These past few weeks saw a dramatic ebb and flow in activity. Early July continued June’s unfortunate trend of ever more daring and destructive fighting. Yet, by the middle of the month, attacks in our area of operations ceased without explanation. Before we had time to properly analyze our newfound quiet, intelligence threats directly against our base coincided with a renewed Taliban vigor. The war returned, the enemy was emboldened, our resolve was unwavering and firm, and fighting raged all around us.
I had quite the experience over the course of July’s stiflingly dry, hot days. Captain Goodman had to go home on emergency leave which sent Captain Norris (my immediate boss) to temporarily take over his team. In his absence, I absorbed his S3 (operations and planning) duties into my intelligence responsibilities. I spent my days firmly planted on our FOB, running our unit’s operations as well as our intelligence activities. I ran our air movement operations (helicopters) shuttling supplies and personnel to troops in the field. I made sure our soldiers coming and returning from rest and relaxation (R&R) leave had flights to and from our base as appropriate. I mentored both the ANP operations and intelligence activities as needed, meeting with a series of key Afghan officials on a daily basis.
15 JUL 2008: The ANA returned from a battle with the Taliban down in Qarabagh (a district about an hour south of us). The Taliban stupidly engaged an entire company (about 100 ANA soldiers) as they drove down the main Kabul to Kandahar highway. The ANA ended up killing two Taliban and brought their mangled bodies back to our FOB, where their commander held a press conference with the two bodies serving as his centerpiece, a message to all would-be enemies: “We will kill you if you mess with us.”
The dead were around my age, but they looked so much older; a lifetime of war had deprived them of any visual youth. They wore tattered clothing stained crimson from the blood that flowed when the ANA’s bullets ripped through their bodies, shredding arteries and veins along the way. Their faces, or what was left of them, were frozen with a final horror. Looking at them, I felt no remorse or sorrow. Indeed, I admit I found myself extremely relieved. Two more fighters down, a seemingly infinite number to go.
16 JUL 2008: Around three p.m., a member of the Afghan NDS stopped by to pass on critical information: according to his sources, our FOB faced a seemingly imminent Taliban attack. Specifically, he claimed that a source within the Taliban called him from Laghawat, a remote village in the Deh Yak district of Ghani province. During the phone call the source claimed to be holed up with numerous other Taliban and Al-Qaeda members, “people I’ve never seen before, people we normally don’t work with. We’re being told that we’re in the final stages of an attack on an American FOB in Ghazni. The goal is to recreate a Kunar-style event (Kunar refers to the province in which the Taliban nearly overran a remote U.S. FOB, killing nine U.S. soldiers). We’ve got at least thirty rockets they plan to use in suicide vehicle bombs to breach the FOB’s walls.”
As I heard the NDS officer repeat the words, a lump formed in my throat. We’re being targeted. In my mind I pictured the battle, the blast that would breach the walls, just as the sun dawns. The horde of Taliban who’d stream in through the breach. The RPG rounds and machine gun fire that would pepper our fighting positions. The mortar rounds that would land inside our wire, sending shards of molten metal flying through the air, impaling all those unfortunate enough to be caught in the onslaught. I saw our soldiers bravely returning fire, thousands upon thousands of rounds of hot lead spraying forth, the bullets mowing down row after row of enemy fighters. Our FOB would turn into a blood-stained hell. Cries of “MEDIC” would ring forth. Horrid, inhuman screams would come from the injured as they traveled towards death.
Snapping to my senses, I politely thanked the NDS officer for his warning, requested he remain in contact with us should his informant provide any new information, and dismissed myself from the meeting. I nearly sprinted back to the TOC. Stopping at the entrance, I composed myself. When I broke the news I had to appear calm, cool, and collected. I opened the door and crossed the threshold between the extreme heat of day and the sub-Arctic chill of the TOC; the threshold between life before the threat and the pace of activity to come.
“Sir, we need to talk. The NDS just stopped by, they have pretty solid evidence that the Taliban plan to attack our FOB sometime within the next 72 hours,” I calmly and confidently said to Major Garrison.
