I remember my first dismounted mission in Panjshir. Well, the first one that I led anyway and to be clear, a “dismounted mission” indicates that we were going to be on foot for most of or a good portion of our assignment. We head south to Shutol District, one of seven districts in Panjshir Province, Afghanistan. Our infiltration point, which is where we, ahem, dismount the trucks, is located only a quarter to half a mile from the main highway as the crow flies, but this side valley was different than the other six districts of Panjshir as it is separated by a ridgeline from the main highway and lacks anything that resembles a road on the other side.
Each district is isolated in its own way, but this district is unique in that it is almost completely isolated from the main road, which starts as a two lane asphalt highway and runs north east the length of the province ending as a single lane dirt road in Paryan. It forks about half way up the province into Dara and runs through every district with the exception of Shutol. Only a sliver of territory that extends over the ridge, that plays host to the district center and an Afghan National Police Station, connects this district with the highway. And it is “Afghan” not “afghani”. Afghan is the descriptive term, like American or French, and afghani is a unit of currency like the dollar. It bothers me that people get this wrong. Probably more than it should, but to me such a detail is important. Getting it wrong suggests laziness or indifference, take your pick, and it seems that people would take a vested interest in the places they are sending their fighting men and women and a detail like that is important because you are describing what something is. To highlight this absurdity my word processor is insisting that I capitalize “afghani”; but I digress.
To get into the district we navigate a single lane road of countless switch backs that ascend the ridgeline. The road descends the ridge on the other side, but in the wrong direction from our objective, so once we reach the top of this mountain, we’re on foot. The view from the top is beautiful and revealing. Outside of the destroyed, soviet era anti-aircraft system- a vehicle that resembles a tank but with several smaller guns instead of a main gun as you think of with a main battle tank like the Abrams- you can see for miles up the main valley. The mountain sides are banded with green from copper deposits. There is little to no vegetation only the orchards around the villages and terraced plots of green in the cradle of the valley that hold winter wheat.
On the other side of the ridge is Shutol. A splinter of valley that runs north-north east, parallel to the main valley. You’re going to hear that word a lot, valley, the entire province sits in the Hindu-Kush, just like every other province in the north of Afghanistan. Each one is different; province and valley for that matter. The politics and demographics can change dramatically. Panjshir is unique from most all other provinces in Afghanistan. The former stronghold of the Northern-Alliance led by Mossoud, Panjshir and its people resisted not only the Taliban, but the Soviet occupation. This province is where the first American special operators infiltrated into Afghanistan after 9-11 and was an area with almost no coalition presence. In fact, our ragtag little team of 70 Airmen, Soldiers, and civilians was it, we were the coalition presence. We were there by invitation of the Governor of Panjshir, a somewhat heavy man, especially by Aghan standards, who drove a hummer. Not a HMMV, but a black hummer- I think it might have even been an H3. If anything, Afghanistan is a country filled with contradiction and disparity. Shutol is a poorer district, probably for any number of reasons: its relative isolation and non-existent transportation network or that it is the first district into Panjshir and probably endured the brunt of the violence during the Soviet occupation and subsequent Afghan civil war and Taliban takeover. Whatever the cause, the disparity is visible as we descend into the district. Highlighted by the mud huts and mountainside crimson with iron deposits.
The path to the valley floor is rugged but frequently traveled by locals and their goats and mules. It is wide and stable enough to 2 people to pass each other in most places, but not wide enough for two people to walk together. A small group of little boys, probably 8 to 10 years-old, in garb we affectionately refer to as “man-jamies” see us coming down the ridge and move to greet us and ask for pens. I don’t remember if we had any at the time or not but it was a typical situation where ever we went. Kids asking for pens, or “ko-lom”. Pens are a status symbol and indicate education and intellect. It still sticks with me how the “cool” kids are the smart ones. It seemed almost the opposite for me at that age. We were building them a 16 room school very nearby this village, less than a mile away, and directly into the hillside that faces to the north. An utterly useless plot, with little to no sunshine in the winter and requiring massive amounts of excavation. Co-located with and directly above an existing school that for a lack of a better way of putting it, had seen better days. The older school would become a girls’ school once the larger school was complete.
If we had pens we pass them out, if we didn’t we replied, “kolom na dolom”- at which point they lost most of their interest in us. To get to our objective we move on foot for about 10 kilometers, that’s about 6 miles, up the valley to an even smaller village in which our team had funded a small power plant. Point generation of electricity was and is a popular way to power these remote villages. The most popular and economical of these, in Panjshir at least, was the micro-hydro power plant. The concept is pretty straight forward; a generator is powered by dropping water down one or two penstocks that has been syphoned off up river into a canal. The canal runs along the valley wall and drops at lower rate than the river allowing a head to be created and that potential energy is harvested. A typical plant may produce anywhere from 30 to 120 kW depending on its design. For a point of reference, a typical American home requires 10 to 20kW, so a utility like this can prove to be a boon to a small to medium sized village. The project we were going to evaluate had been completed and required closeout so that we could pay the contractor, and as it was December, it needed to be done soon, before the snow hit.
