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Feature Story July 13, 2007
 
Hunting Chechens In Afghanistan
BLOOD BOWL: Chechens and Central Asians in Afghanistan's Death Valley
 
 

BAYLOUGH BOWL, AFGHANISTAN - A day after U.S. troops drop a dozen high-explosive mortar rounds on a group of Chechen mercenaries, I'm told it's Uzbeks who are now maneuvering with their Taliban friends to attack us at the Afghan police observation post.

This is a more daunting prospect than a brush with regular Taliban. Foreign fighters in the area are better trained and better armed. They have uniforms, chest rigs, body armor, and modern Russian weapons, possibly including sniper rifles.

"I heard they also have night sights, but I don't know for sure," says the police unit's commander, Ahmad Shah, who sits perched on a rock under the Afghan flag, ready to fire a Russian-made RPG.

"Are you in position?" the militant chief asks his men by walkie-talkie as we listen in, minutes after he tells them to occupy the berry orchards a few hundred meters below our hilltop. Distant figures scurry in the dusk gloom. The police officers, teenagers mainly, shift nervously with their Kalashnikov rifles behind sandbags in anticipation.

"OK, here we go," says a U.S. infantry sergeant as he and seven other Americans sent to support the Afghan unit prepare for battle with their 60-millimetre mortar, AT-4 anti-tank rockets, a Mark-19 automatic grenade launcher and .50-calibre machine-gun. If this kicks off, our side will give an awesome display of firepower.

I'm shivering as the sergeant gives me a crash course in hand grenade throwing and how to handle the heavy weapons - "in case I'm the last man standing." Jesus, I think, I'm just a reporter, and this is starting to resemble the end scene from Saving Private Ryan.

And just like that, it's over. It's completely dark and the enemy has good reason to fear the U.S. night-fighting capabilities. The troops and police stand down. The enemy chatter peters out and the only sound is the wind whipping dust.

The next day we learned what happened. "I heard from their intercom traffic that the Taliban called in extra forces from another district," Bashir Ahmad, police chief at the village of Baylough, tells me. "They were preparing to hit the post when they saw the Americans and knew they'd take a lot of casualties, so they postponed the attack."

I didn't complain.

* * * *

The ongoing conflict in Afghanistan is a profoundly internationalized one. On the one side, propping up President Hamid Karzai's government in Kabul, are some 50,000 troops not only from lead nations like the U.S., Britain and Canada, but from places as diverse as Jordan, Portugal and Mongolia, 37 in all. Scattered among both sides of the war are citizens from all of the 15 former Soviet republics.

Eighteen years after the USSR pulled out of Afghanistan, small contingents from the Baltic states are again deployed here, this time fulfilling their obligations as NATO members. A solitary Georgian flag flutters amid the sprawl of tents at the Kandahar air base, presumably an advance party of the force that the republic's president, Bush groupie Mikheil Saakashvili, has promised for Afghanistan as he seeks a place in the military alliance. There are also plenty of Kyrgyz civilians working in shops at the coalition bases. And I wouldn't be surprised if Moldovans are fixing the plumbing and artexing ceilings for the brass on both sides.

Allied with the Taliban are hundreds of guns for hire from the Caucasus and Central Asia, especially Chechens and Uzbeks. There are Tajik and Turkmen fighters in the mix as well, since those ex-Soviet, Islamic republics share a border with Afghanistan.

R&R
PART I

By Joe Sailor

There are few perks awarded to those of us who make the rash, and often uninformed decision of joining any one branch of the United States Armed Forces. Before you sign your contract, while your recruiter is showing pictures of a Donkey Show from a port call in Pataya Beach, Thailand, you have all the leverage in the world. As soon as you put pen to paper and swear in, all that leverage evaporates, and you become, quite literarily, a property of the State. The leadership of the US is well aware that the imposition of a military-draft will tear down completely the already crumbling foundation of the infrastructures within Iraq and Afghanistan. We are a volunteer-only organization, and limited in size relative to previous wars. There are two kinds of warriors in today's military: There are warriors that have been to Iraq and or Afghanistan, and there are warriors who are going to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The tour is a year long, and is draining and demoralizing. The big-wigs throw us a bone by giving us a 15 day leave period, and a free plane ticket anywhere in the world. Most GI's are cunts, and will wave this incredible opportunity to explore any part of the globe just to spend time with their families and friends.

I am not among them. I started planning my trip to Romania while I was still training for my deployment to Afghanistan. I originally wanted to fly into Sophia, Bulgaria, take a train to Bourgas, and work my way up the Black Sea Coast up to Odessa.

