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The Fork in the Mountain Road

By Caitlin Foster   Chapter I: Hekmatullah’s Revenge   This is the opening scene of a book in progress that will document the war in...

By Caitlin Foster

 

Chapter I: Hekmatullah’s Revenge

 

This is the opening scene of a book in progress that will document the war in Afghanistan through the lives and decisions of Afghan men who served alongside the United States and allied forces. The themes of loyalty and betrayal are ever-present throughout the story.

This scene reconstructs a deadly green on blue attack, a NATO term for an attack by members of the Afghanistan security forces against the troops assigned to train them. Beyond this scene, the first chapter will introduce the very different relationship that developed between Afghan interpreters and the troops with whom they served. 

 

Twenty-three gunshots rang out in the night. Or was it 30? The quick flashes of light bursting from the rifle’s muzzle were not enough to illuminate the shooter, who remained shrouded in darkness. The two men who returned fire—the only two who could quickly access their weapons—fired in the wrong direction, spraying bullets into a void. Chaos ensued; some men rushed to grab their rifles, a natural reaction when soldiers come under enemy fire. Others ran to secure the watchtowers overlooking the scene. When the shooting stopped, some ran to assist the five men who had been wounded. Occupied by these efforts, the responders could not have noticed the solitary figure of a man, quietly slipping out into the endless Afghan night.

 

“A Sensible Decision”

 

India 21, a platoon of Australian soldiers, arrived at Patrol Base Wahab just one day before the attack, on August 28, 2012. The small outpost, located in central Afghanistan’s Uruzgan[1] province, was home to a tolay, a company-sized unit of the Afghanistan National Army. The Australian platoon was a 24-man subset of Mentoring Team Bravo, which had deployed in June 2012[2] as part of a larger, NATO-led mission to train and mentor members of the Afghanistan security forces.

The coalition of forces, comprised of troops from 50 countries aligned under NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), were sent to Afghanistan with the goal of preparing Afghan forces to take over the defense of their country against insurgent threats. As part of this effort, the Australian team deployed its platoons, including India 21, to three patrol bases throughout Uruzgan’s Baluchi valley, shortly after arriving in Afghanistan. The valley had a bad reputation among the troops—hot, humid and isolated. The area, approximately 250 miles south of Kabul, is just north of Helmand province, the most dangerous region in Afghanistan and a stronghold of the Taliban. The Australian mission came at a critical time. During Ramadan, Afghan security forces would typically reduce their patrols, allowing the Taliban to gain strength in their absence. The Australians sought to encourage their trainees to increase their efforts and maintain control of the region.

Although they would share the same base, international troops generally limited their interactions with the Afghans, partnering for patrols and training events but remaining physically separated at night. This was especially true during India 21’s deployment, when green on blue attacks, NATO’s term for insider attacks committed by members of the Afghan security forces against the troops training them, reached their peak.[3]

When India 21 left their Forward Operating Base near Uruzgan’s capital city[4], which housed Mentoring Team Bravo, they knew they were headed into unknown territory. Although Patrol Base Wahab had hosted Australian troops in the past, none of them were members of Australia’s conventional army—which meant the mentoring team could not access records of these previous patrols.[5]

The platoon commander, Lieutenant Dominic Lopez, had access to aerial photographs of the base, but understood the limitations they presented. He would have to establish a security plan for his troops upon arrival, adapt to the layout of the base and consider the location of entry and exit points, coverage provided by watchtowers and the spaces occupied by the Afghan National Army troops.

Lopez discovered, upon his platoon’s arrival in the mid-afternoon on August 28, that it would be impossible to separate his troops completely from their Afghan counterparts.

 

  1. The base was shaped like a figure 8, with an open area at each end, joined by a much narrower ‘neck.’ The Afghan end of the base consisted of a number of substantial buildings including barracks and headquarters and was overseen by guard towers. This end of the compound also had entry/exit points for personnel, each with a ground-level guard post.

 

  1. To the other end of the compound there were two buildings and three guard towers. This end also included an entry and exit point for vehicles.

 

  1. The two ends of the compound were at substantially different elevations and the end of the compound the Australians ultimately occupied was substantially higher. Given this area was some distance away from the main accommodation of the Afghan soldiers, this was a sensible decision.[6]

 

 

India 21 would occupy the northern, higher part of the base. Here, the Australians set up a harbor, a term used to describe a makeshift area surrounded by their vehicles. At night, the area would be illuminated by small white lights, positioned at the perimeter facing inward. In this somewhat protected area, the soldiers would perform administrative functions, workout, relax after their patrols and sleep. Ideally, Lopez and Platoon Sergeant Adam Burke would have preferred total separation—with the Afghans occupying the southern part of the base and the Australians maintaining their own area to the north. But to do this would have required the platoon commander to remove some of the Afghans from their northern accommodations, an order he was not eager to give.

