On the Roads

A "controlled detonation" of an IED in Khowst province.

From Khowst a few days ago came a report that a family of Afghans had been shot by US forces because their car had come too close to an American convoy. These situations are tough calls for the gunners in American trucks. Khowst drivers know to pull over when military vehicles approach, but it’s that one out of 1000 that inexplicably keeps coming that forces gunners to make split-second decisions whether to shoot. No one wants innocent civilians to get hurt, but VBIEDS—vehicle-borne-improvised-explosive-devices—are real dangers. Gunners wave arms, brandish weapons, sound airhorns, and fire warning shots. Usually the oncoming car will swerve to a halt, but not always.

Many vehicle movements—what we called “ConOps,” for “convoy operations” or MCPs, for “mounted combat patrols”— bring unexpected delays. A truck breaks down or slides off the road. An accident happens, or we come upon something that needs investigating–such as an IED. Unforeseen stops are never welcome breaks from the routine, but moments of heightened tension, because our stationary trucks and exposed personnel make us vulnerable to enemy attacks. The SOP calls for the front and lead vehicles to block traffic in both directions while gunners scan their sectors. Higher headquarters are notified and, if possible, we get helicopters overhead to cover us.  As few personnel as necessary dismount to resolve whatever problem has arisen. Matters are taken care of quickly, and everyone is glad when when the patrol is underway again.

One time, one of our trucks was pulling a trailer full of mail we had picked up. A package jostled loose and fell into the road, where a teenage boy grabbed it and scurried into a nearby kalat. Our package was now behind a locked gate and twelve feet high, three foot thick walls.  I asked my interpreter to see what he could do. After wrangling with some local bystanders, he gained admittance to the kalat. Ten long minutes later he emerged, package in hand. He reported that a woman inside had denied knowledge of anything. After pushing past her into an interior room, he had found the piece of mail sitting on a desk.

Poke around the videos at the following link until you find one titled “Tire Change.” Though filmed in Iraq, it accurately portrays the prevailing actions and mood when a vehicle breaks down in “bad guy country.”

http://video.nytimes.com/video/playlist/world/at-war/1247464062592/index.html

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