The Death of Hekmatullah

In January 2009, insurgents started hitting Camp Clark with accurate 107mm rocket fire. One night, a rocket blew a hole the size of a garbage can lid in the concrete wall of our mess hall.  Thank goodness it was empty at the time, because anyone inside would certainly have been killed.  A few nights later, a second rocket smashed into one of our barracks.  Again, we were lucky.  The building, which had just been completed, was not yet occupied.

We could not be passive in the face of attacks, or they would continue and our luck would not.  Unfortunately, the ANA with whom we lived possessed an inshallah attitude about rockets and mortars.  Even though they were being hit, too, and had already suffered casualties, they considered such attacks more of a nuisance than a threat.  The big American unit in Khowst was quick to provide artillery counter-battery fire or helicopter overwatch, which was great.  But they were too busy with their own operations to worry much about securing us.   

We began to patrol outside our perimeter either mounted or dismounted several nights a week. The insurgents usually fired at us from the vicinity of Shimbowat, located two miles to our north, so that is where we concentrated our efforts.

We called this collection of kalats "TIC City" (TIC = Troops in Contact) after we got into a gunbattle with insurgents here.

Over the next six months, we covered every inch of the fields, hills and wadis around Shimbowat.  We also talked endlessly with the locals.  They always claimed to know nothing, or asserted that the rocket-men came from other villages under the cover of night to launch their attacks.  We endured more rockets and mortars, but we were never again subject to direct hits.   Was it because of the patrols?  Who knows? 

Early on, though, a foot patrol comprised of American and Afghan soldiers caught two men in the act of building an IED.  Working late at night by lantern, the troublemakers had dug up their bomb-making materials and were taping together two Italian anti-tank mines when the patrol discovered them.  In the shoot-out that followed, we killed one of the bomb makers, a Shimbowat resident named Hekmatullah.  We later learned that the insurgent who escaped was a leader in the local Taliban hierarchy named Fasil Subhan.  Killing Hekmatullah was good, killing or capturing Fasil Subhan would have been even better, but either way it was still a big night for us.

The soldiers who shot Hekmatullah fired from where the people in this picture are standing.

The next morning twenty Shimbowat elders came to visit General Ezrar, the ANA commander whom I advised.  Some of the delegation were relatives of Hekmatullah and were both mad and sad.  Others were more sanguine.  Perhaps not Taliban sympathizers, they saw the affair as just one more event in the ongoing relationship between the town and the camp.  For over two hours we talked, with me the only American in the room.  When I spoke, I asked them what did they expect?  We were soldiers and we would not put up with attacks launched in our own backyard.  We had nothing to apologize for; we had caught Fasil Subhan and Hekmatullah red-handed devising ways to kill us. 

The next time we patrolled Shimbowat we came upon Hekmatullah’s grave.  It was festooned with plastic flowers and ribbons that indicated the residents had given him a hero’s farewell.  The ANA soldiers with us tore down the colorful decorations.  This tells you all you need to know about the people we are dealing with, they said.

Hekmatullah's grave.

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12 Responses to “The Death of Hekmatullah”

  1. Chris Brown Says:

    Hey Pete,

    I can’t help but compare your report to war movies. It’s hard to imagine most war movies even acknowledging that it might take six months to respond to attacks. Half a year detracts from the drama.

    Your ambivalence about your efforts (i.e., “Was it because of the patrols? Who knows?”) was equally unexpected. I imagine that a military spokesperson would un-ambivalently give the army credit for putting a stop to the direct hits!

    Best,
    Chris

  2. Peter Molin Says:

    The post is one small chapter in a long story. We did lots of things to establish security and mitigate risk other than stomping around in the dark trying to find bad guys, but long-term success was and is so hard to measure. Lots of ambivalence involved–clear wins were few and far between. Shortly after I left Camp Clark, the ANA wiped out an insurgent mortar squad (eight men) with one well-placed artillery round. That was cause for high-fives, but the enemy didn’t usually make themselves so available.

    Have you read Melville’s Benito Cereno? An American ship captain boards a second ship, on which a mutiny has taken place but which the mutineers attempt to conceal. The story depicts the captain’s confusion trying to decode the strange behavior on-board the ship, where nothing is as it seems. Lots of parallels there to what it’s like to operate in Afghanistan. When I left Camp Clark after eight months, I was just beginning to be sure of my judgments.

  3. Chris Brown Says:

    Hey Pete,

    If I had to pick the top five works that I read for coursework leading to my Masters, Benito Cereno would be somewhere in that list! The comparison is illuminating and must have been rather disconcerting to live through.

    Best,
    Chris

  4. JM Says:

    Pete,

    I just finished a book called Afganistan the Soviet Vietnam. It was written and published in the mid 1980s by a guy who served in the Soviet army as a minesweeper. In it he talks about the mines he called “an Italian”. He was also a photographer (pre digital), and had a photo of him with an Italian.

    He also talks about the dooshmen (who the translator of that book spelled dushmen). He said that dooshmen means bandits, but in what language wasn’t too clear.

    There was a block party at the San Diego Padres homeopener last week. A local National Guard unit of mps were there. They had about 5 Humvees with them. As I was standing there looking at the different staps and stuff hanging off of them one of the troopers came up to talk. I asked if he knew how to do a “combat snatch and grab.” He never did tell me.

  5. petermolin Says:

    Yes, “dooshmen” or “dushmen” means bandit, as far as I can tell. It was the most common way for the ANA to refer to bad men with guns, although I heard them use the word “Taliban” a lot, too. Italian mines were just one of a number of options insurgents had for IED-making materiel. The most common we saw was “HME”–homemade explosives–which looked like big round cheeses from Switzerland with blasting caps and wires projecting, or came packed in plastic buckets like Play-do.

    I guess I’ve never revealed the secret of the “combat snatch and grab.” I’ll get to that shortly.

  6. JM Says:

    Pete,

    No, you already did. I was just asking that guy because I was looking at the straps on the Humvees. I’ve been noticing that in most of the Humvees in pictures actually do have the strap snaking diagonally across the hood.

  7. h Says:

    iam just telling you what ‘dooshman’ means in afghanistan it means enemy. It could be enemy of your life or your mony.

    • petermolin Says:

      Thanks, Hedayat. I’m sure you remember this long night and the following day very well, as I do. Do you know if the Americans and ANA ever captured or killed Fasil Subhan?

  8. h Says:

    sir that night Fasil subhan got injured and he went to Pakistan and for a while he did not come back because his family was there and i never heard anything about him more then this until i was there.

    • petermolin Says:

      Thanks, Hedayat. Glad to hear we chased him away for good. Lots of other Taliban left in Shimbowat though, I’m sure.

  9. h Says:

    sir that night Fasil subhan got injured and he went to Pakistan and for a while he did not come back because his family was there and i never heard anything about him more then this until i was there. And i do remember it very well.

  10. Peter Molin Says:

    Thanks again Hadayat!

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