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Afghan Weapons Work Requires Diplomacy

February 19, 2003

BAGRAM, Afghanistan (AP) _ The explosives were set, the soldiers’ guns were drawn and the 15-minute countdown had began to blow a cache of abandoned rockets to kingdom come.

But no one expected a herd of goats and their minders to walk nearby _ and the countdown was rescheduled.

American troops are facing a delicate task as they rid largely rural Afghanistan of heavy weapons left behind after decades of war, mixing diplomatic skill and care handling explosives.

The soldiers of the 82nd Airborne’s Task Force Dragon put their demolition work north of their headquarters at Bagram Air Base on hold while they negotiated with the herders.

``Tango, Base. Tango, Base,″ Sgt. Arnel Udani barked into his radio once the Afghans were spotted. ``Alpha Zero One. We have three local nationals approaching. They don’t appear to be armed. Over.″

Capt. Steven Janko of Honolulu stopped the countdown. He and another soldier approached the herders with their assault weapons pointing downward. The remaining soldiers stiffened in readiness. Was it an ambush?

A tense moment soon evaporated when both soldiers returned in smiles.

Janko had exhausted the little Dari he had learned in Afghanistan by repeating the word ``boro″ _ which means ``go″ _ and pointing to his watch to warn the herders a big explosion was imminent.

``We want to keep good relations with the people in the area,″ Janko said. ``I greeted them with ‘Salaam’ and put my hand over my heart, and immediately they knew ’OK, this guy doesn’t have any hostile intent.‴

The discussion had been cordial, he said. There was much hand shaking and sign language.

As the herders slowly moved further away across the Shomali Plain, the countdown was restarted. The soldiers were eager to destroy the cache of nine 107-mm rocket shells and more than a dozen fuses.

Similar weaponry _ some used, some new, some disassembled _ appear almost weekly on mountainsides surrounding Bagram and other U.S. bases in Afghanistan. The military discovers new caches from aerial reconnoissance or tips from Afghans.

``The last time we were here, there were four rockets set up on the top of that mountain, aimed directly at the base,″ Janko said. ``If somebody else finds them before we do, they could possibly be launched against us.″

Such rockets and mortars are often very old _ legacies of more than two decades of war in Afghanistan. The missiles rarely hit their targets if fired, but U.S. soldiers don’t want to take any chances.

It was the job of Sgt. 1st Class Chris Brown and Sgt. William Martin of the 705th Ordinance Disposal Company to evaluate the current cache once the perimeter was secured. Both walked gingerly, in case there were any booby-traps or land mines.

Brown and Martin got down on their knees to peer into the 107-mm shells baking in the sun. They pulled out detonation cords and layered 32 blocks of C4 explosives on the cache. Martin whistled softly as he worked.

The decision was made to blow up as many shells as possible since even old ordinance can be reconfigured into something deadly. The latest cache was found just four miles from the base; a 107-mm rocket has a range of up to 10 kilometers.

Brown, a munitions veteran for 14 years, has a grudging respect for the unseen and unknown men who transform the shells into new weapons before fleeing into the darkness. A few days ago, he came across a makeshift rocket that used water as a time release.

``They filled a bucket up and punched a hole in there,″ said Brown, of Houston. ``They had a plunger that when it came down and made contact, it closed a circuit and launched the rocket.″

With the goatherders safely gone and the charges ready, it was time to blow the stash.

The soldiers hiked to a nearby, dried-out river bed and took cover. They passed around their personal cameras and posed for the folks back home. The 10-minute warning was announced, then the five, then the one. Martin detonated the cache by remote control.

``Incoming!″ he yelled as the boom shook the ground. Smoke and dust from the blast blocked out the sun for a moment.

``Well, hell, that was great,″ said Martin.

``I love my job,″ said Brown as he waited for a Black Hawk to ferry him back to Bagram.

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