Under Fire with the Toughest Men in Afghanistan

I went to Sangin, Afghanistan, which overlooks the world’s most productive poppy fields, to see what life was like for the US Marines and Afghan forces fighting the Taliban for control of the region.

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Jan 17 2014, 1:00pm

The back hatch of our bird gaped like a big hungry mouth—its tethered machine-gunner leaning out over the void, scanning for muzzle flashes. One out of every three flights over the city of Sangin, Afghanistan, takes fire, my Marine escort Lieutenant Parry mentioned as we dove onto the landing zone in a cyclone of yellow canister smoke.

“Sangin is the front line,” Colonel Fitzpatrick had explained at my briefing. The Colonel was everything you would expect from a Marine officer. He looked like he could bite a metal bar in half if he got angry enough. “Of course, an insurgency has no front lines, but over there, both sides are staring at each other.” Occupying the confluence of the Helmand and Musa Qala rivers, Sangin overlooks the world’s most productive poppy fields—lush expanses of red, white, and purple. Whoever controls the region controls the bulk of the world’s opium trade. These fields had been a major source of funding for the Taliban, and I had come to witness the Afghan National Army (ANA) taking over the fighting here as US troops finally withdraw.

The Marines of Forward Operating Base Nolay, where we would be staying, were clustered in a bunker when we landed, protected from a rim of high ground in the distance from which attacks sporadically came. With a practiced casualness, Sergeant Amaker mentioned that just a few days ago, a round had bullwhipped past his face here, spilling out the gravel-filled HESCO barrier that stood beside him. I later saw him pause over the remains of that barrier, looking down a beat too long, gazing the way somebody else might gaze at a sunset. Amaker and the rest of the Marines there had relieved their predecessors at Nolay only a month before, but most of them already had at least one story of a near miss to tell when the subject came up over MREs the following afternoon in the mess tent.

As our engines choked off, the Marines hustled out into the open. Their outstretched palms reached us first for a quick exchange of rock-solid handshakes before we all turned and trudged off to the hilltop base overlooking Sangin and its 14,000 inhabitants. Only a few years ago, Nolay was packed with thousands of coalition troops. Now it is almost entirely in the hands of the ANA. By the time I got there, the Marines only retained a skeleton crew operating out of a small compound in a corner of the facility. The Marine compound is sealed off from the ANA side by an encircling mud wall.

“A properly-maintained mud wall is surprisingly strong,” the burly Captain Naughton said. “I saw a wall like this stop an RPG.” The problem was that the fortifications haven't been repaired since the compound got seized from a drug lord five years ago. The walls had begun collapsing recently and had to be buttressed by prefabricated concrete blocks since none of the occupants were familiar with Afghan mud-building technology.

We dropped our packs in a tent before meeting up with Naughton and several other Marines for a tour of the ANA sector. On the way out, we passed a little plastic Christmas tree. Instead of ornaments, there were empty chewing tobacco tins of red and green. Naughton opened the padlocked gate that divided the two sections. It was purposefully made to look minimally-secured. “We don’t want the Afghans to think we don’t trust them.” he explained.

Later, as we passed a soccer field on the way to the perimeter, I asked if the Marines ever played matches with their Afghan counterparts. “There have been green-on-blue attacks over things like that,” Naughton replied. “We’d stand a good chance of winning, so we don’t play.”

If he was concerned for his safety, Naughton never showed it. He strolled around like the mayor of Nolay, with a joke or a friendly greeting for everybody. We stopped for a moment in the sunlight to chat up an Afghan infantryman. Everyone laughed as Naughton and the blue-eyed infantryman playfully squabbled over who looked more like Alexander the Great. A gunshot swallowed our laughter. The round snapped just over our heads—not the cordial POP of distant fire, but the rude CRACK of a near-miss.

We darted into an adjacent post, a concrete bunker furnished with sandbags and loosely fitted slabs of bulletproof glass. The windows were nearly opaque from the cobwebbing of intercepted lead. “That was close!” Naughton shouted into the side of my helmet. My ringing ears made everything sound far away. The Marine’s grin glowed white in the dusty dim as we crouched like giants under the low ceiling. Abdul, the sentry on duty, grinned back, standing unbent with his M-16. Everyone exchanged Salaam Alaikums and shook sweaty hands.

Abdul was too young to grow a beard, but he had been fighting long enough to have developed a soldier’s version of perfect pitch: He could tell what guns were firing and from where by sound alone. “PKM” he said, naming the type of machine gun that had fired at us—a Russian model. With his finger, he traced back the trajectory to a hill about a kilometer away, where a Marine sentry later mentioned that he saw our shooter through binoculars peeking out from behind a building. A little girl was playing out front—placed there, the Marine assumed, as a human shield. Her presence ensured that fire could not be returned.

We stood behind the sandbags for a while listening to AK-47s pop in the distance followed by the canned thunder of RPGs. “It’s good to hear the boom,” Abdul quipped. “Refreshes the mind.”

That night at Nolay, everybody’s mind became very refreshed. Under a stone-age sky of infinite stars, the sounds of battle raged unceasingly. It sounded like the Fourth of July. The spiced-earth smell of gunpowder drifted through the tents. Just a week prior, I had been told by one of the men that an interpreter had half his skull blown off by a round while he slept in this tent. “I think about that every night when I go to sleep,” the man added. “Will I ever wake up again?”