“So I made the decision that it would not be possible to segregate the base to have ANA down this area and Australians up this area,” he would later say. Kicking the Afghans out of their quarters was not the first impression he wanted to make. Doing so, he feared, could compromise the relationship his troops hoped to build with their trainees.

The platoon’s leaders also quickly realized they did not have enough men to provide round-the-clock sentries to man the watchtowers. They decided to use Australians during the day, and Afghan troops throughout the night. Both were uncomfortable with these decisions and recognized the threat to their men’s security, but also felt they had no other choice. What neither man knew was that their decisions violated a recently issued NATO order, an element that would later make them accountable when their platoon came under attack.

Fragmentary Order[7] 13, issued by NATO in early August, attempted to correct deficiencies in ISAF force protection efforts.[8] It set new rules for interactions between Afghan and coalition troops, designed specifically to deter and defend against insider threats. Included was the requirement for total segregation of forces as well as the mandate to employ two “guardian angels” – roving armed watchmen to patrol any areas occupied by coalition forces. The order never reached the platoon commander.

India 21’s leadership was also unaware that just before their departure, an intelligence officer within Mentoring Team Bravo had been assigned to conduct a threat assessment on Patrol Base Wahab. Intelligence submitted the assessment up the chain of command—meaning it would never reach Lopez, the commander of a subordinate unit—in the afternoon of 29 August 2012, mere hours before the attack. The threat risk had been assessed as “HIGH.”[9]

The men of India 21 could not have known the risks outlined in the forthcoming assessment. In their first interactions with the tolay hosting them, they saw no reason to suspect their trainees. The men set up their harbor, protected by two watch standers, and settled in for the night.

 

“His existence was unremarkable”

 

The next morning, the Australians and Afghans conducted what was to be their first patrol together. During the day, the temperature exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Although it began to fall as they returned to base, it remained around 70 F throughout the night.[10] Due to the heat, Lopez authorized his men to trade their heavy gear for more casual t-shirts and shorts. Even their guardian angel, the roving armed watch-stander, wore this casual attire underneath his rifle and body armor. For the remainder of the day, the forces intermingled, Afghan soldiers casually wandering in and out of the Australian spaces. They acted in typical fashion for soldiers when not engaged in combat: Trading their unit patches,[11] using the makeshift gym, and playing card or board games together.

The camaraderie seemed to be exceptional, during the patrol and after. The platoon’s leaders both saw this as a positive sign of mission accomplishment.

“Building a good relationship is the foundation of mentoring,” Lopez would later tell investigators. Later still, he would remark that although he was happy with the relationship between his soldiers and the Afghans, the ability for their hosts to roam freely throughout the Australian part of the base unsettled him. “I didn’t feel it appropriate to tell them to go away, but it was something that at the time I thought I would speak to the tolay commander and put some restrictions on where they can and can’t go. But it’s something that I didn’t do immediately.”[12]

Sergeant Hekmatullah was one of the Afghan soldiers seen in the Australian administrative spaces that evening. An “unremarkable”[13] soldier, he spent the afternoon in the gym and later sat with the Australians on their stretchers, watching as they played card games. Before long, Hekmatullah left the area to take up arms; his time to stand the watch had come.

But when Hekmatullah retrieved his rifle, he did not report to his tower for watch.

Instead, he grabbed his M-16A2, took cover about five meters away from the Australian administrative area, and fired two bursts of 10-15 bullets into the men from India 21.

The Australians couldn’t tell exactly where the bullets were coming from. Because of the lighting arrangement, it was hard for soldiers inside of the administrative area to see beyond its perimeter. As the bullets flew, the guardian angel returned fire toward the northern watch tower, as did Sgt. Burke. Both believed the attacker was positioned near the tower, which faced southward and overlooked the Australian harbor. Both were wrong.

The Australians quickly reacted, grabbing their weapons and rushing to clear and secure the three watch towers overlooking their part of the patrol base. The Afghan soldiers who had been guarding the towers were moved to the southern half of the base. Within minutes, India 21 gained tactical control and secured the base’s northern segment.

