THE Taliban opened fire while four British soldiers were crossing a barren field. As they dashed for cover, a bullet tore through the thigh of one of the riflemen, bringing him crashing to the ground as more rounds thudded into the earth beside him.
It would only be a matter of seconds before the Taliban gunmen zeroed in on the fallen soldier stranded 30 yards from his comrades. It took Corporal Daniel “Danger Faz” Farrell, of the 2nd Battalion the Rifles, a moment to realise the danger.“I thought he’d just fallen over so we ran past him initially and went to the edge of a compound. We were still in the kill zone. The soldier was screaming he’d been hit,” Farrell said.
His platoon had been given the task of backing up troops from the Afghan army as they searched villages in an area to the north of the British base in Sangin.
“We couldn’t make out where the bullets were coming from,” said Farrell, 24, who commands a section of eight men in A Company’s 5th Platoon.
“They would either shoot more of us or they would have killed the wounded rifleman.
That’s when I thought we can’t leave him, we have to go back and get him.”
Farrell grabbed a comrade, Rifleman Nathan Hau, and sprinted across the ploughed field towards the fallen soldier, braving another hail of Taliban bullets as they did so. The two soldiers each grabbed an arm, dragging their wounded colleague across the field towards a mud compound and away from the Taliban’s firing position 80 yards to their left.
In the searing heat, the two men finally heaved the wounded rifleman to safety through a section of mud wall blown away during a previous battle with the Taliban.
As the platoon’s medic treated the wounded soldier behind the chest-high wall, Farrell shouted for his shoulder-mounted rocket launcher and fired at the compound from which the Taliban were shooting.
Furious that his rocket missed its target, Farrell hurled its empty tube at the wall and ordered one of his men to pass him the heavy machinegun. “I think when the men saw me in that state, they really caught the buzz and they started to return fire in force,” he said.
The platoon, backed by a team of snipers, let loose a torrent of fire on the Taliban’s position, firing 1,000 rounds and two missiles while they waited for a helicopter to take the wounded soldier to hospital at Camp Bastion.
Only once he had returned to Forward Operating Base Jackson after completing the 12-hour patrol did Farrell realise how narrow his own escape had been. “I looked at my pouch and realised a bullet had hit it,” he said. The round, probably fired from an AK47 rifle, had struck the global positioning satellite monitor he keeps in a hip pouch. Two inches to the right and the bullet would have smashed his thigh bone. “I’m not overreligious but I think my friend who was killed by sniper fire in Iraq is looking over me,” the Liverpudlian said.
The rescued soldier is recovering from a shattered femur in Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham.
Farrell’s platoon commander, Second Lieutenant Tom Parry, paid tribute. “It was really ballsy,” he said. “It takes an incredible amount of courage to do what Corporal Farrell did.”
Eleven soldiers serving with 2 Rifles have died during the first three months of their Afghan tour. All but one were killed by roadside bombs. After a month of fighting, the main British operation in Helmand, known as Panther’s Claw, is moving into its next phase with more than 1,000 ground troops surrounding the Taliban’s remaining stronghold in an area known as Greater Babaji.
The enemy is elusive but there are dramatic moments. On July 7, unmanned drones spotted retreating Taliban fighters lashing empty oil cans to their pickup trucks to ford a canal as British troops advanced through the Nahri Saraj district.
British soldiers monitoring computer screens at the nearest forward operating base were soon looking at live images from an assortment of drones, jets and helicopters circling over the battlefield.
A pair of Apache helicopters fired Hellfire rockets and 30mm cannon, leaving four pickup trucks, a minibus and a number of motorbikes burnt out. About 30 Taliban militants were killed in the raid. Intelligence sources later confirmed that one of the dead men was a mid-level Taliban commander.
The fighting of the past few weeks followed a disastrous decision by British, American and Danish commanders to pay Haji Kaduz, a warlord, to keep the Taliban at bay. The deal went sour 18 months ago when Kaduz began to demand more cash, complaining that he had paid $40,000 out of his own pocket to feed, pay and equip his men.
His stipend was cut and Kaduz reverted to drug-running, extortion, kidnapping and even murder to pay for his militia. The population quickly turned back to the Taliban for protection.
One Danish government official described the deal with Kaduz as “extremely naive”. “We were dancing with the devil. Kaduz is one of the reasons the local people allowed the Taliban to regroup and drive into the area 18 months ago,” said Glen Swanson, the district’s stabilisation adviser, contracted by the Danes. “People just want security.”
The Taliban, who govern by fear and intimidation, are slowly losing their grip on Nahri Saraj as the British advance. But they are ruthless foes. They have executed six pro-British tribal elders in the valley since February, as the forces try to win trust among locals in the run-up to next month’s elections.
General Stanley McChrystal, the new commander of the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force, has ordered his officers to limit the use of airstrikes after concerns that the rising number of civilian casualties is turning ordinary Afghans against foreign troops.
In areas under its control, the Taliban divert water irrigation channels away from pro-British villages, shut down schools and punish villagers spotted talking to British or Afghan troops.
“Only a few people will vote in the election,” said Faisal Haq, the district governor of Sangin who was forced to flee to neighbouring Kandahar in 2007 .
The propaganda war is becoming ever more vicious. Two weeks ago, the Taliban shot a seven-year-old Afghan girl in the head and dumped her body on the steps of her family’s mud compound. Then they blamed her death on the British.