An Even Shorter Walk in the Hindu Kush

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KHAKRIZ -- I mentioned recently that the Taliban call the headquarters of Hajji Muhammad Abdul Wahhab, the Khakriz district leader, "the Toilet." One reason the headquarters deserve that nickname is for their filth and disarray. But the more sinister reason is because the Taliban fires shots down into it, and little comes back. The Taliban firing points lie mostly in the mountains to the west, which are honeycombed with caves and compounds and are too dangerous to patrol regularly with the meager resources of Hajji Muhammad's police. So the Taliban has been flushing rockets and small arms fire into the compound with impunity for months, and claiming a casualty from among the Afghan security forces there with every few shakes of the handle.

Hajji Muhammad Abd al Wahhab

District leader Hajji Muhammad.

Today, though, Capt. Sean Wilson and a crew of fewer than a dozen Canadian soldiers are bringing enough firepower and experience to make a trip up the mountain if possible. We leave from the valley floor, again at dawn, and ascend a footpath above a village ten minutes away. (Nearly every patrol or raid I have ever accompanied has begun at dawn, to take advantage of the cool. Has the Taliban not noticed the timing, and made sure to absent then?) Wilson's unit trains Afghan soldiers, so we travel with a group of a few dozen Afghan soldiers, led by a captain from Arghandab.

Numerous journalists in Afghanistan, in reports dating from long before the current unpleasantness, have remarked on Afghans' yak-like ability to scamper over mountains and leave foreign companions breathless behind them. A group of Pathans reduced me to a wheezing mess in 2001 on the Afghan-Pakistani border, and shouldered my backpack in hopes that I would quit lagging. Life in the mountains, and at high altitude, has prepared them for hikes like this. I asked them how they all came to be such good hikers, and they rolled their eyes as if to say that to them, the question phrased itself differently: Why are you foreigners all so out of shape?

I am surprised, then, on this trip to be at least as spry and caprine as the Afghan soldiers -- despite being flabbier than eight years ago, and now laden with a bulky rifle vest and a helmet that looks and feels like a bowling ball with its center scooped out to make room for my cranium. The Afghans sweat, just as I do, and they take regular breaks, lounging on mountainside rocks in full view of the village below, as well as any Taliban up the mountainside who might be watching. They take off boots and rub their feet, and they grouse a little when told to keep walking.

Flock of Seagulls (Afghan National Police version)

What is it about donning a uniform that turns Afghans from robust fighters to last-round picks in high-school gym class? I should be cautious about drawing conclusions: perhaps these soldiers are all lowlanders, or anemic. But it does cross my mind that their tiredness is yet another instance of initiative and discipline, killed off by inclusion in the government. It is ultimately a reflection of motivation.

I am afraid the Afghans' performance today reveals strange and worrisome motivations indeed. Warrant Officer Guillaume Ouellet has led an advance team to the top of the mountain to secure the area before the main group closes in to sweep caves and houses. When my secondary group arrives (on the way up, we were passed by many gray-bearded farmers and their mules -- so much for surprise), Ouellet is already furious at the Afghan soldiers. Instead of securing the area, they have gone to the villages and liberated watermelons from the few residents present. Some soldiers have the bleary eyes and empty grins of addicts, and only a few of them, the ones Ouellet and Wilson trained in previous months, look competent to handle loaded weapons.

Afghan civilian walks past resting Afghan National Army soldier

Afghan National Army and Canadian Forces in mountains above Darvishan village, Khakriz, Afghanistan

The breaking point comes when Ouellet sees the Afghans' officer sip water from Wilson's translator's CamelBak canteen. Ouellet swats away the officer's hand and tells the translator never to let someone else drink his water -- particularly not someone like the Afghan captain, who for some reason brought no water of his own for a projected five-hour hike in the Afghan summer. The captain is furious. He gets Wilson and tells him, officer to officer, that Canadian NCOs should not speak to him again, and that Ouellet is out of line. Ouellet does not back down: "I am responsible for this man's life," he says. "If he doesn't have water, that is my problem."

Afghan National Army soldiers look out over cave-clearing operations

From that moment onward, coordination between the two teams breaks down entirely, and Wilson wisely decides to return to the valley floor, having searched just a few caves and found no evidence of Taliban activity whatsoever. The Afghans hustle down the mountain with little regard to tactical movement or considerations of how not to leave parts of their team separated and vulnerable to attack. Wilson's group moves cautiously, and when the whole team gets to the bottom, it sits in the shade by a stream. The ranking Afghan officer naps on his back, and Wilson speaks softly with a junior Afghan officer more open to instruction than his superior.

As usual, there are up sides to the day's excursion: the Taliban knows that the mountain is a location to which the Afghan army will periodically deny them access, and the Canadians have eyes on a new place. But overall, today's operations looks like an acrimonious hike, with more drama about blisters and canteens than about the Taliban.

Afghan captain and Warrant Officer Guillaume "Ti-Will" Ouellet.

Afghan soldier observes cave-clearing operations below.

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

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