They were not quick enough; two Australian soldiers, aged 21 and 23, died instantly during the attack.

As the Australians scrambled to identify the position of attacker, Hekmatullah was able to drop his rifle and slip away under the cover of night.[14]

When it was apparent the shooting had stopped, the surviving members of India 21 gave first aid to their wounded and requested a medical evacuation. Less than half an hour after the attack started, the helicopter arrived to transfer the casualties back to the Forward Operating Base near Tirin Kowt. There, after over half an hour of surgery, a third soldier was declared dead.

 

Aftermath of an Attack

 

Although the dust had settled at Patrol Base Wahab, the Australians and Afghans serving there got no rest that evening. The Australian Defence Force sent back-up teams, including a Special Operations element, to assist with security efforts while a NATO team investigated the attack. The team was sent from the regional headquarters that oversaw all operations in Uruzgan province. This would be the first of five investigations of the green on blue, including one conducted by the Afghanistan National Army. India 21’s 10-day mentoring mission was cut short: All coalition forces withdrew from Wahab on August 30, 2012.[15]

Each of these inquiries unearthed sparse details about the attacker. The Afghan National Army, which conducts background checks for its own forces, reportedly discovered during their investigation that Sgt. Hekmatullah had family ties to the Taliban. But this was unknown to the Australians, and the Afghan authorities never released details or the documents they claimed as proof of this connection.

To the Australians, the attack came suddenly and without provocation. Sgt. Burke believed camaraderie between the coalition forces and their trainees was better than most. Throughout the investigations, everyone interviewed would say the same. Across Afghanistan, coalition troops tended to offend their Afghan counterparts, insulting the mostly untrained forces and disrespecting their culture and religion. In early 2012, American personnel stationed at an air base in Afghanistan had thrown bags filled with Qur’ans into a burn pit. The event sparked three days of riots, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans and over 30 Afghans.[16]

Patrol Base Wahab seemed isolated from these problems. The Australians were respectful and did not insult or offend the tolay hosting them. The pressing question for India 21, as for many units that experienced green on blue attacks, was why.

 

The Sergeant Who Snapped

 

Sergeant Hekmatullah felt the rage building. He took no issue with the Australians on his base, but as he watched the video of Americans burning piles of the Qur’an, a spark of hatred ignited in his own heart. The images stayed with him throughout the afternoon. The coalition had promised to rebuild his country and help the Afghans drive out the Taliban. Instead, they burned Qur’ans and drew images of the Prophet. The burning incident hd been in February. But Hekmatullah saw the video for himself at 3 p.m. on August 29, 2012.[17]

He roamed in and out of the Australians’ spaces for the rest of the day, using their gym and watching as they played cards. The Australians were not involved in the burnings, but it was too late. The spark had grown, fueled by the images replaying in his mind. Hekmatullah knew he would soon retrieve his rifle to stand watch; then, he decided, would be the perfect moment to get his revenge.

He knew they could not see him in the darkness, blinded by the glow of white lights. He stood only meters away, lifted his rifle, and emptied almost an entire magazine into a small group of men playing cards.

As the Australians scrambled to secure the base and attend to their wounded, Hekmatullah fled the scene and went into hiding. He knew the Australians would be searching for him; he climbed a mulberry tree and waited, motionless, as helicopters circled overhead.[18]

When the night passed, Hekmatullah would later recount, he got help from a local man who put him in connection with members of the Taliban. First by motorcycle and later under the backseat of a pick-up truck, the Taliban men drove Hekmatullah across the border into Quetta, Pakistan, where he found work.

After six months, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, with help from an international coalition of intelligence services, tracked him down. Hekmatullah was captured in February 2013 and delivered back to Afghan authorities that October.[19]

Uncertainty is perhaps the common thread in all green on blue incidents. Hekmatullah’s relationship to the Taliban, the extent of planning, whether he was fueled by a personal interaction or a video he had seen—all are details gleaned in hindsight, distorted by time and potential ulterior motives. The record of this killer, whether an infiltrator or a religious martyr, is from 2015, when he had been sentenced to death and was awaiting execution. His name was Sergeant Hekmatullah, and his fate remains a mystery.[20]

But the impact of his attack is certain. Three families grieving the loss of their sons: Sapper James Martin, Private Robert Poate and Lance Corporal Stjepan Milosevic. The survivors include Lt. Lopez and Sgt. Burke, the remaining members of India 21 – and an uncertain number of Afghan interpreters who were embedded with the unit and were on the base.[21]

 

 

[1] This is the spelling used by the United Nations. Seen elsewhere “Oruzgan.”

