Sunday, 2 September 2007
British troops hunt the Taliban in Afghanistan
Defence Correspondent Sean Rayment and photographer Justin Sutcliffe join the men of The Royal Anglian Regiment as they scour the Upper Sangin Valley in Afghanistan.
From the moment we left the compound, the Taliban knew the British were coming.
In the dead of night, spies watched from darkened alleys as the infantry column abandoned the relative safety of Patrol Base Inkerman, one of the most isolated in northern Helmand.
"We know the infidels have left, we are ready for them," one Taliban commander was boasting, Army Intelligence reported.
The troops from the 1st battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment, accompanied by The Sunday Telegraph, were heading into the notorious "Green Zone", a fertile 20-mile strip beside the Helmand River where the opium poppy is grown in abundance, and 350 hardened Taliban fighters regard it as their turf.
The mission, Operation Palk Ghar, was both simple and lethal. The Taliban would be squeezed from all sides into a tight box: those who chose not to fight would be taken prisoner - the rest would die.
Although battle in the Green Zone is at close quarters and often deadly, the troops believe they are winning.
About 250 troops from the C (Essex) and A (Norfolk) companies push forward into enemy territory. . . It does not take long for the fighting to start.
Deafening bursts of machine-gun fire add to the chaos. Stray bullets crack above our heads as we take cover in an abandoned high-walled compound. "Now that's close," says Terry Taylor, the C Company Sergeant Major. "The question is, do they know we are here?"
He tells me of a "bad period" three weeks ago when two soldiers died in two days.
After a few minutes of enemy fire A Company's soldiers rally and spray the Taliban position with machine guns. Thud after thud surround us as Taliban rocket-propelled grenades strike home. For several minutes the battle swings one way then the next.
Gradually the enemy fire creeps closer to our position. The banter stops and the soldiers steel themselves for a potential attack. The tension is broken when Steve Armon, the Sergeant of 10 platoon, turns to his men and, referring to the explosions, says: "Don't worry lads, they are not aimed at you, so if they hit you, it won't hurt." For a few seconds we laugh, until silenced by more bangs.
As the battle rages on our left flank, the order is given to advance to a more secure position. We dash across open ground to covered positions out of sight of the Taliban snipers.
the company's Forward Air Controller, the person responsible for calling in air strikes, informs Major Phil Messenger, the C Company commander, that Apache helicopters are preparing to attack.
Two Apaches arrive "on station" and begin circling the Taliban compound. Lt Fyjis-Walker ensures they are aware of our position, while his opposite number with A Company gives them a description of the target. A warning comes through that the Apaches are about to fire.
Seconds later and high above, 30mm canon growl into action as the Taliban attempt to escape. White smoke can be seen pouring from the gun barrel before the haunting "brrr, brrr, brrr" of its gun is heard.
"What a nice sound to hear on a warm summer's day," says Corporal Sean Doyle, 27, from Scotland, as we share a shaded corner of an abandoned compound. “There's no escape from the Apache - you can run but you can't hide."
Intelligence reveals that a Taliban Commander - later believed to be Mullah Berader, a "big shot" in the Taliban's inner circle - has been killed. "Excellent news," says Major Messenger. "That's what we're here for."
As the soldiers welcome the arrival of the cool evening air, it is clear that the Taliban's appetite for battle has gone. Many who fled have fallen victim to the Apaches' guns.
The Royal Anglian Regiment, who make up only a small fraction of the 7,000 troops based in Afghanistan, have been involved in five months of continuous fighting.
Nine of their number have been killed, while another 46 have been wounded in battle, and more than 100 men have been sent back to Britain for treatment.
Some units, C Company included, have been deployed in the field for months on end, with soldiers as young as 18 having survived more than 60 full-scale contacts with the enemy - all for just £1,300 a month after tax.
The total number of troops killed on operations in Afghanistan since 2001 is now 74. The "war" in Afghanistan is creating a new breed of soldier, where young men and women with just a couple of years of military service have more battle experience than the entire high command of the British Army.
But for all their efforts and sacrifices, they are convinced that the only members of the public who care are their families.
"The public doesn't care, they are not interested," said one frustrated soldier. "They think Afghanistan is like Iraq but it's not, it's different - this is a real war."
From Thursday morning, when the operation began, to Friday evening, the enemy is routed.
Brigadier John Lorimer, the commander of the British task force, describes these operations as "mowing the lawn", because they are constantly repeated. The British Army can take ground from the Taliban, but a shortage of troops in Afghanistan means it cannot be held.
But this particular operation has been a success. The Sangin Valley is more secure, allowing much-needed reconstruction to take place.
But most importantly, there were no British casualties.
Posted on 09/02/2007 2:55 AM by Esmerelda Weatherwax
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