Welcome to Hell : Fighting the Taliban
The subtle click and soft fizz of a trip flare igniting in the middle of the night are enough to wake a man from sleep, but not quite loud enough to jolt him out of his dreams. And that night, as we slept in our boots by the side of the Helmand River, most of us were dreaming of the Taliban. I was with 17 British soldiers on the edge of a town called Garmser, in the southern Afghan province of Helmand near the border of Pakistan. The British troops, leading a force of 100 Afghan soldiers and police, and supported by a tiny contingent of eight Estonian soldiers, had fought their way into the centre of town. It was supposed to be a one-day operation. But six days later, we were still pinned down.
Before bedding down for the night we had received intelligence reports that the Taliban were planning to attack during the night and overrun our position. The Taliban knew there were just a handful of British soldiers in the town, and that we had sustained casualties and were running low on rations and munitions. (I say “we”, because I doubted I would be seen as any different).
The intelligence reports also suggested there could be as many as 200 to 300 Taliban dug in to positions just outside of the town. They certainly controlled the territory all the way down south to the border. Well-equipped and well-trained enemy reinforcements had slipped across the border from Pakistan under the cover of darkness. And so we went to sleep with our boots on, and began to dream. And that’s when the nightmare began.
I woke up the second I heard the flare ignite. I could see human shadows moving all around me, flickering in the glow of the burning flare. Figures darted quickly through the trees and ran towards me. I stood up just in time for all hell to break loose. Any moment now the air would erupt in a volcanic outburst of tracer fire, grenade explosions and the terrifying sound of men screaming, shooting, killing – and dying – at close range.
But it didn’t come. There was only silence. I remained standing, rigid with fear and pumped full of adrenaline, and watched the light of the flare slowly dwindle away into darkness. And then a whisper came. “It’s all right, mate. It was only a dog. Go back to sleep.” I slumped to the ground, completely drained, and prayed for dawn to come quickly so that I could close my eyes without fear of being overrun in the dark. I lost all sense of time that week. But how do you measure time? Do you count the interminable hours before dawn when you’re expecting an attack? Do you measure the few seconds between the distant thump of a mortar being fired and the moment it explodes with an ear-shattering blast above your head?
Or how about when time appears to stand still? After you look up and see an air-burst shell detonate in the sky, and hear the shrapnel rain down in a shower? Or the eternity it takes for a morphine jab to dull a dying man’s pain and silence his screams?
The week I spent with the British soldiers in Garmser felt like a lifetime. But it was only another week in a journey across Afghanistan that lasted five long, intense and occasionally terrifying months. Three of those months were spent mostly undercover with the Taliban, and the rest were spent under fire with the British and Americans. And one final week was spent high up in the mountains, on the border with Pakistan.
To understand the war in Afghanistan, and how America and Britain could soon be facing defeat and disaster in a country they once wrote off as a victory and a success, you have to understand how it all began. And that’s why I walked deep into the mountains to meet fighters associated with al-Qaeda, in the hope that they could tell me about their strategy, and of course about the architect of this war: Osama bin Laden.
The American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 also launched the West’s global War on Terror. It was a measured response to 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in America’s history, and received almost unanimous support at the United Nations. The Taliban regime was quickly overthrown and al-Qaeda forces were routed in the mountains of Tora Bora. And then the War on Terror moved on, and the preparations for the invasion of Iraq began.
But the terrorists directly responsible for 9/11, and the Taliban leaders that harboured them, did not move on. They stayed put, or slipped across the border to Pakistan. And though it beggars belief, they were allowed the freedom and time to re-group, re-arm and begin planning the next stages of their global war on the West.
The terrorist attacks in Madrid, Bali and London all had some link to al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as did the foiled plot this summer to detonate liquid explosives on up to ten transatlantic flights. Osama bin Laden also has direct links with the Sunni-led insurgency in Iraq. And last spring, with American and British forces bogged down in Iraq, al-Qaeda and the Taliban opened up their new front in Afghanistan.
Five years after they launched their War on Terror, President Bush and Tony Blair now find themselves back at square one — fighting the same old enemy in the country where it all began. Only this time, they may end up losing the war in Afghanistan.
British forces, which had been despatched to Helmand on a “peace-keeping” mission by the then defence secretary John Reid — who sincerely hoped they would achieve their goals “without firing a single shot” — have now found themselves overstretched and hopelessly outnumbered in the most intense fighting they’ve seen since the end of the Korean War.
Having despatched a force of 4,500 men, (made up of less than 800 actual soldiers on the ground) and supported by 14 helicopters, (four of which can’t fly in hot, desert temperatures, so can only be used at night) and eight Harriers — the Ministry of Defence now concedes it may have got it wrong.
Faced with thousands of Taliban fighters who are able to draw on thousands more coming over from Pakistan, the MOD has reacted to the military crisis by, er, banning the British media in an attempt to cover up the extent of the fighting.
Which is how I found myself riding into one of the biggest battles the British have fought since they were sent into Helmand, in the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser. After initially agreeing to an embed, the MOD changed its mind at the last minute and demanded I be hauled off a British Land Rover just as the convoy was about to leave. No reason was given. So I followed them into battle in an Afghan policeman’s car. A nice way to travel, until I realised it was also a magnet for every Taliban mortar, bullet and rocket propelled grenade heading our way. The one-line statement hardly does credit to what was almost a week-long battle, and isn’t, strictly speaking, even true. The reality was somewhat different. During six days of fighting, the British called in a record number of air strikes for a battle in Afghanistan, 57 in all, including American F-18s, B-1 Bombers, Apache helicopters and A10s – plus British Harriers and Apaches – and they dropped everything they could on the Taliban, including 500lb and 2,000lb bombs, Hellfire missiles and 30mm cannon rounds. It was an awesome sight, and a deeply disturbing sound. And on the ground, the British soldiers also fired a record number of rounds. But that still wasn’t enough to dislodge the dug-in Taliban, and by day three, having suffered heavy casualties, the Afghan National Army refused to advance. By day four the British were down to their last rations and eating corn from the fields; the helicopter resupplies had been cancelled due to fighting in other parts of Helmand. That’s when we heard we were going to be overrun. Reinforcements were called in, but because of fighting elsewhere they failed to arrive.
By day six, the 17 British soldiers I was with were still pinned down whenever they drove more than a mile south. But they had cleared enough ground, and so they decided to withdraw — Garmser retaken and the battle ostensibly won. Those are the dry facts and figures, but they barely do justice to what really happened.
On day one, the British rolled into town. It was 11 September, the fifth anniversary, somewhat ironically, of 9/11. RPGs and mortars whizzed overhead and exploded all around as the apparently defeated remnants of the former Taliban regime immediately counter-attacked.
The air was filled with a sound of Chinese fire crackers, as the bullets flew past our ears. It was a miracle no British soldiers were killed, as they kept on putting their vehicles in the direct line of fire so they could see who was firing at them and call in air support. They did that every day for six days, in unarmoured vehicles.
The first day’s fighting was so intense I was sure I would be killed, and on at least two occasions I was convinced I was already dead. We were still in the desert when I looked up at the sky just in time to see an explosion above my head and hear the shower of shrapnel hit the ground. It was like getting caught in the rain and coming out dry.
Every time an RPG round flew a few feet overhead, the smell of cordite filling my nostrils, or a bullet whistled by my ear, my muscles twitched and retracted, acutely sensitive to the fact that steel would rip through my flesh and shatter my body. And then the vehicle I was in took a direct hit.
The car shook and lifted slightly off the ground, sucked up in the explosion. And then I realised it was just the sonic boom of a Harrier flying so close overhead its shadow blocked out the sun. I watched the British soldiers in the vehicle in front jump out and hit the ground. They also thought they had been hit. And then we moved on.
I watched as a bullet passed under the arm of a British gunner and pinged off the side of his Wimmick. One of the Captains, Tim Illingworth, watched as an RPG round landed by his feet, but failed to explode as it tumbled off to his right. Two Afghan soldiers by his side weren’t so lucky. They were both killed by direct fire.
By the first afternoon we had become so accustomed to the sound of battle, that we stopped for tea, crouching by the side of the Wimmicks to enjoy a nice hot brew. There was only time for a brief sip before the next rounds came in. A few Taliban ambushed us, but a couple of grenades lobbed over a wall soon put a stop to them and we sat back down and drank our tea. “What a lovely day for war,” smiled Aaron, one of the soldiers. Listening to Captain Paddy Williams, the officer in charge, as he calmly radioed events back to HQ, was like listening to a cricket commentary erroneously dubbed over a war film. “Situation critical, over.” “Our attack has ground to a halt, over.” “We’re coming under mortar fire, over.” Pause, looks up, as mortar round flies overhead… “Increasingly accurate mortar fire, over.” Within an hour of battle commencing, I found myself lying in a ditch laughing hysterically as the RPGs flew overhead. Every time I stood up another one whizzed by. The Afghan soldiers near me laughed too, until one of them was shot in the head.
I managed to clamber up just in time to see Bombardier Sam New from 7 Para call in an air strike from the top of his Wimmick. He was giving complicated grid-references over the phone as bullets were flying all around. The Jeep’s antenna was shot off and the front tyre went down. But Sam kept talking until a bullet sliced through the cord on his handset. That’s when he decided to duck down.
“Phew. Close call, that,” commented Captain Dougie Beattie. “We had a couple of near misses with RPGs back there.” I couldn’t help feeling that here was Britain’s grandiose foreign policy laid bare. Seventeen brave men in five unarmoured Wimmicks under constant fire in some godforsaken town. And if those RPGs had knocked out two of the five Wimmicks, the strategically vital town of Garmser — the “Gateway to Helmand”, would have been lost to the Taliban once more.
As the fighting continued minute by minute, hour by hour, and day after day, things became surreal and the passage of time faded away. I actually began to enjoy the sheer, life-enhancing intensity and madness of it all, and recalled a comment by Winston Churchill, who witnessed a previous British war in Afghanistan as a young journalist in the 1897 Malakand campaign.
“Nothing makes you feel quite so alive,” he quipped, “as the crack of a bullet flying by.” It’s true. One whizzed so close to my head it knocked me off my feet. I was up on the canal ridge when it happened. This soon became the frontline, an intense place of fear where you were most likely to die. The Taliban were dug in along the trees either side of the canal, and in the wheat fields further south. And every time the British went up onto the ridge, they took incoming fire from all three sides.
I raced up there when one of them got hit, and witnessed a scene out of Dante’s “Inferno”. We jumped out of our vehicle and lay prostrate on the ridge, as hot rivets of steel punched through the air directly above. I barely had the nerve to lift my head, but the British soldiers were calmly going about their business as though this was just another day at the office. Two were changing a tyre that had been shot out, while the medic, Anthony Cowley, was tending to their wounded comrade. The bombardier sat on top of his Wimmick and called in air support and the rest returned fire — methodically pumping out round after round from their mammoth 50 calibre guns. The planes then flew in and dropped their bombs, pounding the Taliban positions like a fist through flour. When death comes so close, and then remains by your side, it feels quite ecstatic to be alive. Even the awful instant coffee we drank every morning tasted like manna from heaven. But above all else it was the bond between us that made the whole experience so worth living.
We were an unlikely band, made up of two Jocks, one Scouser, a Geordie, a Paddy, a few Londoners, a Fijian, two Home Counties’ officers and me. Only war, or disaster, throws such a disparate mixture of men together and turns them into one. At the start of the battle I was acutely aware of being a middle-class Southerner and a mistrusted member of the despised press. But by the end, I had been taken into the fold and treated like a brother.
We chatted about previous firefights they’d been in during their six-month tour, and how they’d barely survived. We talked about our ex-girlfriends and wives, and how people back home have no idea. And for some reason, we laughed at everything, even the horrors. “I just wish the bloody Taliban would stop shooting at us,” chipped in Sgt Major Johnston, after his Wimmick had taken incoming fire from three sides. “It’s just not fair.”
Later the same afternoon, the British had so many Afghan army casualties to deal with that they asked me to help out. As they tended to gunshot wounds to the head, bleeding stomachs and men with gaping holes in their legs, I held up the limbs and IV drips above their heads.
While I was holding up a particular leg, its bloody foot dangling over my shoulder, someone threw me a ready-meal of lamb stew in a bag. “I don’t like lamb stew,” I complained, above the moans and screams. “Here, you can have my chocolate pudding instead,” suggested one of the soldiers. I laughed, and then the foot hanging over my shoulder began to wobble and almost fell off, and that made me laugh even more.
After the soldiers had stemmed the bleeding and stabilised the patients, the wounded were medevacked out by helicopter. Only then did the stench of blood hit me, a nauseating smell of wrought iron, and I threw up. I also burned my clothes on the fire that night before going to bed. But the men went back up to the front and took more incoming fire, then returned and spent all night saving the life of a Taliban prisoner who tried to grab a gun and kill them.
The adrenaline highs started to take their toll as we came under fire day after day. And so did the smell of our socks. Sitting in a Wimmick under fire, I complained about the smell of the gunner’s feet. He looked down as another RPG flew overhead, and told me the smell was coming from the dead donkey by the side of the road. It had been killed on the first day and its headless corpse had started to self-inflate.
“It wasn’t killed by any of us,” he pointed out, with typically English concern for animals. And once again we laughed, because no one cared how many Taliban had been blown up and maimed.
The British soldiers even laughed when one of their own men was shot through the arm — “only a scratch” — and were in tears when they heard me snore loudly as 20 Taliban approached our perimeter one night. I had been woken up by the dog tripping the wire, but slept right through the entire incident when the Taliban approached. But on the last day, as we prepared to leave Garmser, we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
The Afghan police chief informed us that his men were planning to withdraw. The whole battle had been for nothing. The Taliban would be able to walk in and take Garmser on a plate. We sunk to our knees and stared into space. We’d won the battle, but it felt like Britain was losing the war.
Only when the British soldiers pleaded with headquarters was a compromise found. A few of the soldiers agreed to stay behind with the Afghan police, until reinforcements could be sent. The rest of us drove back to base, and grinned all the way across the desert. Back in Kabul, I sat down in my hotel room and started shaking like a leaf. And that night I wept gently to sleep.
Note – This article was first published in GQ (UK), January 2007
Read about Seans’ film Fighting The Taliban