Afghanistan diary

March 4, 2007

In a ten day combat reconnaissance mission last week the Royal Marines of ‘J’ Company, 42 Commando, pushed into the Pashtun heartland of northern Helmand, the traditional bastion of the Taliban insurgency. Weaving between the towns of Sangin, Naw Zad and Musa Qala the marines conducted operations on a mobile patrol that covered more than 300 miles. Sometimes they met the Pashtuns in cautious parley. At others they skirmished. Once they fought them in pitched battle. 

Anthony Loyd and Richard Mills were with ‘J’ Company throughout. This is the story of the marines’ long patrol. It is both an account of the complex intricacies of the counter-insurgency campaign being waged in Helmand province, as well as the story of the marines at its cutting edge.

DAY 1 (21 February 2007 ):
Hidden eyes count out the patrol as it leaves the J Company base in Geresk. There are few places in which the marines can escape the gaze of the Taliban in Helmand. The watchers will have noted the armoured Vikings, the .50 calibre machine guns on the land rover weapon platforms, the recovery vehicles, the two 105mm field guns. They will have seen the ‘J’ Company emblem emblazoned on the turret cupolas – a grinning death’s head in a jester’s cap. In all there are nearly 200 marines in over 30 vehicles.

They carry with them thousands of litres of fuel and water for the journey, as well as artillery shells, mortar bombs, boxloads of grenades and hundreds of thousands of rifle and machine-gun rounds. Carried too are ‘consent winning packs’ containing kites, footballs, pencil cases and coloured pens. The entire focus of counter-insurgency warfare is to split the insurgent from the local population. But that aim cannot be achieved by fighting alone. So the marines are prepared to talk of peace, to express goodwill, to bid for hearts and minds. But they are also ready for war.

The mission sounded simple enough. J Company has been tasked to search out, disrupt and destroy the Taliban wherever they encounter them in the course of their patrol. But the marines already know their enemy to be elusive, an expert at blending in with the local populace only to emerge and fight at a time of their own choosing: the morning’s friend can be the afternoon’s foe. Furthermore, in a province in which the Taliban have fielded fighting columns several hundred strong, the patrol could conceivably find itself ambushed and cut-off, even outnumbered, in a wilderness far from the nearest NATO base.

British forces are already in an invidious position in northern Helmand. In the town of Sangin they are encircled by the Taliban and unable to leave their compound. In Naw Zad, another Talib stronghold, they have only a limited ability to move. And in Musa Qala, last autumn’s ceasefire deal resulting in the withdrawal of British troops is in precarious balance. The Taliban have built defences around the town and kidnapped two of the Afghan elders supposed to be chaperoning their exile from a five kilometre exclsuion radius. While British efforts to reconstruct parts of central Helmand have met with modest success, in the north the condition remains one of war.

I travel in the back of ‘Beowulf’, the Viking belonging to Corporal ‘Tug’ Wilson’s section. The all-terrain vehicle is eulogised by senior commanders. Comprising of two tracked cabs, the 12 tonne Viking has survived strikes by mines, rockets and machine gun fire in Afghanistan. Its weight displacement is supposed to be the equivalent of a marine on skis carrying a laden bergen, allowing it to cross ice as well as desert. Yet its advocates never mention its size. It is tiny.

There are seven of us in Beowulf’s back cab. In a blind state of near-darkness, to the dull roar of the engine, we rattle, lurch and sway across Helmand towards Naw Zad, a human sardine pack of weapons, ammunition, body armour and helmets, in a fug of dust in which the occasional fart drifts languidly back and forth among us, captive as a bowled goldfish. I see nothing of Helmand’s deserts, mountains and fields until at one point we momentarily stop and open the rear door. Before us, standing on a barren plain, are two tiny children, staring at us as though we are creatures from a distant planet.

The patrol harbours that night on a flat expanse north-east of Naw Zad. As Tug and his section move up some high ground to set up an observation post, the rest of us sleep under ponchos strung out beside the vehicles. It is a freezing night and the frost glazes our canopies.

DAY 2
The marines’ first contact with the Taliban seems like a gentlemanly duel. Pushing through a pass in a ridge line flanking Naw Zad, Major Ewen Murchison, the company’s commander, deploys his Vikings to a position just beyond the town’s outskirts. An engaging, wilful man, nick-named ‘the General’ by his brother officers due to his company’s free-wheeling enterprise, from here he hopes to lure the Taliban into combat, alleviating pressure on the beleagured British garrison inside.
 
“Basically it’s a waiting game,” acknowledges Sergeant Major Marty Pelling as the marines disentangle themselves from their Vikings and shake out among the rocks. “We just wait here and see if we can annoy them enough to shoot at us, then we give them a good spanking.”

The ploy does not take long to get a response.  At first, as the two sides regard one another in shotless silence, women and children flee the area in anticipation of fighting, heading northward across the fields. After some forty minutes or so, once most civilians are clear, the marines’ 105mm field guns fire smoke shells into a meadow to the west, as if signalling the commencement of hostilities. Minutes later, from a clearly visible position, the Taliban fire a mortar at the marines in the rocks, which drops short. The marines fire back with their own mortars and a .50 cal machine gun.The Taliban retaliate with a rocket.

In a show-stopping piece of marksmanship or just wild fluke, it streaks over our heads in a bolt of red and before our eyes skids across the top of Major Murchison’s Viking, to explode just beyond, leaving the vehicle’s turret gunner staring in astonishment at the crater of his near nemesis. In the first drop of cultural osmosis I stare up at the empty sky and wonder where the hell are the Apache helicopters when they are needed.

“Jesus, just like a commando comic,” Sergeant Major Pelling remarks as he lights a cigarrette. He stopped smoking 16 years ago but started again soon after arriving in Afghanistan.  “Only under fire though,” he reasons.  He has smoked a lot recently. Only the previous week the Sergeant Major’s Viking drove over an anti-tank mine. Two of the three marines with him in the front cab were injured but Pelling stepped out from the wreckage without a scratch, thanks either to the Viking’s armour or the joker that he has carried in his pocket for luck ever since joining the marines.

“Did you smoke much that day, then?,” I probe. 
“Did I ever, did I,” he replies.

No more Talib fire comes their way and after a while the marines withdraw back to their harbour position of the previous night, Major Murchison expressing his frustration at the inconclusive contact. A small, mobile force, the patrol is neither designed nor empowered to take and hold ground, and instead relies on drawing the Taliban out into killing zones so that they can be slain by the marines’ superior weaponry.

But that evening they get their attrition. From their ridge line observation post high above Naw Zad, Tug’s men watch nine armed Talibs gather in a compound below them, alerted to the marines’ presence by local shepherds. The marines call in mortars and artillery upon the compound, with negligible effect.  Next a jet drops a 500lb bomb on the target. It fails to explode. As the jet comes in for a second run a South African marine, a sniper, shoots one
of the Talibs at a range of 1200 metres with his .338 rifle. Two more 500lb bombs finish off the others and destroy the compound. In Afghanistan death can be as cheap as a bullet or dear as a JDAM smart bomb.

“Beautiful,” the Sergeant Major murmurs in the aftermath as the jets roar dimly overhead and the radio crackles with the result, “love air.”

DAY 5:
“Blimey, they don’t even know about Rocky II here, let alone Rocky VI,” notes Tug with a bulldog smile as he surveys a group of nomads who have set up camp in distant foothills to our flank. Far to the north of Musa Qala by now, the patrol is operating in a remote wilderness of plain and mountain, allegedly used by the Taliban as one of their principal supply routes to the Sangin valley. The marines move warily here, and are in no rush to get into a contact. It is the first time British forces have ever reached the area.

Moreover, their senior commanders have no wish to further upset the deteriorating situation in Musa Qala. The deal they struck with local elders there last autumn, which was supposed to demilitarise the town, remains a test case attempt to cleave the Taliban from the locals without recourse to fighting.  Already over-stretched and under-manned, British forces do not want a repeat of the Naw Zad or Sangin scenarios.  Beyond fulfilling the political wishes of their Afghan government host, officers admit that there is not the slightest military justification in having marines in either of these towns. In each case a company of marines has ended up stranded in the district centre, unable to move or operate beyond defending themselves against the attacking Taliban.
 
The patrol’s understanding of the region has not been aided by either their predecessors or Afghan authorities in Helmand. 16 Air Assault Brigade failed to pass on even a snippet of intelligence to the J Company marines before they departed last autumn. And though requests were made to the Helmand governor for two Afghan officials to accompany J Company patrols so as to liaise directly with local elders, none have ever been provided. Apparently Afghan officialdom remains too disorganised to know who to send.

As they move slowly northward, stopping at villages along their advance, a young Royal Marine does much of the talking with the villagers the patrol encounters. 19 years old, Marine Dominic Williman is one of four men in the company trained to have a working knowledge of Pashtu. He also carries his section’s medium machine gun.  An unwitting emblem of the complexities of counter-insurgency, during his time in Afghanistan he has both sat down and spoken with locals, as well as firing a few thousand rounds their way.

“I’m not saying that I’ve made a difference,” he says, “but it may help for them to see their enemy – a young boy in their eyes – speak their language and offset the perception of the Brits given to them by the elders who haven’t seen a foreign soldier since the Russians.”

The villagers appear wary of the marines, but not hostile.  However their message is always the same: they have not seen the Taliban, they do not know any Taliban, their government has done nothing for them, they want nothing from the British but to be left alone, thanks, goodbye, we’ll call you.

But then the patrol reaches Tizni, which local intelligence sources have suggested is a rest and administration centre for Taliban fighters. Apparently empty, as Tug leads his six marines into the village, men start pouring out of the mosque.  Within a minute more than seventy have gathered in front of the small group of marines. To a man they are turbaned, bearded, and of combat age: “Pannini sticker Talibs” as Tug calls them. Mohammed Ali, his Hazara interpreter, agrees. “Taliban – all of them,” he confirms. As the Afghans stare at Tug,  he calls the rest of the patrol to his position and seems set on searching every Afghan as well as the entire village.  But then Major Murchison arrives at the scene.

The Major takes off his helmet and sits down. All the Afghans sit down too. They talk for a while. The Major tells them that they have nothing to be afraid of. British forces, he says, are not here to eradicate the mens’ opium poppies. They are not an occupying force like the Russians. They are here to provide security so development can take place. But that can only happen if they tell him where the Taliban are.

In turn the men tell the Major that they are frightened of the government, whose police have robbed them. There are, of course, no Taliban in the area. They are upset because two women and two children were killed in a cross-fire between the NATO and the Taliban last year. They would prefer to be left alone.

Throughout, the atmosphere is more one of wary curiosity than tension, though on a different day the same men may well see one another down the barrel of a gun. The meeting dissolves amicably enough, with neither side having given anything away. Tug still wants to search the whole place, starting with the mosque, but is ordered not to. As the major turns to leave the Afghans push a mentally handicapped man toward him. While the man stands there grinning inanely the laughing crowd turn his coloured cap upside down on his head and ask for some money to be given to him.  The major’s interpreter hands over a few dollars. The patrol leaves Tizni, benefactor to the single fool.

“Shit man, I joined the corps to meet and greet people in interesting places and shoot them,” the South African sniper bemoans the contactless day, half-joking.
“Don’t complain – you already shot someone on the first night,” I console.
“Yaaaa, but I didn’t get to meet and greet him first.”

DAY 6:
“We are as afraid of you as we are of the Taliban,” the elder tells the marines. He has just walked out from his village to parley with the patrol.  He shares his fear with many of the Pashtuns in the area. They are angry with their corrupt and inefficient government in Kabul, remember well the Russian occupation, and are unsure where to place the marines in this context.  After insisting that there are no Taliban in the area he walks back towards his home, a small settlement of compounds north of the Naw Zad valley. He seems credible. But he is lying. For less than an hour later, in the empty compound of a neighbouring village, Tug discovers a major ammunition cache: nearly 12,000 rounds of Kalashnikov ammunition stored in sealed green packages. Further searching reveals some 107mm rockets. Nearby, farmers are weeding their fields. All deny any knowledge of the cache or the Taliban.

“The thing that gets me”, Tug muses, “is that we find a huge cache in a hut and some bloke doing the lawn ten metres away says he knows nothing about it. Yeah, right.”

The next proof of Taliban presence comes quickly. As the company approach the village of Kanjaka Olya, barely a kilometre from the cache, rockets and machine gunfire erupt from the walls of compounds. In an instant of heated rush, the marines inside Beowulf are galvanised from a state of relaxed calm to revved anticipation. If I had expected them to be happy in the relative safety of the Viking interior as the bullets and rockets zing and thump outside, then I was very wrong: they all want to get out and into the firefight.

“Get us in there, get us fucking in there,” they murmur, as the Hazara interpreter Mohammed Ali reads a prayer from the Qoran.

However, another troop get the assault task. As they pile out from their vehicles to the crash of gunfire, we hear over the radio the desperate call denoting a British casualty, “man down, man down.”  In the confusion of shooting and shouts a Viking has rolled over a marine. Both cabs. 12 tonnes. Right over his torso.

Immediately the emphasis switches from attacking the Talibs to saving the man. The South African leaps out of
the back with Marine ‘Geri’ Halliwell and starts pumping 51mm mortar rounds into the Talib positions to cover the casualty’s extraction. The heliborne immediate response team of medics and doctor, on permanent standby in Camp Bastion, are inbound. They arrive within their target 45 minute time frame, the ‘golden hour’ in which most injured men can still be saved. The contact is still in full throttle, and intensifies as the marines cover the Chinooks arrival with heavy, rapid fire.

And then it’s over. They break contact. Everyone is back in their Vikings returning to their new harbour area behind a distant ridge line. And in Beowulf Tug’s men fall asleep. Almost as instantly as they had revved up. I am to see that on-off roller-coaster reaction many times over the next few days, and it never ceases to amaze me. They can go from full-on fight to fast asleep inside five minutes.

That night Major Murchison walks over to Tug’s section with news of the casualty. Not only is the marine alive, but his bones are unbroken and his insides aren’t crushed. The weight displacement of the Viking is more than just myth. I can barely believe it. He explains too, his decisions to break contact.

“Its my responsibility to take you into places and bring you out of them alive,” he tells them. “I have to balance that against what we are going to achieve. I wasn’t prepared to push that bit further, go in, take casualties, only to have to leave it at the end of the day.” Crucially, the artillery could not be used during the contact as their shells’ fall would have had to be adjusted across a civilian area, causing the death of innocents.

“These Pashtun people here all lie to you,” Mohammed Ali tells the Major, before offering the Afghan solution. “You should shoot two men from each village, and their cattle, and then they will tell you the truth.”
“I know they all lie to me,” he replies.  “But we’re not the Russians and we don’t execute people.”

DAY 7:
The Talibs get a result of their own. The marines are on the way back towards Naw Zad to raid a Taliban concentration and are expecting heavy action. But the Talibs hit them early. Before the move, Tug gave a set of orders for the operation so rousing they would have mobilised a conscientous objector to ardent militancy. At their conclusion I saw him take Marine Gregg Packham aside. Packham has only just arrived in Afghanistan and has not yet been in a hard fight.
“OK mate, this is what it’s all about now,” Tug told him, “this is what you’re here for. And we’re glad to have with us. Stay close. You’ll be alright. Let’s get stuck in there.”

As we move off in the Viking, Packham is sitting opposite me. I can see his legs shake and I don’t envy him. Only a fool laughs in the face of their first battle. Then it all goes wrong.  As the lead vehicles cross through a pass east of Naw Zad they come across an IED. The company halts short of it. It partially explodes. A bigger device detonates just beyond it. Next, between five and ten Talib gunmen, well concealed in the rocks high above them on either side of the pass, open up on the stationary marines.       

The men cannot identify the Talib positions. Their heavy machine guns cannot be raised high enough to strafe the peaks. The 105mm field guns and mortars fire at the Talibs without effect. Two Apache helicopters arrive but for the right approach to engage the Taliban they have to fly over an area suspected of containing an anti-aircraft gun. So they bottle out.

“Great,” remarks one of the troop commanders on hearing this, “imagine us not getting out of the vehicle because we were worried someone would shoot us.”

And all the time the Taliban are firing on the marines, who now cannot move forward through the narrow pass due to the likelihood of further IEDs and mines.  Eventually the company manages to break contact, aborts the mission, and returns back through the pass from whence they came, miraculously without casualty.  For all their armour, their technology, their field guns, their air power, they have been thwarted by no more than ten men well placed in high ground with just two bombs and some Kalashnikovs. You have to hand it to the Taliban: the day was theirs.

I never encounter a sense of personal animosity towards the Talibs from the marines.  If anything they respect them, even identify with them.

“I’ve listened in on their sentries at night in the cold saying ‘its crap’, just like we do,” Marine Williman, the Pashtu speaker, tells me.  “Or complain that some idiot has brought them up the wrong bit of kit.”

“They have the same camaraderie and style between themselves as us, but they’re just a different colour” the South African sniper adds. “They’ve got their score and we have ours. They give the same exaggerated casualty rates for us as we do for them.  Taliban aren’t just fighters: it’s a way of life for a lot of people here. Giving them the name Taliban is probably wrong too. It implies everyone who wants that way of life is a terrorist or going to shoot at you, when they’re not.”

DAY 9:
The South African sniper amused himself by bombarding me with pebbles when I was taking a crap in the desert earlier in the morning, which I suppose signifies that I am now an accepted member of the group. It is getting harder to talk of the marines, Mills and I, as ‘us and them’. We eat, piss, sleep, shit and get shot at together. My objectivity is becoming compromised by the hour. We are ‘we’. Now I sit in an old Russian shell scrape south of Sangin with Tug and Marine Croft, the troop radio operator. Nothing doing. The Taliban are in the valley below, but holding their fire.

“Hey Crofty, what does your dad do,” Tug asks.
“He’s a teacher.”
“So are you a disappointment to him, being a marine.”
“No,” replies Marine Croft in mock offence, “I’ve got a degree.”
“Oh yeah, in what?”
“Architecture and technology.”
Tug pauses.
“So how come you end up here then, blowing up architecture and technology?”
“I don’t count mud compounds as architecture and technology,” says Croft, clearly on a losing wicket, as nearby marines laugh among themselves.

But as they laugh I think about some of the things they have seen in their war.  In many ways fighting the Taliban is just the easiest part of it. There is a darker side. Inevitably civilians have been wounded and killed during some of their operations. One marine has told me of rushing into a house from which he just been fired upon to see a room door slammed in his face. He put a long burst of gunfire through it and kicked it down. Inside was were two dead – a man and a teenage boy.  Neither were armed.

The same man told me of finding a dead Afghan baby, slain by shrapnel, among ten dead civilians caught in the crossfire during fighting near Gereshk. On another occasion, during a heavy engagement, he kicked in the door of a house the marines had fired on to find seven women, children and old people inside, all badly wounded. He dragged them into a yard and with one other marine immediately bandaged every casualty. Two later died. But it was the wounded six year old girl among them that still sticks in his mind. One of her legs was torn open by gunfire.

“People said to me afterwards ‘don’t worry about it’,” he tells me.  “I’m experienced with contacts and know how it can go. Believe me – I would kill anybody to save the life of my men. But that six year old girl, she hadn’t been shooting at us. She never fired a shot. She was just in a house where someone else was shooting.  And now she’s going to be scarred for life. She’ll never wear a dress. And I think about it, and I think about her leg.”

DAY 10:
Rip, roar and havoc. Not a fight. A battle. Fire from the front. Fire
from the flanks. The entire company in contact. Rockets and bullets scything through the air around us. Up to thirty Taliban in twelve different positions have opened up from close range before we are even out of the vehicles, so we debus in contact. The rear door swings open and we pitch out from the warm womb of the Viking belly into a world of sudden light, chattering machine-guns, explosions and whipping lead: nought-to-ninety in a second on adrenalin high. Hit the ground. Run. See an empty trench. Dive into it.

To our immediate left one of the open deck Landrovers, a mobile machine-gun platform, is unleashing withering bursts at Talibs firing from dunes beyond it. Tug is tasked to assault the position with his six marines. They peel out of their cover and take a long run leftwards to a form-up position. The air zips and zings. I can see ‘Tommo’, the Rover commander, cooly sitting astride the lip of the ridge, in clear view of the Talibs, fire off a Javelin rocket, then jump back into his vehicle and blast away again with the machine-gun. From all along the ridge line around us marines are firing and being fired upon.

“Lets go, lets fucking go,” Tug yells and the section is up and moving into the shingle dunes as the Taliban extract and run down a slope the other side.  The marines take cover at the position’s edge, and fire upon targets in the village below. The nearest house is less than a hundred yards away.  They take fire from it and Tug pumps a grenade through a window.  A wounded chicken flaps out.

“Oh Tug, you wounded the poor little bird, finish it off mate!” Marines are laughing and shooting.
But there are more than little birds out there. I see a running black figure stop and turn, rifle up and glittering as he shoots at us. And above the automatic fire I hear the smacking retort of the South African’s sniper rifle.

“Getting some hits?”
“Getting some hits.”

As artillery and mortars thump into the low ground, Tug’s section is retasked, but as he and the last three marines get ready to move they in turn become pinned down by a Taliban sniper. I see a round smack into the shingle barely two foot from Tug’s head.

It is the latest in several very close calls of a heavy three and a half hour engagement. Though the Taliban are pushed off their forward positions quickly enough, they regroup in the valley below, and target the company with rockets and mortars. And though their weight of fire is nothing compared to that of the marines, now backed by two Apaches and jet, it is accurate. At one point I see a rocket explode right beside the section accompanied by Richard Mills, perhaps fifteen feet beyond them. I do not wonder if they are hit. I am sure of it. Yet none are. Miracle doesn’t come close.

“I thought I was browners there,” says the South African of the moment the rocket flew past his head. “Great feeling to stick your head up afterwards and know it wasn’t for you.”

Yet still the marines never miss a chance to mock one another. Marine Williman, with no opportunity to use his Pashtu this day, picks up a rocket launcher and fires into the valley. As everyone peers from their foxholes waiting to see the missile impact another Talib rocket coincidentally explodes by a Viking to our rear.

“Oi, Dom,” Tug shouts at Williman, pointing to the smoke of the explosion behind us,”you fired the fucker the wrong way round!”

The Taliban are still shooting as the marines eventually break from the contact and return to their Vikings. As many as twenty of the insurgents are believed dead, but their rocket fire continues to thump around the vehicles as J Company leave the ridge. Inside Beowulf, the men assess the fight to have been in the ‘top five’ of those they have had since arriving in Afghanistan last autumn. Then they stop talking about it, and begin to doze off again.

Most are still asleep as the patrol finally returns to their base in Gereshk an hour or so later, more than 70,000 rounds and a few ‘consent winning packs’ lighter. They already know that they have only two days in which to prepare themselves for another long patrol in northern Helmand.

“Yeah, that was hoofing in the end,” Tug says cheerily as his men pull their bergens down from the Viking roof and wander away to their tents, “another good trip courtesy of Tug Wilson travel.”

And I wonder if J Company’s luck will hold, whether they will all come back from the next mission.
By the camp’s gate, mounted on a blast proof Hesco wall, the company’s death’s head jester grins and winks fixedly, as if guardian of the answer.