Archive for the ‘Helmand’ Category
The bullet tore into the British sniper’s hip and knocked him to the ground. Surrounded by Taliban fighters after being pinned down by heavy fire inside a mud compound for seven hours, British soldiers suffering from heat exhaustion dragged the wounded corporal from the rooftop and into an inner courtyard.
They bent him over a table, stuffing bandages and gauze into the wounds to stem the flow of blood.
Attack helicopters circling above the compound strafed the surrounding wheat fields with chain guns to prevent Taliban fighters from attacking the medical evacuation helicopter when it landed.
As the American helicopter came into sight, soldiers from A Company, 1st Battalion, The Rifles, staggered out of the compound carrying the sniper on a stretcher. Taliban bullets zipped overhead.
Lying inside the helicopter, the corporal apologised for “letting the team down”. High on morphine, he demanded his pistol to fend off the Taliban creeping through the fields around their position.
The company’s sergeant-major ejected the magazine from his pistol and cleared a round from the barrel, handing the empty weapon back to the wounded sniper. The corporal shouted above the din of rotor blades before the helicopter, still under fire, lifted him to safety.
The men of A Company had mounted an air assault into the village of Alikozai on May 18, swiftly becoming embroiled in a 12-hour gun battle with as many as 50 Taliban fighters, according to soldiers who took part.
Battles of this ferocity have dropped in number since US Marines took control of Helmand’s most violent districts last year, allowing the British to concentrate more troops in the centre of the province.
As a result, British forces have gradually begun to wrest territory from the Taliban, killing or capturing dozens of insurgent commanders.
David Cameron said on a visit to Afghanistan last week that the conflict had entered a new phase. Afghan security forces were increasingly capable of handling security in Helmand, the Prime Minister said. He pointed to Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, which is due to be formally handed over on July 20, as an example.
Having announced that 426 British troops would be withdrawn by next February, Cameron said a further 500 would depart by the end of next year.
British officials who say the war is being won on the ground believe victory will ultimately be defined by the extent to which the Afghan army and police protect territorial gains from Taliban incursion as they leave. They believe the progress of recent months can be sustained.
But while the Afghan army has been moulded into a force regarded by British officers as “superb in a firefight”, its reluctance to perform basic tasks such as planning operations is causing frustration.
“At the moment, without us cajoling, pushing or pleading, the Afghan army would sit on their arse and do f*** all,” said a British officer advising the Afghan army in Helmand.
As for the Afghan police, coalition officers remain concerned about recruitment, corruption and involvement in the opium trade.
So will security forces that still find it hard to feed and water their men crumble under Taliban pressure? Or will the “counterinsurgency savvy” Afghan soldiers keep them at bay? Read the rest of this entry »
Their faces concealed with chequered scarves, the Taliban assassins found Haji Zahir Arian sitting on cushions in the living room of a friend’s house. They wasted no time in striking a blow against peace.
The first hitman to enter the small room raised his rifle and loosed off four rounds as Arian, the deputy head of the peace council in Helmand province, lifted his arms to shield himself.
One of the bullets grazed the 59-year-old’s underarm, striking a wall behind him. The other three rounds thudded into his chest, causing his body to convulse against the wall before it slid to the floor.
The Taliban fled, leaving Arian’s friend, Najibullah Popal, trembling with fear as he watched the body ooze blood into the cushions.
Afghan policemen guarding a checkpoint just 100 yards away failed to give chase as the gunmen sped off in a black Toyota Corolla. “Who killed him?” asked Ghulam Farooq, a colleague and close friend of Arian whose uncle was strangled by the Taliban two months ago. “The security forces killed him, by failing to protect him.”
The assassination of Arian on April 23 is one of several attacks in which the Taliban have singled out “soft targets” inside Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s capital, in recent months.
The killings are aimed at destabilising the town as British troops prepare formally to transfer control to Afghan security forces next month. The handover marks the beginning of the end of British and American military engagement in Helmand. Read the rest of this entry »
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 »