Mirrors and Patterns

18 years ago, we were getting towards the end of our 12-month long Afghanistan deployment and one of our missions took us south… To where, I cannot exactly remember – Gardez, Ghazni, Orgun-E… by that time, the locations were just another passenger drop-off, refuel, or both.

Jalalabad, Afghanistan 1Feb2005 (Source: author)

The funny thing about this event is, while I cannot recall exactly where and when it was, I can remember some very specific details: the slow left bank as we flew over a 10 to 15-dwelling knot of a village, the 400-500 foot altitude, the hazy light dust from the brisk winds coming off the hills to the west… and the fact that the sun was relatively high in the sky, denoting around midday.

Somewhere around Kabul, Afghanistan 19Jan2005 (Source: author)


Some external stimuli can attract the immediate attention of helicopter crews, and a blink of white light from the ground falls under the distinct category of “Attention Grabber.” However, most of the time, something like that is the sun reflecting off a vehicle’s windshield and not –

Flash. Flash.

Adrenaline and curiosity – two things that can often exist simultaneously in both good or bad contexts. Not being the expert in being shot at, both compelled me to start to narrow my scan to where the flickering came from… low… at our 10 o’clock…

Flash. Flash.


…There – that group standing in the open on a hilltop about a quarter mile from us and not too far off our flight path… but something wasn’t right about the frequency, lack of cover, and stationary disposition of the light sources; nothing about it all indicated any sort of threat, otherwise, my pilots would have reacted having seen the same thing.

“…Those… those are kids – they’re flashing mirrors at us, the little dumbasses,” one of the pilots commented as we got closer.

I had reached the same conclusion about the same time, but still… something was not right about this whole event. We had never seen kids do that before – either they were waving at us or throwing rocks at us (one of which managed a lucky hit on a sister company’s bird a few months earlier in the same area and resulted in a few thousand dollars’ worth of repairs… talent scouts should have picked that kid up for the major leagues).

Something just wasn’t sitting right with me at all about it. It was either shortly thereafter, but before we returned to Bagram that cold dread of realization hit me: it was intentional on two possible aspects.

Either the kids were paid/told to do so in order to provoke a violent and predictable response by American helicopters upon having what looked like muzzle flashes suddenly appear along the flight path of the helicopters, or – equally as insidious – the flashing reflections would lull the crews into complacent disregard as the routine became familiar… right up to the point where the innocent kids-with-mirrors was replaced by insurgents-with-PKMs and DShKs.

Tactical deception epiphanies, when experienced from the receiving end and in a combat theater, are distinctly unnerving and unsettling. When considered objectively, one can simultaneously marvel at the evil simplicity at an idea while cringe at how simple evil can be – for all parties involved.

Once we got back, my debrief got the attention of a couple of like-minded intel/information weenies I had developed a fairly good professional relationship with even before we deployed. Their reaction and responses were both reassuring and frustrating; the former because they were excited that a new pattern was being reported by aircrews, the latter because they knew that a detail like that would be lost on the officers writing their own award narratives for the guaranteed Bronze Stars they would be getting for making coffee and creating layers upon layers of redundant bureaucracy their tactical and strategic contributions to combat operations during the deployment (Hierarchy of Veteran: Copper/Bronze, respectively).  

Life went on. We made it back – most of us, that is… routines were reentered, subsequent deployments were sustained, and that one event in some unremarkable area of Afghanistan, 2005, was filed under “Stories I Might Get Around To” in my mind.

Until today.

My consumption of news regarding this balloon over Montana resulted in much debate on Twitter, where suddenly everyone became weather balloon experts and pontificators of strategic chaos theory. Some observations, I actually can agree with:

“Do we really think the U.S. is just going to leave extremely vital, sensitive equipment out in the open for anything passing overhead to see? Do we really think satellites have never existed prior to this? This balloon isn’t going to find shit.”

However, since when is anything simple these days?

My contribution:

“To the first question: No. To the second question: No. This is probing. Reaction. Response. Permissiveness.”

Interesting… I must have gotten that from somewhere….

…Define the operational environment…

…Describe environmental effects on operations/describe the effects on operations…

…Evaluate the threat/adversary…

…Determine threat/adversary COAs…

…Naaaah… “Reaction, response, and permissiveness…” to and of a balloon…

We shall wait and see… Mirrors or muzzle flashes… or that soft and warm comforter of complacency due to social media chaos…?


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