Operation Panther's Claw: 'Out of 130 men, we have had four deaths, 35 casualties and six amputees. It hasn't been easy'

Seizing territory from the Taliban is one thing; holding it something else. Kim Sengupta spent a week with the Coldstream Guards and witnessed the brutal toll of death and injury inflicted on British troops in Afghanistan
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It has been a hard tour, the violence unremitting, the losses painful and deeply mourned. "Out of 130 we have had four deaths and 35 casualties, four of them have been double amputees, two single amputees, it hasn't been easy, not easy at all," said Company Sergeant Major Steve Taylor.

"I have had young lads pleading that they didn't want to go out on patrol, but you say, 'Son you have got to go through with this, this is what we do'."

"They have taken a deep breath and gone out and they have done the job, done it very well, I don't think anyone could have asked for more."

Most of the deaths and maimings have been inflicted by IEDs, improvised explosive devices, the unseen killers planted in huge numbers along the pathways and culverts, mud-walled compounds and dusty tracks on this stretch of the Helmand river valley.

The soldiers of No 1 Company, 1st Battalion, the Coldstream Guards, have faced the bombs from the first day of their tour. In that time they have driven the insurgents back in repeated firefights and recovered caches of guns, explosives and detonators. They have also carried back dead and injured comrades – sometimes the stretcher parties themselves coming under attack – back to their patrol bases before having to ready themselves for inevitable mortar rounds and rocket fire.

It has also been a steadily changing threat with the insurgents innovating in an attempt to keep a step ahead of their Western adversaries, a "small-scale arms race" as one soldier put it. Nato equipment detects metal, so, increasingly, the bombs are being made out of minimal metal content. The charges are also being buried increasingly deeper into the soft ground of these wetlands with battery packs added later, another impediment to finding the devices. New counter-measures are being taken – they cannot be made public on security grounds – but there is the recognition that these too may need to be replaced in the future.

The prevalence of the IEDs in this part of Babaji, Sangin and other parts of the bomb alley had led to a fundamental change in the way the British troops now fight. The accepted practice, hitherto, had been to seek cover when coming under attack. But the soldiers have learnt to their cost that this is where the bombs are hidden, so they prefer to stay out in the field and face the fire – daunting, but deemed to be safer.

Through it all, they have held Babaji, a Taliban area retaken in last year's Operation Panther's Claw. And, what happened here gives a glimpse of what may take place in the territories captured in another offensive, Moshtarak, launched recently amid high publicity as part of Nato's new strategy in Afghanistan. Because what unfolds in the land seized in Moshtarak – the insurgent stronghold of Marjah and the surrounding region – will also hold the key to the West's blueprint for exit from this increasingly costly conflict. The aim is to establish the authority of the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai, establish civic society and carry out reconstruction projects.

Guardsman Ross Caddy joined the Army at the age of 17 years and three months. Now 18, he is risking his life in Helmand for £1,150 a month. "That's about £250 more than I was getting stacking shelves at Costcutters before I joined," he said. "I chose to join so I suppose you can say I can't really complain, but just a little bit more would help."

He said: "Of course it's scary at times, but we've got no choice but to carry on. I think we are doing some good, it's nice to see the farmers coming back to their homes. But then I think, 'Would they have had to leave in the first place if we weren't here?' The Afghans are taking over security more, that's only right, it's their country. I don't think anyone likes to see a foreign army in their country."

Holding Babaji was a political imperative as well as a military one. In fact the original plan did not envisage maintaining a presence. The landscape was too hostile, the resources too scarce. But, according to Whitehall officials, Gordon Brown decreed that areas taken during the operation must be secured, and a series of patrol bases were set up along the miles of farmland.

Babaji was soon back in the headlines, and not for the right reasons as far as the British Government was concerned. One of the primary purposes of Panther's Claw was to clear militant fighters from centres of population in preparation for the forthcoming Afghan national elections. Less than 150 people turned up to vote on the day, leading to accusations that British lives were being sacrificed in vain.

No 1 Company lost their first man, 23-year-old Lance Corporal James Hill, even before deploying to the frontline, killed by an IED hidden in the firing range just outside Camp Bastion, the main British military base in Helmand. The next bomb was discovered as they arrived in Babaji, 50 metres from the front gate of their patrol base, the first of dozens they were to face.

At the evening operational briefings, Major Till reports on the conditions of casualties to the UK. The accounts – some of them harrowing – are given without drama. Those present listen quietly; they had known the injured men well, and will meet many of them when they are flown out to a "decompression" session in Cyprus after the tour ends.

Among those who did not make it back home was 30-year-old Sergeant John Amer, injured by a booby trap as he rushed to help a wounded comrade. Last week, sitting in a ditch south of the village of Walizi, temporarily pinned down by Taliban fire, Sergeant Paul Bains described what happened. "We had already had an IED attack and John got hit trying to help the guy. Urgency was the key, we had to get them back as soon as possible. There was a stretcher party and we were carrying them back, we were careful, taking the route already barmered [cleared]. But they had put another IED in there while we were ahead, it was pretty bad."

Two of the stretcher bearers were injured. Sergeant Bains was blown off his feet, receiving cuts and bruises, but escaping serious wounds. "We were casevaced [evacuated] to Bastion and John Amer faded away. I think he would have survived if it had been just that first attack, but not what happened afterwards ... It's funny, I can still see him almost before it all happened. I have even got a bit of video of us sitting there talking about IEDs."

