Editor’s note: Reporter Matt Sanchez, currently embedding with military units throughout both Iraq and Afghanistan, has been providing WND readers with a glimpse into the war on terror most Americans have never seen.
KANDAHAR AIR BASE, Afghanistan – While the Afghan National Army roots out members of the Taliban from Musa Qala in the southeastern Afghan province of Helmand, a combined force of U.S. and British troops set up a combat perimeter. The job at hand for members of Task Force Corsair 82nd Airborne Combat Aviation Brigade is to re-supply the combat units staged around the perimeter of the “green zone,” a strip of Afghan homes and center of Musa Qala.
Only last summer the Taliban boasted of having taken over Musa Qala after an agreement with village elders and British Forces created an opportunity for the Taliban to declare the small village as part of their territory. In 1994, the Taliban itself was birthed in a similar power vacuum formed after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the inability of the floundering federal government to rein in the territorial warlords that have historically plagued Afghanistan.
On Dec. 7, leaving Airbase Kandahar, Task Force Corsair provided air support for Operation Mar Karadad, loosely translated as “Fight to the Death” from the Pashtun language. Soldiers from the 1-508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, a regiment that can trace its combat lineage back the largest battle of World War II, took up position in the large wadis (valleys) and rocky cliffs so prevalent in southern Afghanistan.
The terrain around Musa Qala is vast and barren, but the soft dirt is ideal for placing explosives, and small caves could serve as fighting holes
Corsair’s Chinook helicopter unit, nicknamed the “Flippers,” can move troops and provide soldiers with the back-up supplies necessary to remain in the field for a prolonged period. Road conditions in much of Helmand’s desert landscape can be fairly poor, particularly for heavily armored vehicles. American Humvees are especially weighed down with so much outer protection. The British vehicles are more open, with a mounted machine-gunner largely exposed.
British Lt. Col. Richard Eaton, a spokesman for Task Force Helmand, spoke of operations continuing until the door to Musa Qala was “kicked in.”
British vehicle with soldiers considerably more exposed than their American counterparts
The Afghan National Army has mobilized to enter the town, but there is danger at the perimeter of Musa Qala since Taliban fighters have been known to plant mines and Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, as a guerrilla fighting tactic designed to inflict casualties. Sunday, two days into the assault, the American flag was lowered to half-mass on the Task Force Corsair flagpole.
The danger for helicopters is especially significant. “Every mission is a combat mission, no matter where we fly in this country,” said Maj. Craig Alia with the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade and executive officer of Task Force Corsair.
The Mujahadeen, predecessors of the Taliban, were successful in bringing down Soviet helicopters two decades ago. Alia is well aware of this legacy.
“I’ve read on how both sides, the Soviets and the insurgents fought,” said Alia in a New Jersey accent that 16 years in the U.S. Army with time served in Bosnia and Afghanistan has not entirely erased. With an interest in all sources of information that can provide clues as to how best to take the pulse of the Afghan people, Alia has an open mind.
American flag at half-mast. Names have not yet been released, but an American soldier has fallen in action
“In all honesty, I get a lot of good insight from Al-Jazeera,” he said.
“The enemy is not stupid,” emphasized Alia, who holds extensive briefings on every mission from the routine “ring routes” that have names like The Helmand and Montreal Express, to complex air assaults like the one that took place last Friday on the 66th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.
But once the men are on the ground, intel accumulated by S-2 (intelligence) officers needs to serve a more basic purpose – the supplying of bare necessities.
Water, meals ready-to-eat and bullets
As the CH-47 Delta model Chinook helicopter approached the area of the improvised landing zone, pilot Jimmy Valencia of Durango, Colo., searched for the green-colored smoke used to signal where the aircraft was to land.
Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) and bottles of water are part of the re-supply for troops who will stay in the area until the mission is over
But getting to the designated spot was a trip unto itself. Officials are sensitive about sharing the tactics, techniques and procedures – TTPs – used for flight in and around a combat zone, but Valencia described his flying as “a lot of yanking and banking.”
The chopper moved along at speeds that left farmers below dazed and children covering their squinting eyes to see the racing aircraft.
The Chinook barely hit the ground as the Flipper crew slid out tons of cargo tightly packed on wooden pallets skidding along the adjustable steel wheels off the deck of the craft. Like passengers trying to catch a bus just leaving a stop, British soldiers grabbed on to the supplies as the chopper taxied forward. No sooner was the cargo unloaded than the bird took to the air again.
Formation of American Humvees along the perimeters of Musa Qala district. Only the Afghan National Army will enter the town, but the threat of IEDs and mines are a concern throughout the area
“This isn’t the place to get comfortable,” said Alia, a Blackhawk pilot himself who flew in the initial assault and helped coordinate the entire attack. The Musa Qala district and Helmand province are notorious for the cultivation of the poppy plants necessary for making opium. As the leading cultivator of poppy, drug trafficking underwrites the Taliban terror movement. Before the arrival of coalition forces, Taliban leaders had issued a fatwa or religious order banning poppy cultivation. Today, poppy production is on the rise, according to a report issued this fall by the United Nations Office of Drug and Crime.
Marijuana and poppy fields are easily discernible from the air, and soldiers commonly see the drugs grown by farmers as cash crops.
“We are not in the drug eradication business,” said Alia. Although the U.N., Afghan federal government and U.S. State Department all have voiced concerns about the growing drug trade, it’s difficult to pin down who is responsible for the eradication of illegal narcotics.
“We’ve been told very specifically that poppy eradication is not our mission,” reiterated Alia. President Hamid Karzai opposes aerial spraying out of concerns for the environment and health. Despite billions of dollars in international aid, the Afghan has an average life-span of 44 years.
With a Cheshire smile, Alia qualified the Musa Qala district as “not a friendly place to fly.” Much of the Helmand province is considered a “hot zone” where enemy fire is almost a sure thing. The Chinooks are equipped with mounted guns and never fly without escorts. British and Dutch aircraft also have taken part in the operation.
Still planning the days ahead, Alia scrutinized a jumbo map of the region that looked like the surface of an alien planet. The 82nd Airborne Task Force Corsair has been in Afghanistan for nearly a year, but Alia reviewed the colorful maps as if there could have been something different on them, a new edge or detail to ensure the safety of his pilots.
“I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but we’ll win this,” he determined.
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Matt Sanchez, originally from California, is a New York City-based writer currently embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq. His work has appeared in the New York Post, National Review and the Weekly Standard.
A corporal in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and a student at Columbia University where he’s working on degree in American Studies, Sanchez says his mission in Iraq is “to report on the stories that matter the most, first-person accounts by the men and women on the ground.” His blog, Matt-Sanchez.com, chronicles his work.