The destination for history

Embed: With the world’s armies in Afghanistan


In 2007, journalist Nick Allen quit a secure job in Pakistan as a news agency writer to experience the life of foreign troops battling the Taliban in Afghanistan. Over several years he journeyed as an embedded reporter with a dozen armies, working his way through placid backwaters to remote, savage hotspots where daily flights with insurgent forces were the norm.

Welcome to Bagram PAX Terminal – ‘Gateway to Afghanistan’ reads the sign on the wall. Sports coverage on the TV in the brightly lit hall vies with the rip-roar of accelerating F-15 fighters and beating Chinook helicopter rotors outside. Servicemen and women from half a dozen nations sit bunched with contractors, interpreters, journalists and other civilians on bolted rows of plastic seats, idling away the hours as they move south to Khost or Kandahar, west to Bamiyan and Herat, north to Mazar-e-Sharif, east to Jalalabad or out of theatre to Kuwait or Qatar.

It’s December 2007 and bad weather in the pre-Christmas period has fouled up transport at the huge US-run Bagram Airfield (BAF) and a spate of cancelled flights has formed a clot of passengers in this ‘gateway’. Packs, helmets and body armour are piled under a shelter in the drizzle, weapons stay with their owners, propped between knees or lying on the floor. Staff wearing fluffy antlers and Santa hats call out manifests of those who will fly on the next aircraft; the rest must wait until a space becomes available on a later flight and hope no one with higher priority bumps them off the roster.

Tensions are surprisingly absent despite the delays but this is the way of the military, any military – you go when you go, and if you don’t, you wait. A British captain tells me ‘war is extremely long periods of boredom interspersed by short periods of extreme violence.’ An American sergeant who also served in the First Gulf War defines it as ’90 per cent boredom, 8 per cent excitement, and 2 per cent sheer terror’.

So we wait, nodding to iPods, grappling with Sudoku puzzles, reading paperbacks, dozing or staring at chat shows and football on Armed Forces Network television. And in my case, noting interesting uniform nametags for my ‘dream platoon’, which grew over months to include Love, Smiley, Coward, Fears, Pagan, Sweet, Salvo, Ten Barges and Nutter, under the capable command of Captain Hook and Major Dick.

Some travellers bring boxed take-outs from the Pizza Hut located in a trailer further down Bagram’s main thoroughfare, Disney Drive, which is named after a fallen soldier rather than Walt. In the Secure Area, the adjoining hall you move to once confirmed on your flight, a large mural of the Statue of Liberty against the Stars and Stripes declares: ‘Land of the free because of the brave’. The walls are decked with tinsel and stockings and messages from American schools, police departments and Vietnam War veterans urging the troops to ‘Be good, be lucky, be home’ and ‘Kick Ass’.

I’m due to fly 30 minutes from Bagram to Camp Salerno in Khost, a province on the eastern border with Pakistan. Three dozen passengers, mainly US troops, check bags onto cargo pallets before filing in the damp grey onto a C-130 transport plane that stands waiting, its four 4,300-horsepower propeller engines howling across the runway. There are a few portholes behind the lines of canvas seats but the weather has misted the glass and the sky today is one dank cloud anyway.

After take-off we can only guess at our movements from the sharp climbing and banking and the pitch of the engines. Named after the WWII coastal landing site in Italy, Salerno is informally known as Rocket City because of the amount of projectiles the Taliban lob at it from the nearby hills. To avoid drawing fire, the arriving planes keep their engines running after they land and leave as soon as the cargo and passengers are unloaded. Eight minutes on the ground was the record for his aircraft, a crewman tells us as we buckle up. Instead of 30 minutes, the aircraft flies for one hour before it touches down – at Bagram. The approach to Salerno proved too risky in the conditions and we came back. ‘We wanted to find a little hole in the cloud to spiral down through,’ the co-pilot tells us. ‘We tried, but this is better than hitting a mountain at 60 degrees at 200 miles per hour.’

Next day the skies are still choked with rain clouds and the PAX terminal is the same cluttered scene with many of yesterday’s faces. Another flight postponement means I can leave the building and cross the road to the Pat Tillman Centre for a bite. This is a cosy retreat for an hour, a kind of military Central Perk with its armchairs and carpets, wireless connection and Meet the Fockers showing on a big television as guests tuck into free pizza and coffee.

The facility was opened in 2005 to commemorate the American pro-football player who after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 quit sport to enlist in the Rangers. Tillman was killed by friendly fire during an ambush in 2004 about 40 kilometres southwest of Khost city. One of his football shirts hangs on the wall in a glass case.

