Battling through the dense, towering corn fields, the heavily armed US marines trudged through Taliban territory, every arduous step sinking into deep cloying mud. In the background, the thunder of artillery rounds boomed.
Suddenly, a burst of Pashtu emanated from the radio set monitoring Taliban chatter. "They say they have got eyes on. They are waiting on us," translated one of the marines. "Can we ask them where they are?" another replied sardonically.
The think tank International Council on Security and Development (Icos) announced last week that there had, yet again, been an increase in Taliban activity across Afghanistan. Its research revealed the insurgents had a permanent hold in 80 per cent of the country, up from 72 per cent last year and 54 per cent in 2007.
In this remote part of the green zone bordering the Helmand river, their defiant presence is blatant. As the marine patrol approached the tiny hamlet of Herati, they were greeted by a volley of bullets before an agonising pause. The troops sat as the day turned into a furnace, beads of sweat sliding down their faces, listening to the Taliban prepare their assault. Huey and Cobra attack helicopters circled overhead.
Suddenly rounds from rifles and Russian machine guns began raining down from a collection of compounds just a few hundred yards away over a small canal. The marines dropped on to their bellies and returned fire. Enemy bullets cracked over their heads and danced in the dust, but none hit their targets and the other side eventually fell back. The scream of a Harrier fast jet, low over the compounds, provided a parting warning.
It was one of three fire fights the 2nd Platoon endured during a seven-hour patrol on Friday 11 September, a symbolic anniversary of the terrorist attack that led these young servicemen to Afghanistan.
But worse was to come. As they made their way back through the corn fields, Corporal Andrew Bryant halted abruptly, his foot caught. He looked down to find it was tangled in two copper command wires, which an explosives team discovered were linked to a daisy chain of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) along the patrol's route. If it had detonated, Cpl Bryant would not have been the only victim.
"I thought, 'Oh my God. This is going to be it, right here.' I am not scared of a fire fight. They can shoot at me all day. But the IEDs you have no idea when it is going to come at you. You never have any idea when your time is up," said the 21-year-old New Yorker. "We have already had problems with them. My friend lost his legs, and two others were killed [when a vehicle hit a roadside bomb]. "That's the best way they can get at us. They know they can't beat us with conventional arms."
Following the deadliest summer to date, Icos said eight years after the Taliban were driven from power there was substantial insurgent activity – one or more attacks per month – in at least 97 per cent of the country. "The unrelenting and disturbing return, spread and advance of the Taliban is now without question," said Norine MacDonald, Icos president and lead field researcher.
While recent reports show that the insurgency has grown in the north and Kabul, it is in its traditional strongholds in the south and east that it remains at its deadliest. On 2 July, 4,000 US marines were dropped at key points in Garmsir district, Helmand, a staging post for the Taliban moving north from the Pakistani border.
Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines were ordered to take the southernmost point. After four days of intense fighting, they established combat operating Post (COP) Sharp – named after Lance Corporal Charles "Seth" Sharp, 20, who was killed on the first day – in Mian Poshtay. For the past two months, in daily battles, they have attempted to purge the area of a defiant Taliban while trying to convince the locals that they are here to help and, more importantly, to stay.
The shredded white flags of the Taliban still hang limply over the medieval mud-walled compounds. Marines on patrol climb up and pull them down, a symbolic act showing that the insurgents no longer have an unchallenged stranglehold.
Slowly, some of the local farmers have started to listen, but fear of retribution is everywhere. After the battle on Friday, a man appeared from nowhere to give the marines information on the Taliban positions before disappearing into the fields once more.
In nearby Lakari market, Taliban stroll with impunity through stalls that sell opium and ammunition as well as fruit and vegetables. From the dialect that can be heard over the radio chatter during a fight, it is obvious that many are from Pakistan, where they have training camps near the border. This is the main supply route into Helmand, through which smugglers bring drugs, weapons and fighters to battle the British and American troops to the north. Once over the border into Baramcha, they move up to Safaar, where they receive weapons and orders, before heading into Lakari.
The locals in Mian Poshtay, either through fear or a strong sense of traditional Pashtunwali that demands they welcome them into their homes, continue to feed and harbour them. Others are interwoven in the community. As Captain Eric Meador, commanding officer of Echo Company, explained, the village tractor mechanic may also be a local fighter.
The Americans have put on a show of force, sending out patrols, meeting ambushes with overwhelming power. When four armed men were spotted by surveillance a few days ago laying an IED, mortars obliterated the team. The Americans informed the locals that those waging this un-Islamic war would meet the same fate. But they know they face a chicken-and-egg situation: to provide security to local people, they must cut off the Taliban supply line. But to convince farmers to co-operate, they must provide security. The locals, the Americans insist, are tiring of the insurgents. In the past couple of weeks, people have tentatively come forward with information and requests for medical help.
A boy of eight turned up at the gate yesterday with his three smaller brothers and his sick baby sister. As the doctor tended the youngest, Captain Meador gave the children liquorice and toys. "They are expecting you to be these big mean people the Taliban tell them the Americans are and I sat down and blew soap bubbles with them. Their faces just lit up," said the officer.
"We are keeping the enemy away from population areas that are a little bit better – neutral to positive. I think the people around here want change but there has not been enough time."
Last Monday, 20 elders turned up at shura, a meeting organised by the US marines. Among them were suspected Taliban sympathisers. Others genuinely appeared to want to co-operate. Many more would have liked to attend, they said, but were too afraid. One of them, Mirza, explained: "The Taliban said we will cut off your head, your fingers, if you go to the shura. But we had to come. The most important thing is peace, prosperity and security and no civilians are killed."
Two days later, when the governor of Garmsir made a rare trip to the region, only a handful of old men came. The reason became obvious 24 hours later when one of the original attendees turned up at COP Sharp to display the wounds on his legs; he had been whipped. The elders who had attended the first shura, he said, had been taken to Lakari and beaten.Reuse content