Fires of Helmand

March 19, 2007

I had often wondered what it would be like to be pitched from the warm, sleep inducing sightless world of an armoured personnel carrier straight out the door into a fire fight. The moment arrived on the west bank of the River Helmand in early March with almost no warning.

“Fucking hell,” a Marine corporal’s voice suddenly interjected over the intercom, “it’s kicked off already.”

Outside, from beyond the armoured plates of the moving Viking I could hear the explosions of rockets and the dulled chatter of automatic fire, just audible over the roar of engine. Seconds later the 12 ton vehicle lurched to a halt, the back door opened and out piled six Marines, straight into contact.

Leaping out with them into a bright, spinning world of total disorientation, hissing lead and cracking retort, I sprawled into the cover of an empty trench nearby. To my left I could see one of the Marines’ Land Rover weapon platforms blazing away with its machine-guns at Talib positions to our front and flank.

To my right the rest of ‘J’ Company, 42 Commando, were debussing along a ridge of shingle and sand, similarly in contact. En route to an overwatch position on high ground above the river, the Marines had been surprised by between 20 and 30 Taliban firing from close quarters.

It was to be the last and longest of several firefights I witnessed during nearly four weeks on an embed with the Royal Marines in Helmand. That particular fight juddered on at varying intensity for over three and half hours.

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It began as a small arms and RPG struggle at fairly close range, until the Taliban were pushed back to a greater distance in the valley below, and jets, attack helicopters and artillery joined the fray to target the Taliban mortar and rocket positions.

And throughout it all, as with every other Marine operation I was on attended in February, I was free to watch the action from as close a vantage point as I wished.

Earlier in the month, just before the first significant engagement of the embed, a deliberate attack by two Marine companies on Taliban positions near Kajaki, 42 Commando’s Commanding Officer had asked me how close I had wanted to see the operation.

“With the fire support group or the assault troops?,” he offered. “Er, assault troops please,” I replied carelessly, certain that such a request would be quashed. It wasn’t.

Now, weeks later and in the final contact, as I ran forward with an assault section tasked to clear a group of Taliban from sand dunes to a flank, I found myself still incredulous. ‘Jesus’, I mused fretfully as we neared the objective, ‘access doesn’t come any better than this.’

Indeed, so far as embeds go, the Marines certainly knew how to rock’n’roll. Beginning with a stay in Kajaki, the embed finished with a 10 day mobile patrol throughout northern Helmand. I could ask whatever I wanted. I sat in on the orders. There was no press minder or escort. Latterly, during the long patrol, my only companions were the section of Marines whose Viking I shared.

Though I remain surprised at this platinum card access, I also regard it as my right. If democratic governments are prepared to send their young men and women to fight, kill and die in foreign lands, then I believe that their societies deserve to be informed of the realities of such deployments from journalists in frontline locations.

Post-combat briefings and press releases by official spokesmen are neither a valid nor credible alternative. Yet over the past six years the British government, the ministry of defence, and often the services themselves have proven themselves to be reluctant in the extreme to give reporters such freewheeling facility in the field, fearful that it may erode their control on the passage and content of information.

Last year in Afghanistan 16 Air Assault Brigade lost the initiative in its media war. With only a few exceptions, reporters found themselves denied access to areas of fighting. There was an understandable if flawed logic behind the media blockade: the brigade found the focus of its fighting centered on four isolated defensive locations.

Amidst fierce action, it was all they could do to resupply these positions with ammunition, food and water, let alone give much needed space on helicopters to journalists.
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The result at home was confusion. British society appeared amazed that what had been billed as a reconstruction operation had suddenly transformed into a war. Senior commanders were of little help, drawing bogus analogies between the fighting in Helmand and the Korean war.

The real voice to emerge was that of soldiers, angry at having their experiences so silenced, who in a succession of emails and blogs railed at the lack of equipment and ammunition.

