The war the world forgot

Yesterday's air crash in Afghanistan brought the death toll to 23 in a month. The Taliban is fighting more fiercely than ever. But frontline troops feel under-equipped, battle weary and ignored. By Cole Moreton in London and Tom Coghlan in Helmand province
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The Independent Online

Afghanistan used to be called the forgotten war. Not any more. The deaths of 23 soldiers, marines and aircrew in the past month has seen to that. This has been the deadliest month for the British in Afghanistan since the invasion five years ago. Fourteen people died together yesterday, when an RAF Nimrod crashed to the west of Kandahar. Nato forces were launching an offensive against the Taliban in that region, but a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force said enemy action had been "discounted at this stage".

The pilot was said to have reported a technical failure, which would surprise nobody serving on the ground or in the air. The British Army is facing the fiercest and most prolonged fighting it has seen in 50 years, according to its commander, Lt-Gen David Richards. Troops are determined and now they are battle-hardened, but they also feel exhausted, under-resourced and vulnerable. They have been worn down by the heat and by an escalation in the conflict that has meant some units fighting continuously for more than 40 days.

Among those serving in the lawless southern province of Helmand, where camps have come under almost continuous siege, there is talk of gun barrels melting during prolonged firefights. Land Rovers and armoured personnel carr- iers have proved woefully under-protected against enemy roadside bombs, or men who emerge suddenly from crowds of locals and detonate suicide bombs. Helicopters meant to provide air cover have suffered equipment failure in the hostile climate. Generals have called for reinforcements and more resources from other Nato countries that are supposed to be supporting them, but to little effect. When they made a fresh commitment to defending democracy in Afghanistan, Britain and its allies did not expect to still be so deeply involved in Iraq.

Nato took over command of the forces in Afghanistan during the summer, helped by a force of 3,300 troops from Britain. When John Reid, the then Defence Secretary, sent them he acknowledged they faced a very difficult and dangerous mission, but said he hoped they could leave "without firing a single shot".

So far, in five years, the British in Afghanistan have fired 80,000 shots. The plan to win hearts and minds was shattered by a huge US offensive this year. Nato intended to protect the reconstruction of the country and reduce the influence of the warlords and the Taliban. Instead, troops found themselves "pinned down," said General Richards, who became Nato commander on 1 August.

His answer was to vow to search for enemy fighters in their strongholds and kill them. But although his troops are skilful, the 50C heat can cause bodies as well as vehicles to break down. The supply of ammunition to Apache helicopters is allegedly being reduced as the MoD seeks to make budget cuts of £40m across the Army, a leaked top-level report says. Elsewhere bases may close, exercises are cancelled and new weapons programmes are suspended.

There are 8,000 Nato troops in Afghanistan, mostly British or Canadian, but generals have said they need far more troops to do the job properly. That job is to bring peace to troubled lands and stop the heroin trade. But yesterday, the United Nations said the opium crop has grown dramatically in the past year, bringing greater wealth and better weapons to warlords and the Taliban.

Local fighters armed with Kalashnikov rifles and grenade launchers use every available scrap of cover in a landscape they know well. They plant roadside bombs, or their suicide bombers emerge suddenly from crowds of local people. "We have confined the British to their barracks where they are anticipating their deaths and are having sleepless nights," said Mullah Salahuddin, a senior Taliban leader last week. "Their position is weakening with each passing day."

British troops in Helmand are fiercely reluctant to admit they are exhausted, but there is little doubt that what they have been doing is exhausting. At a camp in Sangin, 100 paratroopers resisted 44 Taliban attacks in 25 days. The fighting has been dirty and persistent, General Richards said, and some soldiers are seeing combat for the first time. "For the first five minutes under fire I was just so frightened," said a 19-year-old Gurkha rifleman called Tkam Paha Dur. But then the "muscle memory" developed in training clicked in and "it became just like a firing exercise".

Things have to be bad for senior officers to admit they are struggling, but that has happened this summer. Morale has been drained by the heat, lack of sleep, and a series of investigations into shooting incidents. "Even in battle, soldiers know they will have to account for every shot they fire," said one officer. "That causes a hesitation that could be fatal."

Another senior officer in Helmand said of his equipment: "What we have is enough to make a difference but it does force us to be economical." As aircraft parts fail in the demanding climate, supplies have to be delivered by road, which is very dangerous. Vehicles such as the so-called "Snatch" Land Rover are "not fit for purpose", according to Col Tim Collins, who won fame during the invasion of Iraq. One member of a signal regiment in Helmand said wearily: "The Snatch is good for stopping bricks and petrol bombs in Londonderry. That's about it."

Eight British soldiers and two dozen from the Afghan army held off 30 attacks in 10 days on the Kajaki Dam. Despite this example of heroic resistance, one sergeant deployed with Afghans told of them fleeing at the first sound of gunfire, extorting money from locals, taking drugs and even threatening to shoot their British Army mentors. Tribal elders are suspected of saying whatever it takes to keep both sides happy. As for global politics, soldiers in the camps of Helmand said they felt forgotten while the conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon dominate headlines read by people back home. "If you don't like what the Army is doing, well, you voted for it," said one Apache pilot. "We do as we are told, and very bravely." Behind him on the wall of the mess-hall an ironic motto has been scrawled, "Livin' the dream".

