrol went back out for a few more hours, and the ANA became so ineffective that the Marines took on all responsibilities including searches.

We spent the remainder of the afternoon on the roof watching attempts to bomb the hills were the Taliban had positions, editing material and doing a live shot from the compound.

The mission “Operation Eastern Resolve 2” had perhaps accomplished its goal to drive the Taliban out of the village, but it seemed that little had been achieved. And if anything it was becoming bogged down. Observing the Captain and XO of Golf Company locked in a conversation it was apparent that even the Generals back at the Marines HQ at Camp Leatherneck were questioning just what had been achieved in two days of fighting given the new directives of how to fight this war.

We heard word that a convoy was going back to FOB Now Zad that night and that it could be the last one for three day, given we had to get back to Kabul for the Elections. We made the decision to leave Dahaneh; the kinetic fighting was all but over.

Lying on a steel grate for a bed and a water bottle for a pillow, I looked up at an amazing sky of stars and thought long and hard about the previous two days. There were few positive thoughts that evening.

I never question the attitude of the fighting Marine, for they are each and everyone of them are heroes fighting as they are directed.

The problem is that this war, after eight years has if anything gotten worse and to which a solution seems further away. And those in charge truly have no clear cohesive strategy to bring it to an end, all we have to look forward too in the coming months and years, are more reports of young brave men being injured and dying.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Fire in The Hold

Operation Eastern Resolve 2
Dahaneh, Helmand Province, Afghanistan

Ten km’s (6 miles) from FOB (Forward Operating Base) Now Zad lays the village of Dahaneh. To get there you must enter thru what is know as Devil’s Pass, according to the Marines of Golf Company, Alexander the Great, the British of a 100 years ago and the Russian’s thirty years ago had been defeated trying to enter the “Devil’s Pass”.

However we did not have the heart to tell them that despite exhaustive research, there has been no record of any of the above armies ever mentioning “Devils Pass”.

The objective of the mission was to enter and control the village of Dahaneh, where no form of Government or law had existed for years and was in affect in the control of the Taliban. Secure the village, eliminate the Taliban threat and enable free and fair elections to take place. Given that the good residents of Dahaneh have never voted before in history and have probably never felt the need too. The village Shura and Jirga system had served them well for centuries, only the Taliban were causing problems for the locals.

Thus the powers to be that run this war decided that Dahaneh was a critical lynch pin in the “Surge” and close to 500 US Marines and 20 or so ANA (Afghan National Army) were to establish democracy, law and order, build an Outpost, win hearts and minds and kill as many Taliban as possible all in time for the Election.

August 12th 2009, 2 am FOB Now Zad.

The mission was already running late before we had even started, the reason was that the ANA were running late and were not ready. Under a waning moon Greg Palkot and I stood and waited frustrated by the fact that we were assigned to the last vehicle in convoy, a 7 ton truck that was also carrying the ANA. Which given there track record meant that the chances of us seeing kinetic action and the assault were greatly diminished?

If I heard one more cliché speech that included lines like “ A watershed moment or a critical point in time” I would of vomited. Standing in the dark a Marine to hide his nerves stood on a truck and sang Neil Diamond songs as if he were auditioning American Idol.

Eventually the ANA came to the Convey rendezvous point with about as much interest for this mission as one has going for a root canal treatment at the dentist. In the event of trouble or actually running into Taliban I had no doubt that these troops would have been totally ineffective and more of a danger to us than the Taliban.

With the Commanders stretcher safely on the truck and a box of RPG’s to clog the benches so that they could not get out the convoy, we began the very slow and painful trip to Devils Pass.

The frustration of being at the back of a convey for a cameraman trying to cover war is dreadful, as I commented to Greg as we approached we might as well be doing radio for what I could see thru the lens.

Dawn broke as we entered the pass and the sound of gunfire suddenly increased dramatically, there was a lot going down as the first Marines had gone in by chopper under darkness and where coming under stiff resistance. With each 100 yards closer to the village the sound of gunfire reverberated around the truck, at least one good thing was that the ANA never bought their weapons up into any offensive posture and the risk for us of being accidentally shot was negated.

As we entered the village outskirts it became apparent that things were spinning wildly and the Taliban resistance was stronger than originally anticipated and waves of gunfire swept around us from the mountains.

Villagers were seen fleeing from compounds as more bullets cracked from heavy guns and recoilless rifles. A RPG went screaming between two Marine MRAP's and exploded on the hill behind us. The compound of the base of operations that the Marines had set up in was under serious attack and from a hundred yards away I stood in the back of the 7-ton truck and filmed Marines ducking and running as the Taliban bullets kicked up dust around their feet.

The worst thing is that you realize in a few minutes we would both be having to do the run ourselves from truck to compound, not a happy thought as I could see from my viewfinder what was going down.

On the rooftop a line of Marines could be seen and the noise from the gunfire echoed around the valley and village. I needed to get there and get the action as soon as possible, the smell of cordite is a lure to a cameraman that is hard to avoid. And knowing that it is safer to be at the front rather than stuck in a truck exposed also weighed on my mind.

