MOST DEMANDING TERRAIN
© 2006 By Scott Wallace
In the summer of 2003, Scott Wallace was assigned by Vanity Fair Magazine to photograph an article to be written by terrorism expert Peter Bergen on the search for Osama bin Laden. Wallace and Bergen met in Kabul, then traveled together with the 82nd Airborne Division on a heliborne assault along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. Bergen’s new book, The Osama Bin Laden I Know, was released in January, 2006 by the Free Press. The book features some of Wallace’s photographs from the journey. Herewith, Wallace’s brief account of the operation:
After shivering through the desert night, huddled close together on a cardboard bed fashioned from a few split-open MRE boxes, Peter Bergen and I rubbed the sleep from our eyes, dusted off our pants and looked around to see if the troops had any Gatorade for us. We managed to grab an envelope or two of the powder and mixed it up in a plastic water bottle. I looked past the camouflaged jeep and the soldiers huddled round it to the barren hills beyond. It was hard to imagine a more desolate place. Not a single tree, nor the song of single bird to welcome the new day. The air was still cool in the predawn darkness. Within a hour it would be broiling.
The soldiers were shouldering their packs, getting ready to move out. Our objective was a mud-walled village etched into the side of a mountain some four or five kilometers off. Having some reason to believe the locals were aiding the Taliban/Al Qaeda enemy, the troops were to search the village for weapons caches. So far, we hadn’t laid eyes on a single human being. Sgt. Joe Frost, the most outgoing, most articulate and by far the funniest soldier in the entire company, mused: “The Hajis are, like, ‘it’s really hot. The Joes are all over the place. Let’s just hunker down till they leave.'”
The day before, we’d choppered into the area close on the Pakistan border with this company from the 82nd Airborne. We’d been briefed to expect possible hostile fire in the LZ upon touch down. Our Blackhawks and Apaches shot low over dun-brown tablelands, then plunged into a precipitous valley, maneuvering uncomfortably close to the canyon walls to deny the enemy the time and angle to set up a shot with a heat-seeking missile. In a depression surrounded by rocky crags, we tumbled off the helicopters, crouching low to avoid decapitation, choking in the lunar dust kicked up in the backwash. An F-16 roared high overhead, providing aircover.
It was only such air support, I quickly came to appreciate, that could protect us from potentially withering fire in that barren theatre, whose drought-wilted scrub afforded no cover whatsoever. I couldn’t see the warplane, but I found the roar of the jet’s engines reassuring, in light of our otherwise completely exposed position. As long, that is, that it reserved its terrifyingly destructive firepower for the enemy. Each of us had a small patch of a special reflective tape, no larger than a square inch, affixed to the top of his helmet. That little bit of tape could be the difference between life or death, as it was supposed to alert the pilot in the cockpit, via some kind of infrared laser, that we were friendlies, and under no circumstances should be on the recieving end of a precision bomb or a burst of armor-piecing projectiles.
Alas, we found ourselves in the middle of a lifeless moonscape, not a single living creature anywhere to be seen. Soon enough we dusted ourselves off and rose to our feet, giving each other a sheepish grin; we’d braced for a danger that, at least for the moment, was nonexistent.
After an hour’s trek, we came to the outskirts of the village, where a gnarly man in flowing purple robes and turban intercepted us in a field of wilted wheat. Through our interpreter Naweed, he insisted his people would not tolerate soldiers entering the village. “Our women and children are there,” he explained. Finally, our lieutenant, a young and handsome Denzel Washington lookalike named Khary Miller, relented and ordered the troops to bypass the hamlet. We took a break in the shade of some scraggly box elder trees. “I don’t see how the humanitarian assistance component to this operation is going to work,” I observed, more a question than a statement. Blowing on a cup of tea provided by a young boy who brought it to us in a tin kettle, along with a tray of frosted mulberries from the village above, Frost replied: “We don’t do humanitarian assistance. We undo humanitarian assistance.”