They were never unpredictably cool. What I mean is, one could predict with astounding accuracy that the Taliban were going to be dicks. And when they wanted to visit violence upon a people other than themselves they could and were free to choose the time and place. That was the difficult position in which our government placed us during the Afghan war in 08-09. But whatever, this little piece isn’t about that; it’s about something else. It’s about how remarkably funny the Taliban could be.
During the winter the fighting eases up and everyone is bored and cold in the mountains. There are lots of patrols to nowhere, shuras with the village elders that actually like you (the bad guys don’t bother pretending to come out when it’s that cold), and infrequent and erratic bombardments. The Taliban would hit us on their holidays for sure- oh, the Eids!-but the cold of winter subdued the fighters who were sitting on the fence when it came to being pulverized by American mortars and machine guns and helicopters in the name of the cause.
The Talibs have American calendars too, and sure as shit they mark the days they believe we consider important. Despite February’s freezing weather, we had a calamitous gunfight on Valentines Day; it was our day of love they must’ve thought. We’d get hit on Sept 11, too. And after Christmas dinner Chinese Rocket Santa would scream in to visit us in our bunks on the mountainside. What makes this violence amusing-besides us being so damned bored that we were happy for any change in the weather-is that the Taliban had a sense of humor.
There was a moment, it was probably in the cold, early spring of ’09, when we got an intel report that made us laugh. These reports usually told of “two hundred fighters crossing from Pakistan with guns and money heading straight for us,” or of the “one armed suicide bomber that may or may not be driving a white Toyota Camry.” (Toyota sold the shit out of some Camrys in that part of the world.) No, this time it was funny intel, and devious intel, and as I’m still talking about it five years later, intel about an attack that has stayed with me. It was in the coffee, you see. The coffee! “Osama coffee” they called it. The enemy forces had ambushed and captured a supply convoy and found an untold amount of coffee creamer. And that’s when they had us. They would poison the coffee creamer, get it back to us, the infidels, and then sit back and listen for the choking and dying of all the Starbucks-addicted soldiers happy to finally put some color into their black, thin, granular cup of Joe. As if poison could’ve altered the filthy, spit-stained coffee pot or the cold liquid we guzzled from it, trying to stay awake all night at the outpost.
Like most of the other intel reports, I never heard of a single instance of Osama coffee related casualties. I kind of wish there was some though. It was like a senior prank. Like stealing the other team’s goat or whatever. There were plenty of casualties though, casualties caused by the mundane and the banal: the jug bombs buried under culverts and on avenues of approach, under bridges and in the roads, blowing a man in half, and straight into the air. There were ambushes, the first enemy shot hitting Kenny M just above the vest, at the base of the throat, his body being dragged behind a boulder while all the rifles in the platoon blasted away at ghosts who’d fired and then ran over the ridgeline to freedom and a herd of goats. There were the slips and trips of burdened, heavily laden soldiers sliding from rock to shale to terrace in the pitch-black night cracking anklebones completely in half with feet dangling like socks. All of this and more, shit, even baby cobras in the aid station. There was even food poisoning by Big Army, bringing us contaminated turkey on Thanksgiving. Can you believe it? Forty or so of the fifty Americans falling on the ground, shitting their pants, vomiting as they slept waiting for the outhouses there on the slope of the mountain. Come on!! That was funny, poisoned by Big Army was funny, but as good as that prank was, the Osama coffee was genius. That was hilarious. It was childlike, and at the risk of sounding like Elphinstone who laughed at the same Ghilzais-until they slaughtered him, his sixteen thousand, and his batman almost one hundred and eighty years before we were there- I couldn’t believe we hadn’t completely wiped these people off of the map. How is it we could smash an army to bits in a week or two, but couldn’t seem to quell what amounts to partisan violence in ten plus years? Ugh.
The Taliban waged a war mostly of inactivity in 09. Sometimes though, they were very active, and that’s when things became violent and engaging and no longer like a dream. Places were overrun. People left their bodies for the next plane on both sides. Bombs were dropped. Officers fired. Boys and girls became killers. But then they’d lay down their sticks and stones and go back to farming and smirking at us as we beat the bushes looking for boogeymen. We dreamt of coffee and liquor and girls; we dreamt of summertime festivals and things like walking around in public; the younger guys talked of cars and the older guys of their kids. I remember looking east into the mountains and thinking that no matter how long we stayed there, no matter how many of these farmer-spy-soldiers we killed, that eventually we’d leave and they’d continue to conduct their lives in whatever manner they felt worked for them. Unfortunately they reside in another time than we do, in another headspace and timing, but as long as they reach out, through the ages to our gleaming cities, or if their allies reach out to hurt us, we’ll be there in droves, beating the bushes with smiles and jokes and death.