When it came time to disembark, my mind switched off from the scenes I had been filming minutes before and it was a fast crouching weaving run across the 30 yards to the sanctuary of the compound.

“Where is the rooftop?” was my first question panting and dripping from sweat. Greg was to get the equipment into the compound I was to get to the roof and start filming. Climbing thru a hole blown between compound walls I raced thru the building and up onto the roof.

8 Marines were stationed behind a three-foot wall on the roof; the floor of the roof was littered with spent ammunition. And every few seconds another volley was spewed into the village. Keeping low I dashed across the roof to the wall and took cover next to the Marines. Bathed in sweat and dirt they looked happy this was the action that every one of them craved.

One Marine stood up with binoculars exposed and started calling directions for fire, at that moment a Taliban bullet hit the wall inches from him and flew up, missing him by inches. Another volley from there machine guns bought a few minutes of silence from the Taliban.

And so for the next hour or so it was volley, counter volley. I crawled up and down the line trying to anticipate the salvo. Greg joined me on the roof next to the wall; keeping low we filmed a couple of on cameras and talked with the Marines as they improvised ways of trying to keep their ammunition out of the dirt.

By now the sun was a furnace above us, and Marines poured water down there backs trying to keep cool, none of them wanted to be relieved as this was were the action was going down. I realized that soon Greg and I would start getting heatstroke if we did not get off the roof soon and crouching low we ran to the stairwell and down.

It was now past noon and I needed to get the footage to New York, the incredible thing is that with todays technology we carry a small satellite dish about the size of a briefcase that gives us a direct uplink and hooked up to a computer, I can edit, compress and send the files direct to New York.

The room we found in the compound had been stormed earlier and the dirt floor was covered in broken glass, window frames hang loosely, old rags and a frayed piece of rug were the only things in the room. And old tin box became my workspace out of the wreckage that existed.

First footage sent in and a live shot from the safety of the garden outside, every few minutes another volley of gunfire echoed around, to a bizarre extent you can become immune to the noise, as if it were just the norm.

The next phase for us was to edit a feature length piece for the Evening Primetime broadcast, and sitting in the shell of the room we were piecing together a spot, when all of a sudden there was a loud scream around the compound.

“Fire in the Hold”

What the f…! . Every single person suddenly ducks down into a fetal position and puts their fingers in their ears. You close your eyes not sure of what are about to happen.

Boom !!!!

A explosion blasts thru every single nerve in your body, it shakes every organ and the room simply disappeared in a barrage of dirt, dust, rubble and even pieces of window frame exploded and shattered around us. The computer was blown almost to the ground and the dish outside was now in a new position.

A wall had been blasted to allow more movement round the compound.

Picking ourselves back up Greg took a photo of the aftermath.

You cannot dwell on what has happened, the explosion had blown the computer around so much that I lost half the work I had done and had to start again. Brushing the debris off it. I started again. Five minutes later…

“Fire in the Hold,” screamed from room to room. Grasping a bit of rag I covered what I could in the few seconds. Computer on the ground this time. Running for the door we ducked down and covering our ears waited for the explosion again.

Kaboom !!!!

The building shook around us as dirt and dust once again engulfed us. Like Pig Pen from a Peanuts cartoon we stood up and looked back into our room half expecting that everything would have been destroyed.

But as the dust cleared the computer and camera gear came into sight, looking the worse for wear yet still working. Daylight was fading fast and I told Greg “ Forget the next live shot to New York”, we were basically trying to stay alive.

With no power the computer and little satellite transmitter were running on battery and it was a race against time. As I started the file transfer to New York the computer low battery warning came on, as did the satellite battery. It was a race against time and as darkness fell the story made it to New York, and a minute later the sat dish went dead.

As we lay down amongst the rubble and broken glass for the night, drinking a hot bottle of water, the gunfire continued from the roof above us. Exhaustion swept over us and in clothes crusted with salt from sweat I slipped into a sleep on the floor. Sharing the space with a company of young Marines we all had just enough room to stretch out.

Dawn was a few hours away and for a few brief hours we both slept. Tomorrow we knew was when we would begin foot patrols around the village to clear out the Taliban compound by compound.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Rambo's Pink Mirror

Everyone has to be diplomatic whenever they raise the issue of the ANA (Afghanistan’s National Army). To quote correspondent Greg Palkot “ they are a work in progress ”.

Military leaders whenever asked about how the ANA perform seem to come up with metaphors that make this rag tag collection of “now you see them now you don’t weekend warriors” to be the 300 Spartans ready to take on the global struggle of counter terrorism single handed.

Even Company Commanders have to publicly praise their performance with gritted teeth, as it is the politically correct thing to do. When in doubt anyone tries to draw comparisons between Afghanistan and Iraq, the trouble is that this is a ridiculous contrast that even a 5th grader can understand.

Afghanistan has population of around 32 million people is 50 percent larger than Iraq, and has a combined Military and Police force of approx 220,000. Iraq; smaller population 28 million, yet it has now close to 600,000 troops in its various branches of service. In 2007 Iraq’s own Security Forces grew by a staggering 100,000 members in one year, this is why the “Surge” was so successful.

