(Part 1 of 3)
Some clouds just aren’t destined to be parted. Here in the theatre of boot polish and unruffled officer cap feathers, the game of belligerent brinkmanship continues. Beginning on the birthday of our Lord, five days of perpetual stalemate saw French troops ruffle little more than the feathered pillows of unwitting Afghan locals in a series of manoeuvres ranging from the bemusing to the downright pointless, not to mention highly dangerous.
Generally considered on high as a show of force, we had previously been informed that the civilian niceties would be put on hold for the duration of the five-day operation. No more Meester Nize Guy, apparently. I began practicing my grizzled scowl in earnest, alas it wasn’t even called upon in the end. A shame really, what with the beard adding that extra sense of rugged nastiness that undoes the courage of men and bra straps of women in equal measure. Fortunately for all involved, the French Army’s idea of hardball consists mainly of extremely lengthy and polite discussions with the translators in broken English that almost inevitably result in the translator convincing the commanding officer to grant the civilians’ requests while simultaneously creating the appearance of having himself conceded. A clever bunch, those Afghans.
Right then, the plan was to penetrate deep into a neighbouring valley, taking up and holding positions in order to disrupt potential Taliban activity. Air support occupied the clear, crisp blue skies on an almost permanent basis. From an observation perspective, this certainly proved reassuring. The helicopters’ thermal imaging can pick up even the faintest of heat signatures at great distance, which can alert us to the presence off possible insurgents while still some way off. A solid system once all concerned stay in formation and/or lit-up by little infra-red glow sticks. Skip away for a whiz in the bushes twenty metres from your group without an infra-red indicator and 30mm shells may just start raining down on you and your most precious kit. Tinkle carefully.
The festivities kicked off with a good ol’ night-time infiltration. Lady moon made a welcome appearance, saving on batteries for our night-vision as silver breath softly whispered mercurial light all across the valley. Marching au naturel still succeeded in posing a few problems for the less well-adjusted en route to the target village though, several splashes and smothered profanities cracking camouflaged smiles across more than a few chapped lips. Barely had we arrived at the first compound than the call for the bolt cutters descended down the line like a syrup-covered slinky on crooked stairs. Blessed with the task of carrying said apparatus, I quickly mounted the wall of silhouetted soldiers until I arrived beside my squad leader. Pointing to the impudent padlock, he stood back as I worked my hydraulic magic and snipped the pesky perpetrator right off. This merry little overly-coordinated dance repeated itself twice more before my squad actually got to enter into the compound. Low and behold, we’d cracked a total of four padlocks all protecting doors leading to the same place. Excellent so, guard duty guaranteed for everyone as instead of a single point of entry, all four now demanded our undivided, heavily armed attention. "Wrap up but stay frosty" was the (oxy)moronic ordre de jour passed around the camp fire. It was going to be a long night.
The next morning, the wake-up alarm rang in the form of zipping bullets tracing invisible lines through the air above our heads. A few mischievous locals sought to let us know just how they felt about our show of force. Message received loud and clear.
Et alors??? On y va, CORVA!!!
Once the contact had died down, we regrouped from our various compounds and headed out to a second installation to set-up shop there while also checking for the presence of stockpiled arms. Along the way, our contingent of almost fifty soldiers inexplicably found themselves all bunched together, crouching in a wall-lined corridor measuring no more than fifteen metres in length. Concerned expressions barely had time to form on the many unshaven faces before that familiar zipping sound returned for Round 2. Seconds later a figure on the extremity of our combat-clad clump crumpled to the ground. The medics swarmed to his position and surrounded the injured party until outside light found itself choked into obscurity. Thankfully it was a mere flesh wound on his shoulder, and once inside the second compound the wounded warrior found himself sitting up, a little shocked and shirtless but otherwise destined to go on breathing.
It was only after the backpacks had been chucked in a corner of this second compound and a suitable seat found that we noticed the inhabitants regarding us rather curiously. A small girl of no more than seven briskly passed our weary, sprawled out figures and disappeared into a shed at the end of the yard. She emerged minutes later, clinging to two lengths of rope. We quickly discovered that one joined the neck of a slightly scared cow while the other connected to a more-than-slightly hostile goat. It appeared that we were fighting battles every which way we turned. We eventually surrendered and moved our gear and asses up to drier, higher ground as the gloating goat reclaimed the garden in the name of everything concerning indiscriminate ingestion. You win this round, Billy, you win this round.
Intel gathered on the grapevine later informed us that the cap-popping crusaders causing havoc since earlier that morning had numbered no more than two. The same duo continued to pepper our compound with volleys of high-velocity discouragement throughout the day. Air support in the form of muscle-flexing Tiger helicopters paid the twin Taliban a total of five visits as they sought to disrupt our afternoon siesta from a neighbouring compound. On each occasion, fingers were buried in ears right up to the knuckle as shower after shower of gigantic 30mm rounds pounded into the general area where the two insurgents were holed up. On each occasion, about ten minutes elapsed before the zipping returned. My squad leader snorted a bemused laugh as we discussed the day’s events back at our beloved FOB later that evening, having safely made it out under the cover of darkness.
"They have either the biggest balls or the smallest brains I’ve ever encountered. Fucking hell!"
Fucking hell is right, thought I. Four more days of this to negotiate. At least we had a period of twelve hours back at base to regroup, rethink and readjust the balls ‘n brains before the next outing. Both would be needed in equally enormous measure.....