At Large

Walking on the Wild Side

The bewildering experience of one special operations officer in Afghanistan.

By 7.24.09

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War in Afghanistan is bewildering to most people, and no less to those who are fighting it. What follows is the experience of one special operations officer:

The Tajik guide had been with the unit since the early days of the advance by the Northern Alliance. In the years between, the team had rotated several times and was now in Helmand. The Tajik had become a trusted member of the unit. His English was passable and he could translate Pushtu as well as Dari. He would go anywhere. More than once he had gotten them out of trouble. Then for no apparent reason he went missing, and the team leader --going strictly against regs -- set off alone with some local tribal fighters to find him, or his remains.

Some farmers had reported that Taliban fighters slipped in and out of their area regularly and there was a good chance the Tajik had been kidnapped by them. None of the Pushtun like Tajiks, so there wasn't much sympathy for his fate. Nonetheless the local tribesmen liked the extra money and fighting was their business -- that and moving opium in season.

The local tribal commander was a big guy with a heavy beard and a natural sense of command. He questioned the farmers who eventually filled out their story with the information that the Talibs they had seen were dragging what might have been another man or simply a heavy load, a typical scene in Afghan farm country. The important thing was that the farmers offered to guide the tribal fighters to the spot where they had last seen the suspect Talibs.

Slipping and sliding the group descended from hilly terrain to a dry streambed in the valley below. The tribal commander led his fighters with practiced hand signals. The American officer, dressed not unlike the rest of the locals in the traditional baggy pants, flat hat called a pakol, and a warm vest, followed amongst them. The officer should have brought along at least two of his own team, but he didn't want to put them at risk. Anyhow he was operating without orders. In training it is referred to as using initiative. In the field it's called operating without orders. Or maybe that's vice versa.

After a while they left the dry streambed and passed through some conspicuously well-cared-for acreage that in the spring would carry a dazzling display of purple, red and white flowers. In these winter months the land lay fallow. It was hard to believe that this was the most valuable agricultural land in the world. No matter, it was territory that was hard to traverse at the jogging speed that the tribal commander set. It seemed that he knew something he wasn't sharing. It was clear daylight, but the atmosphere was tense.

Fifteen minutes of a steady dog trot brought the entire group of twelve, including the four farmers, to the point a quarter of a mile away from where they had seen the strangers in the distance. The commander spread out the force in three segments moving together as a block. The American officer was in the middle with the tribal leader and two others. The other two blocks flanked the center group; all moved forward in a three-part skirmish line, totally exposed.

The flat evenly ploughed valley made observation easier, but the seasonally dried earth left little in the way of discernible tracks. When they arrived at the target area on the crest of a rise, they found no sign that anyone had been there. The ground had been plowed over purposely in cross directions in order to break up the clumps of soil. Tracking was difficult at best in such a disturbed area.

Nonetheless, the commander of the tribesmen thought he saw a faint consistency of line so as to suspect a possible brushed over pathway. The American was not about to argue and the big Pushtun moved out in front leading the entire group forward again. At one point the commander stopped and turned around to survey the field. The entire unit stopped. He came back apparently intending to say something to the American. The big guy blew up no more than twenty feet away!

The explosion threw parts of the man and clouds of dirt in the air. The commander had stepped on a mine that was far too powerful than an anti-personnel device should be. Obviously it was an amateur job. It was well placed though, and if the tribesman hadn't come back, one of the rest of the group most likely would have detonated the explosive. For some moments they were all frozen where they stood.

There was nothing to be done for the commander. No one said a word. They had no idea whether this was a minefield or simply one of several mines left behind by the people they were following just to deter any tracking. The American officer was in no position to take charge and there was no designated second-in-command. Irregular tribal forces are often like that. No one could go forward except on their hands and knees probing for more mines. The search for the Tajik was over.

With great care the body parts of the dead man along with some clumps of earth were pushed into a patou, which is the blanket many Afghan men carry over their shoulder. It sounds unfeeling, but there was no other way to get his bloody mangled form together.

Several of the men each grabbed a corner of the patou turning it into a form of stretcher. There was no expression on anyone's face. Their eyes were blank. Each man reached inside himself for control. Death was not new to any of these tribesmen -- or to the American special operations officer.

Afghanistan being Afghanistan, the Tajik was discovered some three weeks later visiting with his cousin in Kandahar. He was most apologetic.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.