After nearly 8 years, Afghanistan’s Military is believed to have over 130,000 members according to various reports, but you would have to be an eternal optimist to actually believe this number is accurate. For no one wants to offend or rock the sensitive political correct types, who are trying to talk up the success of a continuing failing project, which has cost billions of dollars, and every six months or so a new plan is drawn up at a substantial cost to try and solve the issue.

If a basic drug test was done on the members of the ANA, it is estimated that 85% would fail straight up.

On the recent US Marine Operation, in Dahaneh in Helmand I had the opportunity to observe the ANA again in operation. Marines would literally be screaming at them to stop aiming there weapons at US forces. They were considered so completely ineffective that when the Marines were setting up defensive positions, the ANA were completely ignored, as they could not be trusted to obey simple instructions.

One key objective was a search compound by compound of the village to rout out any Taliban; the mission had the ANA taking the lead and entering the compounds so as to put an Afghan face to the operation. There own main objective was to enter a compound find any available shady spot, sit down and relax. Whilst US Marines stood in the heat and sun protecting them, time and time again after a few minutes we would enter the compounds and find them lazing around with absolutely no interest in the mission. After a few hours the Marine Lt. in charge of the squad gave up on them and had his own troops do the searches. The only thing the ANA wanted to do was go back to the base, as they were “too tired”.

The ANA members on this mission had absolutely zero apparent interest in being they’re trying to win the hearts and minds of their own people.

When in the heat of the Compound Objective, I only managed to get two reasonable shots of the ANA in action, the first was they trying to kick a door to a compound in, and the door did not budge.

The second was of a kid soldier barely looking sixteen years old who somehow was a member of the ANA, we nicknamed him Rambo, because like many here, they like to strap ammunition around themselves in a bandoleer fashion from a spaghetti western. As he took up a watch position with a gun as big as himself, without the slightest care in the world or concern for the bullets coming from the Taliban in the mountains above, he took out a small pink plastic mirror and for the next two minutes preened and checked his hair. Not once did he look around the battlefield, his hair was far more important.

It is easy to be cynical and there is no doubt that some elements of the Afghanistan Army are trying, but from what I have seen and heard they are truly a work in progress and the timeline for there success is not promising.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

River City

Forward Operating Base: Now Zad
Northern Helmand Province

At all bases the Marines operate in there is an expression they use “River City” to describe what happens when a Marine is killed or injured. All contact with the outside world ceases to be available all phone lines and Internet connections are cut until the next of kin are notified.

At Forward Operating Base Now Zad, it is almost the norm, rather than the exception. Life continues for the Marines, another day passes and it is one day closer to going home. The majority of the Marines I talked with “going home,” meant safe and still intact, whilst they all grieve for fallen comrades there is also an acceptance that what they do entails risk.

Whilst they may be Rambo one minute, the next minute reflection replaces reality. When we arrived at Now Zad, 2/3 Marines Golf Company had already lost 2 Marines and a further 7 had been wounded in action, including 3 double amputations. All had been killed or injured as a result of IED’s. Any foot patrol was forbidden as the risk was to high to quote Captain Martin of Golf Company, “We will not walk in the area”.

Now Zad is a ghost town, not a soul lives there, or has done for the past couple of years, where once approx 15,000 Afghans once lived, not a soul is there. The British and Estonians have held ground there and the Marines are now on their third rotation there. With a casual ease Marines would point to a spot 100 yards away and say there is a high possibility that the Taliban are there now and watching us. What separates the two is often just a minefield of IED’s. They are so randomly set and spread out that even the Taliban to a degree now will not enter certain areas.

And so in temperatures that destroy any remaining part of your soul, a stand off exists in Now Zad. As if it was the 1st World War, a no mans land of death separates the adversaries. The only thing that moves between the two sides apart from bullets, mortars and rockets are the wasps. For some reason Now Zad has a plague of them. Any water or liquid and you are surrounded by them, and for someone like me who has a certified terror of bee’s let alone wasps, this was no happy place.

Showers and the basic laundry facility was closed between 11am and 2 pm, not to conserve water but to minimize wasp attacks. Hesco barriers and concrete walls may stop Taliban attacks but not wasps.

Unlike large bases back at Leatherneck and Bastion or even in the capital Kabul, FOB Now Zad has no luxuries, most rooms are plywood boxes with no air conditioning, and the temperature inside the rooms can easily reach 42 degrees Celsius close to 108 degrees Fahrenheit. There is no dining facilty for meals apart from some netting on poles, two meals a day are served out of trays, miss the meal time and it is MRE’s. I saw the trays of food just lying around in the dust like discarded waste next to a dumpster, no doubt tomorrows meal.

Water is measured in degrees of bath water, and tepid is something you actually crave. There were fridges around, but they were closely guarded secrets and rarely if ever would anyone ever offer Greg and I a cold drink, they were just too precious, I did not begrudge them this as it made me realize how hard it actually is for them. And how pathetically easy Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen have it at the bigger bases, where 24 hour meals are available and signs on the fridges ask you to limit yourself to two cold cans of soda a meal, but no one ever counts.

And yet not one Marine at FOB Now Zad wanted to be anywhere else but there, at the frontline in the fight against the Taliban. In adversity they become a true “Band of Brothers”, and to be honest you never hear a word of despair or frustration from them.

