A Portrait of an Unknown Enemy About To Die
In the early morning of Aug. 14, 2010, he was running through Salavat’s maze of alleys, getting into position for an ambush. He was crouched low to stay unseen beneath the mud walls. He was wearing the dusty brown shalwar kameez pyjama-suit in which he’d slept last night, just a few fields over.
The villagers watched him and his crew move through town. They gazed passively or they retreated into their mud houses. They didn’t want to get involved.
The insurgent ran north, perhaps a little recklessly, but he was angry and looking for revenge—his comrade had just been shot and now he needed to get to his firing point. He was an important fighter. He was carrying the monstrous Pulemyot Kalashnikova machine-gun—the feared Russian PKM—a belt-fed heavy weapon that spit out so many big rounds so fast that accuracy hardly even mattered.
He made it. He thudded into the low wall near the edge of town. He knew the foreigners were somewhere on the other side. He made a quick call on his pocket radio—“I’m ready.”
He peeked over the wall. A few hundred metres to the north, he could see his enemy advancing across the open field on their way back to their base; the same route they always took.
He lifted his weapon. It was all going as planned.
What he didn’t know was that he was deep in someone else’s plan.
And that plan was to kill him. The bullets were already on their way.
A Practical Work Of Genius
At one point during the aftermath of the Vietnam war—so the story goes—there was a cocktail-party conversation between an American general and a French general, wherein they discussed all the many difficulties of land war in southeast Asia, something the Frenchman would certainly know about as the French had lost a war in Vietnam not long before the American war began. The American told a long story of some counter-insurgency initiative they had dreamed up and which was getting good results on the ground. The French general paused, nodded, and said: “Yes, that may work in practice, but does it work in theory?”
The war this summer in Afghanistan felt a little like that—all turned around, upside down, just a swirl of competing ideas about how to proceed and no genuine way to measure what was having good effects on the ground. Which is to say: there is no lack of theory right now in Afghanistan. But what no one can really say is whether it’s working. There might be too much theory, or it might be wrong, or there might not be the capability to implement it, or it might be working all right but just very slowly, or in the end Afghanistan may just fatally resist any foreign influence, however forceful or full of finesse.
It’s not confusion exactly, but there is some uncertainty.
In the most recent phase of the war—the Barack Obama phase it could be called—there has been a top-down push to enforce a fairly orthodox counter-insurgency plan on all of the NATO nations fighting in Afghanistan. Basically, the idea seemed to be that the infantry would try to protect the population by moving into the villages, from where they could also secure the reconstruction. Meanwhile, Special Operations Forces were going into overdrive, doing all sorts of sneaky raids and kill operations in order to take out the insurgency’s core. There was a strong emphasis on not killing innocent Afghans—fewer bombs, less artillery and a much tougher threshold for individual coalition soldiers to open fire.
It was a nice theory. And it had worked in the past, in other places. But Afghanistan was a place altogether different, if not to say: more difficult. So, things weren’t going quite as smoothly.
In the post-Obama phase, the Canadian infantry war seems mostly composed of one thing: filing around Panjwai district, waiting for the enemy to reveal himself, to do something bad—IEDs, potshots, hard-core ambushes. Once the enemy engaged, the Canadians got their chance to do something.
It’s not easy to kill an insurgent, practically or legally. This is a great looming truth of the later part of the war.
Not only are the insurgents hard to find, but the amount of danger a Canadian soldier has to be in before they can open fire is fairly extreme. It is a delicate issue as any discussion of the official Rules of Engagement is forbidden, but it’s pretty safe to say that the soldiers feel utterly constrained. The enemy adapt quickly and take advantage of the rules. In many cases, the rules have led to absurdities that would make a French general blush—insurgents walking openly away from ambush sites, planting IEDs with impunity, openly coercing civilians—it’s the peculiar kind of self-inflicted difficulty common to bureaucracies, where control of how the work is done is exercised at some great distance from the actual work.
For the most part, the guys filing around Salavat in the late summer of 2010 were from 8 Platoon, Oscar Company, 3rd Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment, attached to the 1 RCR Battle Group.
Oscar Company commander Major Steve Brown, however, has had enough of the filing, the waiting, and the lack of initiative. He knows there are insurgents in Salavat because they’ve been picking off his soldiers and endlessly harassing the locals—and he’s had enough.
Brown isn’t a rebel by any means, but he’s had enough of the theory, he’s seen that the theory isn’t working so well. “We can say ‘protect the people’ all we want, but can we actually follow through with that?” asked Brown. “Unless we can stick an armed soldier on every corner, I just don’t see protecting the population happening.”
The key problem, said Brown, is that the villagers won’t—can’t—help the Canadians find the enemy. And the Special Operations Forces? Busy.
Brown was going to have to do it himself. And so that’s what he did: he came up with an ingenious plan to trick the insurgents. Then kill them.
He was going to turn the town of Salavat into a long-range shooting gallery.
The plan had a lot of moving parts. And not only was it complicated, it was risky: Canadians were intentionally going to be put in harm’s way, as bait. But it was what it had to be: Brown didn’t want to simply rumble around and walk into bombs or wait for the enemy to do something. “The big lesson for us, and we always find ourselves failing,” said Brown, “we always go after the weapons, but we don’t need that, we don’t need to clear them out. We need to kill insurgents. We want those f–kers to feel absolutely petrified and terrified every time they lay an IED.”
In the late afternoon on Aug. 13, Brown gathered his company’s leadership into the headquarters trailer to brief them on the plan—tonight a team of three snipers were going up on Salavat Ghar—the mountain overlooking Salavat—and then before dawn Brown would lead a patrol out that would endeavour to walk directly into an enemy ambush and the very second that an insurgent pointed a weapon at a Canadian, the snipers would shoot them in the head—from 1,200 metres away, up the mountain.
“Tomorrow, our patrol is not a walk in the park,” Brown told his men. “We want to destroy them; we want to manoeuvre and make them move so that Six-Six-Alpha (the snipers) can put two rounds in centre of mass.”
Equal parts ballsy and cunning, it was a plan unlike anything I’d seen in five trips to Afghanistan. It was a special operation, a hit, a kill mission.
Brown looked at the roomful of soldiers. They looked alert, excited—perhaps a little grim. Brown took a deep breath. “Strap your vests on tight,” he said, then swivelled his chair back to his computer.
Into The Dark
The base was still dark at 4 a.m. Dozens of Canadian soldiers quietly stood outside their tents getting ready for battle. They sipped coffees and drank protein shakes and checked their equipment.
Across the gravel lot and beyond the dirt-filled barriers and coiled razor wire, villagers in Salavat were beginning to rise. The moon was bright. Inside the town the local Imam began singing the morning prayer over the crackly cheap speaker. In the dark his voice mixed with the Canadian sounds: Velcro straps, engines idling, and despite the seriousness of what was about to happen, the jokes and relentless teasing the soldiers subject each other to.
The soldiers converged from all over their huge base—Patrol Base Folad, it was called—and lined up in the dark in front of 8 Platoon’s bunkered headquarters, where Warrant Officer Allen Veldman was trying to get everybody ordered up and ready to go.
Veldman was currently in charge of the platoon as its normal leader was on leave. It was his job to make sure everything went according to plan.
As he explained it to me, the idea was that the patrol would follow a route it had followed, more or less, several times before. After leaving the base it would head east across a vast plain, then straight south through Salavat and east again into the neighbouring village of Karakolay before heading north and back across the plain, which is where they expected the ambush. “The enemy templates itself just like anyone tends to do,” said Veldman, “and we always get hit there, on the exfiltration.”
That the enemy could be predicted was at the core of the plan to kill them. If they proved unpredictable and, say, chose to attack the patrol with IEDs instead of gunfire, then it just wouldn’t work. And if they did that, if they were unpredictable, the likelihood of bad mayhem was higher than anyone really wanted to contemplate so early in the morning.
After Veldman was happy with how things were looking and that everyone knew the play, Brown tucked himself in near the front and the patrol set off into the dark.
A Good Kill
The sniper’s first shot scared everyone; the patrol scattered into the weeds for cover. It was the startling sound of a high-powered, huge-calibre rifle firing way too close for any kind of personal comfort. No doubt the man who took the bullet in the chest was the most startled of all.
Karakolay had long been a problem for Oscar Company. A small village just east of Salavat, it had become a virtual no-go zone during the earlier part of the summer. The former insurgent stronghold of Nakhonay was just to the south, and ever since the Canadians had moved there in force a few months ago, it seemed that all the bad guys had come to Karakolay.
At first, no one was sure who had shot or what was going on. Then a soldier turned to me and said, “It was us; we got one.”
The snipers of Six-Six-Alpha had spotted a man up a few hundred metres in front of the patrol. And they’d put a bullet in his chest.
From where we were, outside of town, we could hear screaming and high-pitched chattering in the wake of the shooting, as if there was some kind of sporting event underway. The enemy were right now hustling their stricken comrade out of town.
These were strange moments. It was hard to know what would happen next. It seemed the enemy would start shooting, at least that’s what most of the soldiers expected.
But they didn’t. Instead, Brown motioned the patrol forward and so we all got to experience the uncanny feeling of walking into a place where we had just shot someone.
As it turned out, the villagers didn’t really seem to mind. Kids greeted the soldiers as normal and the men gave hard stares as normal and everyone kind of acted like what just happened hadn’t happened. “It was very odd,” Brown would later say. “But when we engaged with people we got a positive response, the kids were out there and the farmers were out. All the locals were like: ‘Hey, that is between you and them (the insurgents) and I’m not changing my pattern of life.’”
It was, Brown would later say, a good kill.
