Sitting outside the main operations center, one of his aides spots us in our dirt-caked splendor. "Shit. Journos," he says with disgust. I ask if the general hates journos. "No, he loves journos. That's good for you. Bad for us. He is so gonna bump us."
Sure enough, 20 minutes later we catch the slipstream of the general's whirlwind grin-and-grip tour and strap into one of his helos. But moments after we lift off I realize that we are not heading southwest back to Bagram but southeast, farther down the valley and deeper into enemy territory.
We arrive at FOB Kutschbach (officially named Pathfinder), in the district of Tagab. As soon as we land, "Big Milley" (as it's written on his team's patches) and his bowling-pin guards charge around the camp, pumping hands and slapping backs. "The Cooch" is the end of the line, a hastily constructed firebase deep in the heart of "Indian country," as American soldiers call hostile regions.
Though the landscape outside the base is scenic, inside it's surreal. Near the gate are bits of blasted Humvees from IED attacks. Jumbles of abandoned rust-colored shipping containers are set off by mountains of blue water bottles, all interspersed between primitive plywood shacks. The sandbagged roof of the command bunker is littered with thousands of brass shell casings. And the entire base is perfumed by the foul smell of sun-baked Porta-Potties mixed with cordite from the thumping guns. There may be people here, but they must be inside the windowless buildings sleeping, saving their energy for nightstalking.
The only activity seems to be an American Humvee crew trying to kill the mountain. Their turret gun is thumping away at the steep valley walls, sending clouds of dust and howling ricochets ripping the quiet of the valley below. At night the mortars from insurgents rain down on the base, and so many high-explosive and illumination rounds are fired back that the sand-and gravel-filled Hescos are bleeding from the constant concussion. Even when they are not under attack, the troops randomly mortar the surrounding hills. "Terrain denial" the military calls it. Special forces teams, French commandos, and other groups operate out of here, mostly at night, selectively capturing or "erasing" insurgent leaders from the surrounding valleys. Jones has found himself in a place where the whole goal seems to be to harass the Afghans, not try to understand them.
We get distracted watching a bad movie in a mess hall shack and miss the general's return to the airfield. We hear the sound of choppers and dash out of the wood shack just in time to see the general taking off, leaving us behind, along with half his security detail. Payback's a bitch.
The security team is now very nervous that their one-day PR tour may turn out to be a multiday holiday in hell. The beefiest officer gets on his cell phone and starts calling around to see if he can get a helo ride out, while his posse leans against the blast walls to try to get some relief from the midday sun. Jones, as usual, is gear-talking and comparing M4 goodies.
I ask them who the "good guys" are in this war, since from what I've seen you can't put much daylight between the "Taliban" and the locals.
"Let me see," says a large black sergeant, "we have ISAF, OEF, ANA, ANP, ANSF, MOI, OGA, and MOD."
That is: International Security and Assistance Force (a.k.a. NATO), Operation Enduring Freedom, the Afghan national army, the Afghan national police, Afghan national security forces, Ministry of Interior, other governmental agencies, and Ministry of Defense.
What about the bad guys?
"That takes a little longer to figure out." He thinks hard and uses his fingers to count off: "ACF, AAF, ACM, Taliban...Little T and Big T," he reminds me, "HIG, HQ, AQ, MAM – well, we aren't supposed to use that one – and, of course," he laughs, "JAG."
That is: anti-coalition forces, anti-Afghan forces, anti-coalition militias, local Taliban, and the more ideology-driven Taliban, Hezb-i-Islami (Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's group that the Taliban dislike), Jalaluddin Haqqani network (from across the border in Pakistan), Al Qaeda (foreigners but not Pakistanis), military-age males, and Judge Advocate General (the U.S. military's investigation unit).
The phone calls are not panning out, so one of the sage-colored storm troopers, one with a large Mohawked skull on his backpack, comes up with a plan: "Okay, if we get stuck here, we are going to give everyone weapons, lock and load, take that large white fuel truck there, throw a man dress over our armor, I will hold a gun to the head of the Afghan and make him drive us out of here." Gulam, Jones's interpreter, looks around and realizes he is the only Afghan and thus must be the one Rambo is referring to.
The sound of rotor blades echoing up the valley brings a sigh of relief from him – and from us. We grab empty seats for the helo's return flight to Bagram.