The temperature here has undertaken a sharp incline of late. Meteorologically speaking, for the most part. The fields continue to assume a deeper, more lush green hue as all wait expectantly for the trees and shrubs to follow suit. Beautiful, rich vegetation is the stuff dreams are made of here in Afghanistan, providing they’re the dreams of the department of tourism. For us well fed, homesick and increasingly irate soldiers it represents pure antithesis. Since our deployment last November we have enjoyed hurtling along dusty highways with kilometres upon kilometres of visibility sprawling out in all directions across the valley floor. Scrawny, scraggly trunks and branches embalmed in rusted bark forming an endless guard of honour by the winding roadsides had not previously caused concern, their naked, frosted transparency offering mere peripheral decoration to our surveillance sectors. The onset of springtime bloom however certainly spells trouble for our crucial requirements concerning visibility (not to mention the unfortunate few susceptible to our old foe "Hay Fever"). The upside, as there inevitably is, sees our previous 6-day outings into the heart of the local population effectively erased from the calendar. Strolling through fields searching for hidden Taliban trinkets is all well and good with an uninterrupted view into a dozen successive fields all around. Not being able to see from one side of a single field to the other, however, tends to ring alarm bells for even the most narcoleptic of shot-callers. So hot meals and tepid showers every evening until the curtain falls on this languishing production. Yippee! But.....
There’s ALWAYS a "But"
Suddenly I find myself whizzing around with increasing urgency, assembling this, disassembling that, stocking up on this, throwing out that, setting up the radio on this frequency, switching to that frequency, radio check, hello, HELLO?, Loud and clear, right, done, WHAT? OK, off we go! Less time out in the field equals more shit crammed into the time we do spend outside the FOB. In spite of my moans and groans concerning the seemingly grotesquely long 6-day missions, they did have their advantages. Being cooped up in the one place for the best part of a week meant less stress, less action, less complications in general concerning the day-to-day life. You had your morning outing, your evening outing, and guard duty. Voila! Nothing more, nothing less, life was simple.
Oh my, how the tables have turned. A recent "day trip" described itself as a standard patrol interspersed with opportunistic searches of any fields or compounds that our commanding officers might have a "feeling" about. Wonderful! So as we spent the morning trudging around in sweltering conditions, passing through villages and solemnly shaking our heads to every high-pitched cry for a BIS-CUIT, our French officers’ spider-sense tingled around every corner and through every gate. Swinging our metal detectors from left to right and subsequently dropping to our knees, shovel-in-hand to investigate was hard enough before the thermometer broke the 40°C mark. Now we found ourselves mopping our brow with clay-covered gloves and sleeves every few seconds, trying desperately to unearth the guilty soft drinks can or rogue nail that set us to work in the first place. Spirits soared briefly as our squad leader announced that we had, in fact, covered the entire patrol route and that "normalement", we should be on our way back to base at any moment.
"Normalement" is the single most booby-trapped word in the Legion. Once uttered, even thought, one can be absolutely positive that the exact opposite will occur. "Normalement" we had finished our designated route and nothing remained but to return to the FOB. Alas no sooner had this hypothesis presented itself than the word came through that a well-known Taliban chief had been spotted a few clicks east of our position. The surveillance drone reported that he was ambling around his garden and didn’t appear to be alerted to our proximity. A few clicks. 40°C+. 30 kilograms of gear, hardly any of which was taken up by water supplies we had already all but extinguished. Vive l’Armée Française, off we go. The infiltration was undertaken on foot as the sound of the vehicles’ engines would have most certainly alerted our target to our approach. I feel I could’ve quite rationally argued that the sound of huffing, puffing, gasping and hissing drops of sweat crashing on to the parched rocks beneath our feet might also have alerted our lucky host to our imminent arrival. Either way, Mr. Taliban Chief was waiting. The lead group entered the compound to panicked screams from several women inside. From amongst the confusion sprung the man of the hour himself, RPG launcher in hand and pointed directly at our guys. Click. The rocket misfired, both sides inhaled sharply. The launcher with the dud rocket still loaded within crashed to the ground. Our man spun around and sprinted for the back door, leading out of the compound and in to the fields beyond. He could lose us in to the dense vegetation and escape. That’s when the real ruckus started. Whatever about a dusty relic of an RPG left-over from the Russian invasion thirty years ago, there are rarely misfires from our side. The lead group, who had only recently recovered from that temporarily paralysing "Oh fuck, his rocket aimed at my balls just mis-fired" feeling, let rip with everything they had. Bursts of machinegun fire exploded in the scalding mid-afternoon sun. Rounds of every shape and size tore through the balmy air, 5.56, 7.62, grenades, the lot. Had a specially designed barrel manufactured to eject a kitchen sink existed, then taps, plugs and all would have found themselves hurtling towards our man on the run. And man, did he run. Without stopping. Once the fracas had calmed down some, our lads were left to survey an open gate bordered with more than a hundred bright, smoking bullet holes. No target, no chance of further pursuit. Just an empty, polka dot doorway. Our bearded Bugs Bunny had managed an unlikely escape, leaving our gallic moustachioed Samidy Sam stomping and steaming with indignation. Next time Bugs, next time.
We spent the rest of the day at the compound, our translator trying in vain to eek the smallest bit of information from the abandoned women. A deep-water well provided a timely opportunity to stock-up on water before the long hike back to the FOB. We waited until dusk, the cooler air offering its consolatory caress as we set off for home. Thankfully, nothing befell us during the return, and the ever-dependable team of cooks kept the candle burning until our arrival. One aspect of the war effort that can never be faulted here in Afghanistan is the kitchen staff. No matter how early the mission leaves, or how late it gets back, there’s always a hot meal waiting for the weary soldiers involved. And we were certainly weary as we sat down to eat that evening. Of course, if we had have been on a gruelling 6-day camp out in the local compounds, we wouldn’t have had a juicy, steaming hot meal sitting before us. No sir! We would have already been sound asleep in our sleeping bags.
No rest for the wicked.