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Jeff's Afghan Diary: Hunting the Taliban
October 28, 2007

      The Mission, Part II:  The Camel Train.

      In July, I was part of a team sent up into the mountains to hunt the Taliban in an area north of Do China, with a contingent of US and ABP forces.  We were shot at then, and ever since, we have been planning, plotting and scheming on how to return to this same area and route the Taliban from there.  We finally came up with a plan, and executed it.  It featured a huge experiment: we would go up the mountain with camels to carry the ammo, food and water we thought we would need for an extended mission.

      I remember the day I suggested we try using camels to pursue the Taliban.  One of the chief ABP commanders listened to me and laughed out loud at the idea.  But the US commander of the infantry troops in Do China took my idea seriously.  To my thinking, the Taliban used camels for their supplies, so why couldn’t we?  We started looking into finding camels in the area and how we might incorporate them into a mountain mission.

      On the last mission, we had encountered a logistical problem: Soldiers can only carry so much gear, especially uphill wearing our heavy body armor.  On the last mission, everyone was so drained after the climb that it impacted our battle capability.  The US commander wanted to find some way of carrying enough gear for a longer period of time without exhausting every Soldier who would have to “hump” it up the mountain.

      Helicopters were not an option.  We had asked for them before, but air assets were limited, and our mission was not deemed large enough to dedicate air assets to it (we were hunting for 20 to 40 Taliban, and Army Intel had not confirmed enemy presence for our mission – this seemed ironic to me, since I had been shot at twice by Taliban in that area).  So we were improvising.

      Pack animals in our area are in limited supply, and there are few types to choose from – small donkeys or camels are the only two available.  Mules or horses can’t be found too much around Do China, but there are places where whole herds of camels can be seen.  We simply had to find out how much it would cost to “rent” some camels for a week or so, and find some herders to drive them along our route.

      We joked about using “Hertz Rent-a-Camel” and even thought of buying some outright (not a great idea, but we thought briefly about it).  We consulted a tribal chief who worked with our ABP police chief, and he said he thought he could hook us up with enough camels to carry our supplies around the mountains as we looked for Taliban.

      We planned the mission, but a huge variable remained unanswered – how much gear could a camel carry?  We didn’t have any idea how many camels we would need, and we didn’t have any camels to practice loading.  We were heading down the road in the dark, without headlights.  We were told camels can hold a ridiculous amount of gear, up to 3000 pounds, but we didn’t have any knowledge or experience to the contrary.  So we asked for seven camels for our expedition.

      We had been planning this mission around the dates for the MEDCAP, which hampered our plans considerably, but the MEDCAP was important, too.  If we were to win the hearts and minds of the local Afghans, then the MEDCAP was as important as trying to find the Taliban.  After all, if the locals provide information about the Taliban’s whereabouts, then we don’t have to look for them very much!  (We spend a lot of time talking to local villagers, asking for information, telling them that the Taliban are keeping them from getting the schools, clinics, roads and other resources their government wants to bring to them.  We hold meetings with village elders, called “shuras” to discuss their wants and needs, and ask for help finding and fighting the Taliban in their area.  Most of these elders are still quite afraid of the Taliban, and are usually reluctant to provide us with any information for fear of retribution.)

      So two days after our highly successful MEDCAP medical mission, we set out for the base of the mountain, where we would link up with our camels and camel drivers and head up the mountain to engage the Taliban.

      When we arrived at our link-up spot, there was only one camel there.  We immediately went to the ABP police chief to ask him where the rest of the camels were, and he told us they were on their way.  We waited for quite a long time, but six more camels arrived, and we began loading up all our gear.  We had water in five gallon containers, cases of MRE’s (Meal, Ready-to-Eat, the famous Army meal in a plastic bag), enough ammunition to hold hundreds of Taliban at bay for at least a week, explosives, cold weather gear (it was getting much colder at night, and up on the top of the mountains, the wind chill factor is brutal) and sleeping bags.  We could have taken on Mount Everest, it seemed.

