Tactics used by the Taliban to cut supply routes in Helmand have forced the army to change the way it maintains its remote bases. Taliban mines block the only main road that connects the British bases, pushing the supply line out into the desert where it is vulnerable to ambushes and minefields.
The burnt-out shells of civilian lorries that line Route 611, the main north-south road through the upper Helmand valley, bear witness to the potency of Taliban tactics. Many of the wrecks are now booby trapped with improvised explosive devices, better known as IEDs.
To reach remote bases along the Helmand river, supply convoys are obliged to drive for days through Taliban-held territory, dodging IEDs, mortar fire and ambushes.
“Every time you step outside the wire everyone is a target,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Martin Moore, commanding officer of 10 the Queen’s Own Gurkha Logistic Regiment. “We use helicopters but certain commodities just have to go by road.”
Beyond the “green zone”, the lush valley that straddles Route 611, lies the Helmand desert, a mixture of wadis and sand banks broken by sharp mountain peaks.
Military convoys with up to 200 vehicles can stretch for six miles as they trundle along, kicking up dust and sand clouds. Afghan security companies often attach their lorries to British convoys for protection.
The convoys travel through a stretch of sand and shale that at times narrows to less than half a mile, allowing the Taliban to scatter mines across the route.
Last month I joined a convoy from Camp Bastion retracing the route of an October convoy to Sangin and its nearby forward operating bases that had become the most heavily fought over in recent times. The Taliban laid clusters of mines to block our progress but two strikes did little to hinder us and an ambush outside Sangin felt like a formality compared with the fighting in October.
Then 70 lorries — heavy equipment transporters, fuel tankers, lightly armoured Land Rovers and heavily armoured Mastiffs — had set off to resupply troops in Sangin with 400 tons of stores, rations and ammunition. The route, equivalent to driving from London to Brighton and back, took the Gurkhas eight days.
British commanders decided to attach 50 Afghan lorries carrying wheat seed to the convoy. The seed is vital to the counter-narcotics campaign in Helmand. At the last minute another 60 lorries, protected by Watan Risk Management, the Afghan security contractor, tagged onto the rear.
Travelling at night to avoid the risk of suicide bombers, the convoy first roared through Gereshk, a town that straddles Highway 1. Then, after a rendezvous with the civilian convoys, all 200 vehicles broke off into the desert.
A squadron of Viking armoured vehicles from the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment pushed ahead to disrupt insurgents before they had time to lay ambushes and mines. Helicopters, drones and fighter jets prepared to attack Taliban positions.
However, it took six hours to navigate 2Å miles of desert as the Afghan lorries became stuck in the fine sand. As more vehicles got bogged down, the Taliban attacked the civilian lorries with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
“We don’t want to become decisively engaged with the enemy, it’s not what we’re equipped for,” said Major Patch Reehal, officer commanding 28 Squadron, as he described “one of the most gruelling logistic operations in modern military history”.
Taliban scouts on motorbikes shadowed the convoy, relaying messages to commanders as the lorries lumbered along.
As the Gurkhas approached the village of Hyderabad, the Taliban launched a second attack, firing 82mm mortar rounds. Some landed just 20 yards from the convoy. As evening fell the Afghan drivers refused to go any further, forcing the soldiers to pitch camp.
At first light the Gurkhas set off again. Almost immediately mines destroyed two civilian lorries. The convoy had driven into a freshly sown minefield. A bomb disposal team, led by Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, who was killed weeks later, flew in from Sangin to clear the mines. It took most of the day and night to secure a route as the mortar fire continued.
Meanwhile, soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, the Rifles who had spent days guarding the convoy’s route into Forward Operating Base Inkerman, north of Sangin, were under sustained attack. Reehal sent half his force protection team to relieve the pressure on them.
As the rest of the convoy entered the green zone, another mine smashed the front of a heavy transporter and a second struck a Mastiff sent to recover it. The patrol moved slowly along an unlit section of Route 611. The Taliban unleashed another ambush from the mud compounds lining the track. A rocket-propelled grenade flew over the head of Reehal as he manned the top gun. His forward air controller broke his collarbone as he dived for cover.
Bullets ricocheted off the side of the major’s armoured vehicle. The Gurkhas swung their machineguns towards the muzzle flashes, loosing off round after round as flares illuminated the night sky. It took 30 minutes for the convoy to reach the safety of Forward Operating Base Jackson.
“The wheat seed got through, so strategically the operation had been a success. The enemy had lost face so they wanted to harass us on the return leg,” said Reehal.
Taliban scouts watched the patrol as it moved back towards the safety of Camp Bastion.
The Watan company lost 21 lorries, 10 of its drivers were killed and four were missing. After one ambush with rockets and mines, Lieutenant Andy Thackway, a convoy protection commander, said: “That is the closest contact I’ve ever had with the enemy in all my time.
“This isn’t the unusual situation it would have been a few months ago — this is just kind of: oh well, we’re stuck in the middle of the desert — let’s get the Bombay mix out.”