“Get everyone assembled in the TOC. We’ve got to prepare ourselves. Write up a report and send it to the 101st as well as to our higher HQ. And be ready to go over to FOB Ghazni, we may end up having to brief the 101st in person and if so, I want you to handle the intelligence portion. Good job Lieutenant,” Major Garrison responded.
Over the next hour, I wrote a summary report of the NDS’s information, sent it to both the 101st and our higher HQ, donned my body armor, and mentally prepared myself for what came next: briefing the 1/506th Commander. The 1/506th S2 and I have a tense relationship. He sees me as nothing more than a young lieutenant from a National Guard unit: best if seldom seen and never heard. I find him to be an arrogant, pompous son-of-a-bitch only a few months older than me who at best does a mediocre job. He’s reneged on every promise of support to our unit, he quickly dismisses any information we’ve shared, and appears to tolerate us only because we wear the same uniform. I knew the minute I got up to brief our intelligence I’d face an audience of preordained skeptics, led by the 1/506th S2.
We arrived at FOB Ghazni, parked our vehicles, and made our way towards their TOC. Along the way, we serendipitously encountered a U.S. Special Forces soldier whom we’ve befriended. We told him what the NDS had passed to us and instantly his eyes lit up with excitement. He smiled, agreed the threat sounded credible, and offered to help in any way he could. I seized the opportunity and invited him to join us for our brief. It’d be one thing to brief this on our own, but if we had a Special Forces soldier backing up our analysis we’d mitigate a lot of the initial skepticism; Special Forces tend to invoke a high degree of hero worship, especially from military intelligence officers.
Armed with my Special Forces representative and prepared slides, I strode into the 1/506th TOC and found Major Garrison already engaged with the 1/506th Executive Officer (XO). Major Garrison introduced me and instructed me to begin my brief. I made it through ten seconds before the XO cut me off in mid-sentence and began second guessing my analysis. “Why would they attack you?” he arrogantly snorted; what deemed us important enough to target? Moreover, given our proximity to his extremely fortified base, wouldn’t the enemy be absurd to attack us? In his mind, the mission guaranteed suicide for the Taliban and was thus implausible.
What he failed to consider, like so many other infantry officers trained during the 1990s, is that we’re NOT fighting the Russians. Our enemies are Islamic Fundamentalists who regard death in combat as a glorious exaltation. An attack against our FOB would guarantee instant martyrdom. More importantly, it would increase the growing popular perception that the Afghan government and its allies cannot defeat the resurgent Taliban. By merely launching the assault, the Taliban would win an important propaganda victory: even the main Afghan National Army base in Ghazni province, inside the province’s capital city, is vulnerable to Taliban attack.
I began to protest the XO’s dismissal of our brief when the Special Forces soldier chimed in with his opinion. “I think the Lieutenant has something here sir. We’ve definitely seen some other chatter (enemy communications) alluding to something spectacular in the works. Moreover, we’ve tracked similar enemy movements, suggesting that the claim that the enemy fighting force is within the AO makes sense. Finally, we know that the alleged leader of the attack has been very inactive for quite some time. In short, he’s due for a big, headline-making event. Typically, he moves his family to Pakistan just prior to going on the offensive. Last week, his family left Ghazni for Pakistan. The only thing that doesn’t add up is the alleged bond between two groups of Taliban the Lieutenant mentioned. We’ve never seen the leaders of those two groups work together before. It doesn’t mean it’s out of the realm of possibility, it just means we have yet to see it. If the cooperation turns out to be true, it would mark a very interesting alliance and development of the enemy in our AO.”
Within five minutes, we had an audience of very interested 1/506th intelligence officers. We repeated our brief, agreed on a few courses of action should the Taliban attack us, thanked the 101st for their assistance, and returned to our FOB to await the assault.
Back on our FOB we put together a guard rotation. The threat had propelled us into a new reality: from now on, we’d have to keep a 24/7 roving guard within our own walls; we couldn’t rely on the ANA to adequately protect us and we had to be prepared for any and every thing.