That idea fell by the wayside when I discovered that in order to get from Constanta, Romania to Odessa, you have to travel through Moldova. The other option is to travel by ship from Varna, Bulgaria. I decided however to take Odessa out of the equation entirely when I learned that it has the highest HIV/AIDS rate per capita of and European nation. It is particularly rampant among sex workers, and let's face it; you take what you can get, and what you can't get, you pay for. I wound up just flying into Bucharest, and hanging out here for a few days. The girls are every bit as beautiful as everyone told me they would be, but not quite as easy to take down. I believe I over estimated the "White God Factor" a bit. Those of us who have read the eXile's autobiography know what I'm talking about. I came to Eastern Europe because I know my US citizenship represents a way out for all these Eastern Block sluts who are looking for a ladder to climb. I have no inhibitions whatsoever about dangling the silent notion that I am indeed here looking for a wife. For whatever reason, I haven't been able to pick up any of these bitches. It's frustrating. I banged a pro, and got a nude massage with a not so happy ending, but that's it.

Tonight I'm hanging out with the Embassy marines, and they should have this place on lockdown. Because I'm a Navy Corpsman (Medic for marines) all marines are obligated to pay my bar tab, hook me up with hot sluts and kill stomp any motherfucker that even looks at me funny. Anyone who has seen "Flags Of Our Fathers," will know what I'm talking about. So any city with an embassy or consulate that boasts a contingent of US Marines is a win for me.

Like I said, there are a few perks awarded to those of us that are dumb enough to join the military. I'm going to head down to the Black Sea Coast and just kind of take it from there. When I first started writing for The eXile, I exchanged emails with Ames a few times, and tried to drop hints that I was curious about Eastern Europe and wanted him to invite me to Moscow. He didn't get the hint. Nor has he made any attempt to pay me for my shitty articles. I've given this some thought, and I think I have a solution. Any gorgeous dyevs in the 8-10 range who would like to spend and a free holiday with a strapping young United States Sailor in Constanta or Varna email me, joesailor82@gmail.com and maybe Ames will use my unpaid wages to pay your travel expense. Everything else will be on me. Send a picture.

The Uzbeks we expected to ambush us may have been mercenaries, or they may have been part of the forced exodus of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) members from South Waziristan, a lawless tribal region straddling the Afghan-Pakistan border. The expulsion occurred in March, following fierce fighting after a mortar attack by Uzbeks killed several schoolchildren. "The Uzbeks have been kicked out lock, stock and barrel from the Wana Valley," an Afghan government spokesman said after the fighting. It was third such attempt to drive out the Uzbeks, who had grown increasingly unpopular with the locals. The IMU, the largest of ten such groups active in Central Asia, wants to establish an Islamic state in the Central Asian Republics, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the Taliban continues to deny presence of Uzbek or Chechen fighters.

"This is completely false, there are no Uzbek or Chechen fighters in Afghanistan," said Taliban spokesman Zabeeullah Mojahed, speaking by phone from an undisclosed location. "These and other foreigners were here during the jihad, but since the [2001] war they cannot stay in the country as there is no secure hideout for them. There are still foreign fighters who want to join our ranks but the problem is that we don't have secure hideouts for them here."

"There are no Pakistanis, Arabs, Chechens and Uzbeks [fighting in Afghanistan]. The number of mujaheddin we have is enough for partisan fighting, we don't need other forces," said Mojahed, adding that some Taliban have been sent to other countries to learn tactics.

It's likely those "other countries" include Iraq.

* * * * *

At a coffeeshop in Kandahar air base, I talked with a Russian veteran of the Soviet war, Sergei Malyshev. An ex-military helicopter pilot from Tver, he now delivers UN humanitarian aid

"When I left in 1987, I wanted to come back some day and see what became of the place. I now see that nothing has changed. It's the same mountains, the same dust and heat," he said.

The further you travel from Kabul, the politicians and the main military bases, the more removed everything becomes from the happy talk of democratization, state-building and reconstruction. For most soldiers, this war is about surviving and getting home to their families at the end of their deployment, which can vary from six to 15 months.

"I chuckle when I hear the news," says an NCO of Bravo Company, 1-4th US Infantry Regiment, which has manned the tiny Forward Operating Base (FOB) at Baylough in Zabul since January. "None of what they say or what the president says has anything to do with what we're doing here. We're securing an area and trying to make sure nobody gets shot in the face, and that's all,"

"I'm tired of being shot at," says Private Joshua Thornbury. "There were a few close calls, more than I care to talk about - my wife thinks I'm in logistics, building shelves all day."

