Archive for December 2010
On the day Nazia’s two-year-old son fell ill with acute diarrhoea, American soldiers engaged in a shootout with the Taliban near the family home in Helmand province.
Terrified of being killed in the crossfire, Nazia sheltered indoors for five days before braving the dirt track that led to the local clinic. By then, Abdul was close to death.
As night fell, Nazia’s husband could not find a taxi driver willing to risk the journey to hospital on Helmand’s dangerous roads. They had to wait till the next night to get to Bost hospital, in the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, which has the only paediatric ward in the area.
Nazia was lucky: when she reached the hospital last Tuesday nurses fed a diet of enriched milk to her malnourished child. The doctors said Abdul would survive.
The Helmand paediatric ward is supported by staff from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The hospital in which it sits is one of only two 24-hour hospitals that serve southern Afghanistan. Read the rest of this entry »
The British Army’s forward operating base at Wishtan — known as the Devil’s Playground because of the high number of casualties suffered there — is one of those abandoned by US marines. At the height of the Taliban’s onslaught, the British saw a man killed or wounded on one in every three patrols into the surrounding maze of alleyways.
It was in Wishtan that a “daisy chain” of IEDs killed five riflemen from the 2nd Battalion the Rifles last year — the highest loss of life for the British Army in a single incident since the war began.
My younger brother Jim, a second lieutenant, was also wounded on his way to replace the injured platoon commander.
Three months later, I walked along Pharmacy Road, which was described as the most hazardous route on earth because so many people had died clearing it.
The road is now littered with IEDs again and the British men who fought in Wishtan are wondering whether the loss of friends and comrades was futile.
“Success has to be measured in small units — opening up the bazaar, being able to walk down Pharmacy Road,” said a British veteran. “We sacrificed a lot of men on that road to keep that base open.”
The platoon was only 200 yards from its base when Lieutenant Robert Kelly, the 29-year-old son of a US Marine Corps general, hauled himself out of an irrigation ditch and on to a Taliban mine buried in the mud bank.
The force of the blast hurled him back into the ditch, slicing off both his legs above the knees. The men nearest the explosion — Corporal Travis Buckholz and Corporal Vatividad Silva — grabbed his body armour and dragged him out of the water.
Buckholz, 21, pulled out a tourniquet to stem the blood and rolled his commanding officer over. But when he saw the lieutenant’s face he stopped still with the tourniquet clenched in his hand.
“I knew when I saw it there was nothing we could do for him. Half his face was missing,” Buckholz said.
“When we got back to base it was like someone had stolen the life out of everyone. All you could see were pale faces and blank looks. I sat on the stairs and fixed my eyes on one spot for hours.”
Death has become an all too frequent reality for American marines fighting in the Sangin district of Helmand, just as it was for British forces before them. The British suffered a third of all their Afghan war casualties in this valley labyrinth of canals, tree-lines and fields of opium and corn.
When the men of the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines arrived their commanders could not understand how the British had failed to pacify Sangin, where inter-tribal feuds, the opium trade and a vicious insurgency have combined to make the district the most dangerous for Nato troops in Afghanistan.
The British strategy was privately criticised. The Americans believed an undermanned British force had become hamstrung by the large number of patrol bases they were maintaining in a ring around the centre of the district.
No sooner had they assumed command at the start of October than they began to tear down more than half of the 22 bases that 106 British soldiers had died defending. Hundreds more were wounded, many so severely that their lives would never be the same again. The Americans abandoned some of the terrain that the British had clung to at grave cost and directed their extra manpower at other areas that had not been penetrated before.
But the marines are already paying a devastating price for this early aggression. Read the rest of this entry »
The two Afghan farmers were gathering alfalfa in their fields when a convoy of heavily armoured American vehicles rolled through the outskirts of their hamlet.
Suddenly Taliban gunmen unleashed a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades and mortars at the American soldiers. As the insurgents fled, attack helicopters and fighter jets roared overhead.
Sensing danger, the farmers raced towards a cluster of mud homes. They were less than 100 yards away when a missile cut them down.
One of the men, Karimullah, 26, was killed instantly and his 30-year-old cousin Farid was lacerated by shrapnel.
“I cried so hard when I saw him,” said Ezatullah, 21, the dead man’s brother. “He was the eldest among us. I loved him deeply.”
Last week Farid, who also lost a limb in the attack, was lying in hospital, so badly brain-damaged that he did not even recognise his visitors.
His family’s outrage reflected growing resentment at a change of American tactics in the war which is being blamed for a big increase in civilian casualties. Since General David Petraeus took over as Nato’s commander in Afghanistan in June, airstrikes have been sharply escalated.
In September and October alone, Nato planes fired their weapons on 1,700 missions — an increase of 85% compared with the same period last year.
It is a significant shift for the coalition, which had limited airstrikes under General Stanley McChrystal. Petraeus’s predecessor. Now civilian casualties are up by 30%.
Ezatullah said the attack on his brother and cousin may have been the result of a tragic misunderstanding. Read the rest of this entry »