Jonathan Hetherington wanted to live the military life from a young age. He was born 22 years ago in Wiltshire, a part of England with intimate links to the Armed Forces. But he died in Musa Qala in the early hours of last Sunday, as the Taliban attacked his platoon house.

The garrison at Musa Qala had been under such heavy, daily attack a month ago that supply convoys could not get through. Those trapped inside were reduced to using purifying tablets to drink water from a rancid well. One captain who had fought in a similar battle alongside 30 other soldiers for eight days and nights as Taliban fighters surrounded their fortified base described it as "like Zulu" the film starring Michael Caine that tells the story of how the British Army held off hordes of warriors at Rorke's Drift in Natal, South Africa, in 1879. Jon Hetherington would have known what he meant. As a young boy, he moved to Neath in South Wales and joined the local army cadets, who offered adventure, a uniform and training in "first aid, navigation, field craft, survival and skill at arms". But all Neath cadets know soldiers die: the title of their company includes in brackets the name of a battle in which Welshmen were lost defending a position in a hot and hostile country against fierce local forces: the battle of Rorke's Drift. L-Corp Hetherington went to Afgh- anistan on 14 June, his job to use sophisticated electronic equipment to listen in on the Taliban and jam its signals. It is not known whether he was doing this when the attack began, listening to alien voices on the airwaves rising in intensity. Whatever happened, at about five o'clock in the morning the boy from South Wales was shot dead.

As the news circulated among serving soldiers, some of them posted reactions on the British Army Rumour Service, an unofficial internet forum. One said his death was "a real shock. Only been in the unit for a few months. A top bloke in work and out". Another promised to have a drink for Jonny in "H'ford". Another, apparently a member of the same unit, wrote lines from The Young British Soldier by Rudyard Kipling. The poem's black humour is often quoted by squaddies in the place they call 'Ghan. It expresses what they all know: that those who are prepared to fight must also be prepared to follow orders they may not understand, and to die, maybe pointlessly, on a foreign field. "When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains/ And the women come out to cut up what remains,/ Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains,/ An' go to your Gawd like a soldier."

The body of Cpl Hetherington will be flown home to Britain tomorrow. Five years ago, at the beginning of the war on terror, when the return of a fallen soldier was still a national event, there would have been television cameras watching. Not now. His coffin will be carried from the aircraft by comrades, and a band will play a mournful tune. Officers will salute, and his mother Sandra, if she has the strength to be there, may weep. But the world outside the perimeter fence of RAF Brize Norton will neither notice nor care very much.

Even as Mrs Hetherington was mourning at home in Port Talbot yesterday, the Ministry of Defence announced the death of Ranger Anare Draiva of 1 Royal Irish Regiment, who was from Fiji. Then came news of the crash. In the modern British Army, to the astonishment and alarm of those who serve it in Afghanistan, death has become ordinary.

CASUALTIES

1. CAPT ALEX EIDA: Aged 29, Royal Horse Artillery, from Hooley, Surrey. Died on 1 August when the Taliban ambushed his Spartan reconnaissance vehicle in the north of Helmand. Single, he had also served in Iraq and Kosovo.

2. LT RALPH JOHNSON: Aged 24, Life Guards, from Windsor in Berkshire. Also died 1 August, with Capt Eida in the Spartan. They were supporting paratroopers when they were hit by RPGs and machine-gun fire.

3. L/CPL ROSS NICHOLLS: Aged 27, The Blues and Royals, from central London. Also died 1 August in the Spartan on what was to be his last tour. Married, he leaves a son of two and a baby daughter.

4. PTE ANDREW CUTTS: Aged 19, Royal Logistics Corps, of Blidworth, Nottinghamshire. Died in Musa Qala on 6 August bringing supplies for attack on Taliban strongholds.

5. PTE LEIGH REEVES: Aged 25, Royal Logistics Corps, from Leicester. Died 9 August in traffic accident in Kabul.

6. L/CPL SEAN TANSEY: Aged 26, Household Cavalry, from Newscastle. Died 12 August in tank accident.

7. CPL BRYAN BUDD: Aged 29, Parachute Regiment, from Ripon, North Yorkshire. Died on 21 August in the north storming a building. Veteran of Sierra Leone and Iraq.

8. L/CPL JON HETHERINGTON: Aged 22, 14 Signals Regiment, from Port Talbot, south Wales. Died on 27 August during a Taliban attack on his platoon base in Musa Qala. "He stood out as a young man of stature," his CO said.

9. RANGER ANARE DRAIVA: Aged 27, 1 Royal Irish Regiment, from Fiji. Died on 1 September defending a base in Helmand.

10. AIRCRAFT CRASH: Twelve from RAF, one Royal Marine and one soldier killed in plane crash in Kandahar. Defence Secretary Des Browne calls it "a terrible accident". Taliban action not suspected "at this time".

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