38 days and 10 years in Afghanistan
By Erik de Castro
As I write this blog, I am on the 38th day of my current assignment to Afghanistan as an embedded journalist with U.S. military forces. I have been assigned here several times since 2001 to cover the war that is still going on 10 years after the al Qaeda attack on U.S. soil. Mullah Omar, popularly known as the one-eyed Taliban, was the first member of the Taliban I met back in 2001. He held press conferences almost daily at the Afghan embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan a few weeks before U.S. forces and its allies attacked Afghanistan to remove the Taliban government.
Ten years and several trips back to Afghanistan later, I still haven’t seen a lot of Taliban fighters. My present assignment is the time I’ve experienced the most encounters between the combined U.S. and Afghan forces and the Taliban.
It is remarkable how the Afghan soldiers and Taliban fighters are more aggressive now. The insurgents, though they know their artillery is no match to that of the Americans, are daring enough to attack at every opportunity, be it with small arms, RPGs or, on occasions, IEDs and rockets. Most of the time, it is a “hit and run” kind of attack wherein they flee after firing some shots. Such eagerness, however, could cost lives.
In Kunar province last week, U.S. and Afghan military engaged insurgents near Combat Pirtle King close to the Pakistan border. I saw Afghan soldiers unloading from the back of their armored vehicle the bodies of two Taliban fighters killed in the encounter. They also captured a wounded insurgent. The Taliban fighters looked barely out of their teens, had unkept long hair and beard, giving the impression that they have been in the mountains for some time.
Afghan soldiers from the joint U.S.-Afghan forces also show the same boldness although their moves are more calculated. On one of our patrols, we saw a white Taliban flag mounted on top of a hill in an area that is known to be a Taliban stronghold. Without hesitation, Afghan soldiers went up the hill to seize the flag as U.S. soldiers watched their backs. There was a fire fight but it was brief as the Taliban immediately fled on motorcycles.
“Afghan soldiers are good fighters, they are very brave that sometimes I have to tell them to stop pursuing the enemies. They always want to be on the front line. They have so much hate for the Taliban,” an Army officer said.
Not just the Afghan soldiers hate the Taliban. In one of the meetings between U.S. soldiers and residents in a village overlooking a valley where Taliban fighters frequently mount their attacks, a teenage boy came out of one of the bunkers made of sandbags and showed the soldiers an AK-47 rifle. Speaking in the local dialect, a village elder told an army officer “This (the firearm) is the only one we have here. I bought this for 6,000 Pakistani rupees (about $150). I sold a cow to buy this rifle.” And then he pleaded, “Please give us more like this and we will help you fight them (Taliban).” When an officer asked what they want in return if they fight the Taliban, the old man said, “Just help us repair our well, or build us another one,” referring to a well which is the source of their daily supply of water for drinking and farm irrigation.
When troops conduct patrols and gather biometrics of the males, they sometimes talk to villagers. People act and speak like things are normal. Perhaps because 10 years of war is already so long that it has become their “normal” way of life. They just carry on with their daily chores, not minding the presence of soldiers and the sight of firearms. All they care about now are life’s very basic essentials such as clean toilets, water supply and electricity.
(Click here to view a selection of iconic images by Reuters photographers from the war in Afghanistan)