The only thing they do not like is “River City” because it means one of there own has fallen.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Death and Taxes , plus Wag Bags

Death and Taxes are the two things in life that we can be sure of, and well there is a natural third. What goes in most go out, and at FOB (Forward Operating Base), in Now Zad Afghanistan, what starts in plastic ends in plastic.

MRE rations come in brown plastic bags, with yet more plastic bags inside that then contain more plastic wrapping different items from a spoon to the salt. The thing about MRE’s is that is like grown up’s baby food, sometimes there is consistency more often not the meal resembles what’s on the label, just do not read the ingredients, to keep meals from spoiling no chemical compound is forgotten.

Eating on this trip is a challenge; not because the meals are bland and monotonous, but the heat makes your appetite just disappear. It is hard enough to keep drinking enough water to stay hydrated and alive.

But nature does take its course and in the middle of the desert with nearly 400 US marines, you simply cannot have everyone defacting wherever they wanted, as sickness would spread fast. Portaloos would be useless as they cannot be emptied and the proverbial taken away and disposed off.

Enter plastic bag Number 2 the “Wag Bag”. WAG naturally is a military acronym for “Waste Alleviating Gel”. Porcelain is a distant memory and a plastic frame greets you as you enter the little room. Open your Wag bag Kit take out of the plastic bag from inside the plastic bag and fit over the frame. Let nature take care of itself, sans fluid.

Take out the plastic WAG and seal it in another zip loc plastic bag and walk up to the drums and deposit the WAG in the drum.

Perhaps one of the least glamorous job for any Private is being assigned to burn the bags, but every evening you would see a couple of Marines pour diesel in the bins and setting fire to the Wag Bags. Not exactly back breaking hard work but a key function on the frontline.

The guys would sit there, talk and occasionally stand up grab the shit stick and poke the bags to complete the “Cycle of Plastic”.

Death and Wag Bags, two facts of life in the War on Terror in the Helmand Desert

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Around 8 Hours

Getting to the Frontline in Afghanistan is not easy; you take what ever you can, whenever you can. Competition amongst all Media agencies whether TV, Print, Stills or Radio is intense. We all want to get there before the others and get the preverbial scoop.

Sitting in the tent at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province, South Afghanistan, Correspondent Greg Palkot and I where grouped with 3 members of Associated Press and Radio Reporter from NPR. We had already waited at Kabul Airport for 37 hours trying to get ahead of the rest of the pack only to have had two flights cancelled and had become known as the “Kabul Two” for being stranded there and waiting.

To get forward the usual method is by helicopter, inevitably at some insane hour of the morning like 2am, and without doubt we are generally classified as “Space A” passengers. Meaning that if Space is Available you can get a seat on the bird, if not you are bumped to the next flight, which can be 24 hours later or more.

To get to our FOB (Forward Operating Base) at Now Zad, in Northern Helmand we were told that we might have chance in the next 36 hours, but as we saw other media going to other areas returning to the tent we shared at Camp Leather neck coming back after being bounced time and time again. Greg had an idea, if you cannot fly then what about driving up in a Convoy, the FOB is only sixty miles North of Leatherneck.

Without letting on we managed to find a Supply Convoy heading out that Afternoon (August 6th 2009), a forty one-vehicle log train driving through the “Desert of Death” as the Helmand Desert is called for being one of the most inhospitable places on the planet, carrying everything from ammunition to food and water. It would stretch over 2 km’s long.

It should take no longer than 8 hours was the word from the PAO (Public Affairs Officer) organizing logistics. That’s do able, I agreed with Greg, anything beats sitting around and waiting. And we could also do a story on the Convoy itself.

Cutting the number of bags we were traveling with to seven (Five equipment and Two personal) we were taken to the Convoy staging area and introduced to the guys who were to become relatively close friends in the confines of the MRAP we were to travel in.

Sgt James Mitchell or (Terrets) was the Vehicle Commander, Lance Corporal Chris Lance (Old Man) driving the beast, sharing the gun of the roof were Lance Corporal Raul Lustre from California and (Dr J) Lance Corporal Jaron Hester.

They simply laughed when I asked about the 8 hour drive, “Man the record for this trip is 17 hours, the longest trip 53 hours” replied the Sarge. Something you should know is that we expect to get hit by IED bombs, we have done this convoy four times and only once have we not been hit. “Welcome to the most dangerous trip you can do in the world”. Seatbelts not required but you must wear your body armor at all times, these vehicles are designed to withstand IED blasts but we hoped not to test the theory”.

The Chaplain for the HQ, came and lead the prayers for all traveling, and we loaded up closed the thick armored door behind us, together with 131 Marines we began the trip.

There would be no road traveled we where to make our own new road across the Desert to avoid IED’s as is the normal practice here now. A bulldozer scrapes a path and everyone stays in tracks ahead of them.

“Old Man” finally touched the gas pedal at 3:40pm, it took forty minutes to actually get out of the Base and past the final strand of Razor Wire less than a mile and the sixty to go did not start till the gate.

