It was late afternoon on Sunday, the time of day when the rising dust merges with the desert to mask visibility and the good people of Helmand are already behind closed doors. What little authority their government holds in Afghanistan’s most lawless province disappears entirely from sundown. The British operation mentoring and liaison team (OMLT — or Omelettes as they are jokingly known) was returning from training an Afghan army unit in Sangeen, a small town with a fearsome reputation that has switched back and forth under Taliban control.
After a day in heat so blistering that locals claim it can fry a fish upheld on a palm, the dust-coated soldiers from 7 Parachute Regiment were looking forward to getting back to base at Camp Bastion and their air-conditioned tents, perhaps even catching some World Cup action. But as the armoured Land Rovers bumped along the sandy track sending up thick grey clouds, they were heading straight into an ambush.
By the time they glimpsed the shadowy figures swathed in cloth and turbans rising from a gully clutching Kalashnikovs, they had already been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and were under fire. The British fired back and radioed for help. Soon a quick reaction force was on its way from the camp and two Apache helicopter gunships equipped with Hellfire air-to-surface missiles and a 30mm cannon roared overhead.
But by then the OMLT vehicle had got bogged down in the sand and a six-hour gun battle ensued into the night, which left one man dead, Captain Jim Philippson, 29, from 7 Parachute Regiment. Two more British soldiers were seriously injured, one of whom lost an arm, before they could finally get away. Ten insurgents are believed to have died.
It was the third significant clash with insurgents since British troops took over the province last month, one of which involved 700 militants and went on for three days. There was another near-miss when a man rushed out of a house as a British convoy was passing and fired an RPG which went straight across a commander’s lap and out the other side.
The first death of a British soldier in Helmand has focused attention on what exactly the British troops are doing in this fierce bandit country where the only industry is growing opium poppies. It is a mission clouded in not just dust but confusion.
On announcing the deployment of 3,300 troops, John Reid, then defence secretary, said he hoped they would get out “without a shot being fired”, adding that they would be involved only in pre-emptive “deep strategic manoeuvres”. The MoD continues to insist that clashes with insurgents are a rarity.
Instead The Sunday Times has learnt that the British troops are averaging one enemy contact every three days, though many of these are minor. Helmand has already become known by the squaddies as the South Armagh of Afghanistan after the part of Northern Ireland most opposed to British presence. “A lot of us have been surprised at the level of attacks,” said one officer. “We expected a few rounds to be fired, not the full-on ambushes we have seen. They seen well-organised, well-armed and committed to the cause.”
The enemy are not just Taliban. There are also tribal leaders with a proud history of repelling outsiders and drug lords who fear the collapse of their income — Helmand provides a quarter of the world’s opium. The terrain could not be more hostile. “Think of the worst place you can think of and times that by 50,” said Sgt Ryan McIntosh, a US soldier based there. Camp Bastion is so remote that it was described by Brigadier Nick Pope as “just when you think you’ve gone beyond the edge of nowhere, it’s 20 minutes further, and that’s flying”.
“This mission is turning out to be far more dangerous than the public and backbenchers had been led to believe just a few weeks ago,” complained Liam Fox, the shadow defence secretary.
Have we been misled into a fourth war in Afghanistan, a country that in the 19th century was the graveyard of thousands of British troops?
With all the focus on Helmand, few seem to have realised that the whole military operation in Afghanistan will soon come under British hands.
Lieutenant-General David Richards, 54, jokingly refers to himself as “the biggest warlord in Afghanistan”. Last month, he became commander of the Kabul-based Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC), a Nato command structure which by autumn will control the entire foreign military presence in Afghanistan.
He does not like to be reminded that his headquarters in Kabul is on the site of the British cantonment from which its entire strength fled in January 1842 after a tribal revolt against the British- imposed ruler.
Of the 16,000 soldiers, wives and children and camp followers, only one got away, the rest all slaughtered or taken prisoner. Only Dr William Brydon was deliberately left alive to tell the tale and warn people back home of the consequences of getting involved in Afghanistan.
Richards is in command of 9,720 Nato forces from 36 nations but by the end of next month he will also assume control of 7,000 troops in the south including the British in Helmand. By September, the 14,000-plus US troops of Operation Enduring Freedom to hunt out Al-Qaeda will have also come under his command. It will be the first time that American forces have served under the theatre-wide leadership of a foreign general since the second world war.
It is also the most important test to date for Nato, which has struggled to find a post cold war role and hopes Richards’s operation in Afghanistan will provide a blueprint for other conflicts worldwide. “Our global credibility is on trial here,” said General James Jones, supreme allied commander, Europe, while visiting Afghanistan last week.
But Richards is clearly relishing the enormous task. A highly charismatic man, he is no stranger to challenge, having commanded the British peacekeepers in East Timor and the task force in Sierra Leone. A great fan of the first Flashman book in which its hero gets caught up in the first Anglo-Afghan war, he says of Afghanistan: “I love it: it’s in the genes.”
Whatever the politicians might say in London, as the commander on the ground Richards has no doubt how he sees the mission in Helmand. “The primary purpose is to facilitate much more rapid delivery of reconstruction on the ground,” he said. “But to do that we must be prepared to fight hard and no one should have any doubt that this is the case as has already been proved by last Sunday.”
He is not surprised by the strength of Taliban opposition. “Previously the Americans had just 130 people in Helmand and now we’re putting in more than 3,000. If you were the Taliban you would think this spells curtains and fight like mad to protect your territory. That’s what we’re seeing now.”
On top of this, stepped-up pressure from London and Washington on neighbouring Pakistan to stop providing a haven has led to an influx of militants across the border into Helmand and the rest of southern Afghanistan. For the first time Pakistan has sent troops to those borders to prevent them crossing back.
