Firsthand: Security contracting in Afghanistan
An American contractor describes a violent encounter in Afghanistan
By Kelly Alwood
"You have got to be kidding me! The GPS tracker is down too? Kushhal, we got a problem," I spat out.We were in the middle of Jalalabad Highway,in the middle of nowhere.
My cell phone had no signal, Sat phone took the day off, radio signal wouldn't punch out of the valley, and now my GPS tracker (with panic button) batteries had died.
No one knew where I was and no one would be able to come if things became ugly. Of course I had extra batteries — it's a four-to-five-hour drive from Kabul to where we were going and I brought six packs of two. I scrambled through speed reloads of batteries into the GPS and they were all dead. Brand new, purchased the day prior in Kabul; I should have known. My only hope was that backup plans would be in motion if I didn't check in. But that was not for another six hours; a lifetime in Indian country.
I told Kushhal, my interpreter and driver, to find the nearest place to buy batteries. At this point he was very concerned, and told me it was too dangerous to stop."Taliban controls this whole area Mr. Kelly," he said."If they recognize you, they will start shooting immediately."It was decision time: should I stop to get the tracking gear back online, or keep pushing on and hope we have no more close calls. We already had three in the first two hours.
I was dressed in indigenous clothing, and mingled daily with locals on the streets, so I was quite confident in my disguise. My armament consisted of a Krinkov-type assault rifle with five magazines, a Makarov with three magazines, and an evasion kit in a backpack. Not enough to put up a real fight, just the bare minimum to escape and evade until Troy could come. Troy is a close friend of mine from Fort Bragg, a Green Beret with a 20-plus-year army career. He has enough medals to sink a small boat, and the most training and skill sets of any operator that I have ever met. He is a treasured friend and mentor. Already established at the Special Forces camp that I was trying to reach, Troy couldn't come get me if he didn't know where I was. We had to stop for batteries.
This week had seen steady attacks all over the neighboring provinces. Yesterday in Kabul, I watched five United Nations' workers gunned down in their SUV marked "humanitarian, NO WEAPONS inside." The day before, there was a shooting in front of my hotel with two more killed. I needed information and equipment to continue scouting routes and movements for a civilian audit team.
I usually went solo or with one other American. This time it was just me. It was lower profile; driving in a Toyota Corolla with local plates and a driver.
As I left Kabul, I called Troy to confirm my departure and expected arrival time. He told me his camp was hit by a VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device AKA a car bomb), and they were still engaged. "It's pretty sporty here right now, but come on in if you want." He also warned me of the recent attacks on the highway from the past week, and the regular kidnappings happening on the road. His final words of advice were, "Whatever happens, don't stop. Shoot your way through." I could hear the firefight raging in the background as I spoke with him.
We rolled into a small town along the highway. "Here Kushhal, stop here. There has to be batteries in one of these shops," I said. He did not want to stop the car, but I told him that we must. He asked me how many to buy and I gave him $20 worth of Afghani currency and said, "all of them." I waited in the car.
We rolled out without incident and proceeded down the dangerous stretch of road toward the camp. Just outside the city limits, the cell signal came back and I called Troy. He asked what I was driving and said to come on in. I told him I was more than a little nervous about driving up to the back gate of the compound because everyone was on edge from the suicide attack, and I was wearing a man-dress and was armed. He said, "No worries. I will meet you at the gate myself and let you in. They won't fire until I do."
I instructed Kushhal to drive our predetermined movements to establish our bonafides for distinction of our vehicle from suicide bombers. Our driving pattern worked, we were identified, and as we drove through the front gate, Troy looked in and stared at me. It took him a second to recognize me. He broke into a smile and nodded his head for us to proceed to the next gate.
I went inside and Kushhal waited outside the camp. I removed my mandress and got an informal situation report from Troy and his team. We went to the armory to top off my magazines and to resupply my medical kit, and then we tried out a few indigenous weapons and reconfirmed the zero on my Krinkov. We had dinner, and then attended a meeting of various agencies to discuss and debrief the day's events.
