Monday, August 24, 2009
Helmand Province, Afghanistan
The British soldiers of 2 Rifles had a mission: clear and hold Pharmacy Road.
FOB Jackson is currently home to Battlegroup headquarters for 2 Rifles. The area around the river is called the “Green Zone,” but just as appropriately could be called the Opium Zone. During season, the area is covered with colorful poppies, whose 2009 products are probably showing up by now on the streets in Europe.
European money flows back here and buys fertilizer in the Sangin Market, which can be used to make bombs, produce more opium, get more money and make more bombs and grow more opium and make more money and bombs and grow more opium. Sangin is at once an ATM and weapons bazaar for the enemy. Nearly all fatalities in this unit have been caused by fertilizer bombs. The decision to mostly ignore the drug dealers has been a strategic blunder.
This mission was about tactical exigencies created by the strategic realities. Though FOB Jackson is small enough to walk from one end to another in a few minutes, it is the main base in Sangin, with smaller patrol bases spread around the Sangin area of operations. Two of those bases are Patrol Base (PB) Tangiers and PB Wishtan.
Tangiers is an Afghan National Army (ANA) PB often used by 2 Rifles, while PB Wishtan is manned by C Coy of 2 Rifles. (“Coy” is British for “Company.”)
From Jackson, one can often see or hear fighting related to Tangiers or Wishtan while tracers arc into the night, and illumination rounds cast long, flickering shadows as they float to Earth under parachutes.
Though PB Tangiers seems randomly named, PB Wishtan is named after the local area which the locals call Wishtan. The main resupply route from Jackson to PB Wishtan goes through the Sangin Market, past Tangiers, and west along the approximate 1 kilometer of Pharmacy Road through Wishtan to PB Wishtan.
British soldiers from 2 Rifles said they had sustained approximately twenty fatalities and injuries in the area. (More were killed and wounded in Sangin since this mission.) The situation is reminiscent of so many roads in Iraq, such as Route Irish, previously dubbed the most dangerous road in the world. The short stretch of Route Irish is situated between main bases in Baghdad.
Since we never had enough troops in Iraq, the route was difficult to secure despite that it was a short stretch with bustling military traffic nestled between huge bases. A lot of people were killed and maimed on that short stretch—I have little idea of the numbers of casualties on Irish—but the total must have reached at least the hundreds. Irish was eventually made far more secure by allocating substantial Iraqi and Coalition troops along with what must have been many millions of dollars’ worth of physical defenses, all augmented with frequent coverage from the air.
Despite that, car bombs, IEDs and small-arms attacks continued to occur on a less frequent basis. I’ve probably driven Irish a hundred times with no dramas, but it was never safe. Despite international infamy and the sharp political desire to secure at least one small stretch of road between main bases in Baghdad, Irish was never completely secured. Pharmacy Road in Wishtan is a small-town redux of Route Irish in Baghdad.
Pharmacy Road was effectively closed by enemy harrasment, including a blockage caused by two blown-up vehicles (a “jingo truck” and a British tractor). Resupply and troop movements were performed by helicopter, despite that a patrol could walk from Jackson to Wishtan in an hour, and straight driving would only take fifteen minutes. A bypass route was made with similar results. Captain Alexander Spry told me that Wishtan is like something from a Freddy Kreuger movie where bombs are planted in broad daylight and the enemy chisels small firing holes through the fifteen-foot walls and launches bullets down the tight spaces and alleyways.
The Afghan mud walls are so robust that the 30mm cannons from the air will not penetrate. Dropping a 500lb bomb into the middle of a compound will leave the walls standing. In Wishtan, our snipers are of little use because they can’t see or shoot through the walls, and there is no commanding terrain other than the air.
As with Route Irish and probably hundreds (thousands?) of other routes in Iraq and Afghanistan, routes cannot be secured without pinning substantial numbers of troops. Life is far easier for the guerrilla than for the counterguerrilla, just as arson is easier for arsonists than for firefighters.
With the shortage of helicopters in mind (and the fact that an RPG was recently fired at a helicopter as it lifted out of PB Wishtan), closure of Pharmacy Road increased enemy freedom of movement while decreasing our own. Though British forces continued to push into combat around Wishtan, battlegroup commander LtCol Rob Thomson wanted Pharmacy Road open.
Most of us tried to sleep the night before the mission, but there was much to do. At one point, perhaps half a dozen 81mm mortar illumination rounds from another base were shot straight over FOB Jackson. The empty casings, weighing perhaps 2lbs each, swooshed through the darkness, possibly at several hundred miles per hour, and thumped onto Jackson. (Terminal velocity varies from object to object.) One casing was heading toward a sergeant named Marty who runs Flight Ops. Marty hit the dirt and the casing landed just next to him.
For the rest of the report and some amazing images click here