No foreseeable end to assaults facing Royal Marines in Helmand

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Another day, another attack. Yesterday the barrage of mortars, rockets and rifle fire began raining down on the British base at Kajaki at just after six in the morning.

It was, in fact, late. A major attack had been expected the previous night after an early evening salvo. What is predictable, however, is that there is no foreseeable end to the assaults facing the Royal Marines in this, the most dangerous part of Helmand.

The attack was launched from Nipple Hill, an area which had been ‘cleared’ after a fierce battle by 42 Commando more than two weeks ago. The Taliban have now returned to fire at British forces down below. The Marines responded immediately- but Nipple Hill will have to be retaken yet again with boots on the ground in some of the most inhospitable terrain in the country.

The Marines have driven back the Taliban fighters in a series of battles, inflicting, by local as well as British accounts, a considerable number of casualties. But they do not have enough troops to hold the ground they have taken, enabling the insurgents to return.

Captain William Mackenzie-Green, of M Company, said: “We have pushed them back three kilometres and if we had extra troops then we can clear the area much, much quicker. However, we haven’t got that, and this means we have to do with the hard way and take back any positions where they return”.

Kajaki has become a symbolic and logistical prize for both sides. It is claimed that the Taliban are focusing on Kajaki at the request of their Pakistani sponsors.

In one week, starting on New Year’s Day, British forces reported they had killed more than 120 Taliban. One marine and one member of the parachute regiment has been killed and around half dozen injured.

After the evening mortar attack a RAF Tornado GR7 was called in to take out a Taliban mortar position. The suspects had, however, fled into a crowded neighbourhood and the pilot decided the danger of hitting civilians was too great to risk to start bombing.

The nature of guerilla warfare here means that the British troops cannot depend on their superior fire power and have to rely on close quarter combat. Corporal Steve Machin, a 34 year old from Rotherham with 15 years service, said: “I have seen a fair amount of action, including Iraq. But this is, by far, the scariest place I have ever been to in terms of bullets whizzing around your head.”

The marines are working with Afghan security forces who are supposed to make up for the lack of numbers. They are not, however, always reliable. The previous night’s mission, led by Captain Jon Lindsay, had come under fire, not from the enemy but from Afghan police.

The Afghans, meantime, complain about lack of equipment. Commander Abdul Razak, of the newly constituted Helmand Security Force, a mixture of police and militia, complained “we haven’t got enough weapons and we haven’t got enough transport. The Taliban are being supplied by the Pakistanis and they are well armed. We need these supplies to fight properly”.

The British troops are fighting from hilltop positions formerly used by the Russians. In the bunkers lies the detrius of a lost war - twisted artillery wreckage, spent shells and also personal items like spectacles and books abandoned when Soviet forces left in a hurry.

There have been savage echoes of that in the current conflict. Last year a French relief convoy was ambushed in the area and several soldiers captured. They were, according to local Afghans, disembowelled. A tattered Tricolour is said to fly over a Taliban position to the south.

The British marines are confident they are too well protected to meet such a fate. But they also know that the fight in Helmand is not going to get any easier, and the mission has a long way to go.