A Brutal Siesta


ARGHANDAB -- The Afghan National Army has small bases in Arghandab, just outside Kandahar, and a handful of armored vehicles have assembled outside the gates of one. In the distance to the north is a modest range of mountains, and in the south is a dry, flat empty plain. We are planning an early-morning departure for Kharkiz, but in the meantime the soldiers have promised me an afternoon of the hottest and most unpleasant down-time I can imagine.

It is a truism of military life that you spend 90 percent of your time waiting, killing time, and preparing or practicing for events that never happen. Here, we set up tarps and camouflage netting and stretch them between vehicles, and plant cots on the ground and try to ignore the afternoon heat by sleeping through it. I strip down to shorts and an undershirt and sweat through them in minutes.

It would be easier to sleep away the heat if there were not a firefight going on about a mile away. The Taliban monitor Afghan army installations, and when units leave their gates, as one has to join our operation, the Taliban hit the depleted bases hard. As usual, the Taliban have small arms (AK-47s, PKMs) and rocket-propelled grenades. But they attack from too far away to kill reliably. Muffled booms and puffs of dust indicate where mortars are falling, and over the radio I hear descriptions in French and English from NATO forces who have gone to assist.

The linguistic relationship of the French Canadians and their US and Afghan partners is rarely an obstacle, but is sometimes amusing to observe. At one point the radio says in rapid French that "the base is being attacked by multiple fighters on motorcycles, with small arms and supporting mortar fire." The translation for non-Canadians says in a thick Quebec accent that "the strong point is being attacked by..." -- and here there is a three-beat pause -- "the enemy."

Sticker in a (French) Canadian Light Armoured Vehicle

Sticker in a Canadian LAV.

In this war, distance plays tricks on the mind. In trained hands, modern weapons can pick off a parrot on a man's shoulder from a mile away without disturbing the man's ability to enjoy his evening cocktail. But the Taliban's weapons are neither modern nor in trained hands: an AK-47 isn't effective outside of a few hundred meters. So instead of worrying about the fight, most of us on this operation have retreated to the cots arrayed on the dirt next to our vehicles. The vehicles provide shelter from stray rounds, and more importantly from the sun. Within a few minutes the snoring has drowned out sound of the fighting, and within a few more minutes some of the snoring is my own.

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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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