• ARRSE have partnered with Armadillo Merino to bring you an ARRSE exclusive, generous discount offer on their full price range.
    To keep you warm with the best of Merino gear, visit www.armadillomerino.co.uk and use the code: NEWARRSE40 at the checkout to get 40% off!
    This superb deal has been generously offered to us by Armadillo Merino and is valid until midnight on the the 28th of February.

The New Afghan season starts

This article was written last summer have we made any progress since then? A long read but a good one.

'It's bleak and ferocious, but is it still winnable?'

Mark Townsend has spent three weeks with British troops in Helmand who are fighting for their lives - and sometimes losing them - in a conflict that grows more gruelling by the day. He found them facing fresh enemies, as well-trained jihadists from around the world arrived to confront the Nato forces
'It's bleak and ferocious, but is it still winnable?'

As usual, the conversation turned towards the same simple question. 'Do you think it is winnable?', the British commanders, officers and soldiers of Helmand would ask. It was a tough call. Talk would then veer towards the intractability of fighting, the miasma of tribal politics, terrorism and the deaths of British men.

The obstacles were piled high. Progress, by comparison, seemed stunted. Few who asked seemed sure of success. Some sensed it was possible, others wondered at what cost. One officer simply exhaled sharply and gazed at his desert combat boots.

Such discussions, often conducted against the soundtrack of fighting, would unfailingly find agreement on one topic: more young adults from Britain would die here. The nagging dread that they might perish in vain was palpable.
During weeks as the only newspaper on Afghanistan's front line, The Observer had access to those embroiled in the bitterest fighting for decades, a unique insight into a conflict more complex, ferocious and challenging than is popularly understood. Their assessments, hopes and fears offer an extraordinary, at times bleak, picture of a daunting war. No one privy to its intensity dared believe a quick-fix solution is near, but occasionally chinks of hope would appear amid the unrelenting demands of what the historians may recall as one of the most difficult campaigns in British military history.

For now the so-called Unwinnable War remains winnable. Just. Time is tight, more troops are desperately needed and the Afghan people require convincing. All the time an enemy is evolving and, more than ever, it is events beyond the borders of southern Afghanistan that may yet conspire most against the British in Helmand.

He thought he was safe in assuming he had witnessed the worst British fighting of modern times. A veteran of the close-quarters battle for Goose Green during the Falklands conflict, the army medic felt qualified to offer his verdict on what he had witnessed in Helmand.

'Every life lost here is an utter waste,' he said in his makeshift military surgery. Day after day he watched British men, filthy and exhausted, troop home after hours of fighting. Often they could celebrate another tactical victory. Yet the enemy kept growing stronger.

Defeated in the morning, the insurgents strengthened overnight. British infantrymen are locked in combat against a hydra: chop off one head and it sprouts two more.

Several truths soon emerge in Helmand that contradict official accounts of the conflict. First are the attempts to curtail the region's opium trade. The much-trumpeted war on drugs was not mentioned by any soldier, all pretence of eradicating the crop long forgotten in the face of ferocious fighting.

Second are claims concerning the enemy itself. Ostensibly the British troops are reported to be battling the Taliban, but already that appears something of a misnomer. Soldier after soldier described an altogether different beast. The Taliban - in their sandals, distinctive black robes and armed with AK-47 rifles - are very much last summer's adversary.

The conflict in Helmand has morphed way beyond that of crushing the Taliban. The nightmare scenario has unfolded: the Helmand valley has mutated into a geopolitical battleground for jihadists, a blooding ground for budding martyrs from across the globe.

Convoys of Toyota Land Cruisers carrying holy warriors stream daily from Pakistan's porous border to target British teenagers.

'You have to ask whether British troops should have been sent here in the first place; our presence has only succeeded in attracting trouble,' said one senior officer. Experienced Chechen separatists recently arrived to take the battle to the British.

Apocryphal maybe, but intelligence is also rumoured to have heard the lilt of Brummie fighters discussing killing British soldiers. After one particularly fierce exchange, one insurgent was heard lamenting: 'Jihad is sure hard.' Men from the 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment portray an increasingly well-trained foe. One said: 'They look smarter than the Taliban. Most now wear the Pakistan dishdash. Their fire and weaponry is getting more accurate all the time. Someone is training these guys.'

Wandering through the biblical landscape of southern Afghanistan, it was hard not to wonder just who and what will turn up next. Those on the ground discuss how a military victory is achievable in the face of this seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of fighters.

Statistics tell their own story. Briefings in London last summer placed the number of Taliban as low as 1,000. Since April the Royal Anglians alone have killed more than 600, the nature of certifying 'kills' suggesting that their tally is certainly greater. By any calculation, the enemy should all be dead. Instead they are more deadly.

Advanced surface-to-air missiles and armour-piercing machine guns accurate over a one-kilometre firing range have started targeting the British. One missile recently locked on to a British Harrier jet, forcing the pilot to take evasive action. This is hi-tech stuff.

But British commanders also voice concerns about another profound threat, this time unfolding in their ranks. The unforeseen ferocity of operations in Helmand is set to precipitate an exodus of soldiers. One of the war's less known side effects has been its impact on a generation of infantrymen who signed up to fight but whose lust for battle has been sated in the most remarkable way.

In the raw terms of soldiering, there is little doubt Helmand is a sensational arena for young men to test their mettle. Prospective training exercises in Canada are dismissed with sarcasm. Teenagers will face superiors who can only imagine the fighting they have survived. Fresh-faced graduates from Sandhurst have barked orders in situations that senior ranks cannot imagine.

'I'll be leaving on a high. The only way is down,' said one 19-year-old, adding: 'There are men who have done 20 years' service who have not done a quarter of what I have. '

In the modest number of Britain's frontline troops - 1,500 - every man knows someone who has been killed. The chance of surviving the current tour of six months stands at one in 36. Casualty rates are higher than during the Second World War. In Afghanistan soldiers toil under constant pressure, each casualty undermining the overall ability to defend themselves. Not one soldier or officer disputed that more men were urgently required. Thousands more.

Lying in the shallow trench before dawn, it was difficult not to contemplate how this war might end. The ditch was an old Soviet relic from when the Russian army withdrew from Helmand, a province where the mujahideen were never conquered.

From a vantage point in the middle of battle, it became evident why any invading force might opt to run rather than rally. Even as the ruins of a compound were still smouldering from a US airstrike, the enemy would advance to occupy its smoking ramparts.

That morning the insurgents, firing from 11 different positions, managed to surround the Royal Anglians. Shortly after dawn, the ant-filled trench felt like a grave for the ambitions of the British army in Helmand. The irrepressible nature of the enemy sows both admiration and disbelief among the British.

Much has been made of the casualty rate among frontline troops. The astonishing thing is actually just how few men have been killed. One of the many forgotten stories in a misunderstood conflict is how frequently ordinary troops are being pushed beyond the limits of orthodox soldiering. Infantrymen regularly perform SAS-style missions, operations that would have been considered unthinkable before Helmand.

For weeks on end B Company of the 1st Battalion The Royal Anglians spent their days fighting and nights sleeping in ditches behind enemy lines. In three months some returned to base once. Footage from a soldier's helmet camera reveals what Britain's military strategists are up against in the green zone, a maze of ditches and crops more like a jungle than a desert. The images are terrifying, a chaotic glimpse into a conflict that evoked photographs from Vietnam.

An invisible enemy showers troops with bullets as the camera lurches frantically towards trees being torn apart by gunfire. The confusion is so complete that for a moment soldiers believe they are shooting at each other. More gunfire rattles from positions unknown. The camera's owner screams, his voice hoarse with terror: 'Man down. *. Get me a medic. *, *'.

Such encounters materialise when troops try to push patrols further into the green zone, a proven but perilous tactic of extending British control in Helmand. At the centre of current fighting are attempts to secure a foothold in the green zone just north of Sangin. Here, close to the Inkerman patrol base perched on the zone's northern front-line, was where the latest two British fatalities were recorded.

One insurmountable problem is 'dickers', spotters who record every movement of the British. Word reaches enemy positions the moment a UK patrol enters the green zone. Ambushes are laid. Rocket launchers, frequently stored in hollowed tree trunks, are primed.

In this lush, lethal theatre, the professionalism of British soldiers is unswervingly impressive. Ordered to secure a building under enemy fire, they simply did it. Not one soldier questioned the brutal conditions they face daily. Even in intense firefights, their composure remains astonishing. Ten days ago a teenager's 7.62mm gun jammed as the Taliban flanked towards him. As gunfire sizzled in his direction, the Royal Anglian rolled his eyes and smiled while cooly removing a dud round.

Another moment burns brightly. In the dim operations room at Sangin, officers had briefed an infantry platoon on a potential mission certain to produce fresh casualties. If required, it would proceed at 3am the following day. Afterwards the men sat fooling around, smoking Lambert & Butler's and sipping tea. One used his weekly allowance of 30 minutes on the communal satellite phone to ring home and tell his mother how much he loved her. Then, without ceremony, they all had an early night.

Loyalty thrives in these high-octane times. Last week a Royal Anglian infantryman sat at Kandahar airport watching the dust storm that meant the loss of one day from the two weeks' leave granted during a six-month tour in Helmand. It hardly mattered. Already he had told his girlfriend that he would be returning to Afghanistan early because his colleagues there needed him. Some men have refused leave completely to counteract the shortage of troops.

Soon the poppies will be planted. From next month Helmand's vast opium fields will be sown, transforming the green zone into the world's greatest supplier of heroin. Initial attempts to destroy the crop alienated local people, driving them into the arms of the insurgents. Quite rightly, these plans have been abandoned. Initiatives enticing farmers to grow alternative crops like mint have met only modest success. Helmand's economy relies on the poppy. The British effort here is forced to tread tentatively around centuries of tribal disputes and politics soaked in drugs.

Yet the disquieting truth is that British troops will have to watch another year's crop arm the war chest of the enemy. Fighting will stop around October as winter draws in. But next year the insurgents will be stronger and better equipped.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, are gathering in the town of Musa Qala, 30km from Sangin. It is approached through steep wadis that are well defended, booby-trapped and heavily mined. Commanders believe they can probably take the town, but then what? Casualties will be high.

Overstretching the few soldiers available in Helmand increases the risk of the enemy moving back into areas once occupied by British forces, a politically untenable scenario. As usual, the central dilemma boils down to a lack of manpower where it matters, with the British still immersed in Iraq.

Nato must convince other countries to accept its mandate in Helmand or contemplate failure of its mission to stabilise the province. The suspicion that Britain is carrying too much of Nato's Afghan burden is widespread among those in Helmand. One can only guess how frequently the commander of British forces in Helmand, Brigadier John Lorimer, must have prayed for the thousands of extra men he so clearly must crave.

One of the greatest tragedies of Helmand so far is the pace of reconstruction promised by the international community. During the approaching winter, much must be done. Pledges of new schools, roads and businesses must be delivered.

Saleema Sharifi, 19, should have been the progressive face of a fledging Helmand. A convert to democracy and desperate to be emancipated from the repressive regime of the Taliban, she is one of Helmand's first provisional councillors.

But Sharifi has lost faith with the British. 'It's got worse during the two years that the international forces have been here,' she said in Lashkar Gah, Helmand's provincial capital. Eighteen months ago journalists were able to walk freely in the town, chatting to locals in its bustling market place. This time around such liberties appeared to have shrunk.

The previous night a suicide bomber had been shot dead trying to enter the town. Another was on the loose. Britain's 40-strong Provincial Reconstruction Team in the town tried to be upbeat, pointing to a number of 'quick-impact projects' that had curried favour with the locals.

Yet some aid workers privately admitted how ludicrous it was to foist our notion of progress upon a people who had no idea what Western civilisation meant. 'Do we really need to tarmac a road when a dusty track has served sufficiently for centuries?' said one British officer.

This war can only be won by winning the people of Helmand. The 120,000-strong Soviet army lost because it never tried to woo Afghan hearts and minds. If the fighting continues much longer without tangible benefit to the population, the British mission in Helmand is similarly doomed.

As in Iraq, our exit strategy is heavily dependent on the development of Afghanistan's army and police forces. Iraq illustrates mistakes to avoid, but evidence abounds that police in Helmand remain corrupt. Locals said officers were still behind kidnappings, bribery and murder in the dusty streets close to Britain's brigade HQ in Lashkar Gah.

The plan is for a 70,000-strong Afghan army that will be self-functioning as soon as December. Early signs are promising, but just 1,700 are on the ground at any one time. Around 300 are absent without leave. British troops describe Afghan recruits as fine but erratic fighters. Some think nothing of charging headlong into machine-gun fire, others scarper at the first whiff of danger.

Little doubt, though, that the progress reports being filed back to Whitehall will shimmer with optimism. There can often seem a disconnect between the upbeat appraisal of civil servants to the chaotic, bloody reality of Helmand. Defence Secretary Des Browne's verdict last week that British forces have reached a 'turning point' in stabilising Afghanistan betrays an idealism impossible to square with the fighting raging throughout the region.

It is unlikely Browne, during his recent visit to Helmand, overheard teenagers talking to their wives as they tried to salvage their relationships. Soldiers must explain they might die for a cause their partners do not understand. Young mothers cope with the pressures of raising children as husbands in Helmand warn they might never return.

So what of Helmand's future? An instinct towards pessimism is attractive in the face of mounting challenges. And greater hazards are still to appear. Commanders cannot believe the massive roadside bombs of Iraq have yet to materialise in the province. Already commanders and soldiers describe a developing 'asymmetric' battlefield, referring to the mounting number of roadside bombs and cells of foreign-trained suicide bombers infiltrating Helmand.

The fear, aired by all infantrymen, is that this summer's furious fighting might one day be viewed as a halcyon era: the good, clean fight before the insidious tactics of terrorism emerge. Sitting outside his HQ in Helmand the night before flying to Iraq, Lorimer pondered an imaginary atlas and asked whether it was realistic to expect Helmand could ever be stabilised. To the west lay Iran, mired in fresh claims last week that Tehran was arming insurgents fighting the British.

