Assignment Afghanistan: Go Down Nightmare

January 1, 2011 by Adam Day
Oscar Company just after dawn, crossing a field near Chalghowr. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

Oscar Company just after dawn, crossing a field near Chalghowr.

They knew there would be bombs buried in the dirt. They knew their metal detectors probably wouldn’t detect the bombs’ wooden pressure plates. They knew that after the bombs they would be ambushed and the air would zing with high-velocity metal.

The Canadians knew they were advancing to detonation, that some of them were going down, that it was unlikely they’d all make it back to base.

They knew there would be mayhem and nightmare explosions and the dirty fear of dying.

They went anyway.

They walked across the field and into the war, and everything that they knew, happened.

It’s August 2010 and the war in Kandahar is shifting into a gear so high it’s not clear what’s going to come apart first. The allied airbase just outside Kandahar City is city-sized already and the Americans keep coming. Thousands upon thousands of clear-eyed, rifle-carrying Western youths are piling into southern Afghanistan, looking for action.

From inside the base’s safety the war out there in the districts seemed to be constructed mainly of far-off explosions and other people’s fables. The conflict felt so vague and had so many angles that straight information seemed impossible—NATO was either about to win or the insurgents were about to overrun the airfield, or both, strangely—the war was the same as it ever was: progress in one sector, total chaos five kilometres away. Anything looked possible and the only way to get a grip on the puzzle was by charting the rumours that swirled across the base and hung in the air like the scent of something difficult.

This year in Kandahar the rumour’s smell was all blood and malice, as if doom itself had a flavour. Louie Palu says it’s “the summer of the IED” and if anyone would know it’s him. Palu, an amusingly rebellious and war-battered Canadian photo-journalist, says the kids in Panjwai are greeting Canadian patrols by building piles of dirt with their hands to mimic IED emplacements and then jubilantly yelling “boom,” teasing the soldiers about their impending detonation.

No evidence of this was ever seen.

Palu has likely spent more time in Panjwai than just about any other Canadian and his appreciation of the war’s insanity approaches artistry. He tells stories of a Canadian outpost so deep in the shit that their base gets shot up every day and they can’t even go 100 metres outside the wire without getting ambushed and torn apart by IEDs, which are everywhere—in the trees, in the walls, in the fields—all hidden and made of wood and plastic and essentially undetectable. But still, Palu said, the soldiers keep going out. He said he attributes this to their unit’s almost suicidal machismo. Any other unit would stop, he said, but these guys keep walking into the bombs, as if to say: “Go ahead and blow our legs off, we’ll keep coming back.”

Like all the worst rumours, this one turned out to be pretty much true.

The gun battle rages. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

The gun battle rages.

Combat Outpost PANJSHIR

The only road to the most embattled little base in Canada’s whole war is called Route Nightmare and nobody really wants to go down it.

At first I wasn’t allowed to go there at all—too dangerous for media. Then things changed and became even more dangerous and I definitely wasn’t allowed to go. Then a compromise was reached and I was allowed to go, but not allowed to leave the outpost. While that compromise was itself eventually compromised, I first had to get to the base, which was not easy because the place was almost constantly under fire.

After a few days of playing a fairly intense game of standby to standby, the time came to make the actual move. Slowly.

Waiting, the big green armoured convoy had been bursting idle diesel fumes all over Forward Operating Base Masum Ghar for a good couple hours already and the delays seemed set to increase. Combat Outpost Panjshir was currently taking fire and visitors were being discouraged. The trip was in danger of being postponed because it was getting late and getting down Nightmare could take a long time, an unforeseeable amount of time. It could take forever—or at least the rest of the afternoon.

As it turned out, the convoy made the trip in one mad sprint and we were in Panjshir before anyone knew it.

Not that there was much to look at. Panjshir is a small square little outpost stuck in the middle of a disused field dead in the heart of the Panjwai district. It is an austere position, a collection of tents and sand and weapons and not much else.

Nestled in the razor wire at the base’s entrance is a plywood board declaring ‘Keep Out’ in sloppily spray-painted English. It’s safe to say the Afghans in the town of Chalghowr, whom the Canadians are theoretically here to protect from the enemy, do not speak English. But that’s really the least of the problems.

