Our embed with Alpha Company 2-28 in Sar Howza ended with a highlight. On Friday afternoon we found ourselves riding a green Afghan police Ford pickup truck with one of the most respected – and probably feared – mujahedeen of Eastern Afghanistan.
In the early afternoon a convoy of MRAPs left the base in Sar Howza heading down the main road to Orgun. I for the first time was riding in the armoured lorry the soldier’s call a LMTV. It’s more spacious and you have a much better sight out the windows than sitting in an MRAP. The downside is: you have much less protection against IEDs or RPGs.
Our mission was to deliver a metal dam gate to a remote village to the southeast of Sar Howza called Shatowry, not that far from Paktika’s biggest city Orgun. The unit that had been manning the COP Sar Howza before 2-28 took over in July got into a heavy fire fight with insurgents when they attempted to do the same in June.
Welcome to Shangri-La
The village we delivered the gate to was more like a spread out hamlet along a river carrying only little water at this time of the year. The guys and I in the lorry drove up all the way along a winding path not built for the huge machines to a square building with loudspeakers on top, which turned out to be a mosque.
This little village seemed like a green refuge on the slope of the mountains hidden away from the dusty road to Orgun. This place was a bit like I imagine Shangri-La, the mysterious place from the novel of the same title, would be like. There was a certain calm about it. It seemed untouched by the war. The men and boys that gathered around us were very welcoming.
At that point just one MRAP and our lorry were parked in front of the mosque. The other soldiers had dismounted down by the river. We were being escorted by a translator and cultural adviser we had picked up from the brigade headquarters in Sharana the previous day.
Meet the Mullah
We hadn’t been parking up there for long when a relatively old man with a long beard, a turban and sunglasses came walking up the road towards where we were waiting. From his aura it was immediately clear that this was the man Captain Perkins had referred to as the big don nobody messes with – Mullah Tuti.
This man who is closing in on eighty and already has had a quadruple bypass made his name in the 1980s fighting the Russians. He is accredited with having captured a whole Russian convoy of Tanks and armoured vehicles.
Once earning his respect as a military commander, he still is one of the most respected religious and moral authorities in this region today. He has been approached by the head of the Taliban Mullah Omar and he has been invited by the Afghan President Hamid Karzai – both seeking his support.
Take a ride
This rather short man is the guy you want to have on your side if you want to get anything done in this region. Apart from delivering the flood gate, this mission was to garner the Mullah’s support for the peace process with the Taliban.
If somebody can give instant weight to a peace shura where all the elders of the region meet then it is this man. So, after Captain Perkins and the Mullah had a chat in front of the mosque and the villagers had taken the metal flood gate from the back of the lorry the Mullah invited us to go and see the dam, higher up in the mountains.
Some sort of strange euphoria was in the air. In a minutes time Axel and me were sitting on in the back of the Afghan police pickup truck. I was holding on to specialist and army photographer Jacob Cohrs, racing up the hill on a seriously treacherous stretch mountain path.
With us in the open truck bed we had two deputies of the Mullah, one agricultural adviser and a young Afghan police officer standing up clinging on to a heavy Russian built machine gun mounted on the roof of the truck. The cultural adviser, Captain Perkins and the Mullah had taken their seats in the front cabin alongside the driver and two police officers.
We were literally clinging on to each other for our lives. The police driver was heading up the narrow washed out slope like a berserker to the sound of tires losing their grip on the steep dusty slope filled with potholes. I was sitting on the side of the truck.
At some point the vehicle was bouncing so violently I thought I was going to fly over board. It was a good thing I had my helmet and body armour on. If I went flying off the truck I would break some bones but probably wouldn’t be fatally injured.
After we had gotten hold of the situation and what we were doing a second worry popped up in our minds. Axel asked me: “Do you think what we are doing here is a good idea?”. I gave it a brief moments thought:
We were somewhere in the remotest region of Eastern Afghanistan. We had jumped onto a pickup truck with one of the most feared Mullahs of the region and were driving at break neck speed up a steep mountain trail to an unknown destination …
“I’m not quite sure”, I answered back to Axel. I was contemplating how big a chance we had of winning a fire fight against determined Taliban. If I counted correctly, we had the firepower of two M4 assault rifles and Perkins pistol.
