Task Force Black: a review

Task Force Black: The Explosive True Story of the SAS and the Secret War in Iraq by Mark Urban

The Sunday Times review by Stephen Grey

Ever since the fiasco of Andy McNab’s unauthorised publication of Bravo Two Zero (his rather skew-eyed but gripping look at the regiment’s operations in the first Gulf war), attempts to record the SAS’s place in history have been obstructed by a draconian contract of confidentiality imposed on all members of the special forces.
In this ground-breaking investigation into the SAS war in Iraq between 2003 and 2009, Mark Urban has worked his way around all that and, with obvious top access, has put together one of the few truly authentic accounts of the modern SAS outside the world of fiction. Such an account is needed. With the success of the main British mission in the Iraq campaign (namely, running the city of Basra) getting a somewhat iffy verdict, it is only by knowing at least something of what Britain’s special forces did in the war that a fully rounded view of the UK’s contribution can be offered.
Occasionally, Task Force Black is weighed down by the influence of the Ministry of Defence censor. Sometimes the perspective seems a bit too aligned with that of the SAS. But, for all that, there are some re-markable insights here. And the most prominent of them is that, for all the recognition its role has now achieved, the SAS only carved out its place in Iraq after heated infighting with its military superiors back in London.
When the Americans assaulted Fallujah in November 2004, British troops from the Black Watch moved up to support. But after the unit lost five men in the first fortnight, Downing Street started to backpedal. On the ground the SAS’s D Squadron, fuelled by what Urban calls its “airborne aggression” and the Para motto of FIDO (“f*** it and drive on”), wanted nothing more than to join the fray. Filling their wagons, they drove out to a rally point just outside Fallujah. By now, their friends in the US Delta force were already in combat. But then a “red card” came down the command chain and they were told to withdraw.
More controversially, when two SAS troopers were captured by rogue Iraqi policemen in Basra in September 2005, no clear “green light” or “red light” was given from the UK about whether a rescue could or should be attempted. For hours, while the two men were beaten and interrogated, some key people in the command chain could not even be found. One senior UK general, according to Urban, was “rumoured to have turned off his mobile while playing golf”. So, when A Squadron stormed in to rescue their men, it was, suggests Urban, on their own orders.

Ultimately, the story of the SAS in Iraq, as described here, is an account of how a buccaneering, heart-on-the-sleeve, tall, blue-eyed commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Williams (who had made his name in Afghanistan when he led his men up a hill to assault a dug-in Taliban position, despite being hit by four bullets), managed to defeat the political roadblocks and got stuck into the main fight, the bloody battle against Al-Qaeda in Iraq. None of this happened fast.

After the blundering of the early parts of the American campaign, what had emerged by 2006 was new US military leadership and new tactics, among them a special-forces campaign led by an American ­general, Stanley McChrystal — who is now centre stage as the US and Nato commander in Afghanistan. Confronted by all the squabbling in Iraq, McChrystal forged a joined-up operation to confront the suicide bombers and jihadists. Instead of a patient approach of developing and then staking out targets, as used by the SAS in Northern Ireland, he demanded a blistering attack on the enemy. SAS squadrons, when they joined the fight, were told to launch raids every night.

The cultural and political barriers to British involvement were considerable. American special ops maintained a “black site” prison where abuse was reported. They were also much more willing to use airstrikes than the British. Located at Balad airbase, the special-forces headquarters was unofficially known as the Death Star, says Urban, because, using air power, “you could reach out with a finger, as it were, and eliminate somebody”.

But, as Urban portrays it, by early 2006, Williams had bludgeoned his commanders into getting the SAS fully involved in McChrystal’s “machine”. Most vital was access to the huge amounts of American intelligence assets that made this tempo of operations possible. The McChrystal method — most obviously vindicated with the hunt for and then, in June 2006, the killing of the bloodthirsty Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — dictated that the key purpose in dropping from helicopters and kicking down doors each night was to find intelligence for the next raid.

According to Urban’s chilling account, McChrystal’s invention of “industrial counter-terrorism” created a ruthless machine that successfully suppressed Al-Qaeda in Iraq, to a great extent because of the thousands of people it killed. “The truly disturbing thing (to those of a liberal mind, in any case) about the special operations campaign in Iraq,” he says, “is that it suggests that a large terrorist organisation can be overwhelmed under certain circumstances by military force.”

In Afghanistan, McChrystal has promoted a much softer approach and has emphasised how victory is rarely won in an insurgency by the killing or martyrdom of more of the enemy. In Iraq, though, he is portrayed as being committed to the conventional and bloody business of “attrition”.

By Urban’s figures, in six years in Iraq UK special forces captured around 3,000 insurgents, and killed about 350 to 400. American special forces, his estimates suggest, captured up to 9,000, and killed about 3,000. As one SAS officer put it: “We were beyond the martyrdom argument, it had become an attritional campaign — we had to take them apart.”

The SAS was at the centre of all this for at least two years. The roller coaster of raids took the UK’s special forces on a trail that led to British hostage Norman Kember — found on March 23, 2006, after a total of 44 house assaults. It took them on another raid in April 2006 that led America directly to Zarqawi. In Basra, the SAS seized the leader of the Mehdi Army, killed a senior Al-Qaeda prison escapee named Omar al-Faruq, and, most controversially of all, seized two key members of a secret branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. That raid led directly to some very public acts of Iranian retribution — including the capture within days of 15 Royal Navy seamen and Marines. When they finally pulled out last year, the SAS had lost at least nine men, with dozens more injured.

Was this ruthless campaign and its sacrifice as decisive as Urban believes? Though his conclusions are quite strident, proving his point would take a much deeper look at the whole evolution of the anti-coalition rebellion. Certainly, interviews I conducted in the Baghdad neighbourhoods suggested that many US night-time special raids, at least in the early years, were based on such poor intelligence that innocents were often targeted. The overall effect of the dragnet and the way prisoners were treated also stirred up great hatred of the Americans.

As Urban concedes, many factors led to the dampening down of Iraqi violence — among them the growing revulsion felt by the locals against foreigners such as the murderous Zarqawi, the efforts to exploit that revulsion through negotiations with disaffected insurgents, and the “surge” of conventional forces orchestrated by ­General Petraeus in 2007.

What the SAS did get, but many others on the UK payroll didn’t, was that however crazy the decision to invade Iraq might have been, the allies were faced with a very real, organised and terrifyingly violent rebellion that had to be dealt with. Studying the exit sign was no strategy for getting out.

Capturing the Taliban: Afghan covert war

First published on Channel 4 News website, 16 February 2010

The arrest of a Taliban’s commander illustrates Nato’s covert war against the insurgency – but, as the coalition advances, author Stephen Grey writes that Operation Moshtarak must herald a new strategy in Afghanistan.

US Marines, Afghanistan (Getty)

Stephen Grey is the author of Operation Snakebite – a true story about an Afghan desert siege.

A rebellion like the Taliban’s insurgency in Afghanistan is rather like the smouldering embers of a forest fire.

Discontent and grievance are the fuel, and a rebel group’s ideology, organisation and leadership breathe the wind that turns the embers into roaring flames.

The twin strategy of a Nato’s campaign in the region, as explained by top commanders, mirrors that metaphor.

On the one hand are conventional operations led by ground troops and development experts. Their much-publicised campaign – exemplified by this week’s US-led offensive in central Helmand, Operation Moshtarak (“Together” in Dari) – is targeted ultimately at influencing the minds of the people in those war torn districts.

In other words, curbing that discontent and grievance.

But, if the reports are true, today’s disclosure of the stunning capture of the No. 2 of the Afghan Taliban’s Pakistan-based leadership, Mullah Abdul Ghani Berader (or Baradar), is part of the covert but equally important plank of the war now orchestrated by the US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal.

As one US general in Kabul told me a while back: “Don’t be deceived by all the hearts and minds and all the open stuff. As big a part of the war is what we call the manhunt: tracking down and getting the bad guys.”

In an integrated operation with US intelligence outfits – and with the support of UK special forces and intelligence, as well as Australian units – a breathless campaign of raids and strikes is taking place across both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, mirroring the apparent success of a similar secret offensive led by McChrystal when he commanded special forces in Baghdad, Iraq.

The most overt part of this secret war has been the drone strikes launched in tribal areas of north-west Pakistan.

Operated by the CIA, with the co-operation of counter-terrorist officers with Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency, these have been intensified by President Obama.

Until now, those strikes (combined with other more covert activities involving both spies and special forces), have been confined by agreement with Pakistani forces by those tribal areas – as the map below of the drone strikes indicates. Many of the targets have been Pakistani Taliban with little connection to the Afghan revolt or al-Qaida.
View U.S. Drone Attacks in Pakistan in a larger map

But political pressure in Washington has been growing to expand raids and attacks to the province of Baluchistan and the villages around Quetta, its capital, where the leadership of Mullah Omar’s Taliban-based has been long rumoured to be exiled, under the presumed protection of or at least tolerance by the faction of the ISI agency devoted to supporting the Afghan Taliban.

Capturing the commander
The capture of Mullah Baradar in the port city of Karachi gives credence to intelligence reports, described in the Washington press, that, in the face of threats to crack down in Baluchistan, increasing numbers of Taliban leaders, perhaps even Mullah Omar himself, have sought shelter in the more populated cities.

As the military commander and day-to-day leader of the Taliban’s leadership council, the Quetta Shura, Berader’s capture – kept secret for several days – is a grievous blow to the movement, not least because, if he cooperates under interrogation, he may even lead investigators to the door of Mullah Omar, not to mention reveal much of the operational structure of the organisation. No-one as important in the Taliban has ever been brought into captivity.

The last major capture reported publicly was Mullah Abdul Rahim Akhund, the former Taliban shadow governor of Helmand in July 2008, and before that the Taliban commander Mansour Dadullah in December 2007 (although he was reportedly released in a hostage exchange).

A single capture like this will not end the rebellion, nor can all the strikes and captures organised in this secret campaign.

What commanders’ hope, though, is that the sheer tempo of this campaign can – as it did, they argue, against al-Qaida in Iraq – serve to off-balance the Taliban sufficiently so that efforts of more conventional forces, striving to win hearts and minds, can begin to take effect.

As mentioned, Operation Moshtarak aims to be a template for how the rebellion now gripping much of the Pustu-speaking parts of Afghanistan can be gripped.

Despite all the wild hype, the tactical advantage of seizing the district of Marja in Helmand (along with the parts of Nad Ali, Babaji and Malgir districts being taken by UK and Danish forces in related action) is significant but relatively small.

Though described yesterday in one Nato press release as a “city”, the district centre of Marja is little more than a hamlet, and no more than a few hundred families live dispersed across the entire district. It certainly has become, in recent years, a centre for the production and processing of illegal opium.

As an island of “uncleared” territory in central Helmand it had also for at least a year become a centre for the province’s shadow Taliban government and a staging post for attacks elsewhere.

Under present policies, however, opium production will no longer cease after a Nato takeover. And the Taliban have plenty of other territory in the region from which to base their operations.

Operation Moshtarak, if completed successful, will however produce one important tactical gain: it will repair the rather odd spread of Nato troops across Helmand and by thus filling the gaps will establish a single zone of Nato-occupied territory in central Helmand.

This will finally establish the “Afghan Development Zone” (ADZ) that was originally planned when British troops first entered Helmand four years ago. (They were diverted up to fight in northern Helmand and it never went past the drawing board).

The aftermath of Moshtarak
Provided troops stay true to their aim of avoiding wanton civilian death, what happens next in this ADZ is what matters strategically.

It is on the aftermath to the offensive, and the example of progress he hopes to fashion in central Helmand, that McChrystal rests his hopes for turning this war. The seizure of “Taliban strongholds” with great force and big battle and many promises of future development has been done before.

It was done in the battle of Musa Qala I witnessed in December 2007.

In fact, despite all the talk of counter-insurgency, consolidation and “hearts and minds”, no British commander on a six-month tour of Helmand has been able to resist conducting that one big offensive during his time.

But as McChrystal and his soldiers are now well aware, endlessly ‘mowing the grass’ will not quell this rebellion. He hopes this operation can be different because, in contrast to previous offensives in Helmand, some of the key lessons may have been learned.

First and foremost, President Obama’s surge gives McChrystal the resources both to take these Taliban-ruled districts in strength, but, more importantly, to stay in strength – giving the population greater confidence that the Taliban can be held at bay.

Secondly, the green light for Moshtarak only came after President Karzai’s government finally made good on promises to send additional Afghan security forces into Helmand, not only making Nato troops far more effective in their efforts but also providing a force that might ultimately take over security.

After bringing war to their farm fields, US and British commanders know it will be a lengthy campaign to win the population.

The crux will be to provide evidence that the Afghan government is as capable as the Taliban in providing people what they want – be it security, justice, dispute-resolution, livelihoods and jobs for the many unemployed young people.