The town of Chalghowr is a couple of hundred metres south, but beyond inaccessible to the soldiers at the base. Every time they go toward the village something catastrophic happens. Not like once, either, but again and again over weeks of patrols until the unit was scorched and visibly reduced.

Every soldier at Combat Outpost Panjshir deserves a medal, their company commander would later say. These are the soldiers who walk knowingly into undetectable minefields, who play an almost inexplicable game of advance to detonation—these were Palu’s reputedly suicidally-machismoed soldiers, the men and women of 7 Platoon, Oscar Company, 3rd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment.

The story of their unit at Panjshir is all about life on the front lines of a difficult war; where not everything makes sense and where the tactical problems aren’t necessarily solvable. It is a harsh situation, but life on the front lines for soldiers is harsh, it always was. Out there the enemy attacks in ways they sometimes can’t do much about and it seems like there’s nothing to be done but to keep going.

We Get Exploded

So far, keeping going had cost a lot. The platoon and all their various supporters had taken a hell of a beating at  Panjshir. Many had been wounded, but the toll among their leadership was especially heavy—first they lost one section commander (shot in the chest at close range) and then another (foot blown off), then they lost their engineer detachment commander (leg blown off), they lost their canine handler (arm and leg blown off) and they lost their platoon commander and platoon warrant officer (relieved of command and sent home after the company commander lost confidence in them).

Twenty-seven-year-old Lieutenant Stephen Martin is the replacement platoon commander. He’s been in the army for about three years and until a few weeks ago he was in Petawawa, never really believing he’d be plucked from the battalion’s replacement pool and dropped in a place like Panjshir.

Despite his predicament, Martin is calm and thoughtful and, while he’s currently being a little bit careful, he has come to terms with the tactical situation at the little base. The keyword for Panjshir is stalemate: both the enemy and the Canadians are too strong to lose and too weak to win. Meanwhile the basic counter-insurgency strategy of clearing the enemy out, holding the ground and then building something better clearly can’t happen now in Chalghowr. “Well,” Martin said with a laugh, looking around the base, “we’re holding Panjshir pretty good.”

Stalemate was a fairly agreeable term for the soldiers—they were proud of their hold on this small patch of ground in such a rough place. There hadn’t been more than a few days in the last two months that anyone can remember the outpost not being shot up, but the enemy had no chance of taking their base. Going anywhere south of  Panjshir, on the other hand, well, that was like walking into the enemy’s base.

“New guys come in and say ‘it’s not so bad’ but they don’t know,” a soldier told me shortly after I arrived. “We just have to go out there,” he said, nodding south, “and entire sections can disappear.”

Another soldier was listening. He looked south too. “We go down there, we get exploded,” he said distantly.

In the tower for a sniper duel. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

In the tower for a sniper duel.

Sniper Duel At Noon, Every Day

The sniper is hardcore in the quiet way snipers tend to be hardcore. He looks like a cross between a surfer and a bodybuilder and, while he seems friendly and quiet, I suspect he is not really that friendly or that quiet. In any case, the sniper is currently distracted and not saying much because he’s in a tower nine metres off the ground, staring into enemy territory and in a duel with an enemy marksman.

The sniper’s been up in the tower crouched over his massive C-14 rifle for hours, scanning Chalghowr and hoping his opponent makes even the slightest error so he can shoot him in the head.

The sniper and the spotter are patient, mapping out the terrain and village with memorable names—pizza hut, sketchy mosque, open gate, spotter tree, whoop-de-doos, closed gate, and on and on. This is basic, classic warfare—a couple of humans patiently trying to kill each other with all the skill and ingenuity they can muster.

“This guy is not easy to get,” said the sniper, who doesn’t want you to know his name, which is understandable, because he pretty much kills people for a living. “I could sit up here for hours, which I have, and nothing.”

The sniper doesn’t like calling his opponent a sniper; doesn’t think the enemy shooter has earned the title, even though he almost killed him once—the enemy marksman once planted a round about 12 inches above the Canadian’s head from over 800 metres away. “He’s smart. He’s been trained well. He knows what he’s doing,” the Canadian said grudgingly. “Yeah, I’d call him a marksman.”

These insurgent marksmen are a recent development in southern Afghanistan. While the shooter firing at Panjshir hasn’t hit anyone yet, there have been stories of similar shooters at other bases in the south and eventually it seems many of them get a lucky hit.

The enemy marksman hides in Chalghowr and only takes single shots, maybe only once an hour or so, and according to the sniper, the enemy shoots from deep within buildings, with the bullets exiting through windows and doors. Or at the very least, that’s one theory—all the sniper really knows is that despite being in the tower and on the scope for dozens of inbound shots, he’s never seen any flash or dust from his opponent’s firing position.

“He’s got to make a mistake sometime. It’s all about whether we’re here to pick that mistake up,” said the sniper.

In this particular duel, the enemy shooter hadn’t fired a round in hours, ever since the sniper and the spotter climbed the tower, in fact. So the enemy shooter was watching.

The sniper decided that enough was enough; he was done for the day. He pulled his big rifle down and set it on the floor, the large silencer sticking over the sandbags, visible to the enemy. “I’m going to leave my rifle up here as bait,” said the sniper. “If he shoots off the can [silencer], I’ll upgrade him to sniper.” He laughs.

Just then the enemy takes a shot and everyone ducks in unison.

Both guys immediately go back to their scopes. The spotter puts his helmet on. Everyone stays much lower. I get off the ammo box I’m sitting on and crouch on the floor.

Nobody heard the round, had no idea where it went actually, but that didn’t mean much.

The sniper was laughing quietly, eyes still glued to the scope. “We duck every time, but it’s always far too late by the time you hear the shot,” he said, scanning for his kill.

Death mask in place, 7 Platoon advances. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

Death mask in place, 7 Platoon advances.

Bring The Armour

Inside the sagging command tent, Lieut. Martin informally briefs a group of soldiers on tomorrow’s battle plan. Chalghowr is the target, but instead of going straight south they are going to do a flanking manoeuvre, head east about 800 metres across the barrens and then south into a part of town they call Little Chalghowr. They will set out early and on foot in an attempt to surprise the enemy.

A group of infantrymen sat quietly thinking about this. Martin had a tough position, he was new, he was fairly inexperienced and he was in command.

Master Corporal Colin Bridger, currently acting as a section commander, spoke up. “I think we should bring the [armoured vehicles].”

Martin didn’t like the idea. He thought an armoured column would tip off the enemy. Martin asked Bridger why they should bring the armour.

Bridger had been fighting this particular war for months. He refused to offer justification. It was a very delicate situation. “We should bring the [armoured vehicles],” he said.

Martin thought it over. While he may have lacked experience, he was not unwise. “OK.”

Later Bridger explained what he was thinking. “I knew we were going to get hit; we always get hit there.”

He was right.

Just after first light the next day Martin and Bridger and about 16 other Canadians piled into four armoured vehicles and drove the short distance to where the patrol would dismount and walk south across a field and into Little Chalghowr.

Just before the patrol stepped off the road and into the field, I asked the soldier behind me what he thought the chances were that we’d hit something. He grimaced like he just smelled something bad. “About 100 per cent,” he grumbled before donning a black half-mask emblazoned with a human skull.

The IED explosion that wounded Corporal Troy Carleton. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

The IED explosion that wounded Corporal Troy Carleton.

Replaced By A Shrieking Blast

Two engineers with mine detectors led the way into the field. There was a small bridge across an irrigation ditch about 100 metres away and we were going to cross there to go south.

The engineers, sweeping their detectors, left the field and joined a small path under a row of trees. The whole patrol was in the field now. The engineers had made it to the bridge. The quiet was early-morning serene; the only noise was of combat boots crunching dirt.

While I am substantially certain that what happened next had a sound, things as I saw them were silent.

Corporal Troy Carleton’s body arced skyward in a pillar of smoke and dirt, like a ragdoll punched from beneath by a malevolent geological force. It looked unnatural, reprehensible—the earth itself seemed to kick Carleton upwards until his body hit the tree, which smacked him back down with its branches. Carleton spiralled a bit and then crunched into the ground.

Everyone froze. It was hard to believe what just happened. Carleton yelled something. The patrol was strung out and at first no one moved and then soldiers started running to Carleton.

Carleton was fifth or sixth in the line of Canadians. The mine’s wooden pressure plates—besides being undetectable to the engineers’ metal detectors—were small and Carleton was the unlucky one who stepped on them in just the right way to complete the circuit.

Luckily enough, the bomb was constructed using home-made explosives and it had failed to explode entirely correctly. While still a heavy blast it had been a ‘low-order’ explosion.