The Afghan police surely had their AK-47 rifles and the big ass machine gun. But would they be willing to defend these infidels against the Taliban with their lives? We had no means of communicating with the convoy and soldiers we left behind in the village.
This seemed to be a very stupid thing to do. Then I thought: “We are with the single most respected guy in this area, even the most rogue of Taliban respected, or rather feared. No Talib would be bold enough to try and harm the guests of this man.
We got to the stone dam a couple of hundred feet uphill in the mountains above the village surrounded by a beautiful mountain landscape. We inspected the 30 by 5 meters structure for which the flood gate had been constructed. Down below, only a trickle of water was flowing downstream.
Standing on the dam the Mullah was telling anecdotes to Captain Perkins and the cultural adviser. Axel and I were so taken by the whole experience we shot the occasional photo but seemed like in trance breathing the thin mountain air – just hoping we would get back to the village unharmed.
After 15 minutes we made our way back to the pickup truck. The Mullah was joking that he had at his disposal some bounty that surely was worth a few million dollars – laughing all the way to the truck. Racing down hill the driver switched on his blue light.
Tea at the mosque
The Mullah invited us to the mosque for a glass of tea and a chat. He and his men went in to the two room building with high ceilings and red carpets. We took off our body armour and helmets and sat down on the floor in the first room, while in the adjacent room the Mullah and his men were praying.
A short while later, they came over and to my surprise the Mullah sat down right between me and the Captain. The cultural adviser sat down in front of us and started explaining that the Axel and I had come from Germany and we would like to ask him some questions.
I fingered the side pockets of my trousers. To my dismay I realised I had lost my voice recorder somewhere along the way. I got my notebook out and started off by thanking the Mullah for having us as his guests today.
Abraham and Reagan
The Mullah replied, he hadn’t even slaughtered a goat for us yet. And he went on to explain that the Pashtunwali, the Pashtun social code, commanded him to respect his guests. And also, Abraham had set the example for Muslims to treat their guests well and share.
I said: “Thanks anyway”. I dared to ask the first question and wanted to know whether he would come to the shura to be held the next day in Sar Howza. “Okay. Even if I don’t have a car, I will walk”, he answered jokingly.
You would imagine one of the fiercest former Mujahedeen in the country to be a grave and serious man. Instead this fellow sitting next to me was in high spirits cracking jokes all the time having a laugh with his guests.
He went on to tell us the story of how he as a military commander with one of the seven big mujahedeen organisations fighting the Russians was invited by former President Ronald Reagan to Washington in the 1980s. He said that one of them, Mohammed Yunus Khalis, was a very simple fellow.
The other fighters though of it as a bad idea and advised against it but Khalis actually went on to ask Reagan, who he thought of as an honourable man: “Why don’t you just become a Muslim?” The president replied: “You just keep your religion and I keep mine”.
The tee served was sweet. At one point the Mullah made a big old burp. One of the elders who had taken seats on the other side of the room spoke up. “You should definitely hold on to the man in your middle. He is the greatest of all Taliban”. The whole room cracked up in laughter.
The Mullah went on to tell more stories. One was about how the Taliban had taken prisoners and acted like “animals”. And how he stepped in to free the 50 or so prisoners they had taken just before the holy month of Ramadan. Even the government of Afghanistan treated their prisoners with more respect the Mullah said, indicating contempt for both sides.
After half an hour our the talk slowed. The Mullah looked over to me and said something smiling. I found myself smiling back and nodding. The interpreter said: “The Mullah invites us for a meal for which he would have goats slaughtered and we could stay the night as his guests”. Would we accept?
Captain Perkins saved the day by diplomatically pointing out that there was still some urgent business for him to take care of back at the outpost. The Mullah accepted the excuse and we all rose to our feet. I had severe pins and needles having sat with crossed legs for the whole meeting.