In the field with the troops in Helmand

The shadows moved fleetingly in the alley. Then came the shots, staccato bursts from Kalashnikovs forcing us to dive behind a wall. The Taliban would not give up their stronghold without a fight ...

By Kim Sengupta,Helmand
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:20

This was Operation Tor Shadey, the last offensive by British and Nato forces to clear insurgent-held areas before this week's national elections. The target, Gorup-e-Sheshkalay, was of particular strategic significance. A centre for the manufacture of roadside bombs, it sat on a route through which attacks have been carried out on Lashkar Gar, the capital of Helmand province, by a busy Taliban commander.

This was the biggest offensive by UK forces since Operation Panchai Palang, Panther's Claw, which ended last month. It was also the first mission undertaken by the Welsh Guards Battlegroup since the death of their commanding officer, Lt-Col Rupert Thorneloe, the most senior British Army officer to be killed in action since the Falklands War.

Two US Marines accompanying British and Afghan government troops returned fire as we ventured back on to the narrow mud road, puffs of dust spraying from Taliban fire on the walls on either side as we crawled along underneath.

This was just one among many rolling skirmishes taking place all around us as the troops began to clear barricaded compounds through to the district centre. Some were empty, some had women, children and the elderly sheltering inside; from others, the positions from where the Taliban had chosen to engage, came stiff resistance.

No one had really known how the day would pan out. There was apprehension among British officials about getting involved in bloody combat so close to polling day. Announcements had been made through the district governor and tribal chiefs asking the Taliban to leave the area and reassuring the residents they could stay.

In the event it worked the other way, a steady stream of people hurrying away by foot and by carts as the news came of the advancing British convoy. The militants, in the mean time, were busy setting up ambush points and organising their most lethal form of attack, roadside bombs – the overwhelming cause of fatalities among Western and Afghan government troops.

In the event, Lt-Col Charlie Antelme, in command after Rupert Thorneloe, had devised a "feint" to the west and most of the Taliban defences were left facing that way as the bulk of the assault force approached from the east. The militants, however, soon realised their mistake, regrouping and opening fire on Chinook helicopters ferrying in the infantry. Meanwhile, the Welsh Guards' headquarters at Nad-e-Ali had itself come under attack. Long lines of the convoy had been seen leaving the camp and it would have become clear that the camp would be sparsely defended.

The move through the night to the outskirts of Gorup-e-Sheshkalay was a laborious affair, with an American anti-explosive unit, Task Force Thor, with specialised vehicles, sweeping the road ahead for the ever-present threat of bombs.

The operation eventually began with an Estonian unit clearing the first compounds, blasting their way through the high walls while Apache gunships blazed away at insurgent gunmen below.

Ali Addad, a 60-year-old farm labourer, and his three sons watched the proceedings sitting on their haunches: "There were Taliban there but I thought they had gone. I do not want to say anything more because the Talibs will cut off my head," he said. "But we do not like all this fighting, it means we cannot work and the buildings get damaged."

Four hours later I was sitting alongside troops in a hastily abandoned compound. Sergeant Sayed Mirajdullah, of the Afghan army told Major Bob Moorhouse, of 2nd Battalion, the Mercians, "mentoring" the Afghan soldiers, that another ambush lay around the corner and a "daisy chain" of bombs, using oil drums, had been spotted in a compound nearby. There were also numerous other IEDs strewn along the way.

It was the bombs which were the main worry. Our unit was outside the ECM (electronic counter-measure) "bubble", used to disarm explosive devices, protecting most of the other troops in the operation and I was not entirely convinced – with explosions going on around us – by jocular assurances from Major Moorhouse and his men that "ECM was overrated... This makes it more real... We are keeping the defence budget down."

The attack came at the next compound. Two local men in their 20s, looking remarkably relaxed, appeared, had a chat with the Afghan soldiers and took a good look around before sauntering off. About 10 minutes later a barrage began from rocket-propelled grenades and Dushka machineguns from two positions, the rounds flying over our heads into the long grass beyond.

At the same time news came on the radio that three men were spotted burying what was thought to be an explosive device further ahead. Capt Tim Drislein, a US Marine tactical air controller, offered a possible choice of Apaches, F-18 warplanes and an armed and unmanned Predator drone for air strikes. Major Moorhouse refused to sanction the use of Predator on the suspected bomb party as he could not see for himself what was going on.

"We have definite rules of engagement and they must be followed," he said. "The decision on the IED suspects will have to be made by people who can actually see the images. Our main job now is to secure the mosque area so that a shura [community meeting] can take place. We have got a lot of firing going in, the situation is pretty volatile, I don't know how the locals will react."

Further ahead, troops from the 4th Battalion The Rifles were storming a Taliban-held building across a canal. For Capt Charlie Maxwell, who had suffered injuries to his face and hands from bullets while rescuing a comrade in Iraq, combat brought back mixed memories. "I must admit I was nervous about coming out here, it was like learning to ride a bike again. It's been pretty tough. But I like working with Afghans, our main job now is to work with the Afghan forces, set up conditions for the election."

Lt-Col Antelme said: "We have achieved what we set out to do. The people of Gorup-e-Sheshkelay can now get on with their lives without Taliban intimidation. They have been pointing out IEDs to us and we are disposing of them. I think it was also a shock to the Taliban that we managed to take over one of their strongholds just before the elections. We have found a bomb factory and destroyed what was in it."

The district governor, Habibullah Khan, was brought in to hold the shura. Groups of village elders began to arrive along with a farmer carrying a bag of wheat soaked, he said, when British troops had thrown it into a canal. The soldiers admitted that was the case, the bag and others like it had been used to evacuate a young boy who had lost a foot after stepping on a mine. The man was paid for his wheat, as well as for a couple of bags of opium poppies which had also been ruined by immersion.

The deputy governor told the shura that the Taliban were waging a "false jihad" and were agents of Pakistan. The British and Americans were not enemies of Afghanistan, but here to help, and development would follow.

"Ask everyone to come back to the village, it is safe now. You have elections coming up in a few days' time, and you must vote. This battle has been fought so that you have the right to vote, do not throw it away."

The village elders were polite but guarded. Niamtullah Khan, a farmer who guessed his age was "70 or 80", said: "If you ask anyone if they would like bombs and mines, or schools or clinics, then, of course, we want schools and clinics. But for that you need security, will the British and the government provide that? We are happy to show them where the mines and bombs are, but they must protect us. I am willing to vote. I will vote for anyone who provides security, but who is that person? We have received no information."

His neighbour, Amar Jan, was dismissive of the polls: "They are corrupt in Kabul, they steal the money, I do not trust them. What is happening here is more important. This area is poor, we need money to be spent here, if there are jobs then the Taliban would not be able to turn the heads of the young people.

"But if the promises being made are not kept, then the Taliban will return here and this war will go on for a long, long time."

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