By: Peter Sessum
So there I was, in a small village in Kandahar Province, no shit. We had just rolled up and the area was deserted. It is like when the gunfighter walks into that old western town and tumbleweed rolls by. This didn’t look right.
My security was a group of U.S. artillery soldiers. At the time, there was little need for artillery strikes so they were used in other roles. No offense to my cannon cocker buddies, but these guys sucked. Like many others they had decided that patrolling was for Infantry and didn’t pay much attention in school. This is why when we were dismounting off the trucks they were all jaw jacking and half stepping. Most of them were facing in and chatting instead of facing out and setting up security.
A military convoy can send up a decent dust cloud and they make some noise rolling into town. Someone should have seen us coming. This means they have plenty of time to be ready to greet us or set up an ambush. Kids are a good indicator, if the kids are around that is usually a sign that things are okay. The Taliban would often warn kids to stay away if there was going to be an attack. So no kids equal bad news and there were no kids to be seen.
My rifle is clipped into my gear and I could rest a hand on it without raising suspicion. Calmly, I switched my selector lever to semi and started scanning the tops of the mud walls. All I had to do was put some pressure with my right hand to swing my barrel up a little then support it with my left to bring the barrel up to engage targets. The Arty guys behind me were still shooting the shit and not paying attention.
A couple men emerged from around a corner and started walking towards up. Before they could get halfway to our group, a group of boys came running out to see the Americans. With no noticeable change to my demeanor I put my rifle back on safe and went over to greet the men.
That was how things would go for about six months of my tour. Five days a week we would go outside the wire and visit three villages a day. We would make a selection, based on need, of which village to visit on Thursday with a medical team to set up an aid clinic for the day. Friday was a day off.
We were a Psychological Operations (PSYOP) team combined with a Civil Affairs (CA) team. On the visit we would sit down with the village elders, drink tea and talk to them about their village. Most of the time was spent doing village assessments from both the PSYOP and CA angles. During those meetings we would have to be polite and respectful. We were trying to build rapport with the locals. But the entire time you would have to have a plan to kill everyone in the room.
This is based on self preservation not a desire to kill. It is about being ready in case something happens. The natural fight or flight response needs to be suppressed in Afghanistan. Flight will only get you killed. Running out of a mud hut into an unknown situation is not good. Even if you escape the room you are in, where are you going to go? You are still in the middle of the desert.
It is different back home. There is very little chance that someone is going to open a can of firefight in the weekly staff meeting. This just isn’t a common danger in the civilian world. In some situations, quietly laying on the floor is the best move if someone comes in with a gun. If you are not the specific target, just getting out of line of sight of a gunman is enough. In the case of a drive-by shooting, all you have to do is get behind cover. In some situation, if you have the ability, fighting back is the right response but all of that is taken on a case-by-case basis. In Afghanistan, no matter where you run or hide, you are still in Afghanistan.
So it isn’t about running or standing your ground, it is about securing the current situation. First, you secure the people in this room. Then you secure a route to your vehicles, then you secure the route back to base and then you are safe. Not everyone in the room has to literally die, but every threat has to be eliminated quickly.
First, you have to know what sector you are responsible for. Then you have to identify the threats in your sector and how you would deal with them and in what order. Every time things change in the room, a guy brings tea, someone joins or leaves the area, you have to recalculate. And you have to do this all while no one knows that you are plotting the option to kill them.
Some, like the CA officer might have the luxury of not having to think about such things. Knowing he has hard chargers in the room means that he has a couple extra seconds to respond. Or that he has a very narrow sector to cover, like only the village leader. Former Infantry guys have the largest sectors that often overlap with the career POG reservists.
Right about here is where the people that only skim have stopped reading and are getting all bent out of shape. They will argue that you can’t build trust if you are planning someone’s demise. And I could agree with that point. However, I truly respect the Afghan people. They have an exceptionally hard life and yet they persevere. I know that not all of them are Taliban and that most just want to go out their lives in peace. So when I talk to them, I genuinely want to earn their trust and respect. I also want to go home alive so I have a plan in case there is the odd asshole that wants to shoot me.
Sometimes, I wouldn’t sit in the village meeting and would conduct PSYOP product testing with the villagers or talk to farmers. Our guide, Sadiq, would with me and an interpreter and talk with a farmer about what was important to him. Sadiq would pull a knife off my gear and cut open a melon. We would sit and eat and talk. He would give the farmer some money for the melon. I was never allowed to pay because I was the guest.
One good thing about being outside was that I got to check on the security. As the psychological operations soldier from Seattle, I think the units I supported thought I was some tree hugging hippy. I used to stress cultural awareness and the importance of building rapport with the local populace. I even developed a cultural awareness brief and gave it to each company in the battalion. So I used to catch some flack about how being culturally aware might impact Rules of Engagement (ROE). I found an easy way to quell their concerns.
“My second round in the magazine is a tracer,” I would tell them. “It is because my first round will get your attention and if you follow the tracer you will know where to shoot. I will shoot first because I will know when things are wrong before you will and will react first when the bad guys make their move. Just follow my lead.”
I would have to explain that cultural awareness for me is to build rapport, for everyone else it is used to not piss off the locals and create more bad guys. It has no impact on ROE. Or to dumb it down, “You can still shoot bad guys.”
I will always have a lot of respect for the Afghan people. I have looked for work where I can do my part to make their lives a little better. There are many Afghans that I trust with my life. I was pretty successful at building rapport and bridging our two cultures. I always wanted to leave a meeting with a new friend. But God help me, if anyone tried anything so that I wouldn’t get to see my daughter again I was going to make them a martyr for their cause.