“Sleep on your side,” another Marine joked. “Makes a smaller target.”

I laid half-asleep in my rack, listening to the cadence of the gunfire and its ever-changing rhythms. As the sound merged with my dreams, sometimes it sounded like the insistent knocking of an unwanted guest, sometimes like a galloping horse, or ripping fabric, or Morse code, or like a skipping record—a song that can’t quite get started.

I had learned earlier that day why the Taliban preferred night fighting. They can change positions at will, while the Afghans remain attached to their guard posts and road blocks. The ANA sentries had nothing more than flashlights to shine out into the blackness. “These guys need night-vision goggles,” Naughton lamented. “The Taliban fix their rifles on the Afghans’ positions during the day and then wait for the flashlights to go on to adjust their aim. It takes five seconds.”

I bundled up and walked out of my tent during the gunfight’s crescendo, doing a circuit of the sleeping Marine complex. The stillness was a testament to how much things had changed here. A couple of years ago, it would have been the Marines doing the fighting. Now it was the ANA’s battle. The only men awake inside the mud walls were the sentries and a handful of technicians monitoring the action from overhead with an unarmed drone that roared like an industrial vacuum cleaner. “Whenever we send this up,” the controller explained, “it sends the Taliban running. They probably think it shoots laser beams.”

The next morning, I awoke to the sound of Amaker’s big lungs belting out old drill instructor hymns just for the joy of it. His voice was an instrument of terror and he loved it. “I don’t know but I’ve been told: Fuck you Corps, now gimme some more! Eennie-meenie-meiney-mo-mo!”

As I washed up in the sink, the water ran beige off my face with a night’s worth of dust. I swallowed a cup of black coffee on my way to the ANA’s Battle Update Brief. The officers met for a PowerPoint presentation in the basement of a captured mansion. The exact numbers were unclear, but several soldiers and policemen had been killed by gunfire and IEDs in a series of six Taliban ambushes. Insurgent casualties were unknown, but presumed to be high. Afghan General Zamarai sat with folded hands behind a desk that looked as though it had been dragged through the mud. He had the last word—he stood and congratulated his men on a successful battle and then harangued them for the squandering of ammunition. “The soldiers get scared and fire without seeing the enemy. And for one Kandak (battalion) to fire 83 82-mm mortars is wasteful.”

When I later requested a detailed account of the previous night’s fighting from the Marines, spokesperson Major Paul Tremblay responded: “From our perspective now as Advisors rather than out on the ground participating directly in the combat, it can be difficult to piece together the specifics of what happens during any given firefight. What I can say, however, is that the ‘sporadic ineffective’ fire that came in that day was met with accurate, overwhelming fire from the Second Kandak soldiers and Recon Tolai soldiers respectively.”

On my last day in Nolay, we piled into dinosaur-sized armored vehicles (known as MRAPs) for a drive to an Afghan artillery emplacement atop the adjacent Heran Hill. Orchestrating the encounter was Captain Dewson, a soft-spoken man with a broad, hair-trigger smile. I had variously heard him described as the Justin Beiber, the Jay-Z, and the Keith Richards of Nolay, because the ANA soldiers supposedly loved him so much. Around his neck was a bullet medallion that Massiallah, one of the Afghan artillerymen he was training, had made for him.

When we clambered out of our vehicles at the summit, it wasn’t just Dewson who got the celebrity treatment. The Afghans flocked around all of us, shaking hands and patting backs. They handed us cellophane-wrapped cakes with tea and offered to slaughter a goat for dinner. Massiallah and his friends proposed arm wrestling matches and dance competitions. The Marines shook their heads warily and smiled. The Afghans settled for having their pictures taken with us in a hundred different combinations.

“I respect these men a great deal,” Dewson confided as my shutter snapped away. “These are the toughest men in Afghanistan and you can see how proud they are about it. Look at their uniforms. They live in these squalid conditions, but their uniforms are always clean.”

That night the Osprey came for us again. In the darkness, it grew—a black menacing shape that you could only see by the stars it blotted out. The roar was apocalyptic. I shouted my goodbyes. Nolay’s Marine commander, the fatherly Colonel Douglas, was there to see us off. I thanked him and wished him well. “Stay safe, sir!” I yelled into his ear. A smile broke through Douglas’s usual expression of benevolent concern. “It’s not about staying safe,” he bellowed, “it’s about the mission!”

With that, we lifted off from Nolay, heading back to the city-sized Camp Leatherneck 20 minutes away. Our hosts had confidently called it, “The safest place on earth.” I gazed back through the open hatch of the Osprey down into the Sangin night. The only thing keeping me from tumbling into oblivion were the taut straps running over my shoulders. The horizon rocked back and forth as I watched the muzzle flashes of the insurgents and the tracers of the ANA below playing out their endless call and response in the dark. Strange signs of life, of a great and mysterious vitality.

I thought of how Massiallah had greeted Dewson that morning on the summit of Heran.

“How did you sleep last night?” he had asked. “Did our guns keep you awake?”

“I never sleep better than when I hear your guns firing,” Dewson replied, “I know that you’re protecting me.”

Roc’s new book, And, was released recently. You can find more information on his website.

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