The British base called Stalingrad

Surrounded by the Taliban, British troops and their commander in north Helmand feel let down by the slow pace of reconstruction. Terri Judd reports
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The Independent Online

In his fortified headquarters, Lt-Col Charlie Calder drew a large red circle on a map with a laser pointer indicating a vast expanse of northern Helmand, his area of responsibility. He then ringed a spot the size of a 10p piece – less than 20km square – to highlight the ground he and his battlegroup of 775 men have held during the bloodiest summer to date in Afghanistan. "To be totally honest, the fact is they [the Taliban] still control everything beyond it and there is nothing we can do about it," he said.

Beyond the hulking form of Mount Doom, an ominous landmark dominating the skyline, the enemy fighters operate freely across the district and into the mountains of Baghran. They are held back by a circle of a dozen small patrol bases – inhabited by British and Afghan forces – that stand on the front line and battle any incursion from the insurgents who surround them in every direction. A home-made wooden sign in one camp said it all: "Welcome to Stalingrad".

Within Lt-Col Calder's "ring of steel", Musa Qala bazaar is bustling once again. A school, a mosque and a clinic are up and running, and a variety of small projects to provide electricity and work are bubbling away. The centre of Musa Qala is a relative oasis (for in Helmand any area that suffers only a few roadside bombs, mortars, rockets and Taliban threats constitutes a haven), but without further troops and reconstruction, the British find themselves in a virtual stalemate.

"We have been largely security-focused. I don't think governance and reconstruction are moving forward sufficiently fast. Not enough has been done. Go and ask the Afghans – 99 per cent will say it is not happening fast enough," said the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.

After the then-Brigadier Andrew Mackay and his men retook control of Musa Qala, he complained privately of a failure to provide adequate reconstruction to win over the hearts and minds of locals. British soldiers risking their lives were being let down by the Government, said the officer who, three weeks ago, became another to prominently resign.

Lt-Col Calder said that, 21 months on, the situation had not improved swiftly enough and more needed to be done to bring the wavering local fighters or "$10 Taliban" onside.

"We [soldiers] are good at consent- winning, low-level, short-term stuff. But we rely on the experts and reconstruction teams to deliver long-term reconstruction and governance. Ultimately, we have the consent of the people, but that lasts only so long unless they see progress within the government-controlled areas."

The young men on Lt-Col Calder's front line are determined their friends who have died will not have done so in vain and are quick to emphasise that – in military terms – their tour has been a success.

"We are killing a lot of Taliban," said Capt Olly Lever, 28, of the Black Watch. His platoon lost 22-year-old Cpl Sean Binnie in May when he tried to rescue Afghan soldiers he was mentoring. "People at home think we are taking a rogering. It is not true."

Cpl Jimmy Mather, 24, said: "We are smashing them. Every time we go forward they get a kicking. We are making an impact. He [Cpl Binnie] died doing something heroic. He chose to put himself in extreme personal danger to save others."

While the attention of people at home this summer was on Operation Panther's Claw, further south in Helmand, the north-west battlegroup, around Musa Qala, was involved in its own fierce engagements. During Operation Mar Lewe, they fought successfully to bring the 1,000 people of Yatimchay into the secure net, destroying a Taliban bomb factory and taking over narcotic strongholds in the process.

They pushed the enemy's forward line back three kilometres where A Company 2nd Battalion, the Royal Welsh, now occupies Patrol Base Minden. Surrounded on three sides, they can expect a friendly reception in Yatimchay to the north, albeit from locals who appeared blind last week to whoever had been placing roadside bombs on the British routes through their compounds.

"It is a time-honoured Pashtun tradition to keep a foot in each camp and play one against the other. They [the locals] haven't yet seen one side or the other having the upper hand," said Lt-Col Calder.

At Patrol Base Woqab, the most northerly post in Helmand, Major Richard Coates stood on the roof at dusk and pointed across the green zone at another building just a few hundred metres away. It is known simply as Compound 17, a Taliban firing point. In a mirror image of the situation at Minden, when Major Coates sends his men from B Company 2nd Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, south into the secure zone surrounding the town of Musa Qala they can usually expect a friendly reception from locals who furtively point out where the insurgents have planted IEDs (improvised explosive devices). But a patrol north is greeted with an ambush.

Major Coates said: "During our brief time here we have seen signs of improvement. It is going in the right direction. For the locals, six months is nothing. We have to bear that in mind." Of the 100,000 people in his region, one-fifth are protected and under government influence. The rest are subjected to the brutality of Taliban law, checkpoints and taxes.

Lt-Col Calder said that an increase in British soldiers was not the only option. However, of just 350 Afghan National Army soldiers and 150 police (ANP) he has had to work with during the past five months, a large proportion were diverted south to help with Panther's Claw. "The ANA and ANP are effective but, there again, they are limited."

Their hatred of the Taliban makes them fierce fighters, British mentors said, but they are erratic and much happier rushing out to a battle than holding ground in defensive positions. Meanwhile, Musa Qala remains isolated. Once a month, a re-supply convoy of 50 vehicles travels the 60 kilometres from the main British base of Camp Bastion. The final six kilometres are the most lethal.

The battlegroup has found 250 IEDs along this route in the past five months, a third of which have exploded. This has severely hampered progress. Determined efforts to clear the way when the Royal Welsh joined the battlegroup were, tragically, insufficient. They were hit four times. Pte Richard Hunt, 21, who had survived a bomb a day earlier, was fatally wounded on 13 August, the 200th British soldier to die in Afghanistan.

Abdul Ahad, a farmer with seven children living beneath the crossfire around the British base near Woqab, said: "I hope my children will grow up and have a better life than me. I wish they could be engineers or doctors, but there is no school near by." A farmer in Yatimchay said: "The enemy are everywhere. They are planting bombs. They don't care about us or our children."

The IEDs that pepper the area mean that every patrol resembles a game of Russian roulette. Equally worrying is that the enemy is now using such "prestige weapons" as anti-aircraft machine guns, AGS-17 automatic grenade launchers and heavy 120mm mortars.

For soldiers, winning local consent is less about the grand vision for Afghanistan and more to do with daily survival, and some assurance that the pain they are suffering is worthwhile. "An old man said 'God bless you' as the patrol was going past the other day. It was good to get a spontaneous, positive response," said Sgt Giles Hodgskins, 37, of the Royal Army Medical Corps.