The graveyard of empires is not all razor-backed mountains and howling wasteland. There are hidden gardens and lush valleys between the arid Afghan heights, paddy fields and fertile tillage overlooked by ancient castles. Australian soldiers who fought in Khas Uruzgan recall the eerie dissonance of moving through tropical landscapes that needed just a scattering of peasants in black pyjamas and conical straw hats to complete a weird and contrary connection to another war lost and another time passed.
The Australians were there in September 2008, in the valley of Ana Kalay, and on the second day of that month, the first day of Ramadan, they fought a long battle with a much larger larger force of Taliban fighters. They’d been looking for the fight. Both sides were always looking for the fight.
The day started early, at 4AM, when five Humvees carrying US and Australian special operators and half a dozen Afghan soldiers drove out of an isolated, forward operating base called Anaconda. They headed east into the Ana Kalay, a narrow, green strip of arable soil in the lowland between the gnarlier, desolate heights of the surrounding hill country. A dozen or so Australians dismounted inside the valley, quietly filtering up into the southern foothills to lay their ambush.
Another two SAS patrol groups had ghosted their way into the northern hills hours before. They waited on the vehicle convoy and on the insurgents who would be drawn to it. The Americans and their local allies moved around quite openly, offering themselves as bait, and soon enough somebody took it. The SAS patrols to the north engaged a number of Taliban fighters, killing them. The southern patrols spotted more on the move, but the patrol commander Sergeant Troy Simmonds declined to open fire. There were too many children nearby. When it became obvious there was no more fighting to be done, they withdrew. The two SAS patrols to the north left on foot through the mountains, a long haul back to Anaconda. Their comrades to the south rejoined the American convoy.
That’s when everything turned to shit.
There is a whole book to be written about the Battle of Khas Uruzgan, but in essence the details were simple. A small allied force, deep in hostile territory fought for three and a half hours to move three and half kilometres through a narrow, contested battlespace. The enemy, somewhere between a hundred and two hundred Pashtun tribesmen loyal to the Taliban, controlled the high ground and moved with ease along the streams and river channels. Heavily armed with mortars, RPGs and automatic weapons they prosecuted a rolling ambush which killed one American and wounded nine Australians and one Afghan soldier.
They all fought bravely. All of them. The tribesmen had the advantage of numbers and terrain, but to press that advantage meant standing into a firestorm, including aerial support from US F-18s.
One of the Australians, Trooper Mark Donaldson, was awarded a Victoria Cross for his individual bravery when he raced into the open under murderous fire, to rescue an Afghan interpreter who had been blown out the back of a Humvee by a rocket-propelled grenade. The Afghan was lying face down in a spreading pool of blood and was in danger of being left behind.
Donaldson sprinted eighty metres to grab him and drag him back to the relative safety of the slow-rolling convoy.
He later told the Australian War Memorial.
“I’m getting chased by bullets, and I got to him, and there were bullets kicking around us … I started to drag him at first – and I’m not a massive guy – so it wasn’t really working out. I got him to his feet, with my arms sort of underneath him, half carrying, half dragging, and I just thought: what now? Do I leave him here? Do I use him as a shield? Do I just save my own skin? Or do I get him to that car that’s driving away from us? And that’s the only thing I could really focus on – that vehicle.
“His face was really bloodied and messed up and he was trying to talk to me. He was trying to tell me his eyes were hurting – ‘I know your eyes are hurting, mate, you’ve been wounded, it’s all right, let me get you to the vehicle’ – but I finally got him there, managed to wrap a bandage around him, and mucked around trying to get him into the car.
“I was really, really dry, and my lungs were burning, massively. And I distinctly remember this because it took me about five or six goes of just swapping from side to side to side of the vehicle. I was that tired – and I don’t tell anyone this – but I was that tired, I was leaning against the vehicle as it was moving, and just moving my legs, and my 2IC came around and said, ‘Man, just keep running.’ He was worried I was going to fall over and get caught up underneath the car.”
They finally broke out of the valley and returned to Anaconda. Three choppers full of wounded lifted off hours later. Donaldson helped the interpreter onto one of the helicopters. He never saw the man again but he told the War Memorial interviewer, “We don’t leave anyone behind. It doesn’t matter that we only knew him for five days…He was an Afghan guy that was one of us. He was with us, and he was out there fighting with us, and I respect that.”
But of course, there’s one guy who doesn’t…