[2] Office of the State Coroner Findings of Inquest. John Lock, Queensland Deputy State Coroner. 22 September 2015. (1).

[3] The nomenclature is derived from typical military jargon—NATO would refer to its troops as blue forces. Green would be assigned to an allied unit, in this case the Afghan forces, who are partners for a mission or training event but fall outside the “blue” chain of command.

[4] Forward Operating Base Sorkh Bid is about 20 miles from Tirin Kowt, Uruzgan’s capital.

[5] It is possible the previous units were members of Australian Special Forces, which might explain why conventional forces would not have access to these records, but I have not been able to confirm this.

[6] Office of the State Coroner Findings of Inquest. John Lock, Queensland Deputy State Coroner. 22 September 2015. (17-18).

[7] Fragmentary Orders typically change or add to overarching Operational Orders (OPORDs), which govern large-scale military operations. The FRAGO is meant to adjust only a fragment of the OPORD while leaving the rest unchanged. This allows the military to make slight changes while not requiring their troops to read entirely new OPORDs, which can be quite long and detailed.

[8] Queensland State Coroner’s Inquiry. Deputy State Coroner John Lock. 22 September 2015. (12-17).

[9] Queensland State Coroner’s Inquiry. (15).

[10] Australian Defence Force Inquiry Officer’s Report. (18). The temperatures in this report conflict with those provided in the Coroner’s inquiry, which set the daytime temperature at 122 F, dropping to 100 F at night. Based on average temperatures for Uruzgan during August, these estimates would have been exceptionally high.

[11] Military units have unique “patches” with Velcro backing that they wear on their uniforms. When units from different services or countries meet, they typically trade these items as mementos of their experience. More of a symbolic gesture, this small exchange is a sign of camaraderie and encouraged to build rapport.

[12] Both quotes provided in the Australian Defence Force Inquiry Officer’s Report. (35) and (33) respectively.

[13] Australian Defence Force Inquiry Report. (11).

[14] It is unclear whether he climbed over the base perimeter wall or left via the base’s vehicle entrance, located a short distance from the harbor area.

[15] Both inquiry reports state the Australians withdrew completely from Wahab. The Coroner’s report states “Further forays to [patrol base] Wahab ceased.” (20). It is unclear from these reports if this was a temporary cessation. The Australians remained in Uruzgun province, but it is possible that their troops never returned to Wahab.

[16] “Koran Burning in NATO Error Incites Afghans.” Sangar Rahimi and Alissa J. Rubin. The New York Times. Feb. 21, 2012. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/22/world/asia/nato-commander-apologizes-for-koran-disposal-in-afghanistan.html

[17] “Disgraced Sergeant Hekmatullah shows no remorse for killing of Australian diggers.” Jeremy Kelly. Published January 14, 2014. http://www.news.com.au/disgraced-sergeant-hekmatullah-shows-no-remorse-for-killing-of-australian-diggers/news-story/34c754229927867954340c5323b7750e. The News Corps report is the only account available thus far that shows Sgt. Hekmatullah’s account. These details, and those that follow, are from an interview conducted by the reporter with Sgt. Hekmatullah. The interview was conducted inside Pol-e Charkhi prison in Kabul.

[18] http://www.news.com.au/disgraced-sergeant-hekmatullah-shows-no-remorse-for-killing-of-australian-diggers/news-story/34c754229927867954340c5323b7750e.

[19] “How super-spies tracked down rogue Afghan Sergeant Hekmatullah.” Ian McPhedran and Patrick Lion. News Corps Australia Network. Published October 3, 2013. http://www.news.com.au/world/how-superspies-tracked-down-rogue-afghan-sergeant-hekmatullah/news-story/05a6b28a515bfd0925b211fc63ff88e9.

[20] Sergeant Hekmatullah was sentenced to death under Afghanistan law in 2013. As of 2015, he was still awaiting execution, as noted in the coroner’s report published in September of that year. In Afghanistan, executions require presidential approval, and as of Hekmatullah’s sentencing it was questioned whether President Harmid Karzai would sign off on the sentence. I have yet to obtain more recent documents or reports that update his status.

[21] Australian Defence Force Inquiry Officer’s Report. (9). This report contains the only mention of the interpreters embedded with India 21. The exact number of Afghans serving in this capacity has been redacted.