Carleton was sitting on the path more or less where he’d landed. His leg was messed up, but he would turn out to be pretty much physically intact.

The interpreter was standing beside Carleton. A very slight and impossibly gentle Afghan who never had a bad word to say about anyone, he had been metres away from the blast. “F–k their mothers,” he muttered toward Chalghowr with the kind of sincerity perhaps accessible only to those recently nearly killed.

In the blast’s aftermath, the enemy’s radio net sparked up and the talk was all about an imminent ambush. According to the translator and the few Afghan army soldiers accompanying 7 Platoon, several groups of insurgents were trying to manoeuvre into position to start shooting.

The First IED contact of the morning.

Meanwhile, a group of explosive ordnance disposal guys were inbound in order to examine the IED and check for secondary bombs.

Most of the platoon had taken cover in a ditch across the field from where Carleton blew up, but a few engineers were still over on the path, looking around.

M. Cpl. Ken Wilson was standing there on the path. And then he wasn’t.

He was replaced by a shrieking blast of rocks and shrapnel.

It wasn’t immediately explicable how a human body could be at the centre of such violence and not disintegrate. But it did not need to be understood, Wilson was there writhing on the ground, yelling sounds that didn’t form words, evidently deeply unhappy but miraculously alive.

This was not a low-order blast. From six metres away, where I was laying in the ditch, the blast felt like a body check and my ears seemed to momentarily stop working. Again.

Wilson was lying about three metres from the bomb’s epicentre and as the blast cloud cleared, soldiers began yelling and running towards him.

Things were about to get worse. The enemy radio chatter had reached some critical state and Martin began yelling that the guys in the field giving first aid to Wilson needed to right now get him back under cover.

The platoon was lined up on the berm of an irrigation ditch, weapons facing south, towards Little Chalghowr. The soldiers picked Wilson up and carried him behind the berm. He was on the ground covered in dirt, his mouth open. You could see that everybody was trying to stay calm.

Master Corporal Ken Wilson and the American medevac team that rescued him. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

Master Corporal Ken Wilson and the American medevac team that rescued him.

The battle’s first shots were Canadian, an armoured-vehicle gunner opened up with his C-6 machine-gun at someone moving in the field a few hundred metres away.

The enemy began firing and then for a long time it was just all shooting. The enemy rounds were mostly zipping high over the Canadians’ heads, and the Canadians in turn were simply blasting bullets and grenades at the fields and whichever of the village’s compounds were in range. A few Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers appeared from wherever they had been sheltering and randomly fired a few rocket propelled grenades toward the town and then disappeared again.

Just after the first American helicopter gunship appeared overhead, the enemy stopped firing and so the Canadians stopped firing too.

The enemy generally know they will be killed if they shoot while the helicopters are around, so they don’t.

With the battle over, the soldiers stood up and began chattering in the way that people chatter when they have huge amounts of adrenaline in their veins.

“Two of our dudes got blown up today,” said one of the soldiers, smiling as he watched six-metre-high flames burst out of a compound in the distance. “So let those f–kers burn.”

The second IED contact.

Carleton and Wilson were now lying in the dirt behind an armoured vehicle. Wilson was strapped to a stretcher, his shattered rifle beside him.

Both were evacuated from the battlefield, Carleton for a long stay in Kandahar and Wilson for advanced care at the coalition hospital in Landstuhl, Germany.

Just before Wilson was loaded on the helicopter I asked if it was all right to publish the pictures I’d taken of him. “Yeah,” he said, “just don’t make me look like a whiney bitch.” Strapped to the gurney, his combat helmet cinched down tight, the lower part of his fatigues shredded, his face etched with dirt and sweat, he looked about as far from that as possible.

Master Corporal Ken Wilson  on a stretcher, a few minutes after being wounded. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

Master Corporal Ken Wilson on a stretcher, a few minutes after being wounded.

An ambush and a long gunfight.

Lollipops For The Amputees

There’s a strange symmetry to the battle: we attack most convincingly from above the earth, the enemy attacks from beneath it. And in the middle there’s a war of some kind.

It’s a strange war. It’s a war where the soldiers’ mission is to protect the villagers of a village they can’t enter, and from an enemy that mostly attacks in ways they can’t do anything about.

