There was not much new for me in the days immediately following the base attack. I spent another two weeks on the FCF schedule, working to keep our birds in the air so that we could clean out the logistics backlog caused by days of not flying after the assault. Other pieces of information cropped up on exactly how the insurgents were able to get in, and what they were after. Most of it I can’t disclose; however, for those with the stomach, this piece by Michael Yon (http://www.michaelyon-online.com/false-sense-of-something-some-observations-and-thoughts-on-the-unfolding-wars.htm) has some interesting thoughts along with pictures that he grabbed from the ‘victory’ video released by the Taliban. Looking at those pictures was disconcerting: none of those guys will win an award for best drawing (even if they could, they won’t, because all but one are dead), but sure enough, there’s the airfield, and sure enough, there are our helicopters right where they should be. No one can predict the whims of Fate, but it’s chilling to think that, had the attackers made the simple choice of turning one way rather than the other after breaching the wire, that could just as easily have been our flight line up in flames, rather than the Harriers’. Anyway, they missed their chance, and should they ever attempt anything similar in the future, they will find us somewhat less unprepared. Since the attack made it obvious that on our side of the field, we’re pretty much on our own, the squadrons have hardened the flightline facilities so that any future attacker that manages to make it that far will run into a buzzsaw of obstacles and firepower. Not that they COULD make it as far again, since the base perimeter has been hardened too; but we’re no longer relying on the promises made by other from the safety of their bunkers over on mainside. Give us the tools; we’ll take care of ourselves.
In the last ten days, after swinging to one of our mission shifts, I’ve finally flown beyond the stretch of sand where we take our aircraft for testing. Unlike Iraq, where general support – hauling ass and trash – was the name of the game, here there are still a large number of tactical missions to support alongside logistical movements. I’ve primarily flown the GS anyway, since compared to the rest of the squadron that’s been here for two months, my delayed arrival still make me ‘new’, but it’s been good to explore this Helmand River valley that everyone’s been talking about. A few observations: one, this place looks exactly like the Marine base at 29 Palms. It’s uncanny actually: apart from the large river running through the province, the terrain and mountains look identical. On my first flight up into the lower Hindu Kush, I thought I might see some more greenery and maybe even snow. Nope; just more brown nooks and crannies. The river valley itself bears a passing resemblance to that along the Euphrates; on either side are long stretches of irrigated farms (the “green zone”, for future reference), and then it stops and turns immediately into desert. But population distribution is very different. Along the Euphrates, there were distinct towns interspersed between the farm zones, and the closer you got to Baghdad it turned into familiar urban sprawl. Not here. Here, each farm is its own little compound, with dwellings walled in from each other. There are a handful of larger communities scattered along the green zone, but by and large everyone is on their own. At night on the goggles the contrast is most striking: not the large blobs of lights of town after town along the Euphrates, but rather a scattered smattering of individual pinpoints, with any large blob denoting an American or coalition base. I won’t pretend to be an expert on the different social and tribal dynamics of Sunni Arabs and Pashtuns, but from simply flying overhead it seems clear that the locals aren’t big fans of having close neighbors.
The river is where most of our GS work is done. Up in the mountains, there’s other work. With the concerted effort over the last couple of years to drive the Taliban out of the population centers, such as they are, along the river, the focus is now to the north, in the mountains and isolated valleys where we have little presence and the insurgents can work relatively unmolested. There are coalition task forces dedicated to remedying this situation, and we frequently support them by lifting troops to places they can’t get otherwise. I flew one of these as well a few days ago. Working with these guys – not Americans, not Brits, but other Commonwealth members – was interesting. They’re not out here with much; as one of them put it, they only brought “good food, and the desire to kill bad guys”. They’re good at the latter. We dropped them into a known IED manufacturing area, and within a few hours they’d found lots of bomb parts, weapons, and left 4 dead bad guys in their wake. They left without a scratch on any of them.
Anyway, off to more flying. It’s good to be doing something besides testing the same aircraft for the same problems. Game on.