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Having announced that 426 British troops would be withdrawn by next February, Cameron said a further 500 would depart by the end of next year.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?
In the southern half of Nahr-e-Saraj district, which lies between the strategically important towns of Lashkar Gah and Gereshk, British troops from the Rifles have thrust deeper into Taliban territory.
Some areas are now relatively free of insurgent activity — one British company has fired only 10 shots during the first three months of its tour. Yet the Taliban continue to attack the British flanks, inflicting casualties where the soldiers are spread thinly.
It was the day before the Taliban announced their spring offensive that British soldiers pushed into Alikozai village. Under cover of darkness, a force of 82 men from A Company, plus 20 Afghan soldiers, landed to the east and west of it in three Chinook helicopters.
As the sun rose over fields of poppy and wheat, they began to search three mud compounds, 100 yards apart, in the centre of the village. They found nothing.
Unknown to the British, the Taliban had begun to infiltrate the area through storm drains that run beneath a canal to the north. At 7.30am — three hours after the British soldiers landed — the Taliban’s radio crackled into life. “The infidels are here. Bring out the big thing,” they were overheard saying over their radios.
Almost immediately, a Taliban fighter wielding a grenade launcher lobbed grenades at the British in the compounds. Soon, the village erupted in gunfire.
Around 23 Taliban teams working in pairs surrounded the British soldiers with accurate single shots, bursts from their machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).
The Taliban’s shots were so precise one rifleman had to curl up into a ball behind a sandbag. Another, trapped by accurate fire in an irrigation ditch, pressed his face and body into the mud bank to avoid the bullets, earning him the nickname “Starfish”.
“It was clear we couldn’t just sit there all day and take it, so we kept trying to fight our way out to the southeast,” said Major Carl Boswell, the officer commanding A Company.
But the soldiers made it only as far as an irrigation ditch 10 yards from the compound before bullets kicked into the dust around their feet, forcing them to crawl back to the relative safety of the compound.
By this stage, the Taliban had begun to creep through the fields of waist-high wheat to within 20 yards of the British-held compound.
An Apache attack helicopter circling overhead strafed the fields with its 30mm cannon as a Hellfire missile struck insurgents firing through narrow slits cut into compound walls.
This time, the soldiers pushed out 200 yards. Accurate Taliban fire pinned them down again, forcing them to launch shoulder-mounted rockets to cover their retreat.
As night fell the fighting subsided. But the Taliban had opened a network of irrigation channels and flooded the fields to the west of the village, blocking an escape route.
To deceive the insurgents, Boswell ordered his men to feint west, sending up white flares. The soldiers then turned on their night-vision goggles and switched to infrared flares, cloaking their movements from the Taliban as they headed north.
“We had to cross an IED [improvised explosive devices] belt,” Boswell said. “There was no other way out. We didn’t have time to go around it.”
Taliban fighters on motorbikes rushed to cut off their escape. But the helicopters arrived in time to rescue the men, who had fired off almost 13,000 rounds of ammunition by the end of the day.
A week later, British forces launched another air assault into Alikozai. Faced with hundreds of soldiers, the Taliban melted away. But in the weeks after the main British force withdrew, the insurgents began to creep back, laying IEDs within a few hundred yards of the new British checkpoints in the village.
A Company’s problems mounted as the men left behind began to encounter the homemade bombs. One IED killed 20-year-old Rifleman Martin Lamb on June 5; another killed an Afghan interpreter and tore off the arm of a British staff sergeant advising the Afghan army.
Weeks later, a 12-man patrol struck another homemade bomb close to the village, wounding six soldiers.
The day before, a homemade bomb placed next to a well had wounded six other soldiers attached to A Company. Despite the high casualty rate suffered by the company — one dead and 23 wounded in the first three months of its deployment — the soldiers have held the village.
“In a year’s time we will have won another 500 metres outside Alikozai,” said Boswell. “It’s never going to be a nice market town in Norfolk but in a year’s time we’ll be able to take a step back.”
British troops have launched similar operations across central Helmand over the past year. The assaults have squeezed the Taliban out of villages north and south of the line of patrol bases that cuts through southern Nahr-e-Saraj. Once an area is cleared, the British set up checkpoints in and around the villages — known as protected communities — to stop the Taliban from coming back in.
Late last month, the Rifles launched an operation to clear Taliban insurgents from a cluster of villages known as Kunjak. Confronted by overwhelming force, the insurgents again dissolved. Local elders welcomed the foreign soldiers, who added another “protected community” to their list. But, days later, a Taliban gunman shot one of the British soldiers through the calf.
Whether such communities remain protected in future will depend on the Afghans. As the British pull out, Afghan platoons will be posted to “contested areas”, where the Taliban still hold sway. Police will then patrol the relatively secure “protected communities” inside the cordon.
Corruption, desertion, a slow and archaic chain of command, a poor supply line and a lack of advanced weaponry continue to restrict the competence of the Afghan national army (ANA), according to British officials. Yet there are signs its fighting skills have improved. British officers say the Afghan soldiers — who they refer to as “truculent children with guns” — understand counterinsurgency.
Britain’s poster boy for the future of the ANA is Lieutenant Mohammed Jawid, 27, who runs a checkpoint in the protected community of Torghai. Jawid is an aggressive commander who reacts rapidly to intelligence, even sprinting out of his base in flip-flops to chase down insurgents.
His network of informants, some of them relatives of Taliban fighters, feed him information about freshly laid IEDs, insurgent activity and weapon locations. He also receives a steady trickle of low-level Taliban fighters looking to lay down their arms.
His methods are rough but effective, the British say. He locks suspected insurgents in metal containers, releasing them only when they have agreed to inform on their comrades.
Like the rest of the ANA, Jawid suffers from a shortage of equipment. His platoon has only one torch with which to spot encroaching militants at night and it is short of batteries. The Afghan military also lacks fighter jets, attack helicopters, balloon-mounted cameras, casualty evacuation helicopters, effective artillery units, IED-resistant vehicles and drones.
Two weeks ago, an IED blew up an army pick-up truck, killing all three Afghan soldiers inside. It took two days to find the bodies, which had to be fished out of a canal by a team of military divers.
“We can’t hold Afghanistan with M16 assault rifles alone,” said Colonel Saboor, the head of the Afghan battalion in the area. Some units are deprived of ammunition, boots, rations, fuel and water, which corrupt commanders pilfer, according to British and Afghan officers.
“Our superiors put these supplies in their pockets,” said Jawid. “By the time they reach us, there’s nothing left.”
Last year, ANA logistics officers failed to deliver a single round of ammunition to their men in southern Nahr-e-Saraj, according to British officers.
But the ANA’s problems pale in comparison with those of the police, who are critical to Britain’s plan to hand over security to the Afghans.
Drug addiction, illiteracy, corruption, infighting and a lack of recruits continue to afflict the force. Some units are accused of selling weapons to the Taliban. Others tax the opium harvest, arrest their own colleagues and extort money at checkpoints.
But British law enforcement officials believe the police are improving discipline under new leadership. One commander incarcerates his men and shaves their heads if he catches them smoking hashish, according to a British officer. Some newly-appointed commanders have clamped down on the sexual abuse of boys, which has been rife in the force.
But a lack of fresh recruits to police the protected communities has left a gaping hole in the British plan, forcing the army to rely on local militias.
There are about 1,000 British soldiers in the southern half of Nahr-e-Saraj, backed by about 600 Afghan troops. “Sure the Afghan forces will grow in number over time, but before the force halves in strength we’ll have to do a lot of work to get rid of the insurgents,” said Major Dom Coombes, the senior British officer advising the Afghan battalion. “We will have to pare back the insurgency so it’s little more than criminal elements here.”
The British have begun to cut supplies to the Afghan army to wean it off its dependency on them. “If the Brits are sitting in their bases smoking fags and watching DVDs, waiting for things to kick off or not, then that’s ideal,” said one British officer. “Gradually the ANA will rely on us less and less for support.”
There is a growing realisation among British officers that the end result will not be perfect. The British have begun to call the outcome “Afghan good enough”.
“If they want to piss in the showers, smoke hash, blow the generator, refuse to wear helmets on patrol, then so be it,” a British officer said. “That’s their choice. What we need to start getting them to do is planning operations, supplying their men and looking further than the next day.”
When the British leave, the Afghan army will concentrate on securing the main towns and the roads between them, leaving the police to guard the smaller hamlets and villages.
“The reality is there’s always going to be an element of violence. If it’s not the insurgents then it will be the narco-barons protecting their drugs,” a British officer said . “But if it’s manageable, if people can still travel between the towns, then that’s good enough.”