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By land, sea, or donkey

U.S. Marines stop to allow donkeys they use to transport supplies to drink water from a river in Kandagal village, in Afghanistan's eastern Kunar province.
U.S. Marines stop to allow donkeys they use to transport supplies to drink water from a river in Kandagal village, in Afghanistan's eastern Kunar province. Tomas Munita / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Frustrated with the limitations of using its fleet of modern Humvee four-wheel-drives in rugged mountains with few roads, a battalion of U.S. Marines has enlisted a mode of transport used for centuries by Afghan villagers — donkeys.

About 30 of the animals have been rented from local farmers to haul food and bottled water to hundreds of Afghan and U.S. troops on a two-week operation to battle militants deep in remote mountains in eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar province.

“With all the smart bombs and the modern stuff in war nowadays, this is the best way for us to resupply our troops there,” said Lt. Col. Jim Donnellan, commander of 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, which is based in Hawaii. “It’s also much cheaper for the U.S. taxpayer for us to rent the donkeys than for everything to be air-dropped.”

Using aircraft to resupply the forces is also dangerous.

In late June, militants in the area shot down a special forces Chinook helicopter, killing all 16 troops on board, as it tried to land in one of the many steep-sided, wooded valleys that snake their way through the mountains.

The operation, which began Friday, is aimed at flushing those fighters out of the valley and U.S. commanders are nervous about risking other choppers in the process.

Donkeys  function as supply convoy
From a temporary resupply base in a cornfield at one end of Korengal Valley, where the militants are suspected of hiding, squads of Marines with heavy packs on their own backs led out lines of donkeys, each laden with two boxes of water, a box of food rations and a sack of grain.

While each Marine carried enough food and water for themselves for two days, the donkeys gave each squad supplies for an extra 48 hours. Once finished, the animals would be led back to the resupply base to load up again and then return to the mountains.

Before coming to Afghanistan, some of the troops received training in handling donkeys at the Marines’ Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, Calif., said Capt. John Moshane.

“Marines have used donkeys since the American revolution,” he said, as each animal received a spray painted number for identification.

Battling insubordination
Still, the donkeys stubborn refusal to cooperate and their determination to try to mate with each other whenever they were untied persistently frustrated their handlers. When one Marine slapped one of the animals on the rump in exasperation, the donkey promptly gave him a sharp kick with one of its hind legs.

Donkeys have long been used by armies in Afghanistan, including by mujahedeen independence fighters against Soviet troops in the 1980s. Smugglers also use them to sneak loads of opium, illegally mined gems and timber across the country’s mountainous borders.