Jon Hemming has been Reuters chief correspondent in Afghanistan for just over a year and traveling, when conditions allow, across the country. Before moving to Afghanistan, Jon worked for Reuters in London, Tehran, Ankara and Istanbul. In the following story, he tells of an experience traveling in a convoy of U.S. troops through the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, a hot-bed of Taliban insurgents.
By Jon Hemming
KABUL (Reuters) - Intelligence reports said insurgents planned an ambush or might have planted an Improvised Explosive Device under the bridge west of Kandahar so a patrol was sent to check it out.
"Probably bulls---," said the U.S. major. "But we got to go take a look."
That meant driving four armored vehicles through the centre of Kandahar, the Taliban's former de-facto capital in southern Afghanistan and still a city where insurgents take pot-shots at international troops or blow themselves up in suicide attacks.
Normally as a reporter driving around Kabul, I take great care to avoid being anywhere near a foreign military convoy as they are the Taliban's favorite target. But when you're inside a Humvee, the tables are turned and you can't help looking on every taxi driver or motorcycle rider as a potential attacker who might try to take your life with his.
"Watch the guy on the right," the major sitting in the front seat tells the top cover gunner through the intercom. A taxi driver who was about to pull onto the road quickly slams into reverse and backs up to demonstrate his lack of evil intent.
"That kid just gave me the finger," says the TC (top cover gunner). "A--hole. I swear I'm gonna slot one of these kids one day." Silence, then: "I got a bad feeling about today."
Something hits the windscreen. "Was that a piece of s--- someone threw?" asks the major.
"Don't know sir," says the driver, in a dead-pan tone. "There's still some stuck to the hood though if you'd care to take a closer look."
"Where is everyone today?" asks the colonel, coming through on the radio from another vehicle.
"It's time for their afternoon nap, sir," replies the major.
We swing through town, cars, trucks, motorbikes and bicycles careering onto the verges as the top cover in the vehicle in front waves them aside and the major hits the police-style lights and sirens strapped to our Humvee.
"ONLY THUMBS DOWN"
"Hey did you see that?" the major says, obviously encouraged. "That little girl was pumping the well with one hand and giving us the thumbs up with the other."
"I don't see thumbs up anymore, sir," says the top cover. "Only thumbs down."
We reach the bridge, drive down to the river bank beneath its supporting pillars, and are greeted by a sylvan scene, something like a Constable painting with an Afghan twist.
Two young boys are thrashing a herd of goats with sticks as big as themselves. Someone has driven a minibus into the shallows and is washing off the dust and grime. Two men have stripped to the waist and are bathing, downstream from both the bus and the goats.
The major and ‘terp' (interpreter) climb out. I don't think we're about to be ambushed given all the people happily hanging out, but I stay in the Humvee just in case and listen to the intercom chatter.
One man lies asleep on the ground, oblivious as the major -- looking like a science-fiction figure in camouflage, flak jacket, wraparound sunglasses and helmet -- steps over him to inspect the bridge.
"Do you think that guy's dead?" asks the driver.
"If I put a bullet in him and he moves, then we'll find out," answers the top cover.
A couple of curious Afghan National Police (ANP) appear at the other end of the bridge.
"Two guys with guns, 9 o'clock," the TC calls out.
"Naah, they're just ANP," says the driver. "They got ANP uniforms on anyway and they're not shooting at us."
"They'd be pretty dumb to try," says the TC who has both a machine-gun and a Mark 19 grenade launcher capable of firing 60 grenades a minute. Plus a pistol strapped to his leg that is next to my head. "Do you think I could take out that ANP guy with my 9mm?"
"HEARTS AND MINDS"
There was nothing doing under the bridge so we turned round and headed back into town.
More children stood at the roadside. Some gave us the thumbs up, some the thumbs down, another one gave us the finger, then one threw something and hit TC full on. He must have a great aim to hit a guy whose head only just pokes above the armor, and a moving target too.
"S---, what was that?" asks the major who caught some of the ‘shrapnel'.
"That was a potato, sir," replies the driver in his customary monotone. "There's a piece on the radio there."
"Why are they throwing potatoes? That's food," the major ponders.
"Maybe they think we're hungry, sir," comes back the driver.
"A--holes," interjects the TC.
"When they give you the finger, you should smile and wave back at them," advises the major, perhaps suddenly remembering the reporter sitting silently in the back.
"Fight fire with fire, that's what I say," says the TC, obviously not on message.
"Hearts and minds, remember, hearts and minds," replies the major jovially. Now I'm even more sure this is for my benefit and wonder how many hearts and minds we have won today.
"I've had three fingers, I don't know how many thumbs down, two rocks and a potato today," says the TC as we arrive back at base as if to sum up our score-card.
Still no one shot at us, we didn't hit any IEDs and no one suffered any wounds, not even from the potato. Numbed from the heat, I climb out of the Humvee with everyone else.
My shirt, socks, underwear are all soaking with sweat.
BOOM! I instinctively duck, though by the time I do it would be too late.
The TC somehow fired off a grenade while trying to clear the weapon. There was a chunk missing from the brickwork in the wall only a meter or so above everyone's heads.
The TC was holding his head. "No, no," he kept saying softly to himself. This young guy who had minutes before seemed so eager to shoot someone was now a nervous wreck at the thought he could have killed his comrades in a stupid accident. I stood wondering why I and the others were not peppered with shrapnel.
"It's OK, it doesn't arm until it has traveled a certain distance," said the colonel striding up, full of authority, as if reading my thoughts.
Two months later, I know that at least one of the men in our convoy is now dead, killed by a massive roadside bomb.
The success of Western governments' policies in Afghanistan ultimately rests on the shoulders of some very young men. They are very brave, and mostly very professional, but expected to be killers one minute and diplomats the next. That is a lot to ask.
(Editing by Sara Ledwith)