“This is the right call,” Matt said.

“No way, man. This is not the right call,” I protested adamantly.

“Trust me. This is the right call.” Matt was not budging.

During a presence patrol in northern Uruzgan province, Afghanistan, an otherwise uneventful afternoon suddenly turned quite frustrating. Matt, the Special Forces Intelligence Sergeant from one of the ODA teams in 3rd Special Forces Group, held a very different opinion, than I did, of the best course of action in our current situation.

We were both trying very hard to not let the situation escalate and to not get heated during our exchange. It was about to go sideways at any moment.

 

A Great Red Jingle Truck

Have you ever heard of a jingle truck? A jingle truck is a very large cargo truck, commonly seen in South Asia in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, or India. It’s called a “jingle” truck, because many of them are decorated with strands of bells or other metal items, lights, horns, beads, garlands, and things like that. So, they make a lot of noise or jingle. They are also heavily painted and brightly colored. They have a cab and a very large, open cargo area, the size of a dump truck. Fully loaded they can hold several tons of cargo.

Jingle truck Afghanistan
A loaded jingle truck rolls through the bazaar on Highway 1 in Zabul province, Afghanistan, July 3, 2010. (Photo by Staff Sgt. William Tremblay/U.S. Army)

On this particular afternoon, near the Oshay district in our Area of Operations (AO) outside of Firebase Cobra, a large red jingle truck rounded a corner in the village and rolled right into our little checkpoint. Obviously, the driver did not know that we were there, and at that point, there was nowhere he could go. Given that it took us several tries to get him to actually stop moving and come to a complete stop, red flags started popping up. Our curiosity was piqued.

“Search that truck,” I told my Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers by way of Assad, my interpreter. Assad relayed my instructions, and then after a brief exchange with the Afghan soldiers, looked back over at me. I could sense his hesitancy.

“Sir, they say it is a very big truck.” The Afghan soldiers, seeing this giant jingle truck overflowing with tons and tons of cargo, were not at all enthusiastic about searching it. It was mildly amusing for about five seconds and also annoying. Standard, Afghan National Army-issued laziness.

 

The Truck Is Getting Searched

The area was heavily populated and traveled by Taliban fighters and other Anti-Coalition Forces (ACF). It was also roughly along a route that traversed south-central Afghanistan towards Pakistan. Also in the area was one of the few highways that connected Kandahar in the south to Kabul in the northeast. In this region, any truck of this size with fighting-age males inside who looked really shady was definitely going to get searched.

“Assad,” I replied. “Please tell them to search the truck. Tell them to take every single item out of that truck. We’re searching it.”

Assad hesitated. He paused for a moment, clearly thinking of what to say next, and then, decided against it. After a brief moment, he relayed the message. Normal soldier complaints and grumbles followed, but then, we had movement.

“Pull those guys out of the truck, and guard them,” I ordered. “Do not let them anywhere near that cargo.”

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The ANA soldiers directed the four men out of the cab and then sat them on the ground. I found myself wondering how four dudes even fit inside that cab… Only in Afghanistan.

Several ANA soldiers started climbing up to the top of the truck and began the process of unloading the entire cargo area. It really was overflowing. It’s amazing how they can cram so much stuff into one place. This part of the world contains Tetris masters; they can fit more stuff in or on something than anyone else on earth.

I once saw a family of seven… all packed onto a small motorcycle riding down the street. True story.

After more than an hour, perhaps even two, they had taken everything out of the vast cargo area of the jingle truck. And what did we find hidden at the very bottom of tons and tons of innocent and otherwise innocuous cargo?

 

Look What We Found

Drugs. Lots and lots of drugs. While, at that moment, I could not believe what we were staring at, I don’t know why I was surprised. That was, after all, what I expected — to find something. I had the “vibe” from these guys that something was off.

I probably would have been less surprised if it had been a dozen crates of Chinese RPG rockets or stacks of Russian anti-tank mines. But a few hundred pounds of raw, nasty, dark-brown, dripping, oozing bags of goo was not what I had expected to find.

drugs Afghanistan
These are the bags we found at the bottom of the jingle truck during our search. (Courtesy of author)

The moral of the story at this point? Always trust your Spidey-senses.

