For three days straight in Wardak Province, we went on early-morning, joint foot patrols with an American Army platoon and a squad of Afghan National Army soldiers in a valley flush with summer wheat and clover.
As dawn broke over the mountains on each of those successive days, the sun painted the landscape a dazzling hue of gold, making it hard to imagine anything violent could ever happen there.
But we knew it could—and it did, just one day after we left for another military outpost.
On Tuesday at 8:30 AM, about the time soldiers wrap up their patrol around the mud houses and walled compounds of the Sayadabad district, a suicide bomber riding a donkey came close enough to kill three US soldiers, their Afghan interpreter, and wound four Afghan National Army troops. The Taliban quickly took credit for the attack.
While I was initially surprised by the concept of a beast-borne IED (improvised explosive device), the absurdity of these killings seems in keeping with the intensity of this vicious 12-year war, where some of the world’s most rugged and inhospitable terrain is forcing a battle of high and low technology in which drones and donkeys are employed to achieve the same ends.
And this is not the first use of donkey IEDs devised by the Taliban. In April of this year, an Afghan policeman was killed at a checkpoint in Laghman Province by a bomb attached to a donkey. Two years earlier, in April 2010, a donkey carrying explosives blew up at a police post in Kandahar, killing three children and wounding five others. And last August a policeman was killed by a donkey bomb in Ghor Province.
General Abdul Raziq, commander of the Afghan National Army’s 4th Brigade, responsible for Wardak and Logar Provinces, warned his officers at a meeting this morning that the Taliban will resort to almost anything to kill coalition and Afghan troops.
“They place IEDs on donkeys. They are using women with burkas and all kinds of different tactics,” he said. “They are using some that no one has seen before. Previously we had a village elder that called out to get the attention of coalition forces, and as they came closer, he exploded himself. They are using the darkness of the night and mealtime to conduct their attacks. We are facing the enemy all the time. We have to be alert. We have to keep our mind, our eyes, and [our] ears open.”
On a personal level, when my colleague Alex Pena and I heard the news, we wondered if we knew any of the guys who had been lost. Was it the young specialist who wanted to go to nursing school, the sniper on back-to-back deployments, or the sergeant who loved bass fishing?
Sergeant Jongin Choi, a Korean-American from New Jersey told us near the end of one of our patrols, “Now comes the most dangerous part.” He was right.
I felt a small relief, quickly replaced by guilt, when I learned that the platoon that was attacked was not one of the two we had been with. The loss is obviously no less great, but the deepest mourning shifts, unfortunately, to those who knew them best.
Still there’s a whiplash of cognitive dissonance when news of violence in a time or place disrupts your recollection of its former calm. I remember during those patrols that we had walked passed animals too, joked with boys herding sheep, watched a farmer load tufts of wheat on the back of a “harmless” donkey.
But that’s just how it existed in the short time we were there. The conflict was still present, just invisible to us. Wardak, an eastern province close to Kabul, is one of the most violent in the country. The main national transportation route, the so-called Highway 1, is a critical supply channel to and from the capital and it is littered with burned out big rigs and fuel tanker trucks destroyed by the Taliban.
Jawed Kohistani, a Kabul-based military/political analyst, told the the Los Angeles Times that the Taliban are using these efforts to “show off their power.”
But the brunt of that “power” has been directed at Afghan security forces. On Monday the Ministry of the Interior announced that more than 2,700 Afghan policemen have been killed in the last four months alone. That compares with a total of 90 coalition forces killed since the beginning of the year. That trend of higher Afghan casualties is likely to continue as they start to assume control of all of the coalition’s former battle space.
Still, as Tuesday’s incident indicates, Afghanistan remains a very dangerous place for American troops as they conduct joint patrols out of remote combat outposts like the one we visited in Wardak Province, preparing their Afghan counterparts to take on the fight without them.
Watch the soldiers patrol around the mud houses and walled compounds of the Sayadabad District:
All video, text, and photos by Kevin Sites.
Kevin Sites is a rare breed of journalist who thrives in the throes of war. As Yahoo! News’s first war correspondent between 2005 and 2006, he gained notoriety for covering every major conflict across the globe in one year’s time and fostering a technology-driven, one-man-band approach to reporting that helped usher in the “backpack movement.” Kevin is currently traveling through Afghanistan covering the tumultuous country during "fighting season" as international forces like the US pullout. Keep coming back to VICE.com for more dispatches from Kevin.
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