John Amer's platoon commander, Lieutenant Douglas Dalzell, wrote in his eulogy of the great help he had received from the sergeant who "knew exactly how to steer me in the right direction without belittling my confidence or questioning my authority ... For this I owe him a debt of gratitude I could never repay."

Three months later Lt Dalzell, a highly popular young officer, was killed by a booby-trap during a clearing mission for Operation Moshtarak, on his 27th birthday. The compound where he died is now another patrol base, named after Lt Dalzell, a blast hole in the wall from the bomb which killed him a reminder of what happened.

Sergeant Chris Hunter, 26, said quietly: "He died just over there. We were going through these compounds. I saw him one minute and he had just stepped past the wall when it went off, it was around 8.30 in the morning. It wasn't an obvious place for an IED, they just got lucky, sadly. I helped with the medics, but ..."

He added: "Lt Dalzell asked me to take over when John Amer was killed, the platoon has lost a few injuries as well, all to IEDs. We don't mind taking them [the Taliban] on in other ways, but the IEDs ... I hate the bloody things. But we have young kids who have to face this every day."

At the time of the Afghan national elections, Babaji, along with much of the rest of the Panther's Claw region, was still recovering from the effects of the intense fighting, and there was a ferocious level of intimidation from the Taliban, who wanted a boycott of the polls. In addition, the obvious failings of the electoral system, particularly the blatant and systemic fraud, was a further disincentive to voters.

Six months on, the Taliban have certainly not gone away. Patrols that I went out with came under fire on consecutive days. Bombs continue to be planted and set off, injuring British soldiers and Afghan farmers.

But, at the same time, local people who fled the fighting are returning to their homes. A wheat distribution system has started, and a road linking Babaji to the provincial capital, Lashkar Gar, and the local commercial centre, Gereshk, is close to completion.

The return of cultivation has boosted security: local people are showing the troops safe passages along fields sown with crops. (They are called "farmer barmers", "barmering" being a military term used for negotiating IEDs.) This is invaluable – even with detection equipment being used ahead, straying even a couple of feet from the path being cleared can, and does, prove fatal.

Hidayat Mohammed, a producer of wheat, alfalfa and poppies, returned to his farm with his family of 11 a few months ago. "I cannot say that we now feel very safe, it is too early," he said. "We still have Taliban around here, they come at night. Sometimes they ask for food and to stay in the compounds. Are they allowed to do so? It depends on how brave people feel. The foreign soldiers are in their camps, would they be able to help us in the middle of the night? We see them on patrol almost every day and that is good. But they are not here all the time and the Taliban know that."

What about the presence of the Afghan government? A neighbour, Quresh Ali, interjected: "I have seen some of our soldiers and that is good. But that is all I have seen. We are Afghans, we do not want to see the Taliban here, especially the foreigners, the Pakistanis, they have destroyed our country. We do not want to see our fields full of bombs – an old man lost his leg just over there. We need our government to help us much more, We need to see more of our own government."

Major Toby Till, the commanding officer of No 1 Company, acknowledges that governance has been slow in coming. "The problem has been that until recently the only Afghan government presence here has been the NDS [Afghan intelligence, the National Directorate of Security]. They are very useful but obviously you do need more to get a normal society going," he said.

"We are now having things like the wheatseed distribution and that is a very good start. I think the difference between Panther's Claw and Moshtarak is that this time we have made the preparations necessary to hold the area, namely having sufficient numbers of Afghan army and police ready to move in. With Panther's Claw they did not have these assets, the Afghan security forces ready in place, and that was the difficulty we faced.

"Frankly, most people around here would like the Taliban to go away and they would like us to go away. That is why it's imperative that we have the Afghans taking over their own security through the army and the police. That is the only way, and the right way.

"Having these forces here would also provide the eyes and ears in watching out for IEDs being planted which has been the biggest threat we have had to deal with and we have, of course, suffered losses."

Last week I was with Afghan troops as they searched a series of compounds which have been recently reoccupied by local people. British soldiers stayed outside providing perimeter security, part of the process of letting the indigenous security force take more responsibility.

Three men squatting inside the courtyard of stamped earth introduced themselves as Saidullah, Mohammed Jan and Abdul Wali. They were, at first, all smiles. But the atmosphere swiftly changed as the soldiers found a hoard of machine-gun ammunition and a rifle. Further searches revealed sacks of fertiliser next to battery packs – which could be for farming use but also as bomb components – and plastic bags of processed opium paste.

One of the soldiers lunged at the captive Saidullah before being pulled back by his colleagues. The men were being laid away, blindfolded, their hands tied behind their backs by their turbans, to the accompanying keening sound of wailing children and women who had begun to emerge from the rooms.

Captain Naimtullah Khan, of the Afghan army, was in an angry mood. "What we found was going to be used to try to kill my men, try to kill British soldiers, I don't want to see them released just because we are now told we must talk to the Taliban. This shows that some of the people coming back are the enemy in disguise, you cannot just trust everyone around here.

"This war is not finished, it will not be for a long time. We know that one day the Americans, the British will leave. But we'll have to keep fighting and if they leave without arming us properly, they will have to come back one day, here in Helmand, to fight the same enemy."