Back in Afghanistan, ten years later
By Erik de Castro
Ten years ago I was part of the three-member Reuters multimedia team that went to Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. We covered the pursuit for Osama Bin Laden and his Taliban followers, who were believed to be holed up in the caves of the Tora Bora mountains, by US military special forces fighting alongside the Afghan Mujaheedin. Nobody from the press saw Osama. Instead about a dozen Taliban captured from the caves were presented to the media in Tora Bora.
As we passed the Afghan border on the road to Jalalabad following a long journey from Islamabad, Pakistan, I remember the precautions our security adviser told us: If ever we are stopped by armed men along the way, stay calm and just hand over our U.S. dollars. Weeks earlier, two Reuters colleagues (a TV cameraman and a photographer) and two other European journalists traveling with a convoy of media vehicles were killed by bandits on the same road.
Ten years after 9/11, I was back in Jalalabad as an embedded photojournalist with the U.S. military forces. I was attached to Task Force Bronco covering eastern Afghanistan. During the first week of my embed with different units, I joined the soldiers as they met with Afghan police officers and local government leaders, patrolling for hours, day and night searches for arms caches, and looking for members of the Taliban.
During patrols, local residents would smile at and greet the soldiers. Children swarmed them asking for pens, candies and one dollar bills.
On one patrol, young Afghan teenage boys crowded around a female soldier until the men in her platoon shooed them away.
The second week of my embed, with a unit from “The Wolfhounds” in Bari Alai, was an entirely different picture. While the soldiers from Task force Bronco were warmly received by the locals, the soldiers in Bari Alai could not get near the villages. Their camp was situated on a mountain ridge in Kunar province overlooking at least five villages and the eastern road to Pakistan. In 2009, the camp was overran by about 100 members of the Taliban, who killed eight coalition troops, including three U.S. soldiers, and captured 11 Afghan soldiers.
For five days, I experienced spartan living with the soldiers in Bari Alai, where the only things you would consider luxuries were the Internet connection and a flat screen television. While I was there, the base was attacked by Taliban every other day. I witnessed how the U.S. soldiers engaged their enemy.
On my first day with the unit, U.S. forces from the nearby Forward Operating Base (FOB) Bostic fired 155mm howitzers at the Taliban position. As I heard the loud explosions, I saw a big column of smoke across the mountain from our bunker. Moments later, loud staccato machine gun fire emanated from the mountains and an exchange of gunfire followed. I took various positions near the American soldiers to take pictures amid the deafening machine gun fire, grenade and mortar explosions. It went on for about half an hour.
A more intense gun battle ensued on the third day. I was awakened by early morning gunfire, and again grabbing my cameras I followed the soldiers as they ran to to their battle positions. This time, they used more force; Tow missile launchers, mortars, jet fighters and assault helicopters. I saw bullets fired by the Taliban barely miss the head of a U.S. Army sniper. The battle lasted almost two hours and then things were back to normal at the camp.
On the days that were quiet, I photographed soldiers going about their daily life at the camp. “It’s normal for my unit to get contact with the enemy on an almost daily basis. The Taliban don’t get tired of firing their PK (machinegun) and RPGs at us,” said Lieutenant Steve Rizley, the commanding officer. He pointed out a white flag in one of the villages, indicating the presence of Taliban in the area, as he and three other soldiers side by side scanned the villages with their binoculars.
When I looked at the villages through my long lens, I couldn’t help but recall the same mud houses in similar looking villages in the Tora Bora mountains 10 years ago. Nothing has changed and it is hard to imagine progress and peace taking place even in another 10 years from now.