A hidden enemy frustrates efforts to rebuild Afghanistan

"Effing brilliant," said a Royal Marine as J Company, 42 Commando, returned to base from their heaviest clash with the Taliban since they arrived in Afghanistan a month ago. Their elation and relief was understandable, but the engagement also showed the movement remained a threat, even in the relatively secure centre of Helmand province.

Up to a dozen Taliban fighters were believed killed. No marines were hurt, but the company found an Afghan civilian with a leg wound lying in the road after the encounter. He was brought to the Gereshk base and evacuated by helicopter to the hospital at Camp Bastion, the main British base in Helmand.

The encounter began yesterday afternoon as the company was completing a patrol on the eastern bank of the Helmand river about six miles outside Gereshk, an area known to be heavily infiltrated by the Taliban. "Just as we were returning to our vehicles, we came under mortar fire from two positions, one on each side of the river," said the company commander, Major Ewen Murchison.

"At first the fire was inaccurate, but then it started coming closer to us, and one shell fell 25 metres from some of the men. We saw a group of five to seven armed individuals down on the river bed, who were signaling with mirrors to the mortar crews, apparently to direct their fire. We neutralised them with machine-gun fire. One of the mortars was in range, and we neutralised that too." Although two RAF Harriers were scrambled from Kandahar air base, the pilots could not identify the second mortar, which was mounted on a truck. Major Murchison said he decided against a follow-up operation, which could have run into a prepared ambush, and casualties could not be verified.

"Every time we've gone out in force before, they've always moved out," said one of J Company's officers, Captain Tom Vincent. "This was the first time they've been prepared to stand up and have a go. That's why the lads are so happy." His commander added that for some of the younger men, "it was the first time they've heard the thump of a mortar and the whizz of the shell going past. It's an interesting sound if you've never heard it before."

Rarely, though, are encounters between British forces and armed Afghans so straightforward. Major Murchison described an incident earlier in the patrol, when they detained an Afghan with a shotgun who appeared to be passing on their movements by mobile phone. Although they found two AK-47 ammunition clips beneath his bed when they searched his home, they could not find any clear evidence that the man was connected to the Taliban or the opium trade, and he was released. It lent force to the major's comment that "it is difficult to distinguish between the Taliban and ordinary hoods".

Gereshk, the commercial capital of Helmand, is an important target for the Taliban, because it straddles a strategic intersection. "But they do not need to take the town," said the marines' commander. "They can sit outside and have an influence, both economically and through intimidation. It is our job to restrict their freedom of action and allow the Afghan security forces to build up competence and confidence."

The death of a marine in a suicide bombing in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, this month signalled that British forces faced a new threat, although Major Murchison said he was more concerned about roadside bombs, three of which had exploded in Gereshk in the past three weeks.

As for the main mission of British troops in Helmand, to support development, the major made it clear that only a handful of smaller projects were possible at the moment.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Scientist have developed a test which predicts whether you'll live for another ten years
health
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn