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In Afghanistan’s Logar province, a plea for air support

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On their arrival in Afghanistan in 2003, Canadian troops patrolled Kabul in jeeps. By 2007, when I first visited Canadian forces, they were patrolling in armored trucks that had robotic machine guns on the roof and were backed by tanks.

This week, I joined elements of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Cavalry Regiment operating out of Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shank in Logar Province on a visit to a U.S. base in nearby Pul-e Alam. The base had recently been handed over to the Afghan army. We would be joined there by Logar Gov. Niaz Mohammad Amiri, other local dignitaries and politicians, Afghan army brass and local police. Among our delegation were two colonels and one journalist – me.

We drove out of Shank with our usual heavily-armored convoy. It was a mix of seven-ton armored vehicles called RG-33s and 16-ton Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, that had soldiers on 50 caliber machine guns sticking out of the top. In the back sat a U.S Special Forces soldier  — I’m not allowed to name him, so I’ll call him Capt. White — and Javad, his interpreter.

White had the look of your classic competent special forces soldier. Forearms like Popeye’s, a plethora of high-end gear and a beard of the pointy persuasion. Javad had the look of somebody’s favorite uncle, and he said he had only two days left in his tour. He was an Afghan-American who immigrated to the United States 20 years ago.

There were two infantrymen in the back as well. One monitored a system that remotely controlled the machine gun mounted atop the vehicle and scanned a video monitor, constantly sweeping the roadsides looking for threats as we rolled along.

Afghans who live near FOB Shank have become so used to seeing massive, slow-moving convoys on their roads that they drive around them rather than slow down. It all seems so friendly that it would be easy for the U.S. gunners to let their guard down, but they know from experience that any of the darting Toyota Corollas could be a car bomb.

I did this sketch of White (above) as he stared out the back window at things only he could see. He was constantly monitoring something, but I couldn’t figure out what.

We arrived at Pul-e Alam to find the former Navy SEAL base looking like it had been hard-used over its years of service; now it was almost completely empty. Both colonels sat in the former kitchen area with the governor and talked about how the Americans might help bring the base back online for Afghan forces.

The number of “blue-on-green” attacks — when Afghan soldiers or police kill coalition personnel — has dropped since its peak in 2012. But whether that represents a diminished threat or a lack of opportunity because of limited contact between the two sides or increased security is open to debate. The two colonels were guarded by soldiers with serious firepower, and the Afghan governor and dignitaries had their own version of the same. Meetings like this are always paranoid, tense encounters, with every security guard monitoring each other, while barely making eye contact.

I sat to one side and sketched the officials gathered around the freshly wiped plastic table. There was plenty of time. Conversations through interpreters are always long-winded affairs.  It can feel like hours just to get through the introductions, and any misunderstandings can be laborious to repair.

The governor seemed most interested in having someone who understood the generators, which the SEALs had left behind, train some of the Afghans in how they operated.

After getting my fill of resolute Afghan faces and colonels checking their watches, I stepped out into the searing heat. In front of an empty block of dorms sat Pvt. Jerry Cano of Culver City, Utah, pulling security duty in a chair, M4 rifle in his lap. I sat on the floor by him and did what I usually do: sketch.

Our next stop was a district police station in Baraki Barak, where we were to drop in for a chat with police commander Abdul Hakim Ashqzia. The route was narrow but paved. It wound its way uphill through high-walled grape fields and orchards before eventually curving through the bustling town. Residents walked nonchalantly between the armored vehicles.

But the same sense of paranoia was palpable here within the police station grounds. The colonels sat with the Afghans for tea and a frank exchange of ideas on the future.

The police in Baraki Barak had previously worked closely with the U.S. Navy SEALs who had just withdrawn from Pul-e Alam, depending on them to call in Coalition air support during the regular Taliban attacks. “Whenever I called them, they were awake and answered my call … I wondered: ‘When do they sleep?’”  Ashqzia said.

He spoke of recent rumors that 200 Taliban fighters in the area were planning to carry out multiple car bomb attacks on all district police checkpoints at once, and of concerns that the Taliban had gotten their hands on night-vision goggles.

The police commander ended the meeting with one final entreaty. “In one more month, fighting season ends. So for one more month, please don’t leave us alone when we need air support,” he said.

On the road back from Baraki Barak, I went to work on a sketch of Ramirez that I had started on the way out that morning. His head was nodding, as if he was falling asleep sitting up. We were about 10 minutes into our journey when a loud boom that made my stomach drop pulsed through our armored vehicle and a cloud of dust obscured the one ahead of us.

“IED, IED!” Ramirez shouted into the radio, using the acronym for improvised explosive device. The gunner leaned into the middle of the truck so he could see out the front to the vehicle which had hit the mine. White, the special forces captain, ordered the gunner — using profanities that cannot be printed here — to man the remote-controlled gun and glue their eyes to the windows and video monitor.

For a couple of minutes, there was little sound but the noise of the diesel engine. Then an order came to dismount, and Ramirez and White dropped out the back. Javad and I were left in the back, looking out the side windows nervously.

It turned out that the vehicle ahead of us had struck a pressure plate that triggered an IED. “It was possibly buried some time ago and then armed by a cellphone to target a specific vehicle,” White said. The lead vehicle in most convoys has a mine roller system that should detonate any pressure plate, but it is possible to circumvent that protection by not arming the device until the mine roller vehicle has passed by.

Out the front window I could see the U.S. infantrymen walking slowly along the road. We rolled along behind. Because I couldn’t really think what else to do, I sketched Javad, who sat waiting, just two days from the end of his tour.

The damage to the vehicle meant that it couldn’t be driven, but it had done its job protecting the occupants. “The MRAP saved their lives. No one was seriously injured … they only received minor concussions,” said Lt. Levi Roudebush.

The United States will hand over 212 MRAPs to the Afghan army by the end of 2014. On average, four Afghan service members die every day, most from IED attacks. The armored vehicles are supposed to play a vital role in reducing those casualties.

To get us out of a possible ambush situation, one vehicle dragged the damaged one using a towline. The rest of the convoy followed, rolling slowly over the 5-foot wide, 3-foot deep crater in the asphalt roadway.

“I don’t think everyone else realized that we were also taking small arms fire from the rear, too. That is why you saw me immediately jump out of the top hatch, and heard me snap at the young gunner,” said White.

Even with the U.S. drawdown – or “retrograde,” in military-speak – in full swing, American soldiers are by no means safe in their bases. The danger has become more focused. Even as U.S. armor and security have grown more sophisticated over the years, the Taliban has found ways to defeat it.

An unfortunate side effect of coalition troops’ increased armor is that interaction between the average Afghan villager and the average coalition soldier is now very unlikely. It is very difficult for a person wearing sandals not to see someone in a tank as an invader.

I sketched what remained of the bombed MRAP the next morning.

More of my Drawing the Drawdown dispatches from Afghanistan are featured in this special App, which allows you to use your cursor to hover over the sketches and see the detail.

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