Bombs Away: Will Afghanistan’s Artillerymen Learn How to Shoot Right?

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John Wendle for Time

Afghan artillerymen run through a dry fire drill during a training exercise at Forward Operating Base Shank in Logar Province.

FOB SHANK, AFGHANISTAN — The afternoon was quiet and hot, and the men of 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment were standing guard and shoveling rocky dirt into sandbags. Suddenly the heavy chatter of the 240-Bravo machine gun ripped open the tired quiet. “Incoming!” someone shouted. We dove for cover. There was a dull whoosh and a distant explosion down the side of the thousand-foot mountain as an insurgent mortar team missed Outpost Shal, a small base on the border with Pakistan in Kunar province.

An allied Afghan platoon opened up with their .50-caliber machine gun, spraying bullets all over the valley, and their mortar team went into action. Within seconds, the team of three had run down to their position, yanked the cover off the mouth of the heaviest weapon on the post, unwrapped an 82-mm round and dropped it down the tube. There was a strong metallic clink, followed by a blast as the bomb went zooming out from the mortar. Seconds later a boom reverberated over the surrounding mountains, and the Afghan crew stood on tiptoe, trying to see where it had landed.

And that is the point. Over the course of 10 days in October, the Afghan National Army (ANA) mortar crew never actually aimed their tube. They never took a bearing, never read out elevations, never set up their aiming sticks — though they did continuously clean and oil the weapon.

Full dispatch here.