      When we started loading the camels, it became quickly obvious that we had much more gear than we had camels to carry it, and the load factor we had been told was highly overstated.  In fact, the load capacity of any particular camel depends on the camel’s age, size and temperament, varying between 200 to up to 850 pounds of luggage a camel could carry.  Seven camels was simply not enough – not anywhere near enough.  We needed about twice as many camels for the gear we had on the ground waiting to be loaded.

      The ABP chief disappeared in his truck, heading off for the first village he could find where there might be more camels.  When he returned, he assured us that five more camels were on their way (in fact, a bit later, six more camels lumbered into our loading area).  While we were loading the existing camels and waited for more, we saw we wouldn’t be able to fit everything onto even 15 camels.  We had to eliminate some gear somehow.

      I suggested we leave a squad of US and ABP back, which would lighten the load.  The US commander recognized he had to leave gear behind, and agreed this plan made sense.  He reassigned one of the squads, ordering them to return to the FOB with their gear and some other equipment we had planned to take.  The ABP chief, however, decided to bring all the police he had with him on the mission.  I tried to explain that we didn’t have enough meals for all his men, but he said he would feed them from local villages we had planned to pass along our route.

      The camels groaned and growled with the heavy baggage.  Every time another large duffel bag was laid on a camel’s back, it would defecate.  Camel dung was everywhere.  The camels wobbled to their feet, and we all took off for our first night base.

      Usually the Army likes to travel quietly, to avoid detection by the enemy.  We call it our “tactical” posture.  But there was nothing tactical about these camels – they had bells around their necks that jangled as they walked, and they growled whenever their driver prodded them to move on.  If there was any element of surprise we might have hoped to achieve, the camels eliminated it.  Undaunted, we worked our way uphill until we found a couple run-down abandoned mud houses, and we set up our perimeter defenses and set in for the night.

      The following morning, the ABP chief set off to find another village for breakfast for his men.  We woke before dawn and broke camp. When daylight came, we began loading the camels again.  The ABP, shivering with cold from the night, had started camp fires early in the morning, and had set teapots on the fires.  It resembled a Boy Scout campout, with guns and camels.  We laughed at the incongruity.  After the ABP had their breakfast and we had our MRE’s, we headed out again, going further up the mountain.

      After most of the day of climbing uphill, we came to a plateau and took a rest.  The ABP chief suggested we stop at a village a few kilometers away, where he had heard some reports of Taliban activity.  We resumed our trek, cautiously sending scouts on ahead while the main body of US, Afghan and camels slowly progressed towards the village.  We made it to the outskirts of the small village just before sundown.

      The village was like most Afghan villages – a few mud houses in a jumble, with flat roofs and no windows.  Corn lay on top of most of the rooftops, drying in the autumn sun.  Almost as soon as we set down our packs, the village elder came out to us.

      We asked about Taliban activity, and he told us the Taliban had left a few weeks ago.  We then told him we wanted to meet with all the elders from all the nearby villages the next morning.  He agreed to send out the word and collect the elders for a meeting in his village.  Before he left to return to his house, he invited the ABP and us for dinner.  The US commander thanked him and agreed to come to a meal, along with his platoon sergeant, my captain and myself.

      It was dark by the time we came for dinner.  The elder had killed his last goat for us.  We sat and ate out of common bowls with our fingers, and ate a soup made of broth created from the boiled goat, with bread in the broth.  I politely ate some of the soup with my fingers, and then one of his family served each of us a piece of meat, brought to us in a shawl.  He gave me a piece of leg, which I thanked him for.  The ABP sat together and ate as well.  After dinner, we had tea.

      As we left, I found we had been eating in the village mosque.  I had never been in a mosque before; in fact, we had been ordered not to enter one, as Muslim tradition holds that unbelievers entering a mosque defile it.  Since we didn’t know beforehand, we had not violated any orders, but I thought it was amazing our guest had asked us to eat in the mosque.

      The mosque itself was like every other house in the village: mud walls, flat roof.  Inside, there was nothing to suggest the building had any religious purpose.  There was no Quran to be seen, no verses or pictures (Muslim tradition outlaws the use of pictures of the Prophet or others as being a form of idolatry), nothing but a small rug for prayers.  There was a small wood-burning stove in the middle for heat.  A large flashlight was the only source of light in the small building.