A year earlier, in Iraq in September 2005, I saw for myself the utter shambles of the military’s press operation. Two special forces soldiers had been captured by a renegade police unit in Basra. Warrior vehicles moving in on the police station to rescue them were at first halted by a rioting mob armed with petrol bombs.

Three of their crewmen were photographed ablaze as they jumped to escape their flaming APCs. Troops opened fire on the crowd. A negotiation team sent to secure the two prisoners’ release was taken hostage too, released only when Warriors rammed through the walls of the police station. Though I was in Baghdad at the time the British forces had no system in place in Iraq to authorise journalists to travel to Basra: all requests had to be put through London.

Meantime phone calls to press officers in Basra produced no information beyond the pathetic stock phrases issued to them on a printed sheet by the MoD.

When I did eventually reach Basra, a couple of days later, and met the Coldstream Guard Battle Group involved in the operation I found them to be typically friendly and informative, if a little surprised that it had taken me so long to arrive.

Yet despite their invitation to stay on and embed with them, I was ejected from Basra on the MoD’s instructions and flown back to Baghdad barely 12 hours later.

The positive change in Afghanistan which led to such good recent access seems not to be the result of some new MoD policy on the embed issue. Rather it appears to be on 3 Commando Brigade’s own initiative.

The Royal Marines were badly burned by their appalling press operation in Afghanistan in 2002, when some 1500 Marines deployed on Operation Jacana to fight Talibs and al Qaeda allegedly regrouping in the east of the country.

A combination of the Marines’ own hype, frantic press manipulation by the MoD, incompetent and antagonistic press officers, and the lack of any embed system, blew back upon them as in the mountains the Marines found no al Qaeda or Taliban.

Press officers claimed the Marines did locate and destroy a large insurgent weapons cache, the operation’s one success, only to have reporters point out that the munitions were not those of the Taliban, but belonged to friendly militias instead.

With this debacle in mind, the Marines arrived back in Afghanistan last autumn determined not to repeat their errors. Though my own request to embed went through the normal MoD channels, it was also submitted direct to 3 Commando Brigade in Helmand, and it seems that the telling decision of authority lay with them rather than London.

So how valid was the experience? Beyond witnessing a group of professional British fighters at work did I actually learn anything that I did not already know or could not have guessed at?

Yes – absolutely – but only because I had the experience of more than 20 non-embedded assignments in Afghanistan, each lasting between one and three months, stretching back as far as 1996. Without these to use as a sounding board, the embed ma
y otherwise have proved a very one-sided and one-dimensional exercise.

I saw that comparisons between Korea and Afghanistan’s on-off counter-insurgency were totally inaccurate, and that analogies between NATO’s chance of success and the failed Russian occupation were similarly inept.

Both sides, the British forces and the Taliban, have their strengths and weaknesses. The Marines are superb troops, well-versed in alternating between hearts-and-minds war-fighting. But they are compromised by an opaque political strategy and high level force-protection concerns.

The Taliban, though enduring, courageous and tactically-skilled, also seemed strategically flawed, were suffering a fearful rate of attrition and failing to capture the imagination of the Pashtun majority. Ultimately, I saw that the deciding card in the game lies not with either sides’ fighting skills, but in the ability of the Afghan government to represent itself as a legitimate and fair power in Helmand.

Until it does so the best efforts of the Marines and their successors in the province will be in vain. I can only dream that I will one day have similar access to British forces in combat. Yet when the embed was over and it was time to leave, I realised that I was in no hurry to apply for another.

We had eaten, slept, shat and been shot at together. As time progressed in a slow drip-drip of cultural osmosis, ‘them and me’ had slowly transformed to ‘we’. My outsider status, the essential platform for any reporter, was ultimately and inevitable
compromised.

Like the Marines, I was beginning to wake each morning wishing for another contact. And when you start to enjoy a war experience too much, then it’s definitely time to go home.

Anthony’s latest book ‘Another Bloody Love Letter’, published by Headline is on sale now.

Read Anthony’s Afghanistan diary here