By Roc Morin
Photos by Roc Morin
We twisted up into the sky beneath a blur of rotors?mum in the numb motor din. The shadow of our helicopter flit below, yawing in the undulations of the sorrel earth, hurtling peaks, and hurling into dark valleys.
My military escort Lieutenant Cartagena and I took off from Mazar-i-Sharif, a city built 900 years ago in desolation?the site revealed in a prophetic dream. From the scattered earthen villages that passed beneath our craft to the army outpost we sought, every settlement seemed tinged with that same fantastic quality?accidents of life in a dead land.
We reunited with our shadow on the airstrip of a base in Baghlan province that I am not permitted to name. I jumped onto the tarmac, squinting through the heat blast. We had come to witness the successful passage of a NATO prison and military base into Afghan hands.
The American soldiers of Blackfoot Troop bounded out to meet us. They were tall and strong, engendering visions of Thanksgiving dinners in places like Battle Creek, Michigan, and Louisville, Kentucky. There was Lieutenant King, Sergeant Morgan, and their corpsman Specialist Singer. They welcomed us by asking our blood types?something practical and still somehow strangely intimate. They hustled us away, out of sight of the mountains, through the gauntlet of concrete T-walls and gravel-filled HESCO barriers that formed the outpost.
We received our briefing in the barracks, leered at by a grinning cartoon skeleton drawn onto the wall in black magic marker. King gestured to a map nailed up beside it. ?This is us, sir,? he stated, pointing to a dot near the bottom. ?And this,? he continued, sweeping his hand over nearly a thousand square kilometers, ?is our platoon’s area of operations.? He pointed again to a mark about five klicks away. ?Just to give you an idea: it takes us 45 minutes to get here.?
The upper third of the map encompassed a slice of the Kandahari Belt, a mountainous region still occupied by the Taliban. ?They have so much freedom to maneuver around there,? King explained, ?because it’s very hard for us to get in unless we’re on birds. They’re definitely skilled mountain climbers compared to us. I mean, they’ve been doing it for years, growing up in it.?
?Have you tried to clear them out of there?? I asked.
?We kind of have the mindset: we don’t screw with you, you don’t screw with us.?
?Do they feel the same way??
?We don’t know,? King shrugged as the room rang with laughter. ?We just do what we have to do. Get up there and get out. So far it’s been good. Knock on wood.?
Morgan rapped his knuckles on the table.
?So,? I continued turning back to the map, ?What’s the line of demarcation between the Taliban and you??
King shook his head, ?We don’t know.?
?Suit up,? came the order, ?the Afghans are ready for us.? We strapped into our bulletproof vests and helmets. The men hoisted M-16s. After a while, the 30-pound vest felt like just another part of me.
We strode through the rest of the camp on our way to the gate. The place was in the process of a controlled abandonment as part of NATO’s scheduled withdrawal. Half the buildings were empty, already beginning to fill with the ubiquitous red dust that coated everything. I accepted a cigarette from King, saying that at least it would filter out some of the dust.
Blackfoot Troop would likely be the last to leave their bootprints here, sometime in 2014. They would pack up whatever the army still wanted and surrender the rest to the Afghans they had trained. That scene had already played out a year ago at the prison we were now headed to, on foot, across a volatile stretch of sand.
Beyond the gate, the soldiers fanned out, rifle snouts roving. We moved as a herd into the hot mirage-land of the heat shimmer.
The Afghans met us at the prison gate. The guards wore grey fatigues. There were handshakes all around, with palms over hearts in a gesture to convey sincerity. I seemed to be the only one who noticed in the midst of our loud maneuvers, the mute shape slipping through and diminishing into the desert over the shoulders of our hosts. The figure was cloaked in amorphous blue fabric and without a face?only the wind, here and there pulling taut the chadri garment, flashed rude glimpses of the womanly body beneath. She must have come to visit her husband, someone said.
We were escorted to a room in the administrative building to wait for the warden, Colonel Yaya. The Americans jawed on couches, slumping among slouching piles of shed rifles and vests, their weapons always within reach. The troops, Morgan noted, were in a delicate position with their Afghan counterparts. Remaining well-armed in their presence would be an insult?a sign of distrust. But, laying aside weapons would leave them vulnerable to the kind of insider attacks that have surged in recent years. Word had already reached us of an Afghan Sergeant gunning down three of his trainers in a neighboring province just that week. Each unit had to find a compromise. For Blackfoot Troop, that meant leaving one man in the corridor with his finger resting just above the trigger of his M-16.
?The Taliban is extremely smart,? King added. ?They’re very latent recipient. They’ll wait and wait and wait for years before they do anything. One of the high Taliban leaders could actually have a job inside this prison. If he’s not called to do something, he’s going to act like a normal person. But, when they get that phone call, they’ll immediately turn around and do what they’re supposed to do.?
Just then, Colonel Yaya entered, briskly fingering the prayer beads that never left his hand: click-click-click. His face was weathered like the landscape. He waved us into his office where framed photographs of president Hamid Karzai and warlord-martyr Ahmad Shah Massoud hung. These two figures are …read more