Measuring about 200 by 200 metres, the Baylough FOB is a ramshackle concentration of tents, metal containers and wooden huts around a central mud-walled compound built by a previous generation of Afghans. The perimeter comprises lines of razor wire and Hescos - huge steel-caged bags filled with earth - with sentry posts situated at key points around the battered redoubt.

The spent cartridge cases, empty ammunition boxes and rocket and mortar fragments lying on the base - not to mention the shrapnel-peppered outdoor toilet cubicles - testify to its reputation as one of the hottest outposts in Afghanistan.

After a year of relative calm in this corner of Zabul, 250 kilometers southwest of Kabul and between Kandahar province and the border with Pakistan, serious warfare erupted on May 11 when the Taliban tried to reclaim the Baylough Bowl. The exact number of its U.S., Romanian and Afghan National Army (ANA) defenders isn't for publication, but by their leadership's own admission, they are stretched thin.

More than a month of almost daily bombardments and firefights have ensued across the five-kilometer-wide valley, with Taliban fighters losing scores of men in precision air strikes by U.S. and British jets. Most of the fighting occurs in the late afternoon and at dusk, which generally leaves the rest of the day free for vehicle and weapon maintenance and "home improvements" like building bunkers.

Or for recreation. Soldiers retreat from the 40-degree Celsius heat into cramped but air-conditioned quarters in the compound to watch movies and whack off to contraband porn, work out in the weights tent, or smoke and chat in a lean-to by the gate. They can also phone home or email from three laptops housed in one of the containers. Sometimes they play with the camp dogs: Smokey, a seven-month old mongrel who goes with them on every patrol and low crawls when the shooting starts, and Frances, a bitch that was mistreated as a puppy by the ANA and now tries to take a chunk out of anyone wearing their pattern of camouflage.

A big event is the large delivery of mail from the U.S., including parcels sent by church groups and schools. "I think this kid might need some help," says Private James Chitwood as he passes round a card sent to the company by a primary school child. Written in cute childish letters on the front is the message "We hope you will be safe and come home soon." Inside are the words "Be red hot against the enemy" over a drawing of a stickman with a goatee. The speech bubble says, "DIE!"

Boredom is as much an enemy as the Taliban. But come the alert and the soldiers race for their weapons, body armor and helmets and go to sandbagged emplacements on the compound roof, or man the base's 120-millimetre mortar that can drop shells up to eight kilometers away, often in duels with enemy mortar teams.

"We've killed about eight or nine of their mortar crews since we've been here," Specialist David Johnson says after his team looses a barrage of shells at a dozen Chechens the Afghan interpreter has identified from radio transmissions.

The fight around Baylough is about controlling the high ground. Police stationed on the nearest peak provide the base with cover from an anti-aircraft gun that is trained downwards (the Taliban have no air power). The cops intensify the mortar bombardment with thunderous bursts of fire, but this time the Chechens get lucky and find cover in a cave.

Because of the nature of the terrain, this is essentially an infantry fight over long distances. The limited use of vehicles becomes all the more hazardous owing to the Taliban's tactic of sowing the few tracks with landmines and IEDs.

"I would like to see another place in Afghanistan that fights like we do, dismounted and mounted, and everywhere around us," says Lieutenant Sean Westenberg, the FOB's 24-year-old commander.

"We're getting not just indirect fire (from rockets and mortars) but also direct fire (from small arms) - those guys are getting up close," he adds, pausing at the wreck of a Humvee armored truck that recently ran over a mine in the Tangay Valley located four kilometers to the north. Because of frequent contact with the enemy there it is also known as Death Valley: "We've got Hollywood names for everything round here," a private from California says with grin.

Three of the vehicle's occupants were injured in the mine blast, which drove the rear right-hand seat into the one in front, smashing both legs and kneecaps of the passenger.

"There was a 10-hour gun battle that day as we got the truck and the wounded out of there," Westenberg recalls.

Considering the amount of action his unit has seen, it has sustained surprisingly few casualties since arriving in Afghanistan in mid-January. One man was killed by an IED and 10 were wounded, most of them in Tangay.

The soldiers have plenty of tales of ambushes and RPG and mortar attacks, and show scars or flattened AK bullets they dug out of their body armour. Many have notched up kills but rarely get more closure than fleeting glimpses through optical sights of bodies being torn apart by their fire or 500-pound aviation bombs landing on groups of fighters.