We approached the main East West Highway and the only two hundred yards of road we would be on. It was considered safe as the Base had “eyes” on this stretch. Greg and I had actually driven on this road back in May 2001, when the Taliban were in power, we had simply hired a couple of taxi’s and driven from Heart to Kandahar, with no security or for that matter concerns about safety.

Before the second hour was up we stopped, not for an IED but simply a vehicle had broken down, not one but three trucks were in trouble. Thirty minutes later we rolled forward 50 meters and stopped again a fourth vehicle now had a problem, then a fifth.

As the last light faded, we had covered less than 300m in two hours. I started to question our decision to convoy and began to plot just how long this could take, had we made a bad choice.

5 hours after leaving the Base and we could still see the lights clearly, things were not going well and there was no turning back, only the tracks of the vehicle ahead in the sand.

Just before Midnight the convoy halted to refuel, the convoy travels with its own gas tanker. And the lights of the Base were still on the horizon, nearly eight hours after leaving

There is only so much room and so many positions you can try to get comfortable in, imaging two economy class seats facing each other with even less legroom than a cheap charter plane crams in, and that is your world, your body armor plates dig into your back making sleep near impossible, two minutes here five minutes there, the next bump wakes you as we tumble into each other. At times it became a Pilates Stretching class as you try to find that extra inch to stretch out a cramping muscle.

Lance Corporal Lustre, 19 from California, joined the Marines not because of 9/11 he vaguely remembers being at school and watching the aftermath on TV in the hall, but because he wanted to “Make a difference”. President Reagan once commented, “Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they had made a difference, Marines don’t have that problem”. And that’s why he joined, his Girlfriend and Parents are not excited about him being here in Afghanistan, however was he excited about being here, he answered “Yes”.

We were yet to enter what the Marines called “Hell Pass” and the beginning of Taliban controlled territory, over the radio you could hear muffled messages from the Intelligence guys warning of trouble looming.

Twelve hours into the trip, we had stopped asking how far or how much further, first light was coming, we had not eaten since Lunch the day before, it is too hard to digest when every 15 seconds or so you go over another bone jolting bump. Conversations in the vehicle became less and less, exhaustion was setting in. Boredom a fact of life as was my body armor chaffing my skin red.

We had requested to move up in the convoy after dawn as there is only so much video you can shoot from the back. And after 16 hours we bade farewell to the guys and moved into “Vic 2” the second vehicle after the clearance team in the convoy.

I could now stand up through the exit hatch at the back and see why we had taken so long to get such little distance. We were know approaching the most feared part of the trip for the convoy the “Wadi Zone”. Dried river and creek beds where the Taliban favored planting IED’s the previous attacks had all taken part in this area.

The armored bulldozer with almost trepidation descended into the first of the Wadi’s plowing a road for us to follow. The theory being that if there is an IED then the front scoop will take the blast. I tried to imagine just what must being going through the drivers mind as you plow ahead and expect to hit a bomb, and then you think the person driving this suicide plough is probably only 19 years old and not yet legal to drink alcohol in States back home.

We crossed without incident and I expected that tension would ease up in the vehicle, but as the Sarge said we were still to cross “IED Wadi” the one we had traversed was simply a tributary of the one they all feared.

Before crossing two guys from Explosives Team swept by hand “IED Wadi” bed with metal detectors, an almost futile gesture now as the Taliban no longer use any metal parts in their homemade bombs to avoid detection. Once they gave the all clear the bulldozer again descended the bank and made a clear path.

Our destination was getting close but 4 more Wadi’s had to be cleared, 18 hours had passed and the lookouts were nervous, children carrying yellow plastic jugs were noted, shepherds with flocks of goats were potential Taliban lookouts. Anyone moving at more than a slow shuffle in the late morning heat haze was a suspect.

The final miles had become a struggle against exhaustion and nervous tension. Locked in a metal box the air conditioning battled the extremes of the approaching noonday sun. But at least we were moving closer by the hour.

We entered the safe confines of FOB Now Zad after twenty hours; given the delays at the start the mood of the Marines as we all climbed out was that of relief. For Greg and I we looked at each other and wondered just what planet we were on. Moon dust or “Afghan Snow” a fine powder was six inches deep and the temperature was in the 120’s degree Fahrenheit. We had beaten the competition up, and had a good story in the can as we say.

The other Press flew up that night; it took them 18 minutes in a helicopter to cover the same distance it had taken us twenty hours to travel.

When I next buy a lottery ticket, I am going to use the numbers of hours that were predicted, discussed and joked about how long it would take to cover the Desert of Death Convoy.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Return From Embed

Operation Eastern Resolve 2
Now Zad / Dehanna – Helmand Afghanistan
August 2009

The media calls it “Bang Bang or Action”; the Marines call it “Kinetic”. What it means is that everyone wants War. It is not unusual to be sitting around on a FOB, (Forward Operating Base) and hear a 19-year-old Marine say casually as if talking football that he wants to “Kill someone today”. The officers sitting around do not politically correct him, more than likely they will nod their heads and smile, for that is what Marines on the frontline are trained to do. War is about killing and defeating an enemy.

