As the snow melts in the passes of the Hindu Kush, fighting season has gotten off to an unfortunate start with the loss of three Marines to a VBIED (vehicle borne improvised explosive device) attack outside of Bagram airbase. The Marines were all reservists from the 25th Regiment of the 4th Marine Corps Division, which is headquartered in Fort Devens, Massachusetts. Alex Hollings wrote a great story about them on NEWSREP which is worth a read. Why they were traveling outside the wire is unknown, but after looking at pictures of the incident I can offer an educated guess about where they were heading.
Route Bottle was the ISAF designation for an old Soviet logistics route between Bagram and Kabul. The Soviets cut it so they could avoid driving on the Shomali plan north of Kabul. The Soviets would get hammered on the Shomali plan back in the day, but that area of the country was never a problem for ISAF. When the Soviets cut their logistics road they depopulated the local villages and deployed what looked, years later, like a textbook Soviet motorized rifle regiment defense dug into the plain facing northwest towards the Shomali area. Back in 2005, old abandoned Soviet armor was still dug in beside route Bottle, but in 2007 the Afghan government collected up the thousands of tanks and personnel carriers stashed around the country and sold them to China for scrap.
The Marines were killed near a small bridge that was behind the Afghan policeman seen running in the first photo. It is a safe bet that Marines are not doing key leader engagement meeting in Parwan province (if any NATO troops are still even doing those) so my guess is they were in a convoy heading to, or coming back from Kabul.
As I mentioned in previous posts, NATO has its forces spread thinly over a large area and it is impossible to move all their logistics through the air — they don’t have enough helicopter lift. The Marines could have been in a scheduled logistical convoy between Bagram and Kabul. Being Reservists, they could have been trainers coming back from the Kabul Military Training Center which is a few miles down Jalalabad road from the terminus of route Bottle. I don’t know why they were out on the road, but I do have an observation about risk that comes via a little known historical anecdote.
On the 10th of December, 2001, a reinforced rifle company of US Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit landed in Bagram and drove to Kabul to take custody of the American Embassy. The embassy had been abandoned for 12 years and little was known about the route from Bagram to Kabul or the reception the Marines would receive when they got there. Their CO was a Lieutenant Colonel named Asad Khan, the son of a Pakistani immigrant, and well known in the Marine Corps as an exceptionally hard man. Asad was fluent in Urdu and I think he knew Dari too, so he had no problems communicating with the locals (which was rare for an American in 2001).
The Marines mounted up in old buses and Jingo trucks (maybe both — there were no military tactical vehicles in country at the time), and when they reached the dry stream bed (now with a bridge as seen in the picture above) there was a T-72 tank sitting in the bed with the muzzle pointing at them. The Marines stopped a good distance away and looked at the tank with binoculars noting it appeared to be immobile and contained a single crewman. Asad, who had no interest in shooting every abandoned Soviet tank in the area (there were hundreds sitting around the countryside back then), walked up to the tank and banged on the hatch to ask the guy inside what he wanted.
The Afghan inside insisted on a few hundred Pakistani Rupees as a toll for using his road. Asad asked the man why he wanted Rupees, and the man said he wanted to buy shoes so he could walk home to his village. Asad looked inside, and sure enough, the old man was barefoot, in December, in Parwan province, which is polar vortex kind of cold. The man asked Asad if he was a Russian. When he found out Asad and his Marines were Americans, the man said “I thought so — the Russians never had so many planes.” Asad then told the man he was heading to Kabul to open the American embassy, and when he returned he would bring him some shoes and a coat. Some Marines also produced a few MREs with instant coffee which the Afghan could brew up for a hot wet and some cigarettes.
The Afghan, having determined Asad to be not Russian and knowing he had no rounds for the tank anyway, let the Marines pass. Asad gave him his business card and told him there would be lots of Americans using this road; his job was to make sure they passed safely. He told him to show them his business card and tell them he now worked for the Marines. With that, the Marines were on their way and the Afghan cranked his empty tank barrel down and away from the road.
The Marines found the embassy untouched in the years since it was abandoned. Not only were the uniforms from the old Marine embassy guard force still in their lockers, but LtCol Khan found a pair of speed lace combat boots small enough to fit the Afghan tanker in one of them.
The lone Afghan tanker was still sitting in his tank days later when LtCol Khan returned to Bagram. He stopped and gave him the boots along with new socks, a coat, and some cash explaining that American dollars were now worth — much more than Pakistani Rupees in Afghanistan.
That story, which Asad told me years ago in Kabul, was the first thing I thought of when I saw the pictures from our most recent casualties. When Asad told me that story, I knew exactly where he was talking about and I understood how typically Afghan the story was. Afghans are like that, but I’ll tell you this: it would have been inconceivable to Asad, or myself, or probably even the Afghan tanker, that over 18 years later, a convoy of Marines would get hit by a suicide bomber driving a big-ass Toyota Land Cruiser (which are everywhere — I drove one myself) at that exact same spot.
So, the fighting season is on and already the news is not good; yet the peace talks continue. We can only hope the talks become productive, but if they do lead to a decrease in violence it will be because the Taliban decided to ramp down the fighting. I’m not seeing why the Taliban would do that, and I am not sure they could enforce a countrywide cease fire anyway. It’s going to be a long summer.