A midnight stroll with Afghan commandos
The helicopter gunner fired his weapon next to me without notice. I jumped out of my skin, then quickly tried to pretend I hadn't. No one else flinched. These were no ordinary grunts. They were Afghan special forces soldiers.
Neither was this any ordinary helicopter ride in Afghanistan. About three dozen commandos had climbed into six helicopters for a fast, winding flight out of Kabul's military airport toward Taliban territory. They followed a twisting, wind-swept course which at times seemed to come perilously close to the mountains that flank the capital.
The mission I was observing required a night-time landing - no simple feat. But they have some modern help, courtesy of foreign allies.
"When I got the NVGs [night vision goggles] and I saw, it was a dream for me," said the lead Afghan pilot before heading out.
The bright, full moon in a clear summer night's sky was a bonus for the pilot, but not for the soldiers he was dropping off. They landed about six kilometres from the target house for the planned raid, and had to march the rest of the way. The bright moon can mean they are spotted beforehand, leaving them vulnerable to attack or having their suspect tipped off of their mission.
The walk to the target house was directed through a series of whispers and hand gestures. Clamouring over hills and terraced fields, at times they came just metres from villages. "Please don't be offended if we shoot wild dogs," said the commander before we left. "If they come and bark they alert people we are coming. So we bring silenced guns to shoot them."
It appeared there had been a last-minute tipoff. Less than 100 yards from the target house, everyone stopped and hunkered down. Two figures had been spotted in the field ahead. It was 1am, and the men's story that they were transporting grain on foot didn't convince the soldiers. They tied their hands and marched them along as the group advanced.
Even a braying donkey however didn't seem to have alerted the house as it was surrounded by the special forces. The lights were on as the soldiers approached. As the final helicopter of fighters landed nearby, the light quickly went off. A few thumps on the door was all it took for an elderly man to answer, and soon he had several dozen men swarming from room to room, searching and shouting.
"Don't worry sisters!" shouted one Afghan soldier, as the women all rushed into a room to hide. "We have mothers."
Foreign mentors accompanying the Afghan soldiers joined them for gathering intelligence. Fingerprints and mug shots were quickly gathered before three men were eventually bundled towards the helicopters and a flight back to Kabul.
No weapons were found, and with no charges against them they have likely been released from custody.
They didn't get a result, but the soldiers don't feel deterred. They are happy with the work they do and genuinely proud to be part of an effective section of the Afghan National Army.
These men don't earn any more than your average police officer, but their job seems imminently more dangerous. "Why would they do it?" I asked their Commander.
"I honestly look at my guys and I am surprised - they are more motivated than me," he said. "They want to go forward, they want to move forward and continue the fight."