August 5, 2007

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'I could feel the breeze as the bullets went by': In the heat of the Helmand valley, the young men of the Royal Anglian Regiment face attacks from Taliban fighters almost daily. This gripping report supplies a vivid insight into survival on Afghanistan's front line (Mark Townsend, August 5, 2007, Observer)

Entering the 'green zone' is a disarming experience. The narrow strip of fertile meadows, irrigation ditches and mud-bricked compounds lining the Helmand river suggest a tranquillity unmolested by time. It can feel like Tuscany. But to British troops, it promises terror.

The Taliban often appear from nowhere. A crack of gunfire, then a blanket of bullets followed by the whoosh of rockets. Three, four, five of them. There is a scramble for cover and troops return fire. Then, as quickly as they appeared, they melt away. Such a 'contact' can last for two minutes; it is the classic 'shoot and scoot' tactic of guerilla fighters

They are an elusive enemy: British troops rarely catch a clear glimpse of them even during firefights. One corporal with the Royal Anglians in Sangin, Christian Kisby, 22, from Leeds, remembers: 'Hundreds of bullets were coming at me. I could feel their breeze as they passed. The trees in front of me were getting shredded by Taliban gunners behind. I couldn't even see them'.

They are also proving an idiosyncratic enemy. British forces intercepting signals have heard Taliban commanders bragging that they have killed President George Bush. Other snippets have caught them glorifying victories after attacks when no British soldier was injured. Sometimes, in the strange, still moments before combat, troops hear Taliban fighters giggling hysterically.

'They seem to enjoy their opium; they can seem out of it during a contact,' says Private Nici Whaites, 23, from King's Lynn, his gaze wandering to the green ribbon of the Sangin valley where the opium crop is sown. Occasionally, a lone man will appear, fire a single shot and run away. These are the '10-dollar Taliban', paid to take pot-shots at the infidels.

Their commanders, however, show a strategist's know-how. 'They can dictate ambushes, conduct flank attacks. They know what they are doing,' says Sergeant Michael Butcher, a veteran at the relatively tender age of 29.

Now the threat is evolving. On dusty, potholed Route 611 - the major road through the Helmand valley - travel is fast becoming impossible. Last month between 40 and 50 roadside bombs or 'improvised explosive devices' (IEDs) were laid beneath its scarred surface.

A more frightening threat comes from the cells of suicide bombers believed to enter Helmand during the night from the vast, untended border of Pakistan. It is a soldier's greatest fear: death by the IED lottery. Recently, an eight-year-old boy was paid to push a wheelbarrow towards coalition forces in Sangin. Hidden beneath its cargo of mobile phone cards was a bomb. As the wheelbarrow neared its intended target, the soldiers moved. The Taliban detonated the device anyway.

Elsewhere, more orthodox battles continue to rage. Every night, intelligence streams into the operations room at Sangin. Senior officers from the Royal Anglians scan photographs of Helmand; red blobs mark the latest skirmishes. Last Friday there were a lot of red blobs.

As night falls, the day's action is discussed. Unconfirmed reports of hundreds of Taliban killed and injured by US air strikes; fresh fighting at a base in the north as the Taliban move their front line; reports of 200 Taliban crossing the Helmand in their customary reed boats above Sangin - in short, a typical day.

Occasionally, more unusual operations are conducted. Under cover of darkness recently, 70 troops from A Company trekked 12km inside enemy lines. Initially intending to be away for three days, they spent almost two weeks living a semi-feral existence - fighting by day, sleeping in ditches by night. 'There were fleas and giant crabs that kept nipping us when we tried to kip. It was tough,' says Private Whaite of 2 Platoon.

As they marched onwards, soldiers deloused each other under the burning sun. Worse would follow: 'We were pinned down in the open once. I was lying face down and the soil was flying up all around me. At one point a rocket propelled grenade passed two feet over our heads.' Six days in, T-shirts had fallen apart. Troops compared weeping sores where their sweat-soaked fabric had sliced through their flesh. Helicopter drops supplied the rations and water required to plough further north into the Taliban heartland.

It was a triumph: the Royal Anglians succeeding in pushing the enemy back. They have not attacked Sangin since.

MORE:
British make initial gains against Taliban (Carlotta Gall, August 4, 2007, International Herald Tribune)

The British Army compound here in a drug lord's former villa, with its sandbagged windows and lookout posts and shrapnel-scarred walls, is a reminder that until just a few weeks ago Sangin was one of the most dangerous towns in Afghanistan's most dangerous province, Helmand. [...]

[D]espite the presence of thousands of Taliban fighters, and some tough fighting still ahead, British military commanders here say they believe they have turned a significant corner. In recent months they have succeeded in pushing the Taliban back and keeping them out of a few strategic areas.

At the same time, they say, popular support for the insurgents is eroding.

"We see it now as a threat that can be countered," Major Hamish Bell, second in command of the British battalion deployed in northern Helmand, said of the insurgency.


The progress in Helmand is perhaps the most important anywhere in the country, military commanders say, given that the province has the largest concentration of insurgents and produces 42 percent of Afghanistan's opium crop, which has helped fuel the insurgency. If they can get Helmand right, they say, it could pave the way to broader progress against the Taliban.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 5, 2007 7:03 AM
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