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Weapons Cache Hunting

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/gardez1-300x201.jpgGardez region, Afghanistan (gpo.gov)

COMBAT OUTPOST ZORMAT, Afghanistan -– Intelligence came in that insurgents hid a weapons cache at the southernmost part of the sector. Under cover of night on Saturday, the Hooligans went to find it.

Looking for weapons caches might not be an everyday occurrence for the Hooligans — the nickname of Alpha Cavalry Troop’s First Platoon — but they pride themselves on going outside the wire. Just past sunset, the sergeants ran through a pre-mission exercise with their Afghan National Army partners.

Spc. Aaron Conover talked about getting hit by an improvised explosive devise, or IED, a few months earlier in a village called Tatnak. The vehicle ahead of Conover’s ran over an IED, and was able to recover. But about 400 meters down the road, with Conover’s truck now in the lead, another IED detonated. Conover injured his heel, he said nonchalantly. Later, in conversation, he mentioned that he was also hurt in Iraq, earning a Purple Heart. He had begun going out on missions again only last week.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

In keeping with the increased IED threat after the insurgents’ unsuccessful May 10 attack on the Hooligans, there are likely to be IEDs along the route taken to the prospective cache. “Don’t worry,” Conover told me. “You’re with the best platoon out here.”

Within minutes, the Hooligans moved out, assembling a crew of Humvees; the new anti-IED mammoths known as MRAPs –- Spc. Derrick Link, a medic, marveled that a rocket-propelled grenade would bounce off it; flatbed trucks painted camouflage, hauling Afghan Army soldiers, and one awe-inspiring wheeled behemoth known as the Wrecker, that air support would later mistake for a tank. To avoid enemy attention, the trucks rolled dark, with only chemical lights placed in their undercarriage to allow each of them to see the others’ location.

For the first leg of the trip, the Hooligans rolled through the district center, where the occasional streetlight or glowing generator cut against the darkness. With little warning, though, the relative urbanity of the district center gave way to the desolation of a wide-open field. It was the first place I encountered in Afghanistan where the mountains were too far away to be visible. Even the moon disappeared behind heavy cloud cover.

“Hold on, ladies,” said the Humvee’s driver, Spc. Freddie Whitmire. We had run out of paved road, which the platoon calls “Hardball.”

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/afghanistan2-300x266.jpgSpencer's route through Afghanistan

The truck cut to the right, lurching as its thick tires found grooves in the dirt and sand. Bouncing through the field, I didn’t yet know that we had just driven the length of all the Hardball in the Hooligans’ sector. But it was clear enough how much damage the terrain could do to Alpha Cav Troop’s vehicles. The insurgents’ reliance on IEDs compels the company to avoid Hardball and major dirt roads when possible — and with them, the soldiers’ ability to operate.

Suddenly, the trucks, MRAPs, Humvees and Wrecker came to a stop. Phase I of the operation was over. Now, through the dark and the dirt, came Phase II. Dismount.

Sgt. Forrest Robertson, the Hooligan platoon sergeant, ran through the necessary checks. Radio communications were up. Spc. Joshua Adams, the man with the mortars, had his “boom-stick.” The metal detectors were ready to move out front. ANA soldiers were told where they had to be. Robertson was going to be in the rear of Bravo Team, the back of the back, as everyone got out and walked along a dirt road.

I looked around to see what I could as my eyes adjusted. The only sound was the hum of the trucks’ engines, which needed to stay running in case of trouble. Arid as the ground was, it had been broken up by something heavy, leaving deep creases that made walking feel like it might on the surface of the moon. Not a single building, hut, hill or even tree was visible in any direction as we headed for the road. If the Hooligans came under fire, there was no cover.

The platoon movement, in columns on either side of the road, slowed until it came to a near halt. Someone squawked over Robertson’s radio: “The metal detectors are going crazy.”

Metal in the road concentrates the mind. IEDs are out there.

Hooligans and ANA got down on one knee, waited a moment, then stood and slowly advanced again. Except for trying, in vain, to walk in the last man’s footsteps, it’s hard to know what to step on. With the metal detectors pinging, every patch of earth seems to conceal an IED.

Robertson explained that we were walking on the Mota Khan border, the southernmost seam before entering a part of eastern Afghanistan under the control of the Polish battle group attached to Task Force Currahee. “This is a real hot spot for criminal activity,” he said.

The evidence came a few dozen yards down the road, where the shucked-and-emptied husks of connexes — big metal shipping containers — were littered on the roadside. Insurgents – or maybe Afghan police? had hit and raided Jingle Trucks for their cargo.

Near the empty connexes, the roadside lifted and revealed a crumbling concrete wall. “Wall” is the wrong term: perhaps it had been a wall years ago, but now it jutted to, maybe, five feet high at its most structurally intact. Most of it slouched to the ground, and virtually disintegrated to powder when touched.

About 50 yards beyond the wall was the first building we had seen since the district center: a black mass difficult to identify in the darkness. It might have been someone’s house. Quiet and empty as the building appeared, any insurgents inside could easily fire out on the Hooligans. Robertson told the team to get behind the wall for cover as it advanced.

At the wall down at the eastern side of the Hooligans, Robertson regrouped with the platoon’s leader, Lt. N. Blaine Cooper, and some team sergeants. They went over the grid coordinates of where the cache was supposed to be. “Shit,” someone said, “we’re right on it.” It was time for Alpha Team to walk out to the location. “Too easy.”

Robertson spotted the terrain across the road sinking behind the remnants of another concrete wall and ordered the mixed U.S. and Afghan Bravo Team behind it. Now the team would wait to hear whether there was a cache out here at all. “This is where we find out if this is a six-hour mission or a 24-hour mission,” the platoon sergeant said.

If it turned out that the cache contained a lot of explosives, we’d have to wait until sunrise for the support units of the Explosive Ordnance Division to roll out to the Mota Khan border to clear it. It was now a little before 10 p.m.

Robertson’s looked happy as the ANA soldiers did as ordered, fixing positions between U.S. forces and spreading out along the south side of a perpendicular wall. This company, which had been with the Hooligans in April before rotating out, was much improved over its previous visit to the area — and light years ahead of the previous unit.

On Sept. 5, that company got into a shootout with the Afghan National Police, after soldiers mistakenly tried to arrest a plain-clothes police officer. The Hooligans literally had to get between the Army and the police in the district center, setting off smoke grenades to stop the shooting. By the time the battle ended, the police chief took bullets in his hip and shoulder, and the ANA company commander was thrown in jail.

The radio sounded. Alpha Team hadn’t found anything yet and was checking a few more spots. It was easy to tell where the team was: a chorus of dogs started barking and intensified with impressive persistence.

Suddenly another voice blurted over the radio: the team saw someone running away, and air support was being called in for a “show of force.” It became apparent that a buzzing sound above wasn’t the ambient noise of an Afghan field, but rather an A-10 Warthog, which Robertson called a “babysitter.”

Radio traffic intensified. Would the A-10 fly low to give potential insurgents a scare or let off some flares? Flares meant a sudden, blinding light that none of the Hooligans were in the mood to deal with. The radio squawked: “Negative, no flares, say again: — no – flares.” Either way, Robertson grinned, “Those dogs are about to get a surprise.”

It turned out not to be. The silhouettes of Alpha Team rose out from the dark of the field, heading back north, empty-handed. There was no cache to be found. “Nothing but a bajillion dogs,” said Staff Sgt. Rannalt Bahr. He radioed back to alert air support: “Show of force no longer required, over.”

The Hooligans walked back to their trucks and set off to the Combat Outpost. Even if they didn’t find a weapons cache, a evening out on a cool September night without encountering fire, IEDs or even any opposition wasn’t the worst outcome for a mission.

When the trucks reached the district center, the air turned acrid. Jingle Trucks that the insurgents had burned earlier that day sat smoldering. Just outside the entrance to the base, a billboard lay face down in the dirt -– it was a pro-government sign ripped to the ground.

The insurgency persisted, unseen, somewhere in the night.

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