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The road to Gulistan
Story and photos by Lt. Col. William Heineman
TAG at Operation Jump Start
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.

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Volume 32 Number 6
Staff / Information
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