Now that I am back in the relative safety of Camp Leatherneck in Helmand after nine days being embedded in the North of the Province, reflections become like a stone thrown into a pond the initial splash causes the ripples to extend out and memories are like that, there is no central point but just expanding thoughts on what I have experienced in the last days.

The first thing that strikes you here is the heat, you hear about it, read about it but to live it, is like taking your soul and slowly stripping it down to the point where you simply try to function. A cold bottle of water is something you actually start to dream of, the reality is that you simply accept that you are going to have yet another bottle of hot bath water. I eventually resorted to wetting my sock and putting the bottle in the wet sock and by the process of evaporation the bottle would cool down a few degrees, and that was as good as it would get. One day I drank 11 liters of water and yet only urinated less than half a teacup of dark treacle, drinking water here is not a trendy good for you fad as recommended by a health agency, but a fact of trying to stay alive. Talk with anyone on the frontline and the conversation inevitably turns to urine, colors and amounts are discussed with strangers, stand a piss tube (a plastic PVC pipe into the ground, serves as a urinal, with a piece of gauze over to stop the flies and wasps going down it) and you compare amounts discharged.

This entry will run over a few entries as the story is long and has like a book many chapters, but there is no end, for the war here has no end. More will die, more will be injured.

The “Read Board” of 2/3 Marines newsletter has a 10x8 photo of a colleague who lost both his legs in an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) explosion with two prosthetic limbs learning how to walk again, he looked no older than 20.

They have an expression at the frontline called “River City” whereby in the event of a fellow Marine being killed or injured then all communication with the outside world is severed for them, no phone calls, no Internet. The next of kin must first learn of the casualty from a knock on their front door from an officer and normally a chaplain. When you prepare for any event the first details you give in order are; Surname, Christian name, last four digits of your Social Security Blood type and Religious Preference. The later reflects who will knock on your next of kin’s door.

The War in Afghanistan has become the second longest in US history, after Vietnam. There is no end date, no timetable, just a circle of mistakes and bad policy decisions by leaders, both Political and Military. The average age of an Infantry Marine fighting is between 19 and 20, when 9/11 happened they were 11 or 12 years old not even in High School. Most of the Marines I talked too on this trip cannot remember or recollect where they were when the World Trade Center in New York was attacked.

As most of them say, “ I just want to get some “ action.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Boots and Bare Feet

Boots and Bare Feet

En route Kandahar Afghanistan on US Air Force C130 Plane

August 3 2009

There is a strong push now to involve the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) in the frontline in the war against the Taliban, and yesterday we Correspondent Greg Palkot and I were flying down to Kandahar, where the ANA was to add to the forces down there.

I add that we were flying down there, because as we were in the air there was according to the loadmaster in the plane a “sustained rocket attack” on Kandahar Airport. In the back there was confusion as the flight dragged on, what was supposed to be an hour and change flight was getting up to two hours. Being strapped into the webbing seats with no window for reference the only sense that we were circling Kandahar was that every ten minutes the sun would beam through the port hole above us.

Finally the word was passed around that we were flying to Bagram Air Base. North of Kabul as the weather in Kabul had deteriorated to the extent that even a Air Force C130 could not land. Landing in Bagram presented another problem, as it is a secure US Military base and the Afghans are not permitted on the base without major security clearances.

An hour later we took off and headed back to Kabul as the winds had dropped. And the ANA who took off in the morning expecting to be deployed out of Kandahar in the South found themselves back in Kabul.

Our adventures were to take on another level.

The initial impression of the ANA deployment is more confusing than logical. Only a third of them had any sort of uniform, the rest dressed in traditional Sharwa kamisa’s and sandals. Looking down the plane it was the image of an army boot and bare feet, that will remain with me.

There were some classic moments in the hours that we spent together, like the fact that a few of the Afghans thought it would be good to get up and standing on the web seats try and look out of the portholes as we actually landed.

Then of course there is the issue of everyone sitting on the plane drinking water to avoid dehydration for a couple of hours. Human nature takes course and on a C130 the toilet facility can only be described as “primitive”. Standing on a platform, wearing body armor and trying to aim into a sucking sinkhole is not easy.

The first Afghan to come back was more shocked than anything else as the polite way here is to squat with modesty, not standing behind a screen with fifty plus people watching you.
By the time we had landed at Bagram, there were many crossed legs, and there was a polite but urgent trot to the edge of the flight line, where in accordance with modest tradition. Nature could be attended to, even strict security and guidelines can be transgressed the male to male knowledge that when a man has to go, he has to go.

In Afghanistan it is no different.

Update - we were meant to get a flight down South to Helmand this morning and billeted overnight in the Transit barracks. Kabul then experienced its first serious rocket/mortar attack in the lead up to the Elections, with 8 rockets landing in the city close to the airport. Result airport closes, after getting up at 5am, we were only to have our flight cancelled as we walked down the terminal stairs to the plane. Next plane 11:40pm, only a 14 hour wait, and given our penchance for attracting rockets in the last twenty four hours, lets see what the gremlins of the air have for us.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Cheese & Processed Meat

Sunday August 2nd 2009

With very hour passing we are getting closer to embed and the fears that it brings with it. You cannot hide from your own soul and the fear that perhaps something bad will happen, July has been the worst month for casualties of troops here, the scary statistics are the ones that do not make headlines the injuries and number of amputations. The Military Hospital at Camp Bastion in Helmand has had to call in extra Surgeons to deal with the sheer number of victims being bought in. The call for more doctors and surgeons seems to be ignored, as headlines continue to concentrate on the call for more troops.

