While the buildings were where they were supposed to be, Lieutenant Colonel John Maxwell was beginning to suspect that they were not what they were supposed to be. Despite the distance and the absence of moonlight, the image in the night-vision enhancer was that of a small collection of decrepit mud-brick hovels that seemingly did not have electric lighting. There was a flickering light from within the largest of the buildings, possibly from a fire, together with the sounds of singing and noisy conversation. Scattered across the intervening ground were what appeared to be small grazing animals. His instincts told him that this could not conceivably be the centre for the manufacture of high technology equipment for terrorists. With the sinking realization that he was leading a mission that would eventually enter the annals of Great Military Stuff-ups, Maxwell ordered all units to retreat and regroup. With the same sinking feeling, he realized that while his plan of attack was excellent for what he had expected to have to do, it was now less than ideal for what could eventuate.
His plan had involved splitting the battalion into two, with Charlie and Delta companies approaching separately from the base of the hill several hundred yards to his left, an approach that was ideal for stopping any escape up the river valley. He was leading the other three companies and would cut off escape down the valley. They would all close in on his orders, but to prevent his own soldiers from shooting at each other, Charlie and Delta companies would not enter the village. That, at least, was not going to happen now. He was quite confident that when he turned up tomorrow morning there would be ample confirmation that these were harmless peasants.
That was not going to happen either. A young soldier in Charlie Company was making rude comments to another soldier when a Lieutenant told him to shut up and keep watch. The young soldier turned his gaze towards the field to his left and to his surprise, about twenty yards away, he saw movement. He stopped, was pushed in the back by a following soldier, and when he recovered his balance he saw a dark shape moving towards him. Without thinking, he raised his rifle and shot it.
Maxwell heard the shot and swore.
The singing stopped, there was a scurrying, and within about twenty seconds rifle shots were fired in the vague direction of the first shot. The two companies returned fire, and machine guns sent a hail of bullets towards the Afghans. Screams of pain came from the vicinity of the buildings, and a few shots continued to be fired.
"Jamie, let those idiots know . . ."
It was never clear what those idiots were going to be told because the hill behind erupted with rifle fire and rocket propelled grenades, all directed at the two companies.
"An ambush!" Jamie whistled.
"So it seems," Maxwell muttered, "but they're shooting at a pretty long range and they don't seem to know where we are. We advance up that ridge and get above them."
Despite the lack of cover, the darkened shapes of the three companies gave almost no sign of their movement, nor did they give out any significant sound, although with the distraction and noise of the firefight it was unlikely that anybody was looking in their direction. They advanced quickly up the ridge, but then reached a bluff, at which point somebody inadvertently dislodged a rock. As the rock rolled noisily downhill, most took immediate cover. Immediately rifle fire came in their general direction. Maxwell gave a start as a bullet hit a rock above his head and dropped dust and a couple of rock fragments on him. One soldier gave a grunt of pain and fell backwards, grasping his shoulder, while another, less fortunate, fell forward, and by losing his balance rolled downhill. Showers of bullets erupted around him, and at least two seemingly struck home.
Without orders, a number of soldiers sent a hail of rifle fire in the general direction of the enemy, not so much to kill them but to force them to take cover. Four grenades were fired at points where rifle flashes had been noted, and the general rifle fire continued. Shortly, the general area was traversed with MMG fire. There was an occasional attempt at returning fire, but that attracted withering fire. Within ten minutes, enemy fire stopped. As their own fire from the valley floor below also stopped, soldiers slowly advanced downwards. They found eight bodies, the rest of the ambushers having slipped away. Their own losses from the five companies were two dead, four seriously injured and three moderately injured. Maxwell ordered the medics to attend to the wounded, then join an advance on the village. The orders to the men were simple: no firing other than to return fire.
The soldiers were within fifty yards of the village when a motor started and two powerful lights shone over them.
"No shooting!" Maxwell ordered. It was obvious that the set-up was not yet over. He grabbed a piece of white cloth, tied it to the top of a rifle, and marched towards the lights with only his interpreter beside him. Behind the lights he could see television cameras and it appeared that all of this had been put on for the benefit of al Jazeera. Maxwell halted where the cameras would get a reasonable view of him and had the interpreter call for the village chief.
Eventually an elderly man, slightly bowed with work but with an expression on his weathered face that showed he would be defiant to the end, shuffled forwards.
"Tell him that we apologize for any injury we have caused," Maxwell instructed the interpreter.
After an exchange Maxwell was informed what he already knew: they were furious, and while one side was sorry, the other was shot up and . . .
"Tell him that I shall explain in due course, then tell him that I cannot undo what has been done but I can give any wounded the best chance of recovery if he will let our medical team go and assist. If he gives the word, they will go with whoever he nominates."
After being told, the man nodded, and gave his reply. Without waiting for translation, Maxwell ordered his medical team to accompany the villagers. The chief gave him a slightly quizzical look, as if to say, 'You're sure of yourself!'
"Also tell him I am sorry for the mistake," Maxwell said to the interpreter.
Again, there was a flurry of conversation, then Maxwell received the expected translation, namely he could be sorry, but they were the ones shot up just because he had made a mistake. The cameras were rolling, although Maxwell was pleased that at least one of the camera teams together with a small truck with a power generator and lighting had followed the medical team.
"Tell him this is what happened," Maxwell instructed the interpreter. "I was given orders to eliminate a number of terrorists who were making weapons here."
"We're not making anything," came the derisive reply. "We're simply . . ."
"Tell him I know that now," Maxwell interrupted the translation. "Tell him that I was given orders. When I saw that these orders were wrong, I ordered a withdrawal."
"Maybe, but you fired first," came the reply.
"Tell him some soldier will pay," Maxwell replied. "What is more interesting is the source of the information that brought us here."
"It was wrong," the chief said.
"Yes, it was," Maxwell replied, now in halting Pashto, thus leaving out the interpreter, "but think on this. The source of this information obviously wanted to embarrass us, but to do that they were prepared to have all of you killed. They're not your friends either."
The old man gave him a look of respect for his taking the trouble to at least try to learn his language.
"Whoever it was, they also told these cameramen," Maxwell added, "and ask yourself, where were they before the fighting started? Providing you with electricity? Or making sure they weren't in a line of fire?"
The old man nodded, appreciating the point.
"And why do you think those men were up on the hill?" he added. "They weren't protecting you. They were waiting until whatever was going to happen happened, then they would get the television coverage of them coming to your aid. Except they weren't interested in doing anything before all your people were shot up."
"That might be true," the man replied. There was no sign of acceptance of the soldiers, but there were signs of accepting the point that somebody else was not his friend.
"We were set up," Maxwell concluded, "but so were you. Think about that."
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