David Axe photo

The U.S. Army’s ‘Operation Donkey Haul’

That one time American soldiers tried to recruit an Afghan ass


Able Troop was way too small to cover the entire Afghan district of Baraki Barak, where its outpost was located in 2009.

So the 100-strong company — part of 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry, deployed to Logar province south of Kabul — used observation posts, strung out along the district’s mountain peaks, to keep an eye things between patrols.

Each O.P. was outfitted with sensors, rockets, machine guns and, most importantly, radios for relaying sightings of Talibs or other bad guys. To keep the gear powered and the lights on, the OPs used generators.

On night in mid-October, the generator at a mountaintop position codenamed “O.P. Spur” coughed, sputtered and died. What happened next played out like a comedy of errors, but in fact reveals the deadly serious obstacles for a high-tech army waging low-intensity war against an elusive foe on unforgiving terrain such as Afghanistan’s.

It was Oct. 16 and the troops in the ridgeline O.P. — a hut surrounded by sandbags and festooned with lenses, antenna and gun barrels — couldn’t wait any longer for a new generator. But their need wasn’t quite dire enough to warrant sending a twin-rotor Chinook helicopter, a precious commodity in rugged Afghanistan.

Instead, the job of hauling a 300-pound generator up a 1,000-foot, 30-degree slope fell to 3rd Platoon, nicknamed the “Dirty Dingos.” “Dingos get it done,” said their platoon sergeant, a sun-burned sergeant first class named Donald Coleman.

So true. But Coleman never said his platoon would get it done elegantly.

David Axe photo

Indeed, on this hot fall day someone had the bright idea of using the generator delivery to improve relations with the local residents of Baraki Barak. 3rd Platoon was allocated $100 — a month’s wage to most Afghans — to rent a donkey for the day. The rental would solve the generator-delivery problem and inject much-needed cash into the district economy. In theory.

Everything looked great on paper. They’d meet the donkey and its handler at the base of the hill, tie a sled to the donkey, place the generator on the sled and escort the beast and its burden up the hill. Should take an hour, Coleman estimated.

But this was Afghanistan, where nothing ever goes as planned.

David Axe photo

The first sign that “Operation Donkey Haul” might prove an, ahem, pain in the ass was a low, muttered, “Uh oh,” from the platoon’s interpreter, known to the Americans as “Z.”

There were apparently two donkeys available for the job — a good one and a “sick” one, to use Z’s descriptor. Wouldn’t you know it: the handler showed up with the sick animal.

So began a comedy of errors, illustrated above and below, that demonstrated perfectly the challenges of conducting a high-tech, population-centric counter-insurgency campaign in the mountains with no power grid and limited resources.

Tethered to a sled on which was placed the heavy generator, the protesting animal made it just halfway up the slope before its legs began to bow. The donkey planted its hooves in the rocky ground and refused to climb another inch.

David Axe photo

One donkey, even a healthy one, cannot haul a 300-pound load 1,000 feet up a 30-degree incline. But the Americans were professional soldiers trained on multimillion-dollar weapon systems. None knew the first thing about donkeys.

“Halfway, half pay,” Z recommended. But in the interest of Army-Afghan relations, Coleman was inclined to pay the full fare to the donkey’s handler.

“The donkey was a bad idea,” one soldier mused as he and five other soldiers grabbed the generator by its base and lifted. Gasping, grunting and sweating, the soldiers heaved the generator a few feet at a time, pausing frequently to rest.

Stones, dislodged by the soldiers’ boots, rolled down the slope with a clatter. Relieved of its burden, the donkey placidly plodded along behind the straining Americans, accompanied by its bemused owner.

Step by step, with Coleman shouting encouragement and soldiers complaining through gritted teeth, the generator ascended the mountain. What should have taken an hour, ended up taking two.

David Axe photo

At the ridgeline O.P., Pascual hooked up the generator, turned it on to make sure it worked, and everyone sucked water then headed back down the hill.

When the Dingos were halfway down, the O.P. radioed in: the new generator had just died. Sighing, Pascual climbed back up the hill, where he remained the rest of the day tinkering with the finicky machine.

Trudging back to their trucks, the rest of 3rd Platoon could only shake their heads. Whoever was supposed to maintain the frickin’ generator sure dropped the ball.

Left unsaid was the deeper point, that Op Donkey Haul was based on the same poor planning and bad assumptions that have plagued the whole U.S. war effort in Afghanistan.