I have written previously about nerves before going to the frontline, lucky omens and charms I carry. Am I nervous, the simple answer is yes. It is going to be tough and dangerous, each trip to Afghanistan seems to get that little bit more tense.

Packed cheese and canned processed meat for sandwiches for breakfast tomorrow, as they say its game time.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Pssst ... You wanna buy guns

Saturday Afternoon Kabul

Not exactly Mall cruising, but picking up some last minute supplies for the embed. Correspondent Greg Palkot needed some knee guards, myself simply another T Shirt, hopefully without any death head logos embalazzened on the back (which is quite common surprisingly with any t shirt bought in a war ravaged nation, with tens of thousands of Foreign Troops deployed here).

Conor Powell, the Fox News based Correspondent here took us down to the "Bagram Store". Bagram is the enormous Air Base just North of Kabul, and in fact was also used by the Russians during their very succesful campaign here twenty years ago.

The Bagram Store effectively finds what drops off the back of trucks heading to the base, and or somehow buys the rejects and overflow from Army Surplus Stores globally.
Where else can you easily find a Security Pass Holder from an Air Base in Tashkent.
The guys in the store were nice and friendly and more than willing to show us anything we took fancy to, and given that nothing has a price tag, customer service tends to be very attentive.

One of the store salesman struck up a conversation, wherein he told me that he had worked as a translator for NHK TV (Japan) and other Western Media. This is actually quite common here, and like all young men he seemed to be sizing me up to see if there was any potential for work.
Retail therapy completed we left the store. I had just walked out the door when the translator came out and passed a note into my hand, casually as if you were tipping someone. I fully expected it to be a name and telephone number in case we wanted a translator.

I took a couple of steps opened the note and lets say it wasn't call me if you need me note.

"AK weapons, M16 weapons and pistols"

Afghanistan a nation were shopping is... well never dull


Taliban Set to disrupt Elections in Afghanistan

Have started writing for the Fox News Channel website - have done three stories so far including this one -


More to come , currently in Kabul about to embed to Helmand for ten tough days


Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Lay day in Dubai , arrived at around 2am last night, up at 3am tomorrow morning for the flight into Afghanistan . A day to compress and get ready for the weeks ahead , hope to be embedded with the US Marines in Helmand by the weekend. A yes nerves are tense

Friday, July 17, 2009

Catching Up

Apologies for no posts for a long time, many things happening. Mainly working on Pirate Specials in last few months. Some stories to tell , so will try and write something soon.
Heading to Afghanistan in ten days , will be trying to update on the twitter system . More details to follow

Friday, April 10, 2009

Pirates of the Gulf

Instant Expert

En route to Mombassa, Kenya.

Assignment – Somali Pirates take an American Vessel. April 8 2009.

Now the assumption is that all of us at all the time are instant experts on everything known to mankind (and or sisterhood kind, if you want to be PC). And often I find myself in a situation where to all honesty I know nothing about.

I have not cared about, worried about or even thought about Somali Pirate’s. In fact the last time I even remember thinking about Pirates was watching “Pirates of the Caribbean”. In which everything ends well and we are left with the glowing image of Captain Jack, being a scoundrel but a nice hero.

Flash-forward to reality, Somali Pirates seize yet another ship…. Oops this one is American flagged and the crew is all American. As opposed to being some foreign vessel crewed by Filipinos with a Greek Captain. Now we have breaking news.

The cold hard fact is as I fly in that when you commence an assignment we are so often totally devoid of knowledge of the story, that you could change names and places and nothing would really change.

However having read twenty articles on Somali Piracy written in the last year, including think tank reports the reality is that I have become an instant expert and will happily discuss any issue regarding piracy around Somali in the last decade.

It is not rocket science to become informed on a subject, but so often people have a preconceived opinion that they never bother to actually take the time to read up on an issue. It does not worry me that before I got on the plane this morning I knew nothing about the background to the assignment I am heading too, the reality is that now I am an instant expert.

For example –

The best method of repelling Pirates is not to throw tomatoes at them as they try to board as one crew did last year to no avail.

If you are taken hostage, relax the kidnappers are more likely to take you out to dinner at a new restaurant in town that has opened as a result of business improving due to piracy.

If you are a pirate and are captured in 99% of the cases the navy that captures you and takes you prisoner will simply take you back home and land you on a beach close by as they have no international law to prosecute you by and also the warships have no prison facilities so it is easier and quicker just to get rid of you.

When the Islamic Party took control of Somalia a year or so ago, it should be noted that piracy fell to 0%, they simply did not allow it. So lets forget the terrorists are controlling the pirates. When the Islamic Courts Union fell, piracy returned immediately.

The good news for Somali is that it is no longer considered a “Failed State”; the international consensus is that it is now a “Post Failed State”.