To the east lies Pakistan. New allegations emerged last week that its government has given substantial military support to the Taliban. Intelligence suggests the true command centre of the Helmand insurgency lies in the Pakistani border town of Quetta, its warriors able to slip with ease from the autonomous tribal areas of the country into Helmand.

Violent Islamic militant groups are flexing their muscles along the country's 960-mile border with Afghanistan. President Pervez Musharraf is under mounting pressure to stand down in the face of the rise of Islamic militancy and al-Qaeda sympathisers throughout the notorious border region. The Afghan government recently raised the border issue with Musharraf, but if he goes, then the prospect of a hardline militant state in Pakistan may make Britain's presence in Afghanistan more lethal still.

World politics, particularly involving Pakistan, Iran and Iraq, will largely control how long UK soldiers stay - and how many die - in Helmand.

The challenges are numerous. The window of winnability finite. The only certitude is that more British blood will be spilt beside the river that lends its name to this most desperate and dangerous of regions.

Three different ways to fight the Taliban

The guerrilla war

Location Densely vegetated strip of land flanking length of Helmand river.

Hazards Crop fields, high-walled compounds and irrigation ditches provide perfect terrain for ambushes and rapid flanking manoeuvres, a Taliban trademark.

Tactics The Taliban typically fire on British troops from several positions at once, catching them in a crossfire of rocket-propelled grenades and machine-guns. They are not afraid to encircle British units, even at the risk of shooting one another.

Danger rating 9/10 Notorious. Most British casualties in Helmand have stemmed from ambushes in the green zone.

Who is winning? Taliban casualties are significantly greater. However, the progress of British troops in the green zone remains slow. Key areas are still under Taliban control.

The classic front line

Location Northern Helmand, near the Kajaki dam, a strategically critical landmark that one day will supply power to Helmand.

Hazards The enemy has consolidated scores of well chosen firing positions to target British, who come under attack from snipers, Chinese-made 107mm rockets and heavy machine guns.

Tactics Classic frontline battlefield fighting takes place among deserted villages on a rolling plain. Both sides advance toward each other, digging in to strategic positions from where they attempt to push back the enemy. US air power is frequently sought.

Danger rating 6/10 Greater firepower gives the British upper hand in skirmishes.

Who is winning? UK troops have pushed back the Taliban frontline in Kajaki by several kilometres. Further progress hampered by arrival of fresh enemy fighters.

The outpost war

Location More than 15 British bases along the lush Helmand valley and strategic high ground nearby.

Hazards Often remote, the bases risk becoming magnets for repeated enemy attacks.

Tactics Mortars and rockets target bases from up to 1km away. Waves of Taliban fighters storm positions day and night in an attempt to isolate and overrun them. Troops mount rearguard actions to consolidate ground or push out on patrol into Taliban-occupied territory.

Danger rating 4/10-8/10 The base at Sangin is now stable while the British post 6km north is under constant attack. Britain's latest casualty in Helmand, Captain David Hicks, was killed when enemy combatants attacked his base on the edge of the green zone.

Who is winning? British troops are now patrolling from bases that once endured siege-like conditions, such as Sangin. Some British bases, however, are still under sustained attack
Have we reached this stage yet?

So what of Helmand's future? An instinct towards pessimism is attractive in the face of mounting challenges. And greater hazards are still to appear. Commanders cannot believe the massive roadside bombs of Iraq have yet to materialise in the province. Already commanders and soldiers describe a developing 'asymmetric' battlefield, referring to the mounting number of roadside bombs and cells of foreign-trained suicide bombers infiltrating Helmand.

The fear, aired by all infantrymen, is that this summer's furious fighting might one day be viewed as a halcyon era: the good, clean fight before the insidious tactics of terrorism emerge. Sitting outside his HQ in Helmand the night before flying to Iraq, Lorimer pondered an imaginary atlas and asked whether it was realistic to expect Helmand could ever be stabilised. To the west lay Iran, mired in fresh claims last week that Tehran was arming insurgents fighting the British.
I hope not I realised that I had pasted on the wrong thread and then the site went down. I must say as you get more geriatric the engine room doesn't work like it used to. That combined with a hacking cough I feel a bit like pants today. Thanks very much for your concern! I will try harder next time.
I think it is very good indeed that you research and draw attention to the Afghan situation. Thank you for doing so.

Arrse isn't just for the pleasant things in life like a leaky roof in your basha or a joke about farting.
Mr_Deputy said:
I think it is very good indeed that you research and draw attention to the Afghan situation. Thank you for doing so.

Arrse isn't just for the pleasant things in life like a leaky roof in your basha or a joke about farting.
Thanks very much for that I do think that things are going to liven up soon.

Latest Threads

New Posts