That December day was cold and heavy with clouds that seemed ready to burst. As the trail reached the bottom of the gorge sounds were muted by the steady roar of the river. A tributary of the Panjshir River, it was swift but not exceptionally large and did not join with the Panjshir River until it was in the neighboring province of Parwan, home of Bagram AB. We cross a metal bridge to the north side of the river and find ourselves at the foot of a small village. Like most of the villages in the north, the homes were built into the hillside to leave the flatter areas for farming. But even then the ground was so uneven that fields were terraced into plots that averaged between one half and two acres. Stone and mud walls were dotted with window frames of varying colors, the only decoration that adorn these homes. Chickens wander about scratching for bugs in various piles of trash and brush. Don’t misunderstand me, the villages in Panjshir, really were not exceptionally dirty or clean. There was obviously the smell of manure and the acrid smell of smoke from a fire that was burning trash but not exceptionally well. There is a modest respect for their land and home that comes from having to scrape a living from the dirt and water, but nothing as enchanting as the spiritual connections told in Native American legends. As we move through the village, led by our interpreter Tiab, faces would appear and disappear. We are friendly, they are friendly. They say hello, and we say hello. It is, frankly, unremarkable, but still exciting. To be somewhere to foreign, and to be immersed in it, is always exciting to some degree regardless of the job at hand. The walk through the village is only about 200 yards, maybe less. We move east though the village and then north as the river turned and we found ourselves in an orchard. It was relatively small, and only about 100 yards long and 25 yards wide, and led us to the base of a rather impressive micro-hydro power plant that we were helping to repair. Two penstocks ascended a least 50 feet at an angle between 45 and 60 degrees from a generator house the held two 60 kW generators. Far more power than the small village we had passed through required, but enough to provide electricity to the villages just a little further downstream and closer to school we were building. An awkward stairway, with steps that were both too tall and irregular in spacing, rose between the penstocks to the settling tank at the top. It was a hell of a climb, especially for still being relatively new to the 5500 foot elevation.
So we climb, the eight of us, what seemed to be straight up with all of our crap strapped to our backs like the mules we had made ourselves with one hand always preoccupied with our rifles. A few try to sling their weapons, but with packs on and the steep angle of the climb encouraging you to lean into the hill and use your hands to assist with the climb, rifles would slide off their sides and slam into the stairs. Slamming your rifle into concrete and rock is a surefire way to do two things: throw your sights and piss off the First Sergeant. Everyone opts to carry their rifle after that brief experiment. At the top, we had one last heave to get onto the settling tank wall so that we could walk along the canal. The canal ran over a half mile upriver before meeting the water and measured about three feet deep and wide. An impressive feat considering that there was no road access. All of the materials to construct this project were either procured on-site or brought in on foot or by mule the same way we had just traveled. Moving along the canal made for an easier movement up river until we reached the head anyway, after that we resume our trek via a rocky and inconsistent path.
There really wasn’t any mud. Once we were away from the village, it was a chasm of jagged rocks, swift water, and hardly any vegetation. We follow the river as it winds north, encountering the occasional hamlet but nothing more. As we march, the sky grows darker and the air grows colder. We had made it another two kilometers, about a mile and a quarter, upriver when it started to snow. Not a light snow, it seemed the flakes were the size of quarters and it gave us some pause to the wisdom of continuing our mission.
Primeval doesn’t describe it. It was surreal. Rocks barren of any indication of life reached skyward all around us and faded into the white. The river’s low roar seemed endless. There nothing but rocks, snow, and the water.
A local emerges from around a bend heading down river. Taib talks to him, since we had stopped to figure out what was going on with the weather. The local and Taib exchange pleasantries and have a brief conversation while the TACSAT was set up so we could radio back to base. When they have finished talking, Taib came to me and said that the weather further north was very bad and suggests that we should not continue. I don’t remember if it was described this way at the time, but later I would summarize to the boss that we needed to turn back or we would be stuck in Shutol until March. Taib had an ear for sarcasm, so I wouldn’t put it past him to have been the one to say this first.
There are those that think that being in the military is like playing Call of Duty every day. While there is excitement and danger when you’re in the field doing the job so to speak. When you’re not you are usually actually playing Call of Duty… or Rock Band in our case. Daily encounters with first sergeants and sergeant majors, being harassed about reflective belts, and eye protection; it’s all part of the experience. So are problems with communications, they are not seamless. Or at least it appears that way. Today was one of those days. We try again and again to call back to our FOB using the TACSAT. Taib asks if I want him to check for a signal with his cell phone and within a minute our operations center knew we were on our way home. The irony of it all was comical and we joke about the event the entire walk back to our infill point: We had sat in that narrow gorge, surrounded by nothing but rock, trying to beam a signal to outer space, bounce it off a multi-million dollar satellite, and then beam it back down to our FOB to let them know that we were returning to base for what seemed to be a good fifteen minutes to no avail and in the end it was a $40 Nokia that saved the day.
This mission marked the beginning of my second deployment in Afghanistan. Nine months of driving, walking, and building, filled with frustration, pride, and sorrow. It is an experience that broke my spirit but in the end rebuilt it and ultimately changed me for the better.