In the Northern area of Somalia, “Puntland” which accesses the Gulf of Aden, piracy has injected $35 million dollars into the local economy in the last year, not bad for a country whereby half the nation needs food aid.

The area involved with the Somali Pirates extends over 1.1 million square miles of sea; it takes fifteen minutes from a vessel seeing a pirate to being over run and captured. The most elaborate technical gizmos are useless against pirates, the best defense is to simply look out of the windows of the bridge and have eyes on the sea.

There have been no reports of rival pirate gangs (of which the estimate is ten gangs with 1000 members total) ever fighting each other; they just only care about money.

How do Somali Pirates get better? “Practice, practice, practice.”

Chasing Pirates with International Forces is as one serving Italian Officer notes is - “going after them in a 485ft long destroyer bristling with surface to air missiles and torpedoes, is like going after someone on a bicycle with a truck.

It will be interesting to see how the world and especially the US reacts to this issue and whether Islam phobia is bought up as an issue by the right wing commentators, because this is simply a matter of money, nothing else. Pure greed and bling with an AK47 attitude.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Winter of Discontent - Iceland

The following is an actual quote from the in-flight magazine on Icelandair:
"If you have had enough of the Lamb Testicles (Can one ever get enough) "
Now I thought Reykjavik Iceland would be a destination of Vikings and Fisherman, not frustrated contestants of "Fear Factor"

Try as we might of the next few days to see if this delicacy existed it was to prove allusive, although the Whale burger was mighty fine and did not taste like chicken.

What is it about Iceland that a nation of 300,000 people in an area smaller than Kentucky, has the oldest democratic Parliament in the world, (apparently in 930 some Viking decided democracy would be a fun experiment, in lieu of plunder and war and choose this island in the middle of the North Atlantic and to this day the Althing as they call there parliament exists).

The trouble is that a few years ago, a few modern Vikings in Armani suits decided to continue their heritage and launched global raids on financial institutions, everyone thought this was good and money poured into Iceland as it never had before, then as we all know, someone just had to ask some questions and all of a sudden the world discovered that the foreign exposure of Icelandic Banks was 10x the countries GDP.

Now it does not take a Rocket Scientist, let alone an Economist to figure out that they were in deep trouble.

The Stock Market dropped 94%, every Bank was nationalised, and the value of the local currency halved and the 3 month unemployment safety net is due to expire in a month. Add to this that in the good times every Icelander took out large loans to buy a new SUV or Mercedes and book overseas holidays, of course all loans were taken in foreign currencies and now everyone is about to default. End result the normally placid Icelander's took to the streets the other week, banged saucepans and threw rocks at the Parliament. Police came along bit of violence and the Government collapsed. The first elected administration in the world falls to the Economic crisis.

So with Correspondent Greg Palkot and Producer Tadek Markowski we arrived in Reykjavik to look at what happened and could this become a domino effect, as the Winter of Discontent spreads across Europe.

Now the first thing we should of realised in the worlds most Northern Capital city is that it does not get light enough to film before 11am , we found this out sitting around at breakfast at 8:30.

So at this point we decided to adapt the Icelandic approach to values, as everyone here can, change a tire, strip an engine, ride a horse, sail a boat, dress a sheep, cure a salmon and maintain an open mind about elves. If they can do this then we can film in the dark. It should also be pointed out that here "elves have to be asked before a new road is built" who and how the authorities ask was never answered.

So we ventured out onto the streets as the snow started to fall, locals also explained that they do not have four seasons here, only two: Bright and Dark. Which seemed very apt given that 9:30 it was still pitch black?

The shoot went well and before dark returned we were back in the hotel, editing a package for Special Report.

Thursday had been planned for Live Shots for the News Channel and the Business Channel. We had booked a hotel balcony overlooking Parliament Square; Hi Speed Internet had been established so that we communicate to New York. The only problem was that when we came to stream live. Nothing happened, Transmission could not see us, and the curse of the firewall was upon us. Ok Plan B swings into action.

Take the portable satellite dish down into the main square and find the bird in the sky. Never a problem from Afghanistan to Iraq it is a fairly routine matter of locking onto the bird. BUT, I pointed here, I pointed there I even pointed down to the ground and nothing, absolute silence. Back to the hotel and check if there were any provider issues as to why the satellite might not be found. And there on the main page of the provider a map showing temporary blacked out areas in the worlds as they realigned their satellites. A small black band was revealed affecting 3 countries on the entire planet – Greenland, Ireland and you guessed it "Iceland".

Strike 2 this was looking like a bad day was going to get worse technically speaking. However Greg found a hotel around the corner near the square and after a fast test using the camera built into the camera we had a link with New York established.

Thus from a nation that has produced 3 Miss Worlds, 1 Nobel Laureate, countless Worlds Strongest men and list amongst their greatest sporting achievements a Silver Medal for Handball (no one remembers who won the Gold) , we spent the day transmitting from a very cold balcony.

Although we never got to find the lamb testicles, there was a business that never lacked for hungry diners. A small hot dog stall that has been in business for 72 years, that according to Norse legend has "The best hot dogs in the Universe" and for the record they just could be.