I spent most of the night on guard duty, showing our soldiers where threats were most likely to originate outside our walls and pointing out weaknesses in the ANA’s defenses. If the attack were to come tonight, I wanted to be up and ready.
17 JUL 2008: I stayed on guard duty till about 0400 and finally gave in to exhaustion and racked out in my bunk for about three restless hours. I spent the majority of the day continuing to gather intelligence regarding our impending attack. Eventually, the furnace of the day cooled to the oven of the evening, and night crept in with a clear starlit sky. All quiet on the Islamic front.
That night I spent four hours helping Captain Norris in-process hundreds of Andar ANP. Team Two planned to take their district’s ANP up to Kunduz (north of us, almost on the Afghan-Tajik border) early in the morning to begin two months of police training. For the night, the ANP would sleep on the soft sands directly outside our wire, while every half hour or so, Captain Norris, Janis, Habib, and Eshan (our terps), and I would lead groups of ten into our FOB for in-processing. My M4 held at the ready, I’d escort each group to our gate where Janis and I would search each man for weapons and contraband, all under the watchful eyes and weapons of Captain Norris and Eshan and the ever vigilant presence of our FOB dogs. Since adopting 24/7 guard rotations, the dogs have taken up accompanying the night guards on their rounds, acting as early warning systems and additional sentries.
The men reeked of body odor and cheap cigarettes. One by one, the groups of men would step up to my station. At first I let Eshan ask the standard questions and translate their answers, but as the night grew older, I grew bolder, and by midnight I was continuously waving Eshan off, asking the questions on my own in limited Dari and Pashto. After each man gave his answers, Eshan would take their picture, record their weapon’s serial number (if they had a weapon; some had weapons so old and damaged we highly doubted they would ever fire in combat), and (in a move inspired by Iraqi voting) I’d mark their left-hand thumbnail with permanent marker, indicating they had completed the in-processing. With the completion of each group, Captain Norris told the same joke: “Thank you for your time and cooperation. I wish you the best luck at training and now if you’ll follow me, we’ll go to my bunk for Thursday night!” Thursday night is traditionally the night during which some Afghan men engage in various forms of homosexual activity. The very mention of Thursday night in such a context, whether inferred or directly stated, carries a deeply humorous connotation, for as taboo as homosexuality is in Islamic culture, the practice is widespread, seldom secret though never admitted, among Afghan men.
Most groups met the joke with deafening silence. Only the Hazaras (descendents of the Mongols) burst into laughter after each telling of the joke. Interestingly, I noticed that the groups came for in-processing were ethnically homogeneous: Pashtuns only came with Pashtuns, Tajiks with Tajiks, and Hazara with Hazara. Moreover, I noticed the Hazara generally came last and carried weapons in the poorest condition. Afghans traditionally treated Hazaras as second-class citizens at best; the Hazaras suffered thousands of casualties and numerous rounds of ethnic cleansing under the Taliban regime.
By 0230 we completed the ANP’s in-processing and headed back inside our FOB, locking our massive metal doors behind us with a distinctive clank. By 0400, delirious from exhaustion, I stumbled back to my bunk, eagerly looking forward to many hours of sleep, as Captain Norris assured me I’d be able to catch up after being awake for nearly 48 hours. I ended up falling asleep with my entire uniform on (boots, thigh-strapped pistol and all) the moment I hit the mattress.
18 JUL 2008: I had really hoped to sleep more than three hours yet it was only 0700 when Specialist Rich loudly barged into my bunk. “Lieutenant Zeller, you gotta get up. We need you to go on mission with us to the PRT.”
Groggily, my pounding with unspeakable exhaustion, I sat up, rubbed my eyes, and grabbed my body armor, helmet, and M4 and trudged off to the awaiting convoy. For the next three hours I sat at the PRT and waited for my superior officers to do whatever it was they so urgently needed to do. We arrived back on our FOB around 1130, at which time Major Garrison promptly ordered me to get some much needed sleep. “You look like the walking dead. Get some sleep. That’s an order.”
