I’m lying in the dust using a mud wall as cover and overlooking a wide valley in Helmand province, Afghanistan. In front of me, the Afghan National Army is returning fire as the Taliban try to halt their advance south: it is a massive demonstration of firepower. The incoming attack stops immediately, meaning the Taliban fighters are either dead or running for cover. I am taking part in Operation Now Roz (from “nowruz”, meaning “new year” in Dari) the largest, most dangerous and most complex operation the nascent Afghan National Army (ANA) has ever conducted. The action involves more than 1,000 ANA and Afghan police, working together with 1,000 British soldiers in the Gereshk area of Helmand province. The Yakchal valley stretching out before us is the nexus of Taliban activity in Helmand. Many of the Taliban’s IEDs (improvised explosive devices) are made here, and insurgent fighters plan their operations in the valley before heading out to other parts of the province. The aim of the ANA’s mission is, quite simply, to clear the Taliban out of the Yakchal. The ANA is fighting under the watchful eyes of UK soldiers, who have spent the past six months advising them on how to become an army. It is a key test to determine the Afghans’ ability to fight for themselves.
After a decade in Afghanistan, Nato’s 140,000 combat troops – mainly from the US and UK, but also from countries such as Germany and Georgia – are preparing to leave. If, before their departure by the end of 2014, they fail to train a robust Afghan army and police force, Afghanistan risks sliding back into the internecine conflict that tore the country apart. It was this conflict during the 1990s that created the fertile ground in which Osama bin Laden expanded al-Qaeda and pulled the US, UK and other Nato countries into perhaps their last big infantry conflict in history. The war in Afghanistan has taught western politicians that it costs too many lives, too much money and too much political capital to get involved in such messy and lengthy military operations. But, for the British soldiers I am accompanying, failure would mean the unthinkable: squandering the lives and limbs of their comrades and those of the nearly 3,000 coalition soldiers who have already died in Afghanistan.
The Afghan soldiers are a mixed group from various tribal backgrounds – some loyal to the current government, some not. Others are deeply pragmatic, with families sending one son off to fight with the Taliban and another into the ANA so as to hedge their bets on the final outcome of the insurgency. Many are here for the money – $240 a month in Helmand, $20 more than the earnings of those in less dangerous provinces. The Afghan government pays well considering the per capita income in the country is $614 per year. Just like any other army, soldiers are paid by electronic bank transfer. But unlike other armies, biometrics are used to identify each soldier before he gets his salary.
I have met many ANA on my visits to Afghanistan during the past five years, and have found their concerns to be similar to most other young soldiers. They complain about everything – part of any soldier’s job description – and always want to know when they will next be fed. But what I have witnessed above all is that the ANA are beginning to look more like soldiers. They now have body armour and helmets, even though some of them still choose not to wear them. There is no doubting their toughness. Speaking through an interpreter to a group waiting for the order to move forward, they tell me they aren’t too keen on the M16 assault rifles issued to them by the Americans – the Russian AKs they used to have didn’t break when they hit people with them.
The ANA radio traffic sounds like a high-octane family argument as we watch them take control of several compounds before moving on. These buildings, made of mud and wood and surrounded by high mud walls, belong to farming families and their animals. They are the areas of habitation that the Taliban want to take over – and frequently do. I watch ANA soldiers round up all men of fighting age for questioning and, before releasing them, record their biometric details to determine if any are Taliban members. Fingerprints, irises and faces are all scanned by a hand-held device that looks like an oversized camera. (In many cases, fingerprints found on the remains of IEDs have identified the person who made them.)
Already about six IEDs have gone off around us. As we move past one particular compound the ANA has just cleared, our front man Kevin Cooper, who is holding a Vallon mine detector, yells: “Stop!” We dive down among the rocks and it isn’t long before he finds the collection of buried plastic containers – “pop-and-drops” – filled with homemade explosives. These are the Taliban’s weapons of choice, responsible for hundreds of Nato deaths and injuries. Our patrol was just three steps away from becoming part of the casualty statistics, and I was just three men from the front.
The British approach – letting the Afghans lead operations and acting as advisers rather than instructors – is about 18 months ahead of the US military’s efforts to train the ANA. With so little time left before the bulk of troops leave Afghanistan, the US is now considering adopting the UK model even though it would entail a cultural change among US soldiers, who see themselves more as natural commanders than management consultants.
Sitting in the dust waiting for the bomb disposal unit gives me a chance to chat with Captain Terry Williams. He is the 28-year-old adviser-patrol commander whose toothy staccato laugh later helps me identify him back at camp, the only place he takes off the helmet and ballistic glasses that now hide his face.
He tells me he has seen great improvement in his Afghan counterparts and attributes a good part of that success to British adviser patrols such as his letting the ANA learn through failure.
“They are great fighters, but if they do not organise their own rations, for example, I do not help them by calling some in,” he says, adding that one lesson the Afghan recruits have learned is that trigger-happiness means running out of ammunition dangerously early in an operation.
The ANA bomb disposal team finally arrives. In the dimming light of early evening, the IED is detonated and the patrol cheers in relief. The observing British bomb disposal adviser gives his opinion on the size of the device: “That’s 40 K-Gs, easy. You wouldn’t want to step on that, would you? Well, if you did, you wouldn’t be stepping anywhere else.” It was the 15th IED the bomb disposal team’s Afghan officer had made safe that day. The ANA now disarms all of the Taliban’s explosive devices, leaving the British to train and advise them.
Before darkness falls completely, I survey my surroundings. In twilight the valley is a picture-postcard desert scene. It is March so the heat is not oppressive, but there is a layer of sweat under my Osprey body armour and helmet. My nostrils are caked with dust, as is my skin, and my hair feels like a Brillo pad.
The Yakchal’s 27sq km rectangle of battle space is also poppy country: the green patches of shoots look like fields of young thistles. Helmand is the world’s largest opium-producing region, responsible for 75 per cent of the world’s opium. Thus the Taliban fights here to protect its lucrative crop: this is an insurgency of politics, guns, drugs and power, not one of ideology.
For the UK government, Helmand has a wider significance. If the Taliban control the country it won’t just be poppy that will be free to grow but also al-Qaeda, which would once again have a safe haven from which to launch attacks against Britain. Or, as one of the ANA commanders puts it to me: “Taliban in Helmand means bombs in London”.
I have come here from London thanks to an invitation from Lt. Col. Bill Wright, the commanding officer of 2nd Battalion The Rifles (or 2 Rifles), the infantry battalion advising the ANA. Back in my day the Rifles was called the Royal Green Jackets and I spent eight years with the regiment before joining the Special Air Service, serving for a further 10 years. During my time in the SAS I was involved in operations in the Gulf, Northern Ireland, South and central America, south-east and central Asia and Africa. I met Wright in 2007 in Iraq, well after I had retired from the SAS and written Bravo Two Zero, my personal account of an ill-fated mission I led behind enemy lines in that country in the early 1990s.
Wright is now sitting in his office, a Portakabin in Camp Tombstone, which is part of Camp Bastion. The sprawling main British base in Helmand is equivalent in size to a city like Reading, with walls constructed from enormous sandbags. Wright joined the infantry in 1988 and is married with two children. Everything he says carries an air of infectious confidence, which probably comes with having a 300-year-old military family tree.
Wright’s role is to shadow ANA leader Sheren Shah and his brigade of six kandaks (Pashto for battalions), letting the Afghans lead. The 2 Rifles Brigade Advisory Group, BAG for short, brings to the table brigade-level tactical advice and the high-end military capabilities that the ANA does not have. This includes provision of US Marines capable of calling down artillery, precision-guided munitions, mortars – in fact anything that flies through the air and detonates when it lands. The 2 Rifles BAG has been advising for six months; other battalions filled the same role for 12 months prior to that.
Wright says that personal relationships and respect are crucial to getting things done. “We could have been seen as a threat to Sheren Shah and his kandaks. After all we are better trained and better equipped,” he tells me. “The BAG have to take that threat out of the equation, immediately, at all levels. For example, I call Sheren Shah ‘Sir’ and treat him the same as I would any other general. Besides, he has over 30 years of continuous war fighting experience and that alone commands huge respect.”
Brigadier General Sheren Shah Kobadi, who is 48 (though accounts of his age vary) and married with six children, is a legend in Afghanistan. He fought alongside the Russians against the Mujahideen, but revolted after becoming disillusioned with the Russian occupation of Afghanistan – a move that landed him in jail for a year. On his release, he immediately joined the Mujahideen and fought against the Russians. After the Russians were finally defeated, he rejoined the government army and served as a kandak commander against the Taliban during the civil war that followed.
When the Taliban took control of the country, Sheren Shah then fought against them alongside the Northern Alliance, the group to which Nato would lend overwhelming support in 2001 to rid Afghanistan of Taliban rule. He was then appointed to the fledgling Afghan ministry of defence before returning to operations as commander of the ANA in Helmand.
When I meet Sheren Shah the day before Operation Now Roz begins, I can see his appearance fits his warring background. He is so large and imposing that when we shake hands, mine looks the size of a baby’s. However, his demeanour is laidback to say the least. As we talk through his interpreter, he flings his arms over the chair and cracks pistachio nuts. His eyes keep straying over to the TV in his office, which is showing a Pakistani soap show.
It is obvious that he enjoys being in the company of soldiers and he clearly likes the fact that I am ex-SAS. Most of our conversation is about the operations the SAS carried out alongside the Mujahideen. From the late 1980s we supplied and trained the Muj on Stinger missiles to destroy Russian Hind gunships. I answer his questions as best I can. Knowing that at some point he had switched allegiances, I have to be careful to get my dates right to ensure the SAS was on his side.
He tells me he has been wounded seven times in combat and I see the results of one of those fire fights in the scar running down his chin. Over our third cup of black tea, we finally get to talking about Now Roz – or rather he tells me what is going to happen: “We will make the Taliban understand they no longer own the Yakchal. We do.”
Fair enough. But Now Roz, big as it is, is just one battle, and one during which the ANA still benefits from having the Brits in the wings. “What about the long term?” I ask. He takes a boiled sweet from one of the jars that are never more than an arm’s reach away and tells me his biggest concern is losing the UK’s support too soon. “It will take time to develop. Do not leave us too early,” is his blunt message.
I leave Sheren Shah to visit one of the patrol bases near the Yakchal as the ANA and 2 Rifles BAG prepare for the operation. I see rows upon rows of tents and shipping containers lined up as if on the set of a Vietnam war film. There is apprehension in the air because this is to be the BAG’s last big operation before their six-month tour ends. No one wants to get killed less than a week before going home.
The patrol base is Camp Bastion in miniature but much more brutal. A layer of dust and sand covers everything and everyone. There are no air-conditioned gyms, no hot or cold running water, and no purpose-built toilets. A “Desert Rose” (basically a hole in the ground) is used to urinate in, with anything else done in a Disposa-John – a plastic bag that is then placed into a binliner for burning after use. Showers are black plastic solar bags that heat up in the sun, and any furniture is made out of wooden freight pallets or steel wire sandbag frames.
When the riflemen are not on patrol, they sleep, eat, and train in their make-shift gyms. I meet 20-year-old Rifleman David James Goodwin pumping iron. He joined the army at 16 as a junior soldier after listening to a presentation at his school in Liverpool.
It is obvious he likes being an infantry soldier and gets “good press” among his peers in the Reconnaissance (Recce) Platoon. He doesn’t want to talk about Now Roz, but rather uses our chat to vent frustration about the way people like him are portrayed by the media. He complains about soldiers being seen as victims, even when they are not wounded. It’s a war they freely choose to go and fight. They are neither hero nor victim; they are doing their job.
He says he is glad he joined up, especially as many of his mates are now in prison or unemployed. “I love it. I like getting out on patrol and when I’m not, I hit the weights. I like being a soldier and I like going home with money in my pocket as well.” As for many Afghan soldiers, the money the army pays is an important part of the equation. Goodwin’s take-home pay is £1,600 per month, plus a £5,000 bonus at the end of his six-month tour and another £1,800 for taking a 10-week course to learn Dari.
Goodwin, who is on his first tour in Afghanistan, tells me his relationship with the Afghan soldiers is good. “I like eating with the ANA and practising the language. They make me laugh. They are funny f*****s when they all get together,” he says.
Not all relationships between Nato soldiers and their trainers have developed so amicably. The past months have been marred by Afghan soldiers attacking the UK and US troops who are training them. At least 16 Nato troops have died at the hands of Afghan soldiers, or insurgents who have infiltrated the ANA, since the start of the year. Afghans have also been killed by members of their own units, although the UK does not release body counts.
The Taliban has taken credit for some of the killings, which have come amid a series of serious setbacks that include a US army sergeant shooting 17 Afghan civilians and American soldiers burning Korans at Bagram air base. The US has insisted the burnings were unintentional. Even so, they prompted widespread riots in Afghanistan and there were suggestions that some of the shootings of US soldiers by Afghan recruits were a result of the incident.
But those “green on blue” shootings have left many soldiers I talked to, including Serjeant Tom Reilly, unfazed and unapologetic. His misshapen nose and missing teeth instantly identify Reilly as one of 2 Rifles’ “old sweats”. Married with two children and in his mid-thirties, Reilly has seen it all before. Having served numerous tours of Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, he believes that fighting an insurgency means some bad guys always get under the wire either physically or by turning ordinary soldiers against their trainers through blackmail and intimidation.
But there is another, simpler reason, he adds, noting that Afghans don’t always settle their differences diplomatically. “People have to remember these people know nothing but fighting. If they are pissed off about something, they sort it out the Afghan way. There are no anger management classes here. This isn’t Hampshire, it’s Helmand,” he says.
That is more than evident on the patrol base where all troops carry weapons. They even take them to the showers. They also carry tourniquets so they can stop any major bleed immediately. It is likely that the ANA soldier who killed two Nato soldiers in the Lashkar Gah Main Operating Base on March 26 would have claimed many more victims had the base not been armed. But it is not just the British who are targets. Sheren Shah never moves within bases without his Close Protection personnel.
I leave the patrol base and head to one of the ANA checkpoints at the northern end of the Yakchal valley battle space for the start of the operation. As I enter the operations room to meet Sheren Shah, I find he and Wright have set themselves up with tables and chairs on the roof. The third man at the table is Brigadier Patrick Saunders, Commander Task Force Helmand and the most senior British officer in the province. Sheren Shah, Saunders and Wright make up the triangle of power that is transforming the way the war is being fought in Helmand.
Saunders has a liking for Old Virginia roll-ups and continuously packs tobacco into brown cigarette papers, producing something that looks like a prop for a Mexican gangster movie. As the three men listen to ANA radio traffic, pore over their maps and drink black tea, it becomes clear that Sheren Shah is the dominant force among the three. More than anything else I have witnessed during this trip, this speaks volumes about the self-confidence of the two high-ranking British officers at the table. Saunders stands up and pats his pockets for a lighter and I get the chance to ask him how he sees things.
“Sheren Shah is our boss, it is as simple as that. We are not here to produce British soldiers. We are not here to replicate the British Army. We are preparing the ANA to function without us,” he tells me, giving away that his and Sheren Shah’s mutual respect has developed into friendship, with the ANA leader staying at his family home in Wiltshire. “There are problems, of course,” Saunders adds as he lights his roll-up. “All armies have them, and a particular one for the ANA is their line of supply. But that’s what we are here for – to get things sorted out.”
He says there has been an increase in fighting as the ANA has ventured to areas the British had not patrolled in the past, doing things “the Afghan way” with little regard for health and safety and unencumbered by western technology.
I leave Saunders up on the roof of the Yakchal checkpoint and move down below into the Improvised Operations Room as reports come in of IEDs and Taliban activity.
An American army major in rectangular reading glasses and a “whitewall” haircut sits in the background, his chest tag displaying the name Redfield. He hangs back from all the radio checks and map plotting going on in the room and I become curious about what he is doing there, just looking, listening and jotting the occasional thought on his notepad.
I discover that it is Jerry Redfield’s job to advise American General John R. Allen, Commander International Security Assistance Force (COMISAF), on strategic priority areas and to help improve Nato’s efforts across the entire ISAF operation. In other words he is like an Ofsted school inspector. What he tells me about Britain’s efforts to train the ANA leads to the biggest revelation of my trip. “This BAG, the Brit structure, is 18 months ahead of anything else in country,” he says. He puts it down to the British willingness not to impose a foreign structure on the Afghans, but to learn instead how best to let them do it the Afghan way.
“This method will be recommended to COMISAF to adopt for the post-2014 planning,” he says. In other words, the US – to whom the UK is often the little cousin out here – may end up doing the most important job left in Afghanistan, according to the British model. I suggest this may well prove a hard sell to US commanders accustomed to being in charge. Redfield doesn’t think long before coming up with an answer:
“We will have to re-educate people or they will just have to take a salt pill and say ‘Yes sir’”.
Reflecting on his words as I return to the Yakchal valley, I narrowly escape an IED. Others are not so lucky. While I am in Afghanistan, the BAG suffers casualties at the hands of the Taliban. There is one fatality, two young men lose limbs, and two more suffer gunshot wounds. Each of these men had only four to seven days left before they were due to return home.
Despite the heartache of those losses, I realise Sheren Shah has been proved right: the ANA do “own” the Yakchal – for now. During Now Roz, numerous Taliban were killed, 86 explosive devices were discovered, including a motorbike packed with high explosives for a suicide attack, and the ANA seized multiple explosives and bomb-making equipment.
Given the steady flow of bad publicity and the general war weariness in the UK and other Nato countries, it is not a level of success I had been expecting to encounter. But in spite of the progress in Helmand, and the killing last year of bin Laden by US special forces, much can still go wrong. Afghanistan could indeed fall back into the hands of the Taliban – and the past decade could prove a waste of thousands of lives and thousands of billions of dollars. The recent spate of deadly Taliban attacks painfully highlights that Sheren Shah and his men stand little chance if he and other ANA leaders do not get the continued support they need to pose a credible threat to the insurgents.
But, as it looks from here in Helmand, that failure is more likely to come at the hands of politicians eager to extract themselves from a war they can no longer afford than from the combat boots on the ground. Training Afghans to fight like an army only gets you so far. Western heads of state at Nato’s summit in Chicago next month will need to deliver sustained support to the ANA and Afghanistan as a whole if the ANA is to keep the Taliban at bay once the west’s troops head home for good.
Andy McNab is a pseudonym. The author’s book ‘Bravo Two Zero’ was a bestselling military memoir. His latest thriller is published this summer. The Andy McNab Facebook page is at www.facebook.com/AndyMcNabOfficial; Twitter at www.twitter.com/the_real_mcnab.