12. THE NIGHT THE AFGHAN ARMY ALMOST KILLED US
Operating out of Grizzly Base brought with it one major change to our operations: We were no longer working with the Afghan police. We were working with what everyone loved to tell us were the “elite” of the Afghan Security Forces. They were the Afghan National Civil Order Police or ANCOP.
Technically, they were a branch of the Afghan police, but operated completely independently and were more respected by U.S. soldiers. The only difference we could see between the two was that the ANCOP could go on patrol by themselves. They could also generally be trusted not to murder us in our sleep. That part was kind of debatable, though.
The ANCOP had the same very strange tendency to stare at us while we worked out in our still rustic, outdoor gym. These guys wanted tips on lifting weights and getting “big like an American.” Not like the Afghan police, who apparently just wanted to eye-fuck us. They had their own guard towers and were trusted to manage one of the rings of security that surrounded Grizzly Base. They, at least in our eyes, were almost real soldiers.
They turned out to be just as crazy as Slim. He, of course, loved that. When we went on long, boring patrols, the ANCOP would take pot shots at birds or stray dogs and challenge us to marksmanship contests. They showed us the fields we could patrol through and steal grapes and pomegranates. Of course, they made a detour into their favorite fields: pot and opium. Whole football fields of the stuff grew in neat rows like corn.
Drugs are so widespread in Afghanistan that when we western folk showed up to put together a military and police force and told them they weren’t allowed to do drugs, they laughed it off. The ANCOP would openly smoke cigarettes laced with opium while on patrol, and their tents at Grizzly Base pumped out clouds of pot smoke. We tried to stop them at first, but it got us nowhere. Clouds of acrid smoke followed them wherever they went.
We were just learning the ins and outs of working with our newest batch of Afghans when Dweebly pulled another mission out of his ass for us. The local Afghan army base had a kid walk up to them and tell them his dad was in the Taliban. The kid knew where he was hiding weapons and explosives. He was willing to take us there in exchange for some money.
This was not our business for several reasons. We didn’t work with the Afghan army, ever. We had no working relationship with them. If it had been any other nation’s military, that wouldn’t have mattered; we could have still cooperated. But the Afghan National Army was a different beast entirely.
The Afghan army was notoriously shady and had shot at U.S. soldiers on more than one occasion. The area that this kid said his dad was hiding weapons in wasn’t even our area of operations. It was another unit’s entire mission to patrol that area. Dweebly insisted we do it anyway.
To make matters worse, the ANCOP hate the Afghan army more than they hate the Taliban. The Afghan army is almost entirely made up of ethnic groups from the north of the country, while the police and ANCOP are made up more of ethnic groups from the middle and south.
Afghanistan, like most tribal-based societies, has ethnic issues going back centuries. No matter how many times America tried to tell all the groups to kiss and make up, they simply would not get along. That they were working for the same government meant absolutely nothing to them.
We waited for nightfall and set out for the Afghan army base. It was a few minutes up the road closer to Kandahar City proper. We rolled through the gate and parked our trucks against the base’s tall concrete-reinforced Hesco basket walls. Slim jumped out and headed toward the command cell with Hamid while the rest of us sat around near the trucks and waited.
I put a pinch of Cali’s dip in my mouth and shuddered at the bitter wintergreen flavor. Grandpa cranked up his iPod through our truck’s speaker system. Justin Bieber’s “Baby” pumped throughout the truck. Grandpa insisted he had Bieber on his iPod because it reminded him of his daughters back home. None of us believed him.
Grandpa’s playlist was an odd mixture of country music, teen pop, and thrash metal. Since we couldn’t get any new music, the playlist never changed, and by then we had everything memorized. We sang it at the top of our lungs while on mounted patrols. We were through Bieber’s song and somewhere in the middle of Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” when Slim, Hamid, and an Afghan army soldier came out of their command tent.
“This guy,” Slim said, pointing to the skinny Afghan guy standing next to him, “is going to take the kid in his truck and we’re gonna follow him to the house where the weapons are.”
“We’re going to follow the Afghans into an area we don’t know?” Grandpa asked, confused. He had a right to be concerned; it was a terrible idea. “The kid could be leading us right into an ambush.”
“That’s what we’re actually betting on right now—the whole thing being a setup.” Slim shrugged.
“So the whole plan you guys worked up involves driving into a trap?” Cali asked
“That does sound like one of your plans.” I laughed and spat out a gob of brown.
“Hey, fuck you, man. I’m like General Patton in this bitch,” Slim said, offended.
“Patton killed, like, a ton of his soldiers,” Grandpa pointed out.
“You would know, you old bastard,” Slim countered.
We climbed back into our trucks and waited for the Afghans to set out. Their tan pickup trucks were packed with soldiers. At least seven in each one. Most of them were sticking out of the bed holding onto whatever they could. A massive fifty-caliber machine gun that was originally developed to shoot down planes was mounted to the bed of one. We thought we were following out one Afghan army truck, but four more rolled out of the gate. They were obviously expecting an ambush as well.
Our massive, armored trucks followed the four tiny Afghan army trucks into the city. Their vehicles were completely unarmored Ford Rangers spray-painted tan and given to the Afghan army for free. Most of them were already perforated with bullet holes and burns from explosions.
Their trucks turned down streets and alleyways that were getting progressively smaller and tighter.
Our bulky trucks started grinding up against the encroaching buildings. We tore down several low-hanging power lines and business signs. Our anti-rocket armor started breaking people’s windows and ripping bricks out of the walls.
“Where in the fuck are we going?” Grandpa asked over the radio. Hearing him lose his cool was unnerving.
Cali gave me a look that told me he was feeling the same way.
“The house is up here. At least that’s what the Afghan marked on my map. Stay frosty, boys,” Slim’s voice crackled over the radio in response.
Finally, as if sensing our growing anxiety, the Afghan army trucks stopped. Two of their trucks zoomed out down other, smaller alleyways while two stayed with us.
Perro, Slim, Guapo, Cali, Grandpa, Walrus, Nan, and I dismounted from our trucks to join with the Afghan soldiers while everyone else stayed in or around the trucks. The Afghans marched with us right to the house where the kid said the weapons were. Grandpa sent Walrus, Cali, and me out into the streets to help the Afghan soldiers secure the area.
Walrus sat down on the hood of the Afghan’s truck and the thin metal crumpled under his fat ass. He just giggled and shifted his ass around to cause more damage. The Afghans, for some reason, didn’t seem to care about him ruining the hood of their truck with his ass; they just laughed at him.
The soldiers outside with us seemed okay enough. They were covering the many alleyways and side streets and were generally acting like they knew what they were doing. Due to our prolonged working experience with the Afghan police, that kind of surprised us.
Inside the house, a few of the Afghan soldiers met with the supposed Taliban member’s wife. She said there were weapons in the house and she was happy we were there to take them away. It turns out there was one major problem: the guy had buried the weapons under the foundation of the house. So it wasn’t an ambush. The family was just sick and tired of their Taliban-loving patriarch and wanted to sell his ass out.
A few of us went back to our trucks to dig out some pickaxes and sledgehammers. We were going for those weapons even if we had to destroy those well-meaning people’s house. Of course, like any good group of Americans, we handed the hammers and picks off to the foreigners so they could do the manual labor while we watched. Thankfully that house was built with the same concrete-dirt mixture as the old gym floor back at the Reserve and we quickly broke through it.
Unlike an American house, where you have a foundation set deep into the earth, that house had maybe a foot of concrete acting as its foundation. We were soon just digging a hole into the ground. The Afghans quickly tired and handed the tools back to us. Guapo took up a shovel and jumped into the growing hole.
The scene around the hole was one of growing friendship. We were sharing cigarettes and lighters with the Afghan soldiers. One Afghan soldier was showing Walrus some porn he had on his cell phone. It was easy to forget we were digging in a war zone looking for weapons that were originally meant to kill us.
Before long Guapo’s digging found purchase. Four small plastic bags were unearthed and handed up to Slim. A few grenade fuses and an old rusty Russian landmine.
“Are you fucking kidding me? This is it?” Slim growled. It was hardly the cache we were led to believe it was. “Hey, Hamid! Ask that kid where the rest of his dad’s shit is!” he screamed back at Hamid, who was sitting with the Afghan commander.
“He says his dad must have taken the rest of it,” Hamid said. The smirk on his face said Hamid didn’t buy it.
“Taken it and just laid some mother fucking concrete down real quick?” Slim yelled, kicking dirt around. “This bastard dragged us all out here in the middle of bumfuck nowhere in Taliban land for some grenade fuses?” Slim was livid. “Hamid, slap that bitch for me!”
Hamid dutifully slapped the kid upside the head.
Slim sat down on some dusty steps that led to the upper floor of the house and called Grizzly Base on his radio. Grizzly Base’s response clearly pissed Slim off further because he spiked his radio into the ground. “Dweebly wants EOD to come out and grab this shit. Go ahead and start evacuating the other houses around here.” Evacuating the area where we found explosives, or ordinance, was standard procedure, even in cases like this one.
Cali, Walrus, and I were still outside the housing compound so we walked up to the house next door and began knocking on its bright, baby blue gates. The tin gates rattled loudly when Cali knocked on them. The Afghan soldiers started screaming at us. They gestured wildly with their hands. I didn’t understand a goddamn word of it.
“Hamid! What the hell are these assholes saying?” I asked loudly.
“They say there are women in there, and we cannot disturb them,” Hamid answered.
Afghanistan, like most Muslim countries, is incredibly conservative. The thought of us Americans seeing a woman without her full body robe, or hijab, was more important than their possibly being exploded by the unstable ordinance we’d found next door.
“Tell them EOD is coming out and we need to move them in case something explodes,” I told him.
“He says they are just going to take the explosives away,” Hamid said. He was clearly getting uneasy with the situation.
Slim came bursting outside where Hamid and the Afghan commander were now standing with several incredibly pissed off Afghan soldiers.
“Oh, fuck no. I have orders to secure this site for EOD. They aren’t taking them. Joe! Get those people out of that fucking house!” Slim screamed.
“Roger!” I screamed back. I slammed on the blue gates, and they rocked in protest. I heard the metallic clack of the slide of a rifle. Someone had just chambered a round. We always loaded our rifles before we left Grizzly Base. It had to have been an Afghan. I wasn’t the only person who heard it, either.
“What the fuck!” Cali screamed. “I got a mother fucker pointing his shit at me over here!” I glanced over to see an Afghan armed with a SAW—or squad automatic weapon—pointed right at me. I stood staring down the barrel of a belt-fed machine gun. I turned beside Cali and leveled my rifle at one of the other Afghan soldiers. I put my sight over the middle of his chest and flicked off the safety of my M4.
“Hey, bitch, don’t touch me!” came the heavy New York accent of Guapo from inside the house.
An Afghan soldier came from the top floor of the house and tried to wrap his arms around him and bring him to the ground. Guapo was a strong guy with a deep knowledge of mixed martial arts. So that shit didn’t fly.
He quickly twisted the man’s arm around and tossed him to the ground. Before we could figure out what the hell was going on, we were surrounded by an incredibly hostile force of soldiers our country had trained and armed.
Slim was screaming commands at Hamid trying to get the situation under control. He had grabbed the Afghan commander by the collar of his oversized uniform and put his rifle into his chest. Every soldier was now squared off with an Afghan counterpart who only seconds ago we’d been joking with.
“Grizzly Base, this is Slim, I need a QRF at my location right now!” Slim screamed over the radio. A QRF, or quick reaction force, is a squad of soldiers who are always on standby waiting for something to happen whenever another squad is out conducting a mission. They can be out of a base’s gates in minutes.
Slim advised Grizzly Base what was happening on the ground, which was essentially a Mexican standoff in the middle of Kandahar City surrounded and outnumbered by Afghan soldiers. Maybe that was called an Afghan standoff.
“Negative, Slim. We want EOD to go on scene,” Walt answered over the radio. “Try to talk down the Afghans,” he advised.
“I think we are pretty fucking far past talking at this point!” Slim screamed back over the radio. “Get in the fucking house, boys!” Slim yelled. We slowly backed into the house we had originally come for. We were still heavily outnumbered and outgunned. At least we had a defensible position behind the house’s thick walls.
Afghan soldiers fanned out all around us and surrounded the house. One of their pickup trucks pulled up and aimed its massive fifty-caliber machine gun, its bullets the size of goddamn railroad spikes, in our direction.
“Can we call up our trucks?” Grandpa asked.
“The roads are too goddamn small,” Slim said. Slim loaded a grenade into his mounted grenade launcher. “Everyone with a grenade launcher, load up! When this shit kicks off, take out their trucks first!”
Grandpa, Walrus, and I dutifully loaded our launchers. I grabbed a grenade from my pouch and slammed it home into the breach of my launcher. I flicked my rifle’s switch from “semi” to “burst.”
“If you have a SAW—suppress their soldiers! If they try coming into this fucking house—open up!”
My rifle was leveled on the truck with the machine gun pointed at us. My trigger finger was on the second, forward trigger. It fired my grenade launcher. Several Afghan soldiers started moving toward the house. My heart slammed in my chest. I could feel my pulse in my temples, and it made my eyes shake in their sockets.
“Get ready, boys!” Slim yelled as the Afghan soldiers slowly reached for the house’s gates. My finger flicked off the launcher’s safety.
“Hey!” screamed a voice in the distance. “Back the fuck off! Put your fucking weapons on the ground right the fuck now!” The shouting voice was followed up by a quick translation into Pashto.
U.S. soldiers poured out of the alleyways and surrounded the Afghans. Their weapons were up and at the ready. At the head of the advancing force was Third Platoon’s Sergeant First Class Eastwood, who was carrying a sawed-off shotgun and had it pointed directly at the Afghan commander.
“Tell this asshole I’ll kill every single one of his piece of shit soldiers if they don’t obey every single one of my fucking words like they’re the gospel of Mohammed!” Eastwood growled in anger. Eastwood’s interpreter translated.
Slowly the Afghans lowered their weapons and backed away from our building. I rocked back off my knee and sat down on the house’s roof, breathing a sigh of relief. I took my helmet off and brushed my hair back. Sweat dripped down into my eyes and burned like fire. The stinging sweat felt good. It reminded me that I was somehow still alive.
“I can’t believe that just fucking happened,” Walrus laughed. The laugh was infectious, and we all started into strange, nervous bursts of laughter.
Eastwood made his way into the house and met us upstairs. “What the hell happened here, Slim?” he asked with genuine curiosity.
“They wanted to see whose dick was bigger over this bullshit weapons cache.” Slim pointed to the grenade fuses and landmine.
“Why didn’t you just give them the shit?” Eastwood asked.
“Trust me, we would have. Dweebly wouldn’t let us. He said he was sending out EOD.” Just then Slim’s radio came to life with a burst of static.
“Slim, go ahead and give them the cache. We can’t get ahold of EOD at this time,” Walt ordered.
Slim’s eyes narrowed and for the first time he was rendered speechless.
Eastwood started laughing so hard his cigarette fell out of his mouth.
I reached into Cali’s pocket and grabbed his can of dip. I shoved some in my lip and spit on the bags full of fuses.
We left the cache where it was and slowly made our way back to our trucks. We thanked the soldiers of Third Platoon for quite possibly saving our lives and waved goodbye. The way back to the trucks was hardly relaxing. We were afraid the Afghans were going to try to ambush us on our way out. We methodically checked every alleyway and street. One team would rush forward and cover an alleyway, and once that team was set in place the next team would rush to the next alleyway in line.
Eventually we made it back to our trucks, climbed inside, and slowly worked our way out of the intertwining maze of alleyways and side roads back out to the main roads. We drove back to Grizzly Base in silence. Grandpa’s iPod blared out some awful rap version of a country song, and we all tried to forget we were almost killed by people who were supposed to be our allies.