The road to Gulistan
Story and photos by Lt. Col. William Heineman
Italian soldiers prepare dinner
over a campfire on the return trip from Gulistan.
(Editor's note: this story and the accompanying photos were provided
by Lt. Col. Heineman. Heineman is attached to Combined Joint Task Force
Phoenix, which provides Embedded Training Teams to serve as mentors to
the Afghan National Army The story has been edited for length and content.)
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) recently conducted
a mission called Wyconda Pincer II. Our Afghan National Army (ANA) unit
participated which meant that we could go along as well.
I went with two U.S. soldiers, a gunner and a driver, in an uparmored
HMMWV to act as a liaison officer between the Italian Brigade team and
the U.S. Embedded Training Teams (ETTs) participating with their ANA Kandaks
(battalions). We traveled to a village named Gulistan or Golistan,
depending on which map you look at.
The trip began with a five-hour trek through an unchartered portion of
the desert. It made every trip I have been on to date seemed like
a walk in the park. The dirt was incredible; we spent much of the
time trying to find the vehicle in front of us through the dust cloud.
I have pictures that show the Italian soldiers traveling in front of us
in an open vehicle. They were literally covered with about a half
inch of dust, and were all one solid color - tan. We at least have
a vehicle with doors and windows closed which kept out a lot of dirt.
The mission was a “Taliban” hunt that came up empty, but that
was no real surprise since the elements that oppose the Afghanistan government
rarely enter into pitched battles with large forces. Although not
a huge force, we had enough men and firepower to discourage the average
terrorist. Also I doubt that our coming was much of a surprise to
anyone there. The village elders told us that the “Taliban”
left 10 days before we arrived which is interesting, because we had not
even planned the mission 10 days prior to execution. But there are
very few secrets here, so someone knew we’d be along eventually.
I also hesitate to call them “Taliban,” because every criminal
in the country seems to be referred to as Taliban. If a goat is
stolen, it was Taliban. Drive-by shootings are the result of Taliban.
Attacks on police are Taliban. We have noticed a shift in terminology
recently, which makes reference to “AGE” (Anti-Government
Elements), and “ACM” (Anti-Coalition Militia) instead of referring
to everything as Taliban.
Upon our arrival at Gulistan the ISAF flew a couple of air sorties up
the valley and over our heads to further discourage any attacks on us.
Just as it was beginning to get dark, a B-1 bomber screamed low over our
position, dropping flares and chaff. I just wish I knew that it was coming
and had my camera out; it would have made a great picture. At the
time we were still establishing our position and setting up a defensive
perimeter, so I guess it is just as well that I wasn’t using valuable
time taking photos.
The village itself was inside walls and we did not enter it. We stayed
outside the village with the ANA and let the Afghan police, approximately
50-70 of them - go into the village. Part of the mission was to
try to establish the police in some of these villages in an attempt to
have them do their job of providing security to the people of Afghanistan.
Looking at the village from a high vantage point, it looked very neat
and orderly; a change from the many villages that we go through along
the main roads which are really a mess. The night passed without
incident, except for the noise of jackals and dogs which reached a crescendo
at about 1:30 a.m. I mean, it was LOUD and long. I guess the
jackals try to get the sheep and goats, and the dogs are there to keep
that from happening. It was really spooky, and sleeping on the ground,
I was slightly worried about what would happen if they decided to come
in our direction. They didn’t, and we were able to get back
to sleep eventually.
The next day we moved closer to the village and set up a new position.
We were set upon by tons of children that were very curious about us,
but even more interested in what we would give them in terms of food and
water. These kids were merciless. We (the Americans) have become
pretty used to the begging and have learned how to say no, and how to
keep the kids far enough away that they don’t get inside our vehicles
or area of operations. The Italians had not experienced it yet and
they were giving out water and food, which drew larger and more aggressive
crowds of kids. We warned them, but they didn’t listen.
Eventually they got the message and strung up concertina (barbed) wire
to keep them back away from our operation.
That evening, our Italian hosts managed to get some fresh tomatoes and
onions from the village, and prepared a meal of pasta. They carried
sacks of ziti and gallons of olive oil in a trailer for the mission.
One guy acted as the cook and made an unbelievably delicious meal for
all of us. They had a generator and a hot plate for the sauce, and
built a fire to cook the pasta. They also got na’an (Afghan
bread) from the village, and taught us just how good na’an with
olive oil and coarse salt can be. Afghan cuisine blended with Italian,
now there’s a new restaurant idea to consider!
Early on the fourth day, at 2:20 a.m. to be precise, the dogs and jackals
started up again. This time, a pack of about six jackals came within
about 30 meters of us. We were watching them without night vision
goggles, trying to decide whether we should shoot them with our M4s or
use the MK-19 grenade launcher when they finally ambled off down the road
looking for something less alert. I am glad we didn’t have
to engage them because we weren’t really sure what the ANA around
us might do.
Later that day we left Gulistan, returned through the desert, and stayed
in a place called Deh Tut. It was a place that was used to help
build the road around Afghanistan, and was basically a large quarry with
piles of unused stones, gravel and dirt everywhere. The Italian
troops made dinner again that night and we prepared for our return to
Herat the next day.
Our return to Herat was uneventful except for the part where my HMMWV
(for the record, I was not driving) smacked into the trailer of the Italian
vehicle in front of us when the convoy suddenly and unexpectedly halted
along the road. Unfortunately there was no where to go, and my driver
must have not realized that they were stopping. He locked up the
brakes, and we skidded into the trailer. A 12,000 pound HMMWV hitting
a small trailer is an unfair competition, and we bent it up pretty badly.
The HMMWV was fine.
After some hammer and rock work on the trailer we managed to get it rolling
again and made it back to Herat without further incident. The Italians
took it pretty well though, but I have been the target for some well placed
cartoons over the past week. It’s all in fun.