      When we returned to our camp, we took turns sleeping and staying on watch throughout the night.  It got much colder as the night grew longer, getting down into the 40’s before daybreak.  Everyone complained of the cold, longing to stay in the warmth of our sleeping bags until the sun warmed us.  But we still had another leg of our journey ahead of us, and we knew we had to get up and ready.

      Later that morning, many Afghan men came to the village for our meeting.  We talked about how we had worked in Do China and elsewhere to bring medical support, school supplies and food to villages.  We encouraged them to become active with their new government, and to help us rid the area of Taliban by providing us information about where they could be found.  Unfortunately, the men appeared unreceptive, and spoke of how they were afraid of the Taliban.  We left the meeting disappointed at their inability to see the bigger picture, especially for their children’s sake.

      By this time, we had no illusions of sneaking up on the Taliban.  We were large in number, and with our camels we had attracted a lot of attention.  Word would easily get out around the area that we were there and looking for them.

      We loaded the camels and set off for another hilltop several kilometers away.  It was a long hike, and by the time we reached the mountaintop, most of our Soldiers were tired, as were most of the ABP.  We found a suitable site to set up our camp, set our defenses and settled in for the night.  The US commander asked the ABP chief to invite all the local village elders to come for a meeting the following morning.  He left and returned later, informing us the elders wanted to meet with us.  Right after the sun set, we went to bed.  We all needed some rest after the climb up yet another hill.

      We met with the local elders, who had been in much more contact with the Taliban than the previous villagers.  These elders wanted help – they hated how the Taliban took their food and money, but they were afraid to oppose them.  They gave us some important information about routes the Taliban took to enter the mountains.  We thanked them and promised to return to help bring security to their villages.

      We were running low on food and water (in fact, we had run out of water, and were using iodine tablets to purify water we found along our trail), and needed resupply.  The US commander had planned for this: “Jingle Air” was scheduled to helicopter more food and water to us on the mountaintop.  Later that afternoon, we watched the white helicopter with “UN” painted on its side lower itself on the plateau, stopping there only long enough for us to unload MRE’s and bottled water.  I thought of how odd it was that while we couldn’t get US helicopters to carry us up into the mountains, we could get UN helicopters to bring us food and water once we were there.

      We spent the night on the same mountaintop, but the winds were stronger and the night was colder, almost freezing.  I spent the night scrunched into my sleeping bag, trying to stay warm.

      Our mission was cut short due to an emergency radio change that affected our network.  We had to leave the next morning, so we called Do China and made arrangements for a parade of HMMWV’s to meet us at the base of the mountain.

      That afternoon, as we made plans to leave, I asked the ABP chief what he thought of the mission.  He said that to him, it didn’t matter if we fought the Taliban on this mission.  (He thought we scared them out of the area as soon as they heard how many of us were coming.)  He thought the mission was a big success because we showed the villages along the mountains that we were committed to their security, that we offered them an alternative to the Taliban, and by meeting with them, we were concerned about their welfare.  He saw this as being more important than beating the Taliban in a firefight.

      He should know – this is his country, after all, and these were his people.  He had been with me when we fought the Taliban the last time we were up in these hills.  What he was saying was that the battle for the hearts and minds of these Afghans was more important than any battle against the Taliban itself.

      If he is right, then this mission was a huge success.  At the very least, it was a successful experiment – we proved to ourselves we could use camels to conduct an operation in the mountains.  We learned how we could do it.  Next time, it will be even better.

      But the next time it will likely be without me.  As I told the US commander, this was probably my “last hurrah.”  The winter is coming, and the weather will soon prevent these types of operations.  The Taliban even stay out of the mountains during winter, as it is too cold for them and the trails become treacherous with rain and snow.  So I expect we will have to wait for better weather to return before we try this again.

      When we came down the mountain to return to our FOB, I felt disappointed.  We had to return earlier than planned – I was ready to continue for several more days.  We hadn’t engaged the Taliban, and we didn’t know for certain if they had left for good or simply hidden themselves.  There was still more work to do.

      But the ABP chief’s words comforted me some.  We had made an impression.  We had shown the people we are here for them.  We had taken the mountain, camels and all.  For the time we were there on the mountains, we owned them.  And it felt glorious.

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Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

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