“Your Afghan soldiers’ barracks is on fire.”

I had just sat down with my breakfast in our small dining area at Firebase Cobra in northern Uruzgan province, as the captain of the ODA team from 3rd Special Forces Group casually walked up to me. I stopped mid-chew, my fork hanging in the air, partway between my mouth and my plate. Admittedly, it took me a moment to process what he has just said, especially given the relaxed nature of his demeanor and the comical look on his face.

“What?” I asked him.

“Of course it is,” I thought. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

He stood there, clearly still amused, and probably enjoying the hell out of the moment.

“Roger, Sir. Thanks!” I jumped up, dumped my nearly full plate of breakfast into the trash on the way out the door, and ran across the staging area for our side of the firebase, through the large metal gate that separated our side of the base from the Afghan side. As I made it to the gate and rounded the corner, I saw the smoke. Sure enough, just like the captain had said, the small barracks, made of cinderblock and plywood, belonging to the Afghan National Army (ANA) was, actually, on freaking fire. Up to that moment, I half expected that he was just messing with me.

 

Throwing Rocks at a Fire, Will Not Help Extinguish It

Right after I saw the smoke and flames starting to billow out of the barracks, I saw three of my ANA men standing outside the entrance of their barracks. They were picking up rocks from the ground and throwing them into the barracks’ doorway in an attempt to put out the fire.

I promise I am not making this up. Not only was I surprised to learn that their barracks was on fire, but I was probably more surprised to see them throwing rocks to extinguish it.

As I got up to the doorway and told them to stop, I went partway inside the door to make sure the other soldiers were being evacuated. I could only see a few of them standing outside, so I knew that many more must still have been in there. I was also trying to get a quick look as to how bad the fire was.

As I peeked inside, I could see that the blankets on the floor and the walls were on fire. The plywood walls were also beginning to catch.

Just then, most of the ANA soldiers started running through the hall past the fire, and out the door. Fortunately, a couple of them had more presence of mind than their genius rock-throwing buddies and helped the rest of them get out. A couple of minor burns were the only injuries.

It turns out, they were having their morning tea and one of the Afghans kicked over the open flame propane burner that was being used to boil the water. It quickly ignited the blankets on the floor. Rather than simply and easily picking up the burner by the tank, and start smothering the flames with their other blankets or the water, they just left it there on the floor, burning and igniting more blankets. Their great idea was to run out and start throwing rocks. Not pick up the burner, nor try to put the fire out, nor tell their buddies, nor ask for help. Nada. Rocks.

Only in Afghanistan.

 

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Blankets and Dry Plywood Burn Very Quickly in the Desert

Afghan National Army Infantry Company at Firebase Cobra, in Uruzgan. (Courtesy of author)

By that point, the fire had been burning for a few minutes. A couple of the more squared away Afghan soldiers realized they had all run out without their belongings and equipment. I was able to see that the fire was spreading quickly, and since it had started in the room right by the front door, there would be no safe way in or out. Just as they tried to run inside and retrieve their equipment and belongings I stepped in.

“Leave it. We will replace them,” I said through my interpreter, as I was physically pushing them back by their chests.

It was right about then that the ammo started cooking off. Rifle and belted machine gun ammo started going off like firecrackers, and not too long after, the grenades and RPG rounds. We moved back behind the wall to the compound just waiting and watching. While they were all concerned that they all just lost their gear, clothing, and the few dollars and possessions they had in life, there was nothing else to do but watch. We couldn’t get close enough to try and extinguish the fire with water, either.

Long story made short, they lost everything. Once the fire burned out and we waited several hours for all the ammo to cook off, we sprayed water over everything for good measure and started surveying the damage. Within a day, we replaced all their uniforms, weapons, ammo, and gear, and furnished them with a bit of extra cash. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

We found every single rifle, pistol, machine gun, and RPG launcher. Each one was burned, charred, and partially melted. There was no salvaging any of them. We accounted for every one, loaded them onto a pallet, and into a helicopter bound for Kandahar. Remember this point, because it’s important: we accounted for every one, and we, the Americans, loaded them into the helicopter.

 

Four Months Later…

Negotiating in the Oshay village market outside of Firebase Cobra. (Courtesy of author)

I had been rotated to another firebase, and then down to Kandahar Airbase. The Afghan Infantry Company, whose barracks had burned down four months ago, had also been rotated back to Kandahar Airbase.

One day as I was taking care of some business on the Afghan base just outside the airbase, I ran across the company quite by accident. I had not expected to see them there, and I did not know they had been rotated back. After a quick greeting, one of the interpreters asked to speak to me.

After the event with the fire and through combat missions and patrols, this Afghan company had come to trust us quite a bit. More than their other advisors, even.

