A Month in Helmand


Beneath the lip of his helmet the colonel’s face had the grey luminosity and glowing eyes of sudden grief. “I’ve just lost one of my best soldiers.” His words, so quiet that they were nearly a whisper, could almost have been a question. The identities of two dead soldiers had come over the radio just minutes earlier. Serjeant Paul McAleese, one of the battalion’s most renowned soldiers, had been so recently alive that his death warranted more than a degree of incredulity.

“Shit day,” the colonel added. “Two KIA [Killed In Action]. Why is it always the ones with wives and children?”

I had seen that look before in the faces of field commanders in Afghanistan. They talk about their mission and their operations with an air of enthusiasm that is either real or projected, becoming a little more cautious as they explain the “small steps of progress”. Then, bang, one more of their soldiers is dead – “ragdolled” as the men call it. The patter stops, the mask drops fleetingly, and raw grief stares back into your face.

I was here with 2 Rifles, and this moment, August 20, marked the start of Afghanistan’s presidential election in Sangin. The polling booths in the small town had not even been open an hour.
Related Links

* Fruitless battles on the Taleban frontline

* Obama holds runway summit with McChrystal

* British serviceman killed in Afghanistan named


* Pictures: British troops

In the sandbagged operations room in FOB (Forward Operating Base) Jackson, Lieutenant-Colonel Rob Thomson and his 2 Rifles headquarters staff were in full body armour and helmets as Taleban rocket fire and mortars detonated haphazardly about the base. On the walls, flickering “Kill TV” screens, as the soldiers call them, displayed in real time the battle space outside courtesy of invisible drones.

Serjeant McAleese and Private Johnathon Young – an 18-year-old battle casualty replacement who had only been in the country for 18 days – had been killed by bombs in the east of the town. From the gun emplacements on the flat roof of the base’s FSG (Fire Support Group) tower, soldiers blazed away with medium machine-guns, grenade launchers, heavy .50 calibres and Javelin missiles at insurgents in the tree line along the Helmand River to the north. Their delight was almost feverish as those guns ripped away and the brass bullet cases jangled at their feet. For they were hurling much more than lead across those perimeter walls: rage and pain, pent-up frustration and outright vengeance were ploughing the river reed lines with every burst of fire.

Of political process, on this of all days, there was scant sign. By the time the last poll booths had closed in mid-afternoon, just 434 of Sangin’s 17,000 registered voters had cast their vote.

And when Chinooks finally delivered Sangin’s sealed ballot boxes to the British base in Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s provincial capital, soldiers waiting on the HLS (Helicopter Landing Site) had to leap upon them to stop them being blown away by the downdraught from the rotors. If there was one single moment in August that most suggested the futility of the loss of life in the province then that was perhaps it: British soldiers running through the hot beaten air and jumping upon the bouncing plastic ballot boxes and the 434 votes that had been fought for at such frightful cost.

Heavy casualties

Stack up every accusation that has been made about all that is going wrong in Helmand – too few troops, not enough helicopters, corrupt police, venal local authorities, drug smuggling – and you will find that every one of them has at least an echo of reality in Sangin. Straddling the Helmand River on the road between Gereshk and Kajaki, Sangin district – home to about 70,000 Afghans from a mix of Pashtun tribes – has claimed more British lives than any other part of Helmand since troops first arrived there in 2006.

In April this year it became 2 Rifles’ dubious fortune to be sent to Sangin on a six-month tour. By mid-August their battle group, a composite force from various units built around a core of several hundred riflemen and fusiliers, had the worst casualties of any British brigade sent to Helmand, with just over 100 soldiers killed or wounded: a fifth of their total patrol troops. The trend suggested that by the time the battle group’s tour ends this month as many as one in four of these infantrymen will have been slain or injured, a figure that compares with British infantry casualty ratios in Europe during the later stages of the Second World War.

Like any other believer in the necessity of the war I could load the dice with fear to justify it all: fear of defeat; fear of another civil war, like the one I had already seen in Afghanistan in the late 90s; fear of Nato's collapse, Britain's disempowerment, and the jihadist Spring that would follow it all; fear of a Taleban thrust into Pakistan and, fear of fears, fear of nukes in fundamentalist hands. I could mantra the list just like the next man, and block my ears to the whispers of anyone trying to suggest that I sounded like an American in '69 talking about South East Asian domino theories and the spread of communism. I could do all of that, but I could never quite ignore the words of the burned out spooks and soldiers I had met along the way who told me that British blood was being shed for a lot less than ideology in Sangin, a place with the same reputation for the quality of its heroin as Havana had for cigars; where one cartel just happened to have the support of the Afghan government and the other the Taleban. Ideological conflict? If only it were so pure.

It's a pretty long read (5 pages in total, and the above is page 1) but worth every second of your time.

Given me a lot more respect and admiration for anyone heading to Sangin :(
Is it you or the reporter who can't spell Helmand?

Similar threads

Latest Threads