To me it seems like a bewilderingly futile game of advance-to-IED-contact. I don’t know how they do it. I keep telling them this. They don’t care. They don’t really want to hear my ideas.

While we were waiting for the medevac, another soldier told me the story of the engineer at Panjshir who recently got his leg blown off.

Apparently, the medic fell into a stream while running across the battlefield. When he reached the stricken engineer, the medic unwisely complained about his fall.

As the soldier tells it, the engineer said: “Yeah, you fell down, but I got my leg blown off. Do I get a lollipop now?”

The storytelling soldier just laughed. “Yeah, we’re in the shit,” he said.

But it feels worse than that.

Chalghowr burns after the battle. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

Chalghowr burns after the battle.

No One Came Here To Kill Kids

The next day it doesn’t take long for the bad news rumours to start bouncing around the outpost—according to the ANA commander, his sources inside the village are reporting that a 10-year-old boy had been killed during the battle at Little Chalghowr.

The rumour was not entirely a surprise. During the battle a woman had come running up to the Canadian lines from the direction of the enemy. She was waving her arms and yelling. She was told to go back before anyone could hear what she wanted, but it wasn’t hard to see that she was beyond distressed.

Major Steve Brown is the Oscar Company commander and he’s thoroughly decent and hyper-smart and lacks any kind of pretence. Brown and his headquarters are based at Patrol Base Folad in Salavat, but he visits Panjshir as often as he can.

He didn’t know if a child was really killed during the battle. It would have been almost impossible to know for sure just a few days after it happened; but still, he was not taking it lightly. To say that the prospect of a child’s death at Canadian hands was a kind of torture for him would not be an exaggeration.

“Every report of civilian casualties, we take very seriously,” he said, before proceeding to get just a little bit angry. “The insurgents have been using children in their operations, they use them at all levels. And they are active in the insurgency. They actively use children. And it is a huge issue for our soldiers because none of them came here to kill kids.

“In the past we have seen women and children put on rooftops,” he pauses and considers what to say next. He sighs. “We may have hit a legitimate target who was a youth.

The Gap Of Known Futility

Seven Platoon has been hit hard but they won’t let go. The unit was offered a chance to rotate out of Panjshir but they refused. It’s hard to explain why they want to stay, but the story I heard was that if Canadians had to be in Panjshir, they wanted it to be them.

“Every one of them deserves a medal because each and everyone one of them goes out every day and takes the risk of getting brewed up,” said Brown. “To know that one in four patrols is going to lead to serious injuries….”

He pauses.

“And that’s what frustrates them, because it feels like in order to kill the bad guys they have to trip these IEDs. And that is not the case, but it sure feels like that.”

It does feel like that. It does feel like every time the soldiers go toward Chalghowr they blow up.

That said, the stalemate at Panjshir is nothing serious, in military terms. The insurgents in Chalghowr number in the dozens at most and their homemade bombs don’t pose a great threat to our strongest mine-clearance equipment. But the platoon at Panjshir doesn’t have this equipment; all they have are their metal detectors and their bodies.

If they had a robust route clearance capability—blast-resistant minesweepers—they could do daily sweeps down Route Nightmare and into Chalghowr, disrupting the insurgents and breaking the stalemate. But they don’t.

“It just comes down to resources,” said Brown. “We can always talk about the things we’d like to have, but unless Canada is willing to make a more substantial commitment to Afghanistan…it’s just a limitation that they have to deal with.”

There’s pressure at every level—on the soldiers to go out, on the commanders to show progress, on the Canadian task force to defeat the enemy in Panjwai and for the coalition to win the war.

“Who’s rushing to get to the end? It’s us,” said Brown. “We have to satisfy certain yardsticks of progress at home. The Afghan security forces are going at a slow and steady pace. The insurgents say ‘we have the watches, but they have the time.’ If we rush to defeat them, we do so at our own peril. Do we need to rush? We need to kill insurgents, but do we need to rush to clear these IEDs?”

The pressure pushes down and it seems all that’s left is to advance despite the cost.

At Panjshir the enemy have successfully adapted their tactics to defeat our capabilities. The soldiers know this but they still persist. They are in a bad place; it is the gap between the time when their tactics have been defeated and when they are discarded. Call it the gap of known futility.

Which is to say: they keep going, even if their ideas have become the wrong ideas. Maybe that’s just how things are on the front lines, down in the nightmare.

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