They had been new on our firebase when they set fire to their barracks, and there was tension between us. The first several days they had tested the water with me and my counterparts and had tried to see how far they could push us. They had bad bad experiences with other advisors and Embedded Tactical Trainers (ETT) in the past, and often felt neglected, abused, or simply not cared about.

This fire became a fortuitous event. I had gained their trust and they knew I had their backs since I did not let them — or make them — run into the fire to retrieve their weapons, and we had replaced everything very quickly. We also did not blame nor punish them. It was a stupid, silly accident. And on the bright side, they got new stuff. Win, win, win.

So now, a few of them, along with the interpreter, pulled me aside, and in hushed voices, asked for my help. They knew that I would help them.

 

Be Corrupt or Get Your Hands Chopped Off

An Afghan Army NCO watches the crowd of assembled locals and Taliban during a MEDCAP (medical relief patrol), in the AO of Firebase Cobra. (Courtesy of author)

As an advisor to the ANA, I experienced this corruption on the part of the Afghans on a regular basis; often daily. Oftentimes, it was as much of a problem as the Taliban and other anti-coalition forces. Officers often stole money, resources, and supplies from the ranks of their subordinates and enlisted soldiers. The money ended up in their pockets, and the supplies often ended up in the black market. It was a trickle-down system of corruption and an unwritten rule of officer politics. The thinking is, someone from above is going to take from me, so I am going to take back from those below.

In the U.S. Army, there is the saying that “there is only one thief in the Army; everyone else is just trying to keep up.” Now multiply that times 1,000 in a system bred on thousands of years of corruption, and there you have it.

Corruption kills morale and command culture. The average underpaid, under-trained, and poorly equipped soldier, can’t afford any additional reasons not to fight. When you take away their belief in the cause and the command, the results are disastrous — as we are now seeing.

Now, let’s talk about Captain Mohammed. Mohammed was one of the best Afghan officers and soldiers I ever came across. Not because he was necessarily a high-speed officer or tactician, or possessed mad soldier skills. He didn’t even go out on many missions. It was because he was honest. He was a good man and was good to his men. In fact, he never let us give him money for his Infantry Company nor for his soldiers, their pay, nor food. He did not want to be tempted nor accused that he ever misappropriated funds. He was a devout Muslim, moderate, did not sympathize with the Taliban, and had four kids. Suffice it to say, he was not corrupt.

Back to the corruption that plagues and devastates the ranks of the Afghan National Army leadership. Not only did Captain Mohammed not take money from his men… he would not contribute to the corruption and graft of his chain of command. He would not send money up the chain, as was expected, either. In the brilliance of their corruption, it was determined by his command that once he got back to Kandahar, that he needed to be punished. They needed an example. Or their money.

Remember all the burnt and destroyed weapons from the fire? Now, the men from the infantry company told me that according to their battalion S-4 (supply officer) and the battalion commander, there was a “missing” AK-47. According to these fine and upstanding Afghan Army officers, Captain Mohammed had stolen this missing AK-47, and “must have sold it on the back market and taken the money.” And unless he could produce this weapon, or the money, and give it to them, they were going to arrest him, put him in jail, and cut his hands off for stealing.

Only in Afghanistan.

 

‘If You Try to Arrest Him, You’ll Have to Go Through Me’

Once I heard what was going on, I immediately went and found Captain Mohammed. He was on his bunk, surrounded by a few more of his soldiers. All of them looked quite concerned. He corroborated everything I had just heard.

“I did not do this thing,” he said to me through the interpreter. He held out his hands as if they were handcuffed in front of him. “They will cut my hands off.”

“I know,” I said. And I was pissed. He didn’t have a lot of time.

Assad, the interpreter, also kept pleading the captain’s case and tried to convince me to help and do something. I assured him that I would.

Looking back, I am kind of lucky that I did not get myself in trouble, as well. I went straight to my commander, a tall, big ole Southern Boy from Georgia. He was an Infantry major, and we were tight. I told him everything. I also told him that I was the one who had accounted for everything, not the ANA. We then went to our supply officer, another major, who knew that P.O.S. Afghan supply officer. Once we told him the story, he immediately went with us to talk to him.

As you can imagine, the Afghan supply officer acted nonchalantly and as if we were mistaken, on every level. There was no “misunderstanding,” and the story was that they simply could not accept theft in the ranks. He was a fat, smug, asshole. He dismissed me and my story and tried to only talk to my officers. If memory serves correctly, I think the battalion XO was there, as well. Yet, we could not get in to speak directly to the battalion commander.

It’s important to note, at this point, that even on Kandahar Airbase, I was always armed. Sure. But so was everyone else. I, however, was always locked and loaded (kind of against policy). I would spend time on the edge of the airbase and around lots of Afghan contractors, would leave the perimeter of the airbase and go on the streets to get to the Afghan base, and I was always with Afghan soldiers. Plus, you just “never knew.”