As British troops have found in mostly stalemated northern Helmand (where the countryside is mostly still dominated by the Taliban despite more than three years of fighting and sacrifice north of the town of Gereshk and around the Nato outposts in Sangin, Kajaki and Musa Qala), all this kind of confidence-building is incredibly hard, particularly as so far the Afghan government has been unable to provide any kind of competent officials able to match the Taliban’s ability to engage with local tribes and their grievances, nor to deliver on all the promises of development.

Despite the influx of newly trained Afghan troops – and all the tributes paid to them (in public) by military commanders – it is still far from clear that either the police or the Afghans are up to the job, or are even the right force, to restore rule among these unruly tribes.

Mostarak and Marja may have the attention of President Karzai now – as Musa Qala did two years ago – but success in the long term will require a sustained political effort – and will require Karzai to tear up the script for how he has ruled this country.

Mystery over ‘closure’ of defence ministry’s ‘brains trust’

TB Peacekeepers_barracks_Ossetia_2008

IT most famously predicted the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, and had a team of multi-lingual analysts dedicated to the study of future threats to security across the globe, and new ways of solving them.

But, strangely, to save 1.5m the UK’s Ministry of Defence has decided to close the Army Research & Assessment Branch, (more recently called the Defence and Assessments Branch, the D&AB), and which traces its history back over 50 years. Or has it? While sources close to the unit contact me to complain the 30-strong team has received its marching orders — with contractors axed, military staff transferred, and civil servants told to go job-hunting — the ministry insists the unit is not being closed at all.

Based at the UK’s Defence Academy in Shrivenham, the D&AB employed/employs among them analysts (and fluent native speakers) on Iran, Russia, the Caucausus, Arab states, the Horn of Africa, and the Georgian analyst who predicted the invasion, not to mention specialists in strategic communications, research managers, and librarians.

“It’s completely barking to close this down in the middle of active conflict and a strategic defence review,” said a former member of the unit.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman however said that, although the D&AB’s role is to be reviewed over the next six months, its work is continuing and will continue. “The bottom line is that it is not closing”,” he said.

Picture: © Dmitrij Steshin 2008.

Rupert Hamer: a good man down

2rupert-picture-ex-coburnI just stepped outside before dawn this morning. It is a drizzling London– warm rain on melting snow. It’s in these moments alone, when all others seem asleep, that I think of those on the frontline: creeping about in the darkness before some attack, the sound of boots crunching on gravel, or faces that glow orange in the reflected light of the twisting flames of a paraffin stove at some campsite in the desert.

Just over two years ago I saw Rupert Hamer again for the first time after some years. With photographer Nick Cornish, I was resting on the dirty floor of a garage in an empty opium market in the centre of newly-captured Musa Qala in Helmand, Afghanistan. We were both reporting for Sunday newspapers.

The last few days had been a shock: our first time under ambush in open ground, witnessing the tragedy of the mistaken killing by NATO soldiers of some Afghan villagers, and then being close by when a British soldier was killed when his armoured vehicle struck a suspected mine. Nick and I were glad to be among old friends, just for a couple of days, when Rupert and photographer Phil Coburn came out of the desert to join us. We bitched and traded stories, as you do. Phil was, as ever, full of rib-crackingly funny stories. After a week of living rough, we were all marvellously un-shaven and un-washed and we laid out our sleeping mats in this filthy hovel like it was the Ritz. No-one was there to tell us you couldn’t smoke in bed.

We swapped a lot of stories from the past. Phil and Nick are old friends from the ‘snapper’s’ circuit. Rupert and I talked about when we had been cub reporters together on the Eastern Daily Press in Norfolk. He was in Thetford and King’s Lynn. I drew Lowestoft and then Wisbech. Often cut off in remote district offices, all of us trainees used to drive miles at night past endless startled rabbits just so to meet up in some ancient public house and to share the miseries of the sometimes rather dull diet of golden weddings or disputes over fish prices, the tyranny of our news desk, or perhaps just our unjust lack of sex.

After a while in Musa Qala a reporter from a daily paper arrived on the scene, all freshly laundered. He had already filed a piece about being the first reporter into the town. We bitched a little about that. After these last few days we also had some strange concerns: we all got mad when the reporter kept throwing into the trash bag the brown plastic spoons that came with the American MRE ration packs. Didn’t he know how precious these were?