As I return to the terminal to undergo flight registration yet again my iPod summons the British electro-pop band Hot Chip, who sing ‘Over and over and over and over, like a monkey with a miniature cymbal ... The smell of repetition is really upon you.’ Amen. I take a seat next to Captain Wegmann, another passenger from yesterday’s abortive flight. ‘The longest it ever took me to get back to my basefrom Bagram was six days,’ says the American. ‘It’s like they say in the army, hurry up and wait.’ Wegmann is a medical officer at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Bermel in Paktika province, which also borders on Pakistan. It’s another place where rockets rain down on bad days and where I spent a freezing week with the US 10th Mountain Division a year earlier. 

I’m told it’s calmer there since they set up a ring of combat outposts towards the frontier, ‘soaks’, which draw the Taliban’s attention away from the FOB. ‘There are a lot of IEDs there now,’ says the Captain, referring to the improvised explosive devices, or homemade bombs, that the insurgents are increasingly skilled at building and planting. He has just brought an Afghan civilian contractor to Bagram for hospital treatment after one of these hit a road-building team. The man would have escaped unharmed were it not for a tiny shard of metal that pierced his eyeball and blinded him.

Suicide bombers are also a problem now the insurgents have realised direct engagements with troops cost them too many fighters for too little gain. In August and October 2007 two men blew themselves up near the base. One attack was at the local market and killed eight people, including three kids, according to the officer. The other time, the bomber was dressed as a member of the Afghan National Police (ANP) and was let through a Police checkpoint as he made for the base, only blowing himself up when Afghan National Army (ANA) troops got in his way.

‘All that was left of him was his lower left leg, the rest disintegrated. The four ANA guys who were killed looked like they’d been through a meat grinder, it was horrible, horrible...’ Wegmann remembers. Other ANA soldiers then began to beat up the Police who let the bomber through, and when US soldiers tried to break it up weapons were pointed at them. You get used to hearing stories like this. (So many more have died since I waited for my flight back then, the IED losses growing. June 2010 was the deadliest month of the whole war for Coalition and US troops. Of the 103 killed, 60 were Americans.)

Time weighs heavily now so I flip through a copy of Freedom Watch, a magazine published in Afghanistan by the US military. As usual, IEDs are a prominent theme. But Colonel Jang Soo Jeong, Commander of the Republic of Korea Forces Support Group, is optimistic that the bomb disposal robots his men brought will help reduce the threat. ‘We hope that our efforts can work like a fertilizer to help the noble sacrifices of the US forces,’ he enthuses. I go and take a bottle of water from the fridge and notice another familiar face, a plump, middle-aged woman with frizzy dyed blonde hair and too much make-up, high cheekbones and a kindly look. She must be Russian – a decade working in Moscow serves me well in such matters of recognition. Strike up a conversation with Zhenya, who is an ethnic Russian from the republic of Kyrgyzstan. I now remember seeing her before in the main shop (the ‘PX’) selling Red Army paraphernalia and souvenirs with Lenin’s image, badges, old rouble banknotes and the ushanka fur hats with the earflaps. The foreign soldiers like to buy the gear the Soviet soldiers used here 20 years ago like the leather belts with the hammer and sickle buckle that Zhenya sells for $15. She has to drop a load of new stock at her company’s stall in Salerno and get back to Bagram and home to Bishkek in time for New Year. It’s her fourth attempt to fly to Khost. ‘I come here every day and get pushed to the bottom of the list by military personnel, they are doing a troop rotation now and it’s a big problem,’ she says, already resigned to further delays. I passed through Salerno once before but didn’t see much, so I ask her what it’s like and whether the rocketing scares her. ‘I’m used to it now but I still try not to think about it,’ she replies.

Then a member of staff calls something about a change to a Kandahar flight because of the arrival of Robin Williams to do a Christmas show. Another batch of soldiers gets up and leaves, bumped from their ride in the name of comedy. ‘That will be my war memories, that Robin Williams stole my plane,’ an Australian reporter grumbles on his way out. Together with 70 other passengers, the Captain, Zhenya and I eventually board our C-130 in the rain and make the 200-kilometre flight to Salerno. In keeping with Afghanistan’s freak weather patterns we arrive in clear blue skies. One soldier gets off the plane carrying a boxed pizza for friends on the base, surely the longest delivery in South Asia that day. As a reporter visiting different units in Regional Command-East I have a few more flights to catch before I get back to Bagram ten days later.

Movement is also slowed by missed, cancelled and delayed planes and helicopters. As maddening as it can be, it’s just something you have to swallow in this and presumably all other theatres of war. On the helicopter landing zone at FOB Sharana in Paktika, a soldier from Idaho shoots the stock line with a friend when our ride fails to show: ‘Hurry up and wait, don’t you know that’s the Army’s motto?’

The same philosophy applies in the armed forces of Romania, Estonia, Finland and other contingents I later visit. Beside me a Polish captain checks his watch again and is informed that the Chinook pilot turned round to refuel and may not be back today. ‘Spiesz sie i czekaj,’ he tells me. And I do. 

Extracted from Embed: To the End With the World’s Armies by Nick Allen

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