From Bagram

Jason Burke

For a few weeks, between mid-April and early May, I was in Bagram, thirty miles north of Kabul, to cover the war. At about six o’clock on most evenings I went for a run. From our tents in Viper City I would jog past the 10th Mountain Division, through the lines of the 101st Airborne’s Quick Reaction Force, past the long queue for dinner, past the stinking row of portakabins and out onto the main road through the base. The road had recently been named Disney Drive, in the memory of 21-year-old Specialist Jason Disney, of the 7th Transportation Battalion of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, who was killed in a welding accident on the base on 13 February. According to the new commemorative sign planted in the concrete, his ‘dedication, diligence and dogged determination mark him as one of America’s finest and is reflective of the warrior spirit and warrior pride’.

Every morning and every evening Disney Drive was full of men and women out jogging through the dust. Were it not for their uniformly cropped hair and the guns they were all carrying, an onlooker might think some charity fun run was taking place.

Once out of Viper City, I would usually turn right and run down past the Spanish soldiers outside their hospital, past the Australian SAS and then past the US Special Forces compound with its coveted pair of barbecues before approaching, with some trepidation, the soldiers on the checkpoint that guarded the British area. Of all the nationalities on base the British were by far the most hostile to the media; Camp Gibraltar, where the 1500 Royal Marines who had arrived during April were living, was very much out of bounds. However, the only place on the base that wasn’t a foot deep in dust was the airstrip and the only way to reach it was through the Marines’ encampment. So with a confident nod I’d jog past the roadblocks, past the squaddies’ tents with their Union Jacks and St Andrew’s Crosses, past the ‘Rorke’s Drift’ galley (Marines have galleys not messes or canteens), past the pee tubes and the artillery park and out onto the strip, hoping that nobody would challenge me.

The base at Bagram – pronounced ‘Bugrom’ by the locals and ‘Bugger ‘em’ by the British soldiers – was built in 1976 with Soviet aid. The Russians later used it as a forward base for operations against the mujahideen. It is sited at an altitude of 5800ft in the centre of the once fertile Shomali plains.

The main road from Kabul to the north of the country runs past Bagram before it starts climbing towards the Salang Pass. To the north-east is the mouth of the Panjshir, the high mountain valley where Ahmed Shah Massoud held out against the Soviets and then the Taliban until his assassination on 9 September last year. To the west are range upon range of rocky hills. Beyond them is Bamiyan and Afghanistan’s high central plateau, so the ten-thousand-foot-long airstrip, which the Soviets built large enough to take an international passenger jet or their biggest transporters, has big, dirty-brown mountains on three sides.

Just before the sun went down, the warm light brought out every shade of rust on the old steel Soviet stanchions that marked the minefields at the edge of the airstrip. I would run past the six British 105mm light guns, then on through the two ranks of double-rotored Chinook helicopters. I’d turn back when I reached the line of snub-nosed A-10 Warthog ‘Tankbuster’ jets.

The first sign that the British troops had gone out to do some fighting was when, on 1 May, the guns disappeared from the small patch of wreckage-strewn ground at the end of the strip close to where the Chinooks were based.

Two weeks earlier, not long after the last Royal Marines had come in from the UK, the MoD press officers invited us down to Camp Gibraltar to talk to the soldiers. Over beef stroganoff and bread-and-butter pudding I spoke to a 20-year-old lieutenant who had been doing his A levels 18 months previously. Now he was in command of 30 men, all of whom, he assured me, were ‘mad for it’. ‘We are the whites-of-the-eyes guys,’ he said.

But, though soldiers and planners alike were keen to see the Marines in combat as soon as possible, not a great deal happened for the next ten days. We were in an ‘operational pause’. The problem, I was told, was finding a target that would justify deploying a thousand or more British soldiers. In fact, it now seems that the Marines arrived a month too late. British troops had been requested by President Bush in March, soon after the hostilities south of the eastern Afghan city of Gardez. Then a concentration of several hundred al-Qaida and former Taliban fighters (AQT in military parlance) had taken on a combined force of more than a thousand American troops and their local auxiliaries. Eight Americans and an unknown number of ‘AQT’ – between 40 and 500, depending on who you believe – died. But the fighting was tough and US planners clearly felt that, should something similar happen again, it would be useful, politically and militarily, to have some Brits alongside.

Blair was happy to do what the Pentagon wanted; the AQT, however, weren’t. They had learned their lesson and were being careful not to concentrate in sufficient numbers to attract a major Allied operation. During the three weeks I was at Bagram only four suspected al-Qaida fighters were killed by offensive coalition action. They died when an Australian SAS patrol in the mountains north of Khost was ‘compromised’ and a firefight took place. The Australians called for back-up and two hundred American troops – from the Quick Reaction Force I had seen lounging around their tents in Viper City every day for two weeks – were helicoptered in. Some ammunition was recovered but no bodies were found. It was a good example of the sort of massive response al-Qaida could expect if they did give battle.

In the last weeks of April the spin on the British mission – Operation Jacana – began to change. Senior officers and MoD spokesmen no longer talked about searching out and destroying al-Qaida fighters – and of course the elusive bin Laden – but instead began to emphasise denying al-Qaida territory and disrupting any efforts by the extremists to regroup. Actual operations were undertaken by small groups of Special Forces operating high up in the mountains, not the large body of less well-trained men now kicking about in Bagram.

That did not make it any easier for Major Bryan Hilferty, the US military spokesman who briefed the assembled media every morning at 9 a.m. His briefings always started with a reminder of how many days had passed ‘since al-Qaida terrorists murdered more than three thousand innocent men, women and children in the World Trade Center’. Then came a brief biography, culled from the New York Times, of someone who had died in the attack. The briefings always ended with the phrase: ‘The war on terror continues. The hunt goes on.’

But the actual news Hilferty offered up began to seem increasingly surreal. A seizure of a few thousand rounds of small arms ammunition, probably hidden by villagers who have nothing to do with al-Qaida, was announced as significant. When rumours reached us that the Canadian contingent based in Kandahar was to be deployed on a mission journalists were asked not to report the story. We were all aware of the importance of ‘operational security’ so no stories appeared. Eventually we were told the mission was underway. Hundreds of Canadian elite troops had landed at a long-deserted al-Qaida base high in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan and picked up some documents.

‘How did you know they were al-Qaida?’ we asked. ‘The AMF’ – Afghan military forces – ‘said they were bad guys,’ Hilferty explained. ‘We make no distinction between pro-al-Qaida and pro-Taliban.’

In the absence of any actual fighting a sense of torpor descended on Bagram. Soldiers started buying hi-fis and CDs at the PX (the American equivalent of the Naafi) and playing Bootylicious: R&B Sensation loudly across the tent lines. Gung-ho toilet graffiti were themselves defaced: ‘I am become Death, Destroyer of worlds’ had ‘I am become bored, Destroyer of motivation’ added below. A CND-style peace sign appeared one morning. The extraordinarily graphic pornographic drawings became progressively more depraved.

The dust storms swept in. Then heavy rain. I left the base for five days to drive into the central highlands. When I returned, the Marines had cleared a football pitch, even more Afghans were coming onto the base to hawk necklaces, Soviet bayonets and mirrors studded with multicoloured plastic beads, and the food had got worse. Otherwise little had changed.

The Americans’ catering provisions remained mystifying throughout my stay. While the British set up a proper field kitchen and produced hearty food everything the Americans gave to their soldiers was cooked in Germany, flown three thousand miles and then reheated and served on disposal cardboard trays in a hangar. Unsurprisingly the processed ‘chicken patties’, the reconstituted scrambled eggs and the ‘grits’ were virtually inedible. Lunch was an MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) – the American field rations. There are 30 menus. The best is No. 21, Chicken Tettrazini, in which, along with the main meal, you get a packet of Skittles sweets, a plastic sachet of processed cheese, some crackers and ice-tea powder. In every MRE there is a miniature bottle of Tabasco sauce, a moist face wipe and a chemical pad that reacts with water and partially heats things.

At the gate of the base a small market had sprung up. Half a dozen stalls were selling carpets, traditional Afghan pakol hats, Soviet military belts, Uzbek vodka and local hashish. They also stocked hundreds of pilfered MREs, crates of maple syrup, Tang and Patriot’s Choice Hot Tamales, all robbed from the PX.

Nearby several hundred refugees were living in old accommodation blocks built by the Soviets and surrounded by minefields marked by stones painted red on one side and white on the other. The school had been repaired and reroofed by the Americans from the base, and every morning children trotted along carefully defined tracks lined with coloured stones firing catapults at small birds and laughing.