By Peter Sessum
So there I was, in Afghanistan, no shit. We were on a mission in the middle of nowhere. Normally, it can be nice to watch the sun rise, but being up since 0200 made it difficult to enjoy the waking of the day.
Butters and I were the PSYOP support but we didn’t have the speaker truck to broadcast a non-interference message we only had the manpack speakers to use. After walking all night, a company of Afghan soldiers and their Special Forces trainers had surrounded the village and we alerted the sleeping village to the presence of Coalition forces. Not that it was a lot of us, mostly Afghans.
After broadcasting our message, we took up a position to cover our sector. Like many missions, this one would ebb and flow. With the village secure, there wasn’t much going on. All we could see were mud walls and the random Afghan walking across our field of fire to the mosque compound. SF keep the mission chatter to a minimum so there wasn’t much to do but reflect on the mission plan.
It was still stupid we agreed. The plan was to secure the village, round everyone up and take every male between the ages of 15 and 50 back to the FOB for questioning. Me and Butters were sitting in on a mission briefing. We were the PSYOP support for Special Forces on a FOB in the middle of nowhere. This was right around the elections so things were interesting. I have been in mission briefings literally all over the world, but this one take the cake.
Usually the objective is clear. It can be anything from a mounted patrol to a complex helicopter inserted mission to grab a High Value Target (HVT) with coordinated air support. This one was simple, go into the village and take every male 15-50 and bring them back for questioning. We would transport them in a large vehicle, like a dump truck, back to the base and try to gather intel on a suspected bad guy that might be somewhere in the area.
If your first thought is that this is stupid, you are right. This violates every rule of capturing and questioning individuals. I am not talking about a newly developed tactic, I am talking about Roger’s Rangers standing orders number five from 1759. Even he says to separate your prisoners so they can’t “cook up a story between ‘em.” Putting a bunch of guys in the back of a truck for an hour long ride doesn’t seem like a good idea. Being good soldiers, we said as much, tactfully of course. After all, if you don’t have a long tab, you are just a guest on a Special Forces camp.
Fortunately, PSYOP is more than just additional guns with a big speaker, we are cultural experts. We bring up that if there isn’t specific intel we are looking for, this won’t make us popular with the locals. There was enemy activity in the area, but nothing solid enough to warrant putting people in custody. We tried to explain that with an hour long ride, anyone that was dirty would have plenty of time to get their stories straight.
I have had a number of conversations with civilians that seem to think service members are a bunch of mindless troopers and that we had to obey every order without question. This is not the case. It is the duty of a good soldier to raise mission concerns with the chain of command and it is the responsibility of every leader to listen to reasonable inquiries. If the orders are unlawful, military members are expected to defy them. Saying you were just following orders will not get you out of a war crime. It didn’t work for the Nazis, it won’t work for us.
As it was, the mission was just stupid and not illegal. We raised our concerns but the captain was determined to continue so we shrugged and went along. After all, you don’t have to like it you just have to do it. Typically, we think of Special Forces (SF) as being pretty squared away. They are called the “quiet professionals” for a reason and don’t have the douchebag attitudes of other operators or Special Operations Forces (SOF). But I suppose no one bats 1,000 so there was bound to be an SF team that did something stupid.
I must admit, I felt like a dick for waking the people up. Butters and I held our position for a while and listened to the radio traffic. There was some chatter that Tony and CJ were guarding an ever increasing population of Afghan males in a confined space. We were tracking everyone’s movements are realized that the cordon perimeter had tightened past our position and could make the move to support them.
I had never heard anyone agree so quickly to an offer of assistance. I drove the vehicle to an overwatch position where we could see over the compound wall and cover avenues of approach. When I dismounted to check on our guys I saw the problem. There were three Americans in an enclosed compound with about 75 Afghans. If they chose to make a move, the guys couldn’t have stopped them all. Unfortunately, we only brought two more so the odds were not that much improved.
Tactical plans are about what works so I came up with the plan that if the Afghans started to rush them, the guys should put their backs against the far wall and Butters would open up with M240 and create a wall of bullets. Anyone that made it though that should be taken one-by-one. Fortunately, that did not become necessary.
While the SF and ASF secured the village we did camera investigation. This was before all the biometrics so this at least got some pictures of guys on file. Plus, bad guys can sometimes reveal themselves if you start talking amongst yourselves while looking at the image. It is subtle, but effective.
Finally, after spending far too much time in the village, we headed for the FOB with a number of young men in the back of a large truck. About halfway back, the convoy stopped. We got word that another team was in contact so the SF guys left to help while the rest of us escorted the villagers back to base.
The only upside was that I had plenty of time to catch up on sleep when I got back. It was later learned that the guy they were looking for might have been in the village but if he had, he wore a burka and hid with the women. Since there were no women with us on the base, the Afghan females couldn’t be searched so anyone that wanted to hide just hid with the women.
I had brought up the idea of bringing MP females along because this was a Taliban tactic but was shot down about that one too. Some villagers were put out for a day or so but not treated as prisoners. They were also compensated for the hassle. No one got hurt and we only lost some sleep and gas. Now, wherever we talk about the dump truck mission we roll our eyes and are thankful that was the only pointless mission I did with the SF.