So, I stepped up to the desk of that a-hole supply officer, put my hands squarely on his desk, making sure it was clear that I was armed even at that moment. I looked him in the eye, and said, “if you try to arrest Captain Mohammed, you will have to get through me first, and I will stop you.”

That was the best thing I could think of at that moment. But… it was direct and to the point.

My officers both look surprised, and my commander put his hands on my shoulders, and gently but forcefully pulled me back over by him.

“It’s ok, Sergeant Gladwell,” he said.

The Afghan supply officer was clearly stunned and speechless. He got the point. He said he would “look into it.” And then, we left. Conversation over.

 

Taking Care of Business: Get Creative to Do the Right Thing

An ANA soldier practices rifle marksmanship with his AK-47 outside the firebase, in Uruzgan province. (Courtesy of author)

At that point, no one had any idea what had happened to that shipment of the burnt weapons. No one could figure out what had happened once they had been turned in and cleared off the books. What also made the situation difficult is that while we had a lot of operational and combat authority over the Afghans, and they usually did what we wanted or suggested, we had no formal military authority over them. And we certainly could not interfere with internal Afghan proceedings like this. But we needed to protect Captain Mohammed.

After the conversation with the Afghan officers, I went back to Captain Mohammed and his guys. I told them what had happened and assured them I would help protect him. I gave them my local cell phone number. I left instructions with his NCOs and the interpreters that if they arrested him, or even tried to take him during the night, to let me know — immediately. It would not have been the first time we almost threw down with Afghan soldiers or Afghan police, and I was prepared to do so again. Especially in order to do the right thing and protect a good man.

I remembered that in our supply room, we had a broken AK-47 that had been confiscated or found. It was sitting there for weeks. I went to one of my captains, who was responsible for the books and our stuff, and I decided to get creative. His first name was Steve, and we were also buddies.

“Hey, Captain Steve. You know that broken AK-47 you have in your office… does it belong to anyone?”

“Umm…” He thought for a moment. “No, I don’t think so. I’m not even sure where it came from.”

“Is it… on the books?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Can I have it?”

He laughed. “For real?”

“Roger. I am going to burn it.”

After a good chuckle, I filled him in on what was going on and gave him all the details.

“I am going to burn it, and I am going to say that I found it — that it was my mistake. Then I am going to drop it right on that asshole’s desk. Personally.”

“Take it,” he said. And then the fun began.

 

A 50-gallon Burn Barrel and a Couple Gallons of Diesel Fuel

A fire fueled by a propane burner, a ton of dry wood and blankets, and popcorn rounds of 7.62 is really hot. I went to one of my good buddies, a sergeant first class, who always went by the name of Fletch. Even his wife called him Fletch.

Fletch was one of those guys who was good with people and good at getting things done. He was the guy who knew everyone, and could “make things appear.” Through wheeling and dealing and trading up, and sweet-talking his way around, it always worked for him. If you needed something, he knew where and how to get it. He could turn a pencil into a tank. Or, at least, a Humvee.

In fact, we once traded an old something or other (junk that I am not at liberty to disclose), to get on our hands on a semi-broken down Ford Ranger pickup truck, to then trade for a fully-functional Humvee… off the books… Also a true story. Don’t ask, just believe.

I went to Fletch with my problem, and he said “I got you, brother.” I handed him the broken AK-47, and we drove back to our hooch. When we got back, he pulled a diesel Jerry can from the back of his pickup and dumped a bunch of garbage into the burn barrel. In went the AK-47 and a couple of gallons of diesel fuel.

“We have to make it really hot. Look convincing,” he said.

Two hours later, we had a perfectly destroyed, convincingly burnt, semi-melted AK-47. We also poured water all over it, to add to the authenticity — just as in the real fire. The next morning, once it had sufficiently cooled, we drove over to the Afghan side of the airbase. Fletch and I walked right into the supply officer’s office, dropped the burnt AK-47 unceremoniously on his desk, and I told him, “found it.”

He looked up at me, laughed nervously, and said something that I don’t even remember. It was probably something quite stupid. He looked over at the other guy in his office, and said something in Dari. I have no idea who the other guys was, or what they said.

“Khoobas?” I asked, [“All good?” in Dari.] I glared at him.

“Khoobas,” he affirmed. “All good.”

We went back to Captain Mohammed, and I relayed to him everything that had happened and everything that we did. He got teary-eyed. He gave me a hug and thanked me from his soul. Situation over. Problem resolved.

No one ever arrested Captain Mohammed. No one cut his hands off, either.

Corruption. And throwing rocks at a fire… Exercises in futility. Only in Afghanistan.

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