The two point men failed to spot the booby trap hidden beneath the water as they waded along an irrigation canal. Then the shouting started.
“Get the f*** back now. We’ve gone over a tripwire,” bellowed Sergeant Lee Slater, the 17-stone section commander as he turned and splashed back towards the rest of his men. “We need to get the f*** out of here now.”
Pandemonium broke out as the soldiers clawed their way up a mudbank and out of the knee-high water. But just as they thought they had reached safety, one of the men spotted a second bomb 15 metres from the first.
“It’s a warhead. We’re f***in’ gonna step on an IED,” Slater shouted, the urgency rising in his voice at the realisation of how close they had come to triggering two improvised explosive devices fashioned from a hand-grenade and a rocket. “Right, c’mon fellas, let’s go.”
The section raced along a narrow path between the tree-lined canal and a low compound wall in Sangin, a district the size of Dorset in the north of Helmand province. Only when they had reached the safety of a maize field could the soldiers from 3 Rifles reconnaissance platoon stop and think about what had happened.
“F***ing hell, that was outrageous,” said Slater, known to his men as Big Slag. “Two of my lads just walked over a tripwire. I didn’t want to hang around. That warhead was a secondary device. They were trying to funnel us into another bomb. But you got Big Slag with you today, you’re lucky.”
Patrolling on foot in the green zone, a fertile valley that hugs the Helmand river and is a route for militants crossing from the neighbouring province of Kandahar, is a notoriously dangerous endeavour.
As soon as any soldiers leave Sangin’s Forward Operating Base Jackson, young Taliban scouts relay their movements to insurgents hidden further up the valley, sometimes using kites to mark British positions.
The soldiers painstakingly inch their way through the tall maize, along waist-high irrigation ditches and into mud compounds, aware the ground below them could conceal an IED. Military maps of Sangin carry the words: “Warning, low-density minefield”.
In recent months the Taliban have become increasingly adept at channelling British soldiers towards the IEDs. Officers believe the insurgents have learnt how to cause numerous casualties from years of watching how British soldiers react to firefights and explosions.
The troops often come under small arms fire that forces them to dive for cover in places booby-trapped by the Taliban. Bombs have even been laid on helicopter landing sites to target stretcher-bearers as they rescue soldiers wounded in the initial blasts. Daisy chains of up to six separate charges have caused multiple casualties.
In the past six months in Sangin, the Taliban have killed 24 soldiers and wounded 137. IEDs have been responsible for more than 90% of these casualties. More than 400 IEDs have been found, almost three times more than the previous year.
The district, which has seen the vast majority of British casualties during the bloodiest summer of the eight-year war, is also the focus of the British Army’s operations to counter the IED threat.
Helicopters, drones and jets, which were sucked into Operation Panther’s Claw around the the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah to the south during the summer, have been made available to commanders on the ground in Sangin.
The helicopters, in particular, have allowed commanders to launch Operation Storm: over the past two months troops have air-assaulted into areas that lie beyond the belt of IEDs ringing the army’s main bases, moving behind the Taliban’s frontline in an onslaught against known IED teams aimed at preventing them from setting their lethal traps.
“We have shifted our operational mentality,” said Captain Tom Beasley, who manages operations for the 2 Rifles battle group in Sangin. “Patrolling and looking for a fight meant that we were hitting IEDs. It was not going to be practical unless we changed things.
“Operation Storm was a response to the IED belt getting so close it was foolish to keep pushing out, finding an IED and then the entire patrol revolving around that incident.”
On September 21, soldiers from A Company 2 Rifles launched a dawn raid in Wushtan, a village across the border in Kandahar province where the Taliban were storing IED components.
Two insurgents carrying long-barrelled weapons were killed by Hellfire missiles fired from Apache gunships. Two more were arrested, testing positive for explosives.
“The insurgents are not tied down to roads like we are so a lot of IED material was filtering through here,” Beasley said. “The idea is not to hold ground but to make them reconsider their own defence lines and to force them to redeploy IEDs to protect themselves, which sows the seed of doubt in the enemy’s mind.”
Additional surveillance aircraft such as pilotless Predator and Reaper drones have also boosted the army’s ability to target insurgents in Sangin, allowing the operators to hunt down IED cells.
On October 5, British soldiers launched an overnight assault on a compound belonging to the Taliban’s commander in Sangin. The individual, who cannot be named for security reasons, is described by Lieutenant-Colonel Rob Thompson, the commanding officer of 2 Rifles, as his opposite number.
Soldiers raided the compound and captured the man, believed to be responsible for buying and supplying IEDs in Sangin and training the teams dedicated to laying them.
Operators inside Forward Operation Base Jackson’s command centre watched intently as images were beamed down from the drones above. The Taliban’s radio buzzed with activity the day after the snatch. Although their leader is now in custody, junior Taliban commanders told their foot soldiers that he had gone on an Islamic training course.
Captain Jonno Mills, the battle group’s intelligence officer, said: “If I had seen my senior commander being removed for questioning or killed then I would be pretty scared. More aerial assets and better human intelligence have allowed us to follow the network, to follow the planters. When we want to, we destroy that network.”
The Taliban are still able to slip the net, however. Last Thursday militants infiltrated a bazaar near the Jackson base in Sangin town and laid a large bomb next to seven jerry cans, each filled with 125 litres of diesel. Fortunately for the 40 civilians shopping within the intended kill zone, the Afghan army spotted the device and a British bomb disposal expert disarmed it.
Officers with experience in Northern Ireland believe more patrol bases and vehicle checkpoints manned by the Afghan army, Afghan police and British soldiers will reduce the Taliban’s ability to creep into blind spots and lay IEDs.
For now, some soldiers liken confronting the Taliban in Sangin to fighting shadows. When bomb disposal officers returned to the irrigation ditch where the 3 Rifles recce platoon had stumbled over two booby traps, they found nothing.
The talcum powder and glow sticks used by “Big Slag” Slater to mark the bombs had disappeared. So, too, had the tripwire, the Russian hand-grenade that comprised the first IED and the 105mm rocket that comprised the second.
Within minutes of the find, the Taliban had returned to reclaim their most feared weapons from under the noses of the British soldiers before vanishing back into the labyrinth of irrigation channels and mud compounds.