I grabbed a quick lunch, took a much needed and refreshing shower, and by 1300 collapsed on my bed, where I again fell asleep wearing the same uniform I’d worn since I received the initial threat against our FOB.
At 1600 Captain Norris entered my bunk and gently shook me awake. “Time to get up. There’s work to be done. I need your assistance in the TOC.”
Three hours of sleep had done little to cure my delirium, leaving my brain a puddle of cognitive mush. Reluctantly, under orders, I trudged once again out of my b-hut. I winced in the oppressive light of the intense afternoon sun which caused my throbbing headache to spike with maddening intensity. Somehow, I remained conscious till about four a.m. the next morning. Fueled by obscene amounts of coffee and Red Bull I willed myself to remain on duty until Team Four’s convoy to Jalalabad passed safely out of the most dangerous areas on the Kabul to Kandahar highway.
At 0400, unsure as to how I was still awake and functioning, I floated back to my bunk, and once again collapsed on my bed, still fully dressed in my uniform.
A few hours later, I flung my legs over the side of my bunk and laced up my boots. Rubbing my eyes, I pleaded with God to allow me some decent, uninterrupted sleep before the day’s end. I cannot recall what the rest of the day entailed other than that I did some work in the TOC.
That night, I donned my body armor and joined Captain Norris on two hours of guard duty. Standing with him at one of our fighting positions, God’s canopy standing beautifully above us, we spoke as men, talked of life, family, war, dreams, goals, memories, the future, and the past. At midnight, with my shift over I lumbered back to my bunk, lay down one more time upon my bed and slept for the next fourteen hours.
My long day, all four of them, had finally come to an end.
20 JUL 2008: At 1400 (2 p.m.) I woke up a new man. My headache gone, I found the sunshine refreshing as a spring-like breeze coolly blew across my skin on an unseasonably pleasant Afghan afternoon. With a spring in my step, I returned to the TOC to catch up on neglected work.
That afternoon, a rain front moved into Ghazni, sweeping away the oppressive humidity that had recently replaced our normal aridity. The thunderclouds announced the arrival of rejuvenation, replenishing the Afghan farmers’ crops. Rain in Afghanistan warrants celebration, a second chance for these cursed people, a reprieve from oppressive drought that ultimately leads to unfathomable starvation.
That afternoon I sat in the TOC when the radio crackled to life. For the next two hours I listened to a remote base helplessly report in detail a brutal enemy mortar barrage. “Base…base…this is OP1…incoming enemy mortars at this time. Mortar rounds just impacted one of our b-huts destroying the building. No injuries at this time. Break. Incoming enemy mortars at this time. Mortar rounds just impacted our fuel point causing a massive explosion and uncontrolled fire. Mortar rounds just impacted the TOC. Break. Minor injuries to two U.S. personnel at this time. No need to MEDEVAC.” And so it went for seemingly forever. Finally, after painstakingly ensuring, checking, rechecking, and rechecking again that they had identified the Taliban’s mortar position (so as to not fire on innocent civilians), the base fired artillery rounds back, suppressing the enemy’s attack within several salvos.
The next day, I’d read in the news that the Taliban claimed the base had fired on and killed innocent civilians in an unprovoked U.S. attack. In truth, the Taliban suffered such severe losses that the only way to mitigate the defeat was for them to claim another U.S. atrocity. It’s the typical Taliban modus operandi: they lose fighters, they strip the bodies of Taliban garb, gear, and weapons, call the press, and claim the dead are innocents flagrantly and callously murdered by U.S. forces; a brilliant and nearly flawless propaganda strategy that we often cannot effectively rebut.
That night nature treated us to a wondrous heat lightening storm, magnified through the forest green perspectives of my night vision goggles. Through my NODS I saw bolts of raw energy dance playfully across the sky, each bolt lasting a magnificent second before it faded away from existence just as quickly as it had arrived. It is during times like these that I for the briefest of moments forget the carnage around me, forget entirely about the war, and lose myself in a singular spectacle of unimaginable beauty.