Inspecting a blown out Humvee

"You see pink spray come off them as you hit them, we find blood spatters, but they always pick them up and move them before we get up there. In six and a half months I've yet to see a body. But we know we've killed plenty," says Sergeant Luke Hearn. "It's frustrating, you want some confirmation, job satisfaction."

Sergeant Azhar Sher, who lives in Baltimore but was born in Islamabad, Pakistan, has other things on his mind.

"The locals think I'm a traitor because I'm a Muslim, because I'm fighting the wrong war on the wrong side. I think I'm right, whatever the Taliban are preaching is absolutely not Islamic, not sending girls to school, burning schools, beheading teachers. But people are uneducated and believe them, or follow because of fear."

The U.S. troops uniformly hate the insurgents yet show a grudging respect for their tenacity and steadily maturing tactics, which include western-style ambushes and outflanking moves.

"These guys are smart," says Platoon Sergeant Chris Weiskittel, now making his second tour of Afghanistan after two in Iraq, where the insurgents prefer to hit and run without showing themselves. "They'll match you force for force and they'll try to maneuver on you. They will look for a direct fight with you."

But the ancient methods remain relevant. The Taliban will often attack with the setting sun behind them to blind their enemy. They excel in concealing themselves in the rocky passes and mountains that cover most of the country. The troops talk of groups of fighters vanishing during battles into suspected caves and tunnels thought to be hidden by false doors. Taliban are adept at stashing their weapons in a hurry, leaving them virtually indistinguishable from local villagers until they decide to retrieve their arms and ammunition.

They also revel in feeding false information to the foreign ears they know monitor their i-com traffic, speaking of ambushes that never happen and movements of men and supplies in areas where they are not present.

"It's tough for me. I can't alter the plan every time these bastards say something like that," says Westenberg. "Ninety per cent of the time they're bullshitting, but it's that 10 per cent that sits on your mind.

The Humvee wreck beside him is a reminder of the danger his men face every time they go outside the wire. One morning at four a.m. we head past it on the first patrol to Tangay Valley since the big ambush that left eight men wounded, including those hurt in the truck blast.

I went on foot during other missions here, but this time they put me in the rear-right seat of one of the Humvees. I know from a previous embed that this is the worst place in the vehicle: the front right wheel will tend to run over the buried IED and the charge will detonate a second or two later, right under the fuel tank and the back seat, folding the occupant in half and likely roasting him into the bargain.

"We usually put the interpreters and you guys in the back, not ourselves," driver Brendan Cunningham says matter of factly.

Two kilometers down the track I ask to be let out, preferring to walk with the others and take my chances with the RPGs and small arms fire that regularly rain down in Tangay. I question the wisdom of that decision when I learn that the Taliban are now hanging IEDs from trees to nail the dismounted soldiers, too.

Today is different, though, and again I earn my keep as the FOB's "lucky Brit." We hear Taliban radio communications about our movement up the valley, but no one fires on us. The village of Tangay has been deserted since the militants turfed out the locals in May when the heavy fighting started, and anyone we see is therefore suspect.

The troops detain five men who claim to be farmers but give conflicting stories when interrogated individually. The older man, the claimed father of the others, begins crying and begs the soldiers to shoot him and his sons because the Taliban will only do it anyway after they learn that he talked to them. It's a fine performance, but closer inspection reveals tell-tale rifle strap marks on the shoulders of two of them. They are taken back to the FOB and handed to the Afghan police.

Two days later I join 50 U.S. and ANA troops on the next patrol, forging a few kilometers into another valley that is notorious for ambushes. We spend six hours scouring the area, deliberately inviting the enemy to engage, but we only hear their hidden spotters detailing our numbers and progress with unnerving accuracy as we trudge across hilltops and over streams.

"Just so you know, they always go for me first because I've got the 'saw,'" Private Chitwood says as he lumbers along beside me with the box-fed M-249 machine-gun. I tell him it's nothing personal as I peel off toward another group. Ninety minutes later we are all safely back at the FOB.

This was my last day and last patrol. As a journalist with editors demanding stories, you felt irked that nothing more dramatic happens while you're there. At the same time, you thank your stars as you remove sweat-soaked body armour and helmet, knowing that you're leaving with all your limbs.

The only casualty in those ten days, on our side at least, was poor mangey Frances. She has snapped once too often at the Afghan soldiers and the lieutenant issues orders for her execution. A couple of hours before my chopper arrives I hear a commotion and come out of the compound to see a few of the guys standing around her. A 9-millimetre Beretta round through the skull kills her instantly, but her tail still wags reflexively for a minute. Maybe she's just glad to get out of here, too.

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