Combat in Afghanistan: One soldier's perspective

In November 2001, Australia joined the United States-led coalition in the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. There was no indication that this would be Australia's longest war. For the Australian Army, Afghanistan was a proving ground and a monumental achievement. For the Australian soldier, it was a time to put into the practice the skills for which they had been trained. To commemorate the Australian Army soldiers' role in Afghanistan, an interactive website will soon be launched. 'The Longest War: The Australian Army in Afghanistan' is their story, our story  for the first time, our story in our own words.

The Land Power Forum will be publishing a series of posts from soldiers who were deployed to Afghanistan prior and to coincide with the website launch. These posts may contain graphic descriptions of their experiences. The first of these is by Major Greg Colton, who served in Afghanistan as commander of Mentoring Team Charlie, 3 RAR Task Group, between 2012 and 2013.

It is a uniquely unpleasant experience to be woken up to watch a man die. The young Afghan policeman who was brought into our patrol base that morning was sadly not the first man I have stood beside as they took their final breath, but his death had a profound impact on all the soldiers who battled valiantly to save his life. While other Australian soldiers in previous tours saw far more shooting than we did, the death of this young policeman in many ways typified the character of the combat we experienced during our time in Afghanistan.

I deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 as the commander of Mentoring Team Charlie, part of the 3 RAR Task Group. Our rotation to Afghanistan was to be the last in which Australian soldiers lived alongside the Afghan soldiers they were tasked to mentor. Our mission was not to close with and kill the enemy, but to train and mentor the Afghan National Army so that they could take over responsibility for security as the ISAF mission drew down. It was a mission that called for patience and restraint, for unwavering professionalism and a ready sense of humour. As a result, the six months were not without their frustrations. To paraphrase St Francis of Assisi, throughout the tour we were challenged to have the strength to accept the things we couldn’t change, the courage to change the things we could, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Viewed on the map, the small patch of Afghanistan we were responsible for was the Miribad Valley, a cluster of tightly grouped contour lines that stretched from the outskirts of Tarin Kowt to the Khaz Uruzghan basin, a distance of some 120 kms. As is the case almost everywhere in Afghanistan, the area of operations followed the course of the local river, which in turn was flanked by the cultivated ‘green zone’, the home to most of the civilian population that the Afghan security forces were tasked to protect. A dusty road constructed from little more than compacted dirt followed the river for much of the valley.

While both the Afghan Army and our own troops usually moved tactically through the surrounding desert, the majority of the local population was forced, through necessity, to use this road as part of their daily routines. As a result the road was often targeted with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by the Taliban, who were determined to undermine security, regardless of the cost in civilian lives. To counter this, a number of Army and police checkpoints were established along the road. Every morning local police would search their stretch of road, equipped with little more than their local knowledge and a rifle, to clear it of IEDs. We made a conscious decision to work extensively with the police as well as the Afghan National Army throughout the Miribad Valley. As a result, and due to the personalities of the local Army and police commanders, the cooperation between the two arms of the Afghan security forces within our area was excellent.

The evening before the incident had been a testing one. The US artillery at our patrol base had spent much of the night firing illumination missions into a neighboring valley to support two Afghan police posts which had come under heavy attack, a police patrol near our camp had triggered an IED, miraculously without suffering a casualty, but had opened up with small arms fire alarmingly near our joint Afghan/Australian base, and I had spent much of the night with the Afghan commanding officer providing advice as he provided support to the police. It was not until half past four in the morning that I finally got to bed. At half past six my second-in-command woke me and calmly, almost apologetically, told me the Afghan police had brought in a casualty from an IED and that it didn’t look good.