Rupert and Phil had been through quite a bit. They’d started their trip to Helmand with a few days on board a flight of RAF Chinook helicopters. One lost a wheel and as they came returned to base, there was the hair-raising experience of being beneath these churning twin rotors as the aircraft attempted to land on what sounded like little more than a pile of bricks.

Then came the operation to recapture Musa Qala: about the biggest battle yet undertaken in the war in Helmand so far. Thrown among the thousands of British and Afghan troops and US special forces for this raid from the desert, we felt lucky to have drawn the straw to be embedded on this. We knew this would be something important and one that would make the risk-taking worthwhile. As we arrived, we crossed paths with one luckless reporter for the Daily Mail who’d spent three weeks in Helmand and got the sum total of nothing in his newspaper, despite all his endeavours.

Rupert and Phil were sent in with the Brigade Reconnaissance Force, a marvellous bunch of dusty warriors who had already been living rough for weeks – out on one of the longest desert patrols in living memory. They’d arrived, though, at a miserable moment: just the day after the BRF had lost their first casualty. Jack Sadler, a keen-as-mustard territorial soldier fresh out of university, had been blown up and killed by an IED. It wasn’t exactly the ideal moment for a newspaper reporter to be foisted on these men and to make friends. But then that was a testament to Rupert and Phil. I think they just sat quietly in their assigned wagons and just waited for the right moment for the soldiers to come and talk to them.

Judging by all the tales that emerged, Rupert did obviously get on famously with the men. He arrived in Musa Qala full of the strange tales of the desert and the cat and mouse games of the British and the Taliban and the nomadic locals caught in between. Rupert mentioned the story of one local who the BRF kept coming across in the rocky wadis, wandering around in a pair of trainers. They would ask him if he had seen the Taliban. “You come asking for the Taliban,” he replied. “The Taliban come and ask me if I’ve seen the British. And I’m still just looking for my sheep!”

One friend made by Rupert and Phil was Darryl ‘Daz’ Gardiner, the armourer of the BRF and the driver of the only thinly-armoured Pinzgauer truck in which they were travelling. Sadly, in the weeks that followed, Daz was killed by a double mine-strike. Daz had been driving the wounded from one mine strike to the landing strip of a rescue helicopter when his vehicle struck a second mine, killing him at once.

I know this was to hit Rupert and Phil hard. They remained firm friends with so many they met in the desert and, what they’d experienced, drew them into the friendship with many others. Going up to the medals parade of the 2 Yorks battalion, he got himself invited into the sergeant’s mess to share drinks with the soldiers – that was until some bureaucrat got to hear of this, and arranged for him and Phil to be slung out. Still, no-one could stop him making friend after friend amongst these soldiers.

His job was not too easy. Coming to the Sunday Mirror after the debacle of the Piers Morgan’s editorship and publication of faked photographs of abuse by soldiers in the sister daily paper, he started at a moment when the Mirror was something of a pariah among military folk. But, though as sly a weasel as any national newspaper reporter when dealing with his competition (he was very much the lovable rogue), Rupert did not compromise with facts and fairness and the thing valued by those he interviewed was that he came with no pre-conceived agenda. So he was a reporter of the old school. He wrote about what he heard and saw. He did a great deal to repair his newspaper group’s relationships with the military.

So Rupert knew well all the risks. Since that Musa Qala trip he was back again last year in Sangin, in a base locked by Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and being driven around the town in the woefully unprotected Snatch Land Rover, just when there were public statements they were being phased out.

I suppose noticing these kind of frontline realities – and the contrast been the public statements back home – might be one reason why I think the job we do was worthwhile, and the reason why some in power try to restrict these kind of forays. But, then again, it is hard to make a judge on the work we do. It’s too easy to try to aggrandise it and clutch at justifications to try to make it sound all too important. The reality is that this kind of work is exciting, rewarding and addictive. Not every risk-taking trip yields result. There is luck involved. And the biggest burden of what we do is born by our families who worry at home and must shoulder the cost if we were injured or never returned. But there is something too about this kind of other parallel world – so far from the routine of daily experience back home and where so many are giving so much – that not only creates a bond, a camaraderie, with those who shared it but also seems to cry out to be told, to be shared with those never see it or understand its rewards, its failures and its complexities. So long as what we write is actually published or broadcast, and doesn’t languish on the copy-editor’s ‘spike’, it feels like the right risk to take. Worst of all is to witness something important but fail to record it, fail to pass it on.

