Metal Age & Canadian Broadcasting Corporation – 2006-10-20 09:17:56
War in Afghanistan: Britain’s Vietnam
AFGHANISTAN (October 16, 2006) — A quad bike bounces across battle-ravaged desert, the remains of three dead British soldiers lashed to its back, while a Chinook buzzes overhead.
Captives of grief, the British soldiers who have liberated their fallen comrades’ corpses feel the emotional force of what they’ve experienced.
The desperate shortage of helicopters in Afghanistan has forced the Ministry of Defence to seek the help of a private helicopter company, the government has admitted.
Troops will be ferried around the country in Russian-made aircraft, including the biggest helicopter in the world, if the £20 million deal is struck with the British owned company.
Exhausted squaddies exchange desultory small-arms fire with an invisible enemy. An infantry unit nervously patrols a burning village.
Watch the dramatic footage shot on the frontline
• British troops in a firefight with the Taliban
• Gallery: see more pictures of the troops in Afghanistan here
These are the images that reveal the gritty, deadly reality of the British engagement in Afghanistan. And they have been released to the world by the angry and beleaguered troops themselves.
The pictures were captured on digital cameras over recent months by infantrymen belonging to the Battlegroup of the 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment. For the most part, they have been sent back to Britain by e-mail, sidestepping the Government’s attempts to keep the true nature of the conflict away from the public gaze.
This is a deployment that Ministers, safe in their plush Whitehall offices, have characterised as a peacekeeping mission. John Reid, now Home Secretary, notoriously predicted that the British would serve their tour of duty without a shot being fired. Visits to troops by news teams have been discouraged or stage-managed.
But these unique pictures, backed up by commentary in the e-mails, tell the truth – of savage and bloodthirsty firefights, of unremitting skirmishes with the Taliban and of shortages of ammunition and even rations.
Water has run out, so soldiers drink from disease-carrying rivers. They eat bread scrounged from Afghan troops.
Squaddies are tormented by sand flies and scorpions and are driven mad by stress. They are attacked by Taliban militiamen on motorbikes who open fire while clutching children in front of themselves.
Battles take place against a backdrop of burning villages reduced to rubble by aerial bombardment. On occasion, panic-stricken combatants have used satellite phones to call England with the harrowing message that they are about to die.
The evidence has been delivered to The Mail on Sunday by soldiers who say that their enemy is more numerous, more determined and better equipped than politicians have acknowledged. This, they say, is no peacekeeping mission. This is a new Vietnam.
A soldier who agreed to an interview via e-mail said: “It is a lot worse than people know back home. Politics f****** politics. It is a massive cover-up really, to not get the real truth.”
There is also, allegedly, considerable pressure on the Paratroops not to talk about Afghanistan when they return to Britain this month.
“They are using scare tactics,’ said the soldier. “It is not fair. The Commanding Officer said that he would mallet anyone he found out was speaking out about this.”
Yesterday, however, the Ministry of Defence officially welcomed the soldiers’ testimony – raising suspicions that the cloak of secrecy that has hitherto surrounded operations has been ordered by politicians rather than the military.
In the e-mails, the soldiers speak starkly of the savagery of engagements that are kept secret from the public back home.
One said: “You see the Taliban cutting around on dirt bikes, their weapons in one hand, their kids in the other. They think we will not shoot them. There have been some terrible incidents. It is horrible to kill a kid, nothing could prepare you for it.”
During an ambush that led to the deaths of three British troops in the town of Musa Qalah on August 1, a senior NCO was forced to take drastic action to retrieve a body and try to rescue a captured soldier.
An e-mail in the possession of this newspaper says: “That place (Musa Qalah) is a ****hole anyway. The first wagon got IED’d (hit by an Improvised Explosive Device) then, as a rescue wagon came down, they RPG’d it (hit by a Rocket Propelled Grenade). It was war-fighting, even so much to say we had bayonets fixed.”
The soldiers had to use a spade to cut the body of one of their comrades from the wreckage. “Then we released the hatch to get the body out while getting contacted (shot at) at the same time. The worst bit was stepping over the body to gather it all up and looking for dog tags.”
One of the British casualties was still alive and had been captured by the Taliban. About 100 British soldiers surrounded Musa Qalah and non-Taliban personnel were given 30 minutes to leave. Anyone who remained was considered a legitimate target – again raising shades of Vietnam.
The captured soldier was dead when found by his comrades. It is unclear whether he was killed by the Taliban or died of his wounds.
Last night the MoD said there was ‘no better illustration of the extraordinary commitments being made by British soldiers’.
The performance of the Royal Air Force is also called into question by the ground troops. This follows the claim by Para Major James Loden last week that the RAF was ‘utterly useless’.
Describing the failure to re-supply troops trapped in a compound in the war-torn village of Sangin, a Para NCO said: “A dz (drop zone) was marked, under fire and at night. It was extremely obvious where it was. The Hercules came and totally ignored it.
“They dropped it straight into one of the Taliban strongholds about 100 metres from our camp. We heard a big cheer from the Taliban. It was a massive blow to us. We had been expecting it for two days. We were cheering when it came in. Then we watched it sail away into Taliban hands.”
‘They Could Not See Properly’
This was not the only re-supply run to go badly wrong. Another almost cost the lives of Canadian troops. “We were told a British convoy was coming up with the re-plen so we expected Brit wagons. There were two guys in one of the sangars (defensive positions built with sandbags). It had got blown up twice by RPGs.
They heard this rumbling and at the end of the street they saw some sort of tank poking around the corner. They had no idea what it was, but it was not Brit. They could not see properly. They thought it was ex-Russian stuff the Taliban had got hold of.
“So there’s two guys running off down the street with 84s (shoulder-held missiles) just about to blow them up, until one of the guys saw this maple leaf on the front of one of the wagons. We got on the net (radio) and had a massive meltdown about why we were not told they were coming.”
The mental and physical wellbeing of British forces is also called into question. E-mail testimony suggests that incidents of soldiers wetting and soiling themselves are now commonplace. They wake up screaming from nightmares and have even made harrowing calls to their families during enemy engagements.
In one incident, the Paras were called to rescue Afghan troops and French Special Forces who had been ambushed by the Taliban.
They were flown in by Chinook helicopter, but when they landed, were stunned by what they saw. The ground was littered with the bodies of Afghan soldiers, while incoming bullets hit the helicopter.
“I could not believe we were going to charge off this helicopter into a wall of lead,’ said one. “Not everyone wanted to get off. One guy actually defecated. He sat rigid with fear inside the cargo hold until we pulled him up and pointed him towards the door.
“We had to fire and manoeuvre across open ground for 200 metres. The scene was like a human abattoir. We fought off the Taliban but were too late to save the French guys. All of us were shaking when we were flown back to base. One of the Afghan survivors said the French had been tied up then gutted alive by the Taliban. It was one of the most shocking things I had ever heard.”
There have been mixed reports about the Afghan National Army. However, one soldier described them as ‘shockingly hard’. They have continued fighting alongside the British despite having members of their families killed by the Taliban. Some British soldiers have told their families back home that they fear they are going to die. But after the French atrocity, they say would rather be killed than captured.
The Taliban, previously dismissed as a ragtag force without sophisticated weaponry or tactical knowhow, has evolved. The conflict has enabled the heroin trade to flourish, and with coffers overflowing the guerrilla army has bought equipment such as night vision goggles.
The Taliban has also contracted a legion of mercenaries who have poured over the border from Pakistan into the British-occupied Helmand Province. Contrary to MoD claims, soldiers say that the pace of the fighting continues unremittingly. In the past 48 hours, Paratroopers and Royal Marines, supported by heavy artillery, have conducted operations described as ‘rip and insertions’ in the Sangin area.
It is understood that at least two British personnel have been severely wounded in the fighting, which soldiers described as ‘hardcore’. It was the last major thrust to be carried out by 3 Para before handing over to 42 Commando, Royal Marines.
The picture of life at the main British base, Camp Bastian, is a little more encouraging. Frustration at the rationing of food in the cookhouse leads to the soldiers pulling spoons from cooks’ fingers and serving themselves.
They began the tour on what soldiers call ‘peacetime munitions scalings’, less than they would receive for battle. This supply was criticised as being too light – 120 rounds for their rifles and two grenades. Those with rifles now carry over 200 rounds, and many have exchanged their rifles for light machine guns, called Minimi.
Since British forces arrived in Helmand in May, there have been few success stories. One has been the effectiveness of the Apache helicopter, which has saved many lives.
Last night the Ministry of Defence said: “Incredible efforts are being made to ensure that front-line soldiers are given the best possible support in every way. The tough realities of combat will inevitably create friction about particular incidents, but each individual is doing their very best in the most challenging of circumstances.
“The MoD welcomes these gritty, hard- hitting reports, which portray the reality of difficult work on the front-line. The 3 Para Battlegroup has performed magnificently in extremely difficult circumstances. Alongside the Afghan National Army, they have stood up to the Taliban, who offer nothing to the Afghan people. We salute them.”
Britain Forced to Use
Private Helicopters in Afghanistan
The desperate shortage of helicopters in Afghanistan has forced the Ministry of Defence to seek the help of a private helicopter company, the government has admitted.
Troops will be ferried around the country in Russian made aircraft, including the biggest helicopter in the world, if the £20 million deal is struck with the British owned company.
Military commanders in Afghanistan have for the last three months been privately demanding more helicopters to help defeat the Taliban and provide supplies to troops in remote villages.
Lord Drayson, the defence procurement minister, told the House of Lords that the Government was considering using an independent helicopter company to provide logistical support for the RAF.
A proposal from Security Support Solutions Ltd to provide four Mi17 Hip and three giant Mi26 Halo transporters was being “seriously considered” by the MoD.
The company has the aircraft, flown by former special forces pilots, available immediately to carry troops, food and ammunition around the country including the volatile towns in northern Helmand province.
The MoD is also considering an offer from the Danish military to purchase six Merlin helicopters which its military are said not to want because of the high maintenance costs, defence sources revealed.
It is also thought that the RAF is short of medium lift helicopter pilots with many either on operations or resting between deployments.
Lord Drayson admitted that there was a shortage of helicopters in Afghanistan.
He was asked by Lord Astor, the shadow defence minister, following the Prime Minister’s promise that commanders would get “whatever they need to defeat the Taliban”, would the MoD consider using an independent helicopter company as the RAF’s were “on their last legs”?
“Yes we are considering such an avenue,” Lord Drayson said. There were a “number of commercial very active programmes at moment looking to address our helicopter capability”.
Pressure is also being put on Nato to come up with the funding for the helicopters as the majority of its troops are in parts of Afghanistan less deadly than Helmand province where the British are based.
Commanders are currently relying on the RAF’s eight Chinook helicopters that have been very heavily used ferrying troops and supplies while coming under enemy fire.
The Russian-made helicopters are specifically designed for use in Afghanistan’s “hot and high” conditions with the Mi26 able to carry 100 combat troops or 20 tons of equipment.
Lord Drayson admitted that military planners had underestimated “what we were up against in Afghanistan” but despite that the “courage and dedication” of British troops had “inflicted a massive defeat on the enemy”.
He said the military’s decision on the future helicopter programme two years ago had not taken into account the nature of “enduring operations in Afghanistan”.
“That has put pressure on helicopter capability. The question is not how we got here but what we are doing now. We are making robust efforts to improve our helicopter capability.”
Cash from the Treasury was “absolutely not” a problem, he added. “Nothing that has been asked for has been refused.”
The military was also “doing everything we can” to bring into service eight special forces Chinook helicopters that have never been flown after they were certified unusable following mechanical changes made by engineers.
The proposal for a quick resolution to the helicopter problem was made by Mike Pearson, the director of SSS, after talking to commanders in Afghanistan and in London.
Once these helicopters are deployed they will make an immediate difference to troops on the ground, Mr Pearson, a former paratrooper, told The Daily Telegraph.
“These aircraft are not on the shelf, they could be with the military today releasing the RAF helicopters for military operations. They are also designed to work in the difficult Afghan conditions where they deployed during the Soviet era.”
The company said the helicopters had been “Westernised” and European engineers would carry out all maintenance.
A MoD spokesman said when new equipment was necessary “we leave no stone unturned to give the front-line the support that it needs”.
“We are exploring a number of possibilities to improve helicopter force levels although no final decision has been taken,” he added.
NATO Regrets Civilian Deaths
After Air Strikes in Afghanistan
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation News
(October 18, 2006) — NATO forces in Afghanistan expressed regret on Wednesday for civilian casualties that may have been caused by operations carried out against suspected insurgents.
A total of 22 Afghan civilians were reportedly killed in operations in two Afghan provinces on Wednesday.
Asadullah Khalid, a provincial governor, said nine civilians were killed and 11 wounded in Zhari district of Kandahar province when NATO air strikes hit three houses.
Meanwhile, Abdul Rehman, a resident, said 13 civilians including women and children were killed in Grishk district of Helmand province after a rocket hit one house. Three Afghan police officers were also wounded.
Rehman, who spoke with relatives of the dead in the village of Tajikai in Helmand province, said a rocket launched from an aircraft landed on a home and killed everyone inside the house.
“The government and NATO are fighting the Taliban, and civilians are the victims,” Rehman said.
Tajikai, with a population of about 100 families, is a farming village about 220 kilometres west of Kandahar city.
The International Security Assistance Force, a NATO-led international force of about 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, said in a news release that it makes every effort to minimize the risk of “collateral damage” when it conducts its operations.
ISAF said it “deeply regrets causing any civilian casualties” in its operation in Kandahar province, but it did not say whether the casualties included deaths, injuries or both.
“Close air support was used in support of the operation, and it is believed that the air attack caused several civilian casualties along with an unknown number of insurgent casualties,” it said.
“The operation’s purpose was to detain individuals involved in the recent improvised explosive device attacks in Panjwaii.”
Brig.-Gen. David Fraser, commander of the ISAF regional command in southern Afghanistan, spoke to the provincial governor about the operation and the governor has talked directly to some of the victims, according to the release.
Canada has more than 2,000 troops in Afghanistan, with the majority stationed in southern Afghanistan, primarily in Kandahar.
With files from the Associated Press.
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