Thursday, November 5, 2009

Street smarts

In an insurgency, when so much of the enemy's advantage lies in the element of surprise and its ability to hide among the populace, the power of perception and ability to 'sense' trouble become of the utmost importance. It's a skill we try to acquire in training, but some will always be better than others. I do believe awareness can be developed, and that the mind picks up on much more than we're consciously aware. Some days when we went out, just a few moments in the local area and we could feel that we're were going to receive some enemy 'attention' at some point. It's was not necessarily an absence of people or dirty looks that would alert us, just...something, and in time we learned to listen to those feelings.

At any rate, the ANA have their deficiencies, and they don't often bring their "A" game on patrols that have little chance of receiving enemy contact, but the ANA do have a way of doing well when it matters and knowing when to be their best. Much like how the ANA are deficient in formal education but are experts at reading people and making-do, what they lack in military tactics and proficiency they make up for with street smarts and ingenuity. I would not be surprised if patrols with ANA in them were more likely to discover an IED rather than get hit by one than Coalition-pure patrols.

I'd been in Afghanistan for months before I went on my first convoy. (This was by design...I hate riding around in a truck waiting to get blown up - being dismounted is not only a better way to interact with the local people but safer as well). Since we were going off the paved road, we had some trepidation of the dreaded IED, a fear which would turn out to be not at all unreasonable since we would shortly discover one. So on one cold February morning, off we went. Not knowing the area and mainly just being along for the ride, I got put up in the turret, which is generally not my favorite place to be in a humvee, especially when its 40 degrees, though the wind on your face can be invigorating.

I should mention that when a road in Kunar is unpaved, and the vast majority of them are (and probably all were unpaved before we arrived here some years ago), there's generally a very good reason for it to be unpaved; often the pre-existing dirt road has been narrowly hacked out of a steep hillside, not leaving enough width to make paving the road feasible in an engineering sense, given the realities of security and available resources. On the missions along those roads, an equally great threat along with the IED is the threat of driving off the road and ending up in the river 50 or more feet below. On missions out that way we more than once inadvertently got a chance to 'spread the democratic message' while we waited for another truck in the convoy to be recovered after having nearly driven off the road into the ravine.

We got some miles down the road before the convoy had to halt due to the presence of a large boulder in the middle of road. Now, we knew we'd had some rain in the area, winter being the rainy season in Kunar, which can always potentially lead to rockslides and boulders in the road, but this particular boulder looked rather well placed so as to stop our larger vehicles, and yet allow for the local hi-luxes to pass unimpeded. By the time our vehicle, which was somewhere in the middle of a 10-vehicle convoy, had come to a halt, the ANA vehicle in front had already dismounted its soldiers, one of whom nearly immediately started pulling buried detonation cord out of the road and began following it toward the river below. The ANA can be fearless indeed.

We set up security around the site, detained a few suspicious-looking folks in the area, and waited some hours for Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) to show up. In the end, EOD found quite a fair amount of explosives buried in the road, and disposed of them in the usual way by, well, blowing them up.

1 comment:

James Gundun said...

Sounds like the ANA has what Napoleon called coup de oeil militaire, the ability to take in a military situation at a glance. It definitely makes sense for Afghans to make up their technical shortcomings with honed intangibles, they've always been adept survivors. Do you think you benefited as much from Afghans as they do from you and other ETT's? Would be nice if their street sense rubbed off on us.