Within the patrol base we had a small medical station. It had been constructed out of plywood on earlier tours by Australian engineers, and was open at both ends, with a high wooden roof from which hung hooks ready to take saline bags. It was usually manned by one of our two combat medics, the other usually being out with one of our patrols, but as I arrived I saw that both were working on the casualty, supported by infantrymen who had been trained as combat first aiders. The casualty was a young Afghan policeman in his late teens, dressed in a grey police uniform, with bright blue eyes and a mop of dark black hair. At first glance it seemed there was not a mark on him, and he was conscious and talking. But first glances can be deceptive. That morning, he and his fellow policemen had cleared their stretch of road and found an IED which they had recovered and taken back to their outpost. They put it in the corner of a room and set about making breakfast.

The young policeman had been in the same room when the unstable main explosive charge had belatedly detonated. Although he had not received any fragmentation wounds, the blast injuries he suffered had ruptured his internal organs, causing massive injuries which ultimately would prove fatal.

My soldiers worked on him for forty minutes as we waited for a helicopter. He quickly deteriorated and lost consciousness, but the efforts of the medics and first aiders never waivered. They commenced CPR, but as they pumped air into his chest, his lungs pushed through his burst diaphragm, making working on him extremely difficult. Undaunted, the medics were still performing CPR as they put the young policeman into the helicopter. He was declared dead on arrival at the field hospital. It was half past seven, I had been awake for an hour and the cook was just serving breakfast.

I have been asked to write about our combat experience in Afghanistan. For us, combat did not consist of storming enemy trenches, seizing objectives or calling in close air support to destroy Taliban positions. Sure, we had some fleeting contacts with the insurgents, but for us combat was constant test of our professionalism. It was about soldiering in the relentless heat of an Afghan summer, carrying loads that sapped your energy every step, in the knowledge that an insidious, unseen, barely detectable IED could remove your legs the very next step. Combat, for us, was largely mental strain and, when it occurred, sudden, bloody and violent. And yet somehow the soldiers overcame all these challenges and maintained the professionalism required to mentor our Afghan partners. They performed to the highest of standards and the nation should be proud of them.

Postscript: The same evening another policeman was brought to our patrol base. He had been hit by an IED when collecting water from the river, which had caught him side on; he had lost his right eye, his right leg and arm were badly wounded, and he had taken fragmentation to his body. Our medics were determined they would not lose another man that day. He survived.

To follow the launch of 'The Longest War: The Australian Army in Afghanistan' on Twitter, join the conversation at @flwaustralia and #AustraliasLongestWar.

Major Greg Colton served in Afghanistan as commander of Mentoring Team Charlie, 3 RAR Task Group, between 2012 and 2013. He is currently posted to Future Land Warfare Branch in Army Headquarters.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government. Further information.


Comments

  • response from Bruce Cameron, MC, 1 May 2015

    Congratulations to Greg Colton for his well written article, one which engaged the reader on many fronts. I wish to comment (and possibly add a little value) on just one aspect ... improvised explosive devices (IED).   

    IEDs will continue to be used as part of both regular and irregular warfare. What is the military response to this? Electronically initiated IEDs might be able to be foiled by counter electronic devices, infra-red scans might be able to detect IEDs when air support is available; armoured fighting vehicles can be designed to minimise casualties, but what about mechanically initiated IEDs intended to inflict casualties on unprotected troops? These might be positioned in trees (or embankments), set to fire downwards (or side on, as per Major Coltan's article). 

    There used to be a requirement for all combat ready units to have a number of personnel trained in different specialist fields, eg. nuclear, biological and chemical; unit emplaning; electronic warfare, etc. Those qualified would conduct unit training as appropriate. Is 'IED' one such specialised qualification ... this person ensuring that all exercises promote the awareness of those involved in terms of the danger of IEDs and the tactics/methods needed to counter them?

    Finally, it is to be hoped that a database is being maintained with all IED incidents experienced by ADF members (or those they are mentoring). In this respect, was there a requirement for Mentoring Team Charlie, 3 RAR Task Group to submit reports re all IED incidents and were members debriefed with respect to IEDs on their return to Australia?

    Bruce Cameron is a retired Lieutenant Colonel from 1st Armoured Regiment and served in Vietnam. He wrote the book Canister! On! FIRE! : Australian Tank Operations in Vietnam