With the escape routes thus cut off, on Thursday the US launched Operation Mountain Thrust to try to crush the Taliban in the south. British forces from 3 Parachute Regiment in Helmand are among the 11,000 taking part, as well as special forces from the SBS. It is the biggest operation since the fall of the Taliban almost five years ago but got off to a bad start when it was inadvertently announced before it had started, thus giving the Taliban 24 hours’ notice.
The biggest concern, expressed publicly by Liam Fox and privately by a number of former defence chiefs using expressions such as “mission impossible”, is that Britain is not sending enough troops for the size of the task, pointing out that Helmand is three times the size of Wales.
“It’s quite obvious that there aren’t enough boots on the ground to maintain security,” said Charles Heyman, a former infantry officer who now edits the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom handbook. “It makes you gasp when you realise what they are being asked to do.”
“If you look at the map the troops-to-task ratio looks horrendous,” agrees Richards. “But two-thirds of Helmand is desert. There’s Helmand river valley and outside that there’s no life. It’s like the Sahara. So while not necessarily disagreeing, this is not northern Europe where there are villages every two yards.”
He concedes that of the 3,300 troops that will be in Helmand by the end of the month, only 900 are infantry. “But the tooth-to-tail ration will rebalance in favour of the tooth once the camps are all set up. It looks as if in terms of combat like we’re just talking about 3 Para and a company of Gurkhas but remember we’re not just talking about the British Army but also Danish reconnaissance, Afghan Army (ANA) and Afghan police and Apache helicopters being used in a combat role.
“Every general would like more troops because then I could do things quicker. But I will just have to construct a campaign that reflects what we’ve got. If we were trying to win a war we’d have a problem but this is a question as much of mind as of traditional military campaign.”
The unrest in the south has meant virtually no development has taken place in Helmand since the international community moved into Afghanistan in 2001. This neglect has enabled the Taliban to secure a foothold in the province, setting up shadow administrations, closing half the schools in the province and exhorting people to grow poppies.
Recently they have begun targeting police, beheading their relatives to deter them from co-operating with the British.
“We estimate that 80% of people in Helmand are neither one way nor the other — they don’t like the Taliban but are disillusioned by the Afghan government,” said Richards. “We need to persuade that 80% to support us. This means delivering on the ground.”
He plans to do this using the so-called inkspot doctrine modelled on that used by one of his heroes, Gerald Templer, to fight communists in the Malaya insurgency in the 1950s.
“The aim is to create secure ‘feelgood zones’ within which the international community, Afghan government and non-governmental organisations can go about development such as roads, micropower projects and schools. It is only this that will persuade the Afghan people that all this effort is worth it and to reject the calls of the Taliban.”
To this end he has held many meetings with President Hamid Karzai (whom he has already won over and who describes him as “thinking like an Afghan”), the former king Zahir Shah, tribal elders, warlords and MPs. He even sent one of his generals to the Afghan Women’s Day meeting last week. He has already persuaded a wealthy businessman to fund a packaging plant in one of his Helmand inkspots.
The plan is to start small and gradually increase both the size and number of the inkspots to extend the writ of government. “We know we’ll have to fight to secure those zones,” he said. “The Taliban won’t want us to succeed there because then everyone will be wanting to be part of these zones.”
For the strategy to succeed, he admits that it’s vital that the British troops are seen to be there long-term. “It’s important for local people and Taliban to see we’re not going anywhere. If the Taliban see we’re there for the long haul, are they really going to want to stay on the run for ever away from their families?” Although the deployment was announced as lasting for three years, Richards insists: “That’s a minimum commitment. They’re not saying we won’t stay longer than that if required.”
Talk of an extended stay will add to fears that Britain is getting sucked further into Afghanistan than originally intended. On Thursday the defence ministry announced it was sending an extra 130 troops from RAF 34 Squadron to bolster the security of Kandahar airfield, base for more than 50 British aircraft.
“There’s mission creep here,” said Tobias Ellwood, a Tory MP and former army officer who visited Helmand last week as part of a Nato delegation. “We’re doing more and more. It’s a hornets’ nest.”
While Richards might be clear of what he wants to do in both Helmand and Afghanistan, back in Whitehall there has been confusion from the beginning. Just as with Iraq and the missing weapons of mass destruction, the original reason given for British involvement in Helmand was deeply flawed.
Not once does Richards mention anti-narcotics as part of his remit. He insists that is a matter for later when alternative economies have been provided within his feelgood zones. “You won’t see Nato troops lopping off poppies,” he said. “On the contrary if farmers who put down their hoes and pick up rifles don’t have any alternative and that directly threatens the lives of our soldiers, then we need to think very carefully about the timing of all this.”
Narcotics aside, there is no doubt that Afghanistan is at a critical moment if it is not to go the way of Iraq. The widespread feeling that the international community has let Afghanistan down was brought starkly to the fore almost two weeks ago with riots in Kabul that raged for seven hours. It is hard to see where the £5 billion spent in Afghanistan in the past four years has gone. On a foot patrol in Kabul with some of Richards’s soldiers it is clear they are shocked that the streets still run with green sewage and locals have no running water.
“The international community must start working better together to deliver,” said Richards. “The West has been guilty of applying western precepts on an almost post- medieval economy. We need to address a basic economy with basic solutions. The lack of amenities is staggering. A quarter of children die by the age of five. Worrying about civil service reform and gender rights are really tomorrow’s problems.”
“Think of the psychological victory for Osama Bin Laden and his ilk if we failed here and the Taliban came back,” he added. “Within months we’d suffer terror attacks in the UK. I think of my own daughters in London and the risk they would be in. What we are doing in Helmand is risky but it’s better that we put in the effort now than much bigger effort later.”
Additional reporting: Michael Smith