Was his death worthwhile? The same question gets asked about soldiers who died. Same answer. OF COURSE NOT. No one seeks their death and, though they take calculated risks, no rational person goes out expecting to die. Death happens when things go wrong. End of story. But the mission was the right one. He was bound to go, he needed to go, he chose to go, and he was a professional. No editor, friend, soldier or member of his family should blame themselves for anything that happened.

Another good man down. Another friend down.

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.

Continue reading Bombed, blasted and shot yet still the Taliban come

The Ghost Town littered with IEDs

From The Sunday Times, November 1, 2009

Stephen Grey in Safar Bazaar
Under the harsh sunlight, a lone grey donkey sauntered across one end of a silent street; halfway down the far end, a US marine lay in the dirt, exposed and alone — brushing the dust from a pressure plate linked to a massive bomb.


A few days ago this town, deep in Taliban territory, was thronged with up to 800 residents and traders. This is Helmand’s biggest drugs market, but today all but a handful of Kuchi, the Afghan nomads, have vanished.
Somehow the Taliban knew the marines were coming. Rather than fight openly, they left behind a booby-trapped ghost town littered with improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Since July, two bomb disposal technicians attached to the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance battalion have been killed in such circumstances.
For all the techniques they employ, this work still boils down to one man of courage making a lonely walk. The man I was watching asked not to be named. “I am just glad to be helping save lives,” he told me.
As we sheltered beneath an awning of thatched twigs, there was a sense of foreboding, broken only by black humour. “I’d be totally amazed if no one gets hurt today,” said one sergeant.
“I wish they’d get back to shooting at us, rather than this s***,” said another marine. As two Cobra attack helicopters flew over, one man joked: “Shoot the road! Shoot up the bazaar!”
After what seemed an age, the pressure plate was disarmed and a charge placed to blow the bomb apart. “Get back into cover. Watch out for secondaries!” yelled the bomb technician before the warning of “Controlled det! Two mikes! [minutes]” and then the sharp blast, throwing up a cloud of debris and leaving a 6ft crater.
A year ago, a strike like this into the Taliban’s heartland would have led to a gunfight. But by using explosives made from fertiliser, the insurgents have mastered the IED. Their next best choice is a stand-off weapon like a mortar or a rocket and we would see those, too, before too long.
Last summer the US marines brought 10,000 soldiers to join British and other Nato forces in Helmand. But the existence of Taliban strongpoints such as Safar Bazaar is testament, said marine officers, that the number deployed is still far too short of that required to control this province.
Commanding his marines from an armoured vehicle flying the Jolly Roger as they advanced through the desert, Lieutenant Colonel Tim Grattan, the battalion’s commanding officer, said the best that could be done was to disrupt Taliban havens. “They can’t be left thinking any place is safe,” he said.
Deploying to Helmand with only two companies of infantry, less than 40% of his battalion’s strength, Grattan blamed an “artificial cap” on troop numbers set in Washington.
He said his battalion, after an initial fight in July and August, was beginning to establish a 20-mile security zone along the Helmand river.
But the American drive south is still 70 miles short of Pakistan and a chain of smuggling towns that dot the border. It has also left pockets of Taliban strength, including the 30mile stretch of riverside that separates Grattan’s bases in the district of Khan Neshin from other marine units based farther north.
“There is no doubt we can interdict and deny the Taliban a route in from Pakistan, but we need the forces to do it,” Grattan said.
The most critical shortage is of Afghan forces — the centrepiece of Nato commander General Stanley McChrystal’s strategy for turning this war. Fighting alongside the 5,000 marine combat troops are just 700 Afghan soldiers. None was deployed to Grattan’s sector last week. Khan Neshin district has barely a dozen policemen and a few border guards, although others are in training.
In the ruined castle that is the Khan Neshin administrative centre, the governor said he sometimes felt abandoned by the government in Kabul.
“The government does not support me,” said Massoud Ahmad Rassouli, a 27-year-old who had trained as a pharmacist. “It’s the marines who support me. Not even my salary is paid by the government.”
The marines and civilian agencies have in four months opened a school, funded the rebuilding of long-derelict canals, held shuras [(town meetings]) with elders, opened a radio station, funded a job creation scheme and are doling out cheap loans to tradesmen. All this has helped to prove the value of evicting the Taliban.However, Grattan cautioned that until the surrounding areas were cleared the Taliban would try to return.
The raid had begun when a convoy of more than 40 vehicles forded the Helmand river from the base at Camp Payne, east of Khan Neshin.
In a ruse, the marines at first pushed west into the desert until darkness fell. Then they turned and looped north, stopping only to dig out bogged-down vehicles and staying hidden, to reach an attack position just after 2am. They swooped in at dawn on Thursday.
For all the deception tactics, the Taliban had seen them coming. “Anyone who thinks they’re not being watched in this country is being a bit foolish,” said Captain Christopher Conner, whose Charlie Company conducted the raid. In July, when they first raided this place, the marines found tons of poppy seed. This time the Taliban had removed any illicit produce and left only a nest of IEDs. Seven were found and destroyed.
As the marines pushed slowly through the bazaar, the Taliban sprung the next part of their trap. At 12.40pm two mortars nose-dived into homes beside the market.
From where I stood, the Taliban firing points were across fields to the left.
Puffs of smoke appeared as the marines began counter-fire, then came the deep belly-thumps of cannon firing from the light armoured vehicles (LAV) on the near left.
The marines could see men loading the mortar tube into a truck and speeding off, but the vehicle got away. After six hours the soldiers had barely cleared 100 yards down the streets of squat brick buildings, cutting open locked metal shutters in their search.
An order came not to bother trying to recover any more IEDS — to destroy them instead. By now helicopters were circling, jets were flying overhead and a Predator drone was high above, trying to spot the Taliban firing team.
Finally, the crew of an LAV perched on a hill to the west saw men unloading a rocket from a truck in a clump of trees.
This was the signal to unleash hell: thuds from the LAVs’ heavy cannon, orange sparks of explosive rounds detonating and grey smoke rising. Then came mortars — a pop from the launch site behind me, then the crump of the explosion. First a round to check they were on target. Then the order “Fire for effect!” and a barrage.
Artillery came, too — a screech of rounds and then sharp thuds, explosions, a flame and billowing smoke that enveloped the fields.
The artillery was off target and was told to stop shooting. More mortars and more cannon were fired instead.
It was hard to imagine anyone could have survived. The Taliban disappeared, the smoke cleared from the fields and the town returned to silence. Just before sunset the marines finished clearing the bazaar, jumped into their trucks and drove back into the desert.

