Relief in Place

The maintenance of Empire amid the building of nations is a static undertaking. The boundaries have already been drawn, the land, people and resources have already been allocated, and for the most part, the rules of game have already been set. All there is to do is take over control of the territory, man the guard towers, patrol the cities, and own the high ground…definitely own the high ground…The Army’s term for the transition period between fighting, “landowning” units is known as Relief in Place/Transfer of Authority. It is a time when both the incoming and the outgoing unit come together on the piece of ground to be covered, sign over retarded amounts of Army property, conduct AARs and gain valuable local and cultural knowledge, and basically figure out how the game is going to be played for the next year. The outgoing unit is pretty much ready to get the hell out of town as quickly as possible while the incoming unit tries as hard as it can to figure out is head from its asshole before time runs out and its left alone owning a piece of ground in a foreign land in the middle of a warzone.
As with most things in my Army career, my RIP was a bit of a manageable SNAFU with a good amount of improvisation. After being stuck at superFOB Sharana for a bit longer than I would have liked, I was finally able to get to my new home at FOB Orgun-E after about twelve hours sitting at a helicopter landing zone waiting for some national guard unit to get their shit together and grow a pair of balls for flying in a few clouds. It wasn’t a bad experience, but I would have preferred to get a bit of sleep as when I got on ground in the afternoon I immediately found out that I would get waking up the next morning at 0130 to leave at 0400 for a combat logistics patrol (CLP) with the unit my platoon would be replacing as soon as the rest of my guys actually showed up. This really wasn’t too much of a problem as I expected to hit the ground running and I knew I would appreciate getting outside the wire a bit and seeing some of the country from the ground.
As far as exciting war stories, the CLP itself was entirely uneventful. We were traveling to resupply another FOB roughly 50km to our south and east closer to the AF-Pak border with North and South Waziristan. The trip there took roughly 9.5 hours thanks to mostly unimproved roads or wadis which stood in for roads and couple of our local national “jingle” trucks breaking down and needing to be repaired or towed en-route. As a whole though, I was really impressed with our jingle truck drivers and their ability to fix just about anything speaks volumes about third-world ingenuity and resourcefulness. For the most part, they are also a bunch of pretty cool guys and I hope to get the chance to drink a bit of tea with them on some of my future missions. The terrain we drove through was pretty amazing and it reminded me a lot of my time in the Middle Atlas of Morocco. The mountains aren’t very high in this area but the whole region sits at roughly 7,000ft above sea level giving the area a semi-arid desert foothill type landscape.
As far as the human terrain, it reminded me of just about any 3rd world country I have seen. The primary economic activity seemed to be subsistence agriculture along the wadi and there was the usual abundance of young children with essentially nothing to do other than run up to our convoy and ask for things. The outgoing unit had a bunch of small, solar-powered radios left over that we gave to some of the kids along the route. While they seemed to enjoy the free gifts a good part of me wonders whether they will end up using them to listen to Islamist propaganda coming from elements of the Taliban and other groups within Pakistan. While I haven’t listened to the local radio since I’ve been here and it wouldn’t do me any good since my Pashto is horrible at the moment, it is an interesting thing to consider.
For security, I really wasn’t very concerned and don’t really feel like my safety is in too much jeopardy on this trip. There is nothing really special about this region, even though it has historically been one of the most kinetic and violent in the country and the same rules of traveling in a warzone wearing a uniform apply…carry lots of ammunition, have bigger guns and be more proficient at using them than the people who will shoot at you, control the space around you, and keep alert and aware of the your environment, stay up to date on the latest threats and enemy tactics. Traveling near population centers also helps a lot as it is far less likely to meet a complex ambush around a lot of civilians. Regardless of how ruthless they are, the enemy has to deal with the human terrain as much as we do, and the same people who tip them off to our movements can also tip us off…or at least set us up with plenty of clues.
Upon arriving at the new FOB, we essentially moved into a holding pattern and bedded down for the night. Just after dark we were of course treated to a nice fireworks show as a couple of the neighboring combat outposts (COP) were taking contact near the border. There was also a bit of fire support action from the large artillery pieces on the FOB, but overall it was a relatively quiet night. The next morning we missed our 0400 start time for the return CLP due to weather issues so having already finished my book, I used the opportunity to talk a bit with my terp for the mission.
He had lived his entire life in Orgun district and had been a school principle before starting work as an interpreter about seven years ago (most of the Afghans who work with us seem to have started their employment around the same time at the beginning stages of the conflict). He had worked for colonels and a brigade staff before years before as well as different special forces groups but was now assigned to our base primary for our access control point. He explained that the primary problems with his country were meddling from Pakistan and Iran who both didn’t wish for Afghanistan to be a peaceful country as well as a lack of education aside from the madrassas and economic opportunity. He was also fearful about when the United States would pullout its troops in 2014 and hoped to move his family elsewhere as soon as that happened out of concern for both his employment and his safety.
A lot of the problems with this area are very regional and local at the same time. Sure, Pakistan has been involved in keeping Afghanistan far less than stable since essentially the nation itself was created, but at the same time, the question of whether or not the border really exists at all comes into play. The people around that FOB were all Waziris, a tribe which is primarily located in North and South Waziristan a few miles away across the border. Yet by some stroke of coincidence that happened over 100 years ago they were, at least nominally, Afghan citizens rather than Pakistanis (there are actually several different “versions” of the actual border line and a common trick for US is to use whichever is the most convenient for when we conduct airstrikes near the border). The lack of education in the area seems to be simply due to a lack of investment and a lack of anybody really caring. In a porous borderland where the only thing that matters is what can get across and where both legally and illegally infrastructure becomes a crucial issue. While the area itself is a decent candidate for putting in roads—and indeed there is talk of building one from Karachi through to Highway 1, the Afghan ring road, and thereby to all the major cities through that valley—there needs to be substantial investment to make that happen. This type of investment will not be done by men with guns who have traversed the area far too many times in recent memory, but by those brining books, construction tools, vehicles and repair parts, and all the necessary expertise required for the creation of infrastructure and the education and opportunity that comes with it. If these things are not provided, the place will simply remain just another “place in between” changing hands like it changes seasons between the Taliban, the various Haqqani and Waziri networks, GIRoA, the ISI and whoever else really cares about having “control” over any of it. Without investing in the future, we are bound to repeat the past.
Anyway, the trip back to Orgun was uneventful and I have spent the last 2 days going over the retarded amounts of Army property I will be signing for in a few days. By retarded, I mean like national debt crisis could be solved by getting rid of half of this shit as I have almost twice as many vehicles as I do people along with all the other crazy excessive tools necessary to raise my own private army. Whatever though, nobody said modern war was cheap or really even cost-effective
Cheers,
Brian
30 July 2011, 1000 AST, Orgun-E, Paktika, Afghanistan

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About briangdonnelly

I'm pretty much a random traveler and free thinker. Right now I live and work with the Army in North Carolina. I grew up in Missouri but am from the northeast US and have traveled a lot with the Army and life in general so I can't say I really have a "home" except where I chose to catch a few hours or rack each day. Overall, life is pretty awesome and I'm looking forward to changing the world. Hit me up if you care... Peace, Brian
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