After the first kill, things got sketchy pretty quickly. There was just too much activity. Afghans were up on rooftops, the radios were full of chatter and the snipers could see people moving covertly, but couldn’t determine very much else.
The snipers would have limited oversight until the patrol got up north again to the site of the intended ambush and so the big push was on.
For almost an hour the Canadians scurried through grape fields and over mud walls, along irrigation berms and down narrow alleys, all the while on something beyond high alert. The enemy was right here somewhere and they were mad.
Finally the patrol broke into open ground. The snipers were now relaying definite information. They could see men with guns moving north.
The entire patrol was now crouched behind a wall, staring into the open field in front of them. They knew the enemy were just a few hundred metres away, waiting to open fire. But the snipers couldn’t shoot unless Canadians were in danger and so with just a quick nod from Brown, Veldman stood up and walked into the field and the lead elements of the patrol followed.
Everything was quiet.
Out in the field, knowing the enemy had their gun sights on you, it seemed like it took an eternity for the sniper to finally fire. Two quick rounds and before anyone could even hit the dirt the call came over the radio—the snipers had another kill. The good fighter in the dusty brown shalwar kameez pyjama-suit was dead.
They’d chosen to go after the insurgent with the biggest gun, the PKM, and as soon as they took him out the rest of the bad guys finally figured out there were snipers behind them, up on Salavat Ghar, and took more appropriate cover. “Not a bad day’s hunting, not a bad day’s hunting,” Brown said to Veldman as he reached the other side of the field.
“I felt a little like a rabbit on a greyhound track,” replied Veldman.
“I don’t ever like a fair fight,” said Brown, before pausing to reconsider. “Well, maybe fairer than the Taliban. But if those f–kers want to be overt, good on them.”
Later on Brown would question one of the snipers about the shoot, trying to determine whether he could call it a confirmed kill.
All the sniper would say with the media present was: “He’s f–king dead, sir.”
Postscript: Battleground Salavat
When I arrived at Patrol Base Folad, I didn’t really know where I was going. I was told it was a new patrol base in the middle of Panjwai district.
Seconds after getting off the helicopter I knew exactly where I was, however. Salavat: the small town where Legion Magazine spent three weeks in October, 2009.
Back then the base was merely a tiny fraction of what it is now. The old school compound, formerly the entirety of the position, is now just a small Afghan army barracks off in the far corner.
PB Folad is growing fast in many directions. The guys joke of extending Folad all the way to Forward Operating Base Masum Ghar and turning this part of Panjwai into a giant Canadian base. While funny, the idea isn’t without merit.
Back in 2009, Salavat was largely peaceful. Now it is not. On my first day in Folad, an IED exploded just down the road from the base, near the market where last year the Canadian soldiers were buying eggs.
The market is now closed.
I told one of the officers that last October the guys from the last rotation were shopping just in Salavat and that they used to joke around with locals with their helmets off.
“Try that now,” he groaned.
For the Afghans in Salavat, the security situation was now pretty much their worst nightmare come true. Back in 2009, they were constantly worried that the coalition presence in their town would attract the enemy and turn the whole place into a battlefield.
On my last day at Folad the Afghan National Army troops on top of the nearby Russian observation post spent a solid 15 minutes blasting belt-fed machine gun rounds into Salavat before capping it off with an RPG. Apparently someone had shot a few rounds at them. When the Canadians got up there to help, after the firing ended, one of the soldiers asked a group of Afghan soldiers which way the bullets came from. They all pointed in different directions.
For nearly a week at the end of August in Salavat a giant sandstorm had come in from the Registan desert just a few kilometres south and consequently all Canadian transportation had stopped and, more worryingly, so had the surveillance flights and drone missions. This gave the enemy an excellent opportunity to go out and plant a whole bunch of bombs.
Eventually, a single ground convoy was organized to make a run to Masum Ghar. The Canadians were still under orders not to move, but since the Afghan soldiers were going anyway, Brown figured it was better to go with them right away rather than have to race out to get them after they blew up.
The thing about riding in a Light Armoured Vehicle (LAV) now is that, after having seen the slow-motion blast videos which they show as a warning upon landing at Kandahar Airfield, it’s impossible not to be aware that the way you sit may determine the nature of your future deformities. Depending on where I put my feet, I may or may not kick my own teeth in on the way to pulverizing my legs on the armoured ceiling—where I place my arms, how I do up the harness, all of these things have outrageous consequences. Bumping across Panjwai, it’s hard not to get engrossed in blast dynamics at an advanced amateur level—so many variables needed analyzing that it was kind of a relief when we finally hit the bomb.
The enemy hadn’t missed their opportunity. Within sight of Folad’s guard tower, less than a thousand metres from the base’s wire, the Afghan army truck in front of our LAV hit a bomb and exploded, wounding many. Not much more can be said. Brown and his men picked up the pieces and carried on.
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