I had a shower, then sat in Troy's hooch catching up on events since we had seen each other last at Fort Bragg. We felt a shake and then heard a boom. "That's a rocket," I told Troy. I could not mistake that sound for anything. The siren sounded about 30 seconds later and a prerecorded voice came over the public address (PA) system confirming that it was a rocket attack.
I was exhausted from nearly 30 hours without sleep and the treacherous trip to get to the camp. I wanted to lie back and get some rest, but we ran outside the hooch, looked around, and saw that everyone was gearing up for another assault on the compound.
Another soldier ran up to me, handed me my vest, and said, "Get ready, Kelly." I knew I wasn't going to sit this one out. "Comms are up and everyone is being accounted for. We are at 100 percent security as per SOP." With the wall of the compound 50 meters off the highway, we were vulnerable to explosives being thrown over the wall and we were prepared to repel insurgents climbing over the wall. As the team gathered behind cover, Troy directed his Afghani guards to their positions for the attack.
Then another stout soldier in PT Shorts, tank top, flip-flops, and 10-inch suppressed M4 arrived. Half of us had Kalashnikovs and half had M4s. NOds (night observation devices) out, we watched the walls for a breach while we ducked more incoming rockets.
The rockets had ceased for about 15 minutes when we heard an even bigger explosion just south of our position. It was another suicide bomber detonating at the front gate of the Afghan National Army compound just down the street, killing eight and destroying the front entrance.
More rockets poured into the camp and we braced ourselves for each explosion, never knowing where each would impact, but vigilant for Taliban coming over the walls. We saw Predators (unmanned aerial vehicles) launch blacked-out, going in search of the attackers. We were all hoping for the chance to put these elusive fighters in our sights.
Ultimately, we were hoping that at least a Predator would put it on them, even if we didn't get a shot. I took time to quickly make two phone calls. One to do my check-in because I was not certain that my GPS was really transmitting properly yet, and I was already late doing so, and the other to my father to tell him I was good to go because the former SOF sergeant major would be waiting by the phone for sure.
He was less than impressed with the idea of driving to the camp in the first place, especially alone. If not for Troy, I would not have attempted this trip at all. Dad could hear the rounds impact in the background as we spoke, so I reassured him that I was not alone, and in fact was in the best company I could be with: Troy's team. Few places would be safer than here with them.
The PA system kept announcing "threat over," and then a few minutes later more rockets would impact. The team made the decision to call it over around 0100. The attacks were indeed finished for the night. I was exhausted from the long day's events and racked out in a concrete shelter.
I awoke at 0430, hungry, but refreshed and alert. I walked the perimeter and talked to the guards until breakfast was ready. I ate a quick bite of rice and chicken prepared by the local cook. I gathered my gear and did my checks in preparation for my drive back to Kabul. I wanted to leave early because there were prime hours of travel on the highway. Between certain hours, it was Taliban-attack rush hour.
I talked with Troy as I packed. He told me I should stay another day because today would be a dangerous day to travel. But I had to leave. I was supposed to have returned the day before actually, but that didn't happen because the attacks halted all movements in or out.
Kushhal was out getting the car repaired, which was not a good sign. Our departure was now delayed to an "uncomfortable" time frame, but at least our vehicle would be reliable for the trip. Kushhal returned with the car and news that the repairs could not be made. "Can anything else go wrong or break down in a 24-hour time period?" I thought to myself. I called my boss in Kabul to tell him the news. He advised me that we had meetings in Kabul that evening and could not delay them.
I departed at peek attack hour to make my window on the other side. Troy and I took a few pictures, said goodbye, and I left the gate with my ‘terp' in our Corolla. We reached the tunnel at the city limits, and boom!
On the other side of the tunnel, a few vehicles in front of us, a truck took rocket-propelled grenade fire. A firefight ensued as we turned the vehicle around and headed back to Troy's camp. I called to tell him I'd be having lunch with him after all. We returned and hung out until the fighting on the road ended and the road became passable. We made it back to Kabul just in time to pick up the principal and get him to his meetings.
About the author
Mr. Alwood is an instructor with on point Tactical and founder of www.pipehitterstactical.com. He is a bounty hunter with more than 300 felony arrests in the United States and Mexico and a former security contractor in Iraq.