US Marines at Afghanistan’s most southern combat post fight an elusive enemy.

First published in The Sunday Times, October 25, 2009
In a remote part of Helmand troops are dismayed by the ambivalence of locals and a sense that the Taliban can outlast them.

Stephen Grey in Khan Neshin
Platoon360_634077a A mile from South Station, an outpost of US marines in Helmand province, the tribal chief was openly hostile. “The Americans threaten our economy and take our land for bases. They promise much and deliver nothing,” he said.

“People here regard the American troops as occupiers,” said Haji Khan, a leader of the Baluch tribe, who rules like a medieval baron. “Young people are turning against them and in time will fight them.”
Inside South Station, soldiers are proud of the progress they have made. Until they arrived, this remote part of Helmand had not had a government presence for years. But many are pessimistic about where the conflict is heading.
“I’m not much for this war. I’m not sure it’s worth all those lives lost,” said Sergeant Christian Richardson as we walked across corn fields that will soon be ploughed up to plant a spring crop of opium poppy.
A New Yorker who joined the marines after 9/11 and served two tours in Iraq, Richardson, 24, said his men had achieved much. “You can see we are making progress, slowly. But when we leave, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda will surely return.”
With enough effort, resources and time, the marines are confident the population can be won over. But, with the platoon’s influence limited to a small area around their base, many soldiers wonder if the Taliban and Al-Qaeda may simply outlast them, or if the US and Afghan governments have the resolve to send enough troops to win.
Third Platoon, Charlie Company of the 2nd Light Armoured Reconnaissance Battalion, came last July to Khan Neshin, as far south as Nato soldiers have reached in Afghanistan. It was part of a summer offensive by more than 4,500 troops of the Marine Expeditionary Brigade, which has joined British and other forces trying to turn the war in Helmand.
Although they have read the manuals on counterinsurgency and heard generals speak about how to defeat the Taliban, the reality has been bloody, painful and frustrating.
The platoon knows there are at least 20 booby-trapped bombs on the high ground around the base. More than half the men have already been caught in blasts. One marine explosive expert was killed; others suffered broken legs and amputated feet. Three have survived two explosions and come back to fight again.
General Stanley McChrystal, