Bombed, blasted and shot yet still the Taliban come

From The Sunday Times
November 15, 2009

Stephen Grey in Musa Qala

TWO years ago Corporal Alex Temple fought like a lion to capture the Afghan town of Musa Qala from the Taliban. Last week he was back, once again in a fierce battle just two miles from its centre.

Afghan soldier opens fire in Musa Qala (Photo: NIck Cornish)
Afghan soldier opens fire in Musa Qala (Photo: NIck Cornish)

“It has changed though,” he said. “It’s more dangerous. The fighting is harder.”

Amid the thunder of battle, I saw Temple lead men forward with the same raw courage I had witnessed before. The British soldiers with him seemed more composed, unperturbed by the bullets flying past their heads. The Afghan army on their flanks was better armed and vastly more competent.

Yet the enemy had learnt too. “The Taliban can shoot more accurately,” said Temple. “And they don’t give up so easily.”

In December 2007, with the photographer Nick Cornish, I was embedded with the men of B Company, 2nd Battalion, the Yorkshire Regiment, as they joined hundreds of other British, American and Afghan troops in Operation Snakebite to take what was then a Taliban stronghold.

The capture of Musa Qala was declared a model for how this war might be won. The Taliban were bribed to switch sides, the Afghan army was portrayed as the victor and a reconstruction plan prepared. “The eyes of the world will be on Musa Qala,” said Bill Wood, the former US ambassador to Afghanistan.

Now, we were back with B Company to hold a front line that, after two years of heavy fighting, has moved barely two miles north and south of the “liberated” town centre. We watched as the Taliban were pounded with bullets, grenades, shells, missiles and airstrikes — and still they came back for more.

Two years ago our journey to Musa Qala had been tinged with tragedy. We were standing close by when a B Company platoon sergeant, Lee “Jonno” Johnson, was killed in a mine blast, one of three Nato soldiers who died in the battle. A further 17 British soldiers have died here. This time we joined a B Company team led by Lieutenant Colin Lunn, who in 2007 had “Jonno” as his platoon sergeant. They cut their teeth in combat together, over at the Kajaki dam.

We headed to Lunn’s base, an Afghan army post north of Musa Qala, in a Vector, the type of armoured vehicle in which Jonno had died. I had mistakenly believed that the Ministry of Defence had phased out these lethally vulnerable trucks from the combat zone.

Lunn’s eight men were living and fighting alongside an Afghan army that is now better armed, better trained and better able to lead its own operations. But, after three years of constant fighting in Helmand, many of its troops are exhausted. Nearly 200 Afghan soldiers have been killed.

Last Saturday, we left the base in single file at 6.30am. We were passing through the village of Towghi Keli, a series of high-walled compounds in the desert just to the west of the Musa Qala valley.

Walking to the front line, premonitions of death come easily. But the soldiers have taught me that everyone gets these feelings. Most are superstitious; one was worried because he had gone on patrol without his teddy bear mascot.

On our left flank, to the east, a company of Royal Anglians was edging up in parallel to us. A handful of Mastiff armoured patrol vehicles from the Household Cavalry was lurking in reserve. Our movements were being covered by a British-manned observation post and artillery up on the Roshan Tower, a hill to the east that dominates Musa Qala.

The Russians seized the hill when they took the town in 1983. American paratroopers made it their first objective in 2007.

Everyone was loaded down with ammunition. Temple was carrying not only a machinegun but a mortar tube and a bazooka-like rocket tube.

It was the Royal Anglians who were ambushed first. We heard the sound of machinegun fire on our flank. The Taliban’s radio announced ominously: “Get ready [for] the big thing.”

Lunn and Temple went ahead with a group of Afghan soldiers to clear some buildings. Suddenly, a crowd came towards us — men on bicycles or motorbikes, sometimes with women in blue burqas sitting behind them. Farmers hastened past, carrying pitchforks. All were moving away from the scene of imminent “contact”.

The Taliban began to fire rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) above the Household Cavalry position. Then, at 9.15am, our battle began. Someone bellowed: “Keep down — watch out for the ricochets.” I hugged a wall.

The roar of machineguns starting up was deafening. There was a boom and a puff of smoke through an archway. I wondered if a rocket had struck — but it was just the afterblast of an outgoing RPG.

An Afghan soldier caused a commotion as he prepared to fire another. He was aiming too low, in danger of hitting the dome of the roof on which he was sitting. He raised his arm and another whoosh was heard as the grenade rushed away — then a distant thud.

The Taliban were in buildings about 100 yards to the north. They seemed unfazed by the torrent of lead pouring from the Afghan army lines.

Time passed. Long bursts of fire ended in lulls punctuated by single shots from either side. An Afghan sniper proudly made a slitting gesture across his throat. He had killed two Taliban.

In the valley, the Anglians had found a suspected factory for the production of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). It would take hours to check it out and destroy it.

An American A-10 “Wart-hog” tank-buster thundered overhead: a strike had been called in on a large group of Taliban. The engines rose in pitch as it dived and fired a missile. There was a whoosh and a boom and I felt the shockwave from the explosion.

I moved up the alleyway. Most of the men were in front, across a small field. They popped up, opened fire and then crouched behind a wall. More firing came in from other compounds.

“They’re manoeuvring,” said Lunn. Tall and fearless, he was in his element. “Get some rounds down range, lads,” he yelled.

The Taliban still showed no sign of retreating. “We’re looking for a way to break contact,” said Scott “Georgie” Halliday, the sergeant major. That day our mission was only to hold this line. Perhaps another day they will strike forward.

“The Afghans would like to clear out this village. But holding more ground would take more troops,” said Lunn.

A plane swooped down in front of me and let loose a burst of cannon fire onto the Taliban behind, the prelude to another short lull. It was time to slip away: 3.45pm — 6½ hours since the start of the battle. We marched back in single file through the alleyways, where villagers stood in their doorways, staring.

Returning to the centre of Musa Qala that night, I heard that progress in rebuilding the town had been slow. When we entered in 2007, one of the first promises had been to rebuild a mosque that had been destroyed by a Nato bomb. The work has not even started.

Mullah Abdul Salaam, the district governor, appeared gloomy. He blamed the Afghan government for failing to deliver on “all those promises of improvement that I have made to the people here”.

The British still take comfort that up to 20,000 people are living in the “bubble of security” in Musa Qala. The town centre is safe and the central bazaar is flourishing.

The Household Cavalry Regiment, in command here, says its mission is not to expand but to “bite and hold”. Captain

Roly Spiller, an intelligence officer, said the aim was “to show the tangible benefits of good government”. The safety of the bubble is attracting families to move in from Taliban territory. The Taliban themselves are looking increasingly fractured.

To my mind, Musa Qala does not represent failure. But the continuing clashes here show how much time, blood and treasure must be devoted to secure a small piece of territory in Helmand.

Stephen Grey is the author of Operation Snakebite, the explosive true story of an Afghan desert siege (Viking Penguin)

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