What we had here was, basically, semi-raw drugs at some stage of the opium- and heroin-making process. Hundreds of pounds worth, in transit from Afghanistan probably to Pakistan or China, to then be further refined into heroin. And the heroin sourced from southwest Asia usually ends up in Europe.

As we were debating what to do with roughly three or four tons of cargo and the truckload of dope, I certainly did not expect what was about to come next. Within just a few short minutes, word of what my Afghan soldiers had found spread around our group. A crowd of U.S. and Afghan soldiers gathered to get a good look at the stash.

“Hey Dustin,” I heard someone call me from amongst the crowd. “Got a second?” I looked over and saw Matt walking towards me.

“Yeah, what’s up?” I asked.

“Uh, I’m going to need you to let those guys go, and give all that stuff back to them.”

“You want me to do what?” I was obviously shocked.

drug bags Afghanistan
Dripping, nasty, gooey, ooze… worse than your buddy’s spit bottle full of dip. (Courtesy of author)

 

Bombs and Bullets or Heroin and Good Intel?

“I need you to give that stuff back,” Matt said again.

“Why would I do that?” I was having a hard time thinking of any good reason as to why I would or should give those drugs back, and let those guys go.

“Because…” he started to explain… “I know these guys. They are some of my intel sources.”

“No freaking way. I’m not giving this stuff back.”

“These guys are not Taliban, and they give me good intel. If you take that stuff or arrest them, they will never give me intel again.”

This became one of the hardest moments of my tour in Afghanistan. No gunfight, no IEDs, no battlefield casualties. Just a huge moral dilemma, and two choices: taking the drugs out of play and arresting these guys running drugs for the Taliban, or letting them go and hope they would appreciate the gesture and continue giving good intel.

“Matt, these drugs are what will pay for the bullets and IEDs that the Taliban will be using against us tomorrow, and next week, and the week after that. Taliban or not, this is a problem.”

“I hear you, man, I do. But the intel these guys give is too good. It’s better to get good intel, and let the drugs slip through.” He was trying to make his case.

“And the weapons that will be used against us because of these drugs? How do you know these guys aren’t Taliban? They are obviously running drugs for the Taliban.” I was starting to get frustrated.

“This is the right call,” Matt said, clearly ignoring my questions.

“No way, man. This is not the right call.” I vehemently protested.

“Trust me. This is the right call,” said Matt without budging.

We were both trying very hard to not let the situation escalate and to not get heated during our exchange. It was about to go sideways at any moment.

 

One of the Hardest Choices I Have Ever Had to Make

Matt and I were both the same rank. What’s more, he did not have operational or formal military authority over me, either. He could not order me to do this. It could have escalated into an intense moment and also cause problems in the future.

How does one weigh the pros and cons of a dilemma like this? We were at an impasse, one of us right, and the other not necessarily wrong.

We did go back and forth a few more times, him convincing me why good intel was worth the risk of more weapons that would be used against us. And me, trying to find the principle of the matter and the moral high ground of doing anything possible to disrupt the flow of money and weapons being used against us, our Afghan and Coalition allies, and the locals.

I struggled mightily for the brief span of the two or three minutes of this whole exchange. An exchange and a decision-making process that felt much longer and had much more severe consequences than a few moments would allow.

This was the cost of doing business in Afghanistan. It was never easy. It was never simple. And it was never completely black or white or totally cut and dry.

I also realized around that point, that all eyes were fixated on us. The guys who created this mess, the Americans, and the Afghans, were all watching us to see how this would play out.

I turned to my guys. “Load it back up. Let them go.”

Not only was this one of the toughest decisions I ever had to make, but it was also one of the most frustrating.

In the end, I had to try and see it his way and make a choice: Was removing a few hundred pounds of drugs from the network — potentially worth a lot of money and a lot of bombs and bullets — worth losing good assets and sources of intel? What was the better play, in the long run, in spite of the obvious risks of either decision?

“Hey man,” Matt said, as I was starting to walk away. I looked back over at him, as he said, “You made the right decision.”

Only in Afghanistan.

Did I make the right call?

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