Afghanistan in 2002: Not Much War, But Plenty of Hell

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There are about 4,000 soldiers based at Kandahar Airfield, as well as an additional 1,000 coalition soldiers, most of them Canadian. The three-square-mile encampment at the base, seized from Taliban control last year, is the one piece of land in southeastern Afghanistan the United States controls absolutely. The barbed-wire perimeter is heavily fortified with machine-gun nests, bunkers and guard towers. Of all the personnel stationed here, less than 1,000 are actual infantry soldiers. The rest serve various support roles — truck drivers, computer technicians, inventory accountants — and this is the only Afghan soil they will ever set foot on.

In the six months since the Americans took over, Kandahar Airfield has gone from a mine-strewn ruin to a makeshift thriving city. Life inside the wire has its own peculiar rhythms. Americans at the camp inhabit their own time zone — the Pentagon's worldwide standard, known as Zulu Time, which is four and one-half hours behind local time, meaning dawn breaks at about 12:30 A.M.

At this hour, the bombs usually start going off as part of the work done by the ordnance removal teams, and you begin to see early morning fitness nuts jogging, toting grenade launchers and pistols everyone is required to carry their weapons at all times. By 4 A.M. Zulu, the local Afghan workers show up, including a team of former mercenaries supplied by the local warlord, who tend the old rose garden outside the terminal while armed guards keep a watchful eye, lest one decide to hide a bomb in bushes. All day long, huge C-130 and C-17 transport planes disgorge steel shipping containers and mountains of supplies. (It takes two daily C-130 flights alone to keep the PX stocked with items like chips and salsa, Eminem CDs and thousands of cans of warm soda.) At two in the afternoon, when the sun starts to set in Zulu Time, officers hack golf balls at a primitive driving range built on the threshold of an old minefield. At about three in the afternoon Zulu, soldiers begin to crowd the "morale, welfare, recreation" (MWR) tents to phone home and watch the shows The West Wing and Fear Factor on big-screen TVs. Then, at about 6 P.M. Zulu, they hit their tents, where they are rocked to sleep by the thunder of mortar barrages from night maneuvers on the near practice range.

Despite efforts to offer the comforts of home, life at the camp is mighty unpleasant. The food is awful — a combination of premanufactured T-rations and MREs (meals ready to eat). Temperatures inside the tents hit 130 degrees in the day, the portajohns are foul and beastly hot, dust sifts into clothes and sleeping bags, and showers are available for only limited use. Add to that constant bouts of dysentery and the ever-present threat of rocket attacks — none successful so far — and you can understand why the soldiers have bitterly dubbed the post "Ass-Crack-istan."

Among the stringencies the soldiers complain about most is General Order Number One, which bans possession or consumption of alcoholic beverages by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. "There's a way around everything," says one enlisted soldier. "Some of the guys like to huff," he says, referring to the tried-and-true brain-frying high of sniffing inhalants. "I was against it at first, but we got a good high from Glade."

Sexual relations are banned on the base, but stories of forbidden conduct abound. In April, an Apache attack-helicopter crew, monitoring the camp through night-vision equipment, picked up a couple having sex in a vehicle. And several women have been flown home after it was discovered they were pregnant. Assignations are not unknown at a place dubbed "Terrorist Terrace" — a blown-up bunker at the south end of the airfield. "I hooked up with an enlisted girl at the MWR tent," says a young officer. "We borrowed a Humvee and drove out to Terrorist Terrace. We'd never met before. We talked for a few minutes, and I said, 'Listen, do you want to fuck?' And she said, 'Um, OK.' When I came back and laid down in my tent with her gunk all over my dick, I knew I had done a bad thing. Then I thought, 'I can't believe it. I just got laid in Afghanistan.'"

The Fifth Platoon go by a roguish call sign. Over the radio they are the Hell Hounds of the Tank Killer Company Wolf Pack, or Wolf Pack Five for short. But, gathering in their tent in the final hour before their patrol, they look more like a small town baseball team than combat soldiers. The youngest is nineteen, and most of the rest are in their early twenties. The oldest, Platoon Sgt. Patrick Keough, is a thirty-six-year-old father of two. Despite the mad tattoos many display on their backs and arms, the bunch still give the impression of hometown innocence — one that is reinforced by frequent proclamations of how much they all care about one another. "All of us are brothers," says Pfc. Andrew Wiser, a twenty-year-old from Conneaut, Ohio. "I'd die for any of these guys." Their intense feeling for one another results in an almost naive faith. "Nothing bad is going to happen to any of us in Afghanistan," Wiser says. "We'll do anything it takes to look out for each other."

Wolf Pack Five showed up in Kandahar last March, ready for battle. "I expected to start shooting as soon as we stepped off the plane," says platoon section leader Sgt. Paul Quast, a beefy thirty-four-year-old with a shaved head and hard, deep-set blue eyes. Some of the soldiers, like Pfc. William Ballard, have been disappointed by the lack of action. A slender, soft-spoken, squinty nine-teen-year-old, Ballard says, "I thought there'd be more war in Afghanistan, more like Vietnam." When he came to Afghanistan, Ballard brought along a custom sniper scope for his M-203 weapon — a combination grenade launcher and assault rifle — telling Keough he needed it to "shoot Afghans." Keough made him send it home to his father in Reno, Nevada.

The Fifth Platoon's only glimpse into the horrors of war occurred early on the morning of April 18th, when they pulled guard on the gunnery range — "Osama House" — after four Canadian soldiers, serving as part of the U.S.-led coalition, were killed in a friendly-fire accident. It happened at about midnight when an overzealous American F-16 pilot dropped a 500-pound bomb on the Canadians, mistaking their gunnery practice as hostile fire. "I saw a torso," says Farrar, who spent a whole day with the platoon guarding the accident site. "That was enough."

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