FOB AIRBORNE, Afghanistan - In the command center, the men were laughing. A donkey-borne IED. Who would do that? Who would load a donkey with explosives and send it tottering down the road, an unwilling, unwitting suicide bomber?
But the soldiers also knew the Taliban, knew they might try anything. And the story was true, most of the way.
As the animal drew near to an Afghan police truck in Wardak’s remote Day Mirdad Valley on July 18, someone flicked a switch, or called a cell number. The blast blew hair and bones and more into the truck, and a policeman was hit in the lower back by a piece of metal, U.S. Army officials said.
The story rolled through the American ranks gathering details and color. Soldiers told and retold it until, in the version I heard, the Taliban had shoved explosives into a place no living donkey would ever tolerate.
Long ago the Taliban proved themselves creative, capable enemies. They’ve escaped pursuers by wearing women’s clothing, they’ve disguised themselves in stolen Afghan police and army uniforms during attacks. They have executed massive prison breaks, built enormous IEDs and regained ground against the world’s best-equipped military. They’ve even had some success with these donkey IEDs.
Recently, news media, including this paper, reported on fears that terrorist groups might attempt to surgically implant explosives in human carriers. No vest, no cords, no bulky clothing. Just a strip of belly fat over a bomb.
Compared with all that, the donkey was hilarious. Somehow it was less intimidating, less technical. Hack work.
So the soldiers in the command center at Forward Operating Base Airborne laughed.
They laughed at the new term of art entering their vocabulary — the DBIED, the donkey-borne improvised explosive device.
I thought of historian and former infantryman Paul Fussell, who wrote that irony may have been born in the trenches of World War I, when the world appeared mad and there was no choice but to laugh or go mad along with it.
“Imagine being killed because someone thought it would be funny to put a bomb on a donkey,” Capt. Dean Marshall said.
“I remember in Iraq they used to put bombs in dead donkeys, you know, at the side of the road,” Sgt. 1st Class Michael Harris said. “But I never heard of putting one in a live donkey.”
“It’s just funny,” 1st Lt. Yomi Salako said. “I mean, it’s [messed] up that a dude’s bleedin’, but …”
Earlier that day, ISAF headquarters reported that three servicemembers had been killed by an IED in eastern Afghanistan. They didn’t say where; they never do. A day or two before that, four Afghan policemen in Wardak were hit by an IED. The blast folded their truck in half. When it landed, two of the policemen were dead. The other two died later.
The bombs are everywhere, anytime. Rarely are they funny. So they laugh at the absurdity of the donkey — a desperate or stupid or ingenious delivery system. Laugh or it becomes one more heavy thing to carry around, to worry about.
A sandy water filter
The chocolate-milk complexion of the Kunar River pretty much tells you everything you need to know about drinking its water: don’t.
But villagers who live near the churning tributary in Naray in eastern Afghanistan must survive without such luxuries as Brita filters, let alone municipal purification systems. For them, all water is potable by necessity, regardless of the health risks.
Finding a non-mechanized, dechlorinated solution to their circumstance has turned into a side project for Capt. Steve Nachowicz, support company commander for the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 25th Infantry Division.
Stationed at Forward Operating Base Bostick in eastern Kunar province, Nachowicz, of Bolingbrook, Ill., is building a filtration tank that purifies water with the same natural resources that muddy the river — i.e., sand and gravel.
The tank will remove harmful microscopic particles through a simple process common in many developing countries that lack water treatment plants.
Slow sand filtration, as it is known, involves filling the bottom of the water tank with a layer of sand and gravel. Within a couple of weeks, as water passes through the layer, a jellylike biofilm made of “good” bacteria and fungi forms.
The biofilm acts as an organic filter, trapping upward of 95 percent of the hazardous bacteria found in water. Replacing the filter every few weeks involves little more than skimming off the film and waiting for a new one to grow.
Some villages in Afghanistan already make use of slow sand filtration. After he finishes building his tank, Nachowicz, 29, intends to show Afghan soldiers and workers on base how the process works so they can bring the idea to their towns.
“It’s a process that isn’t expensive, and it can be done almost anywhere,” he said. “That makes it ideal for Afghanistan.”
Elders love Rip It
U.S. soldiers wary of drinking Afghanistan’s water feel somewhat less nervous when natives offer them chai tea, the country’s traditional drink, because the water has been boiled.
Tribal elders who visit Capt. Michael Kolton at Combat Outpost Monti, however, want neither chai nor bottled water.
“You know what they love? Rip It,” he said, referring to the high-sugar, caffeine-loaded energy drink popular among sleep-deprived troops. “That’s their first choice. After that it’s Mountain Dew, and then Pepsi and Coke.”
Kolton, 28, of Fairfax Station, Va., commands Company B of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 25th Infantry Division. At Monti, about 10 miles south of Bostick in the town of Asmar, he likes to meet with elders in a “shura room” furnished with floor mattresses, large pillows and a mini-refrigerator.
Before his guests show up, he turns the AC on high and stocks the fridge with Rip It and soda. “They get so relaxed in here they don’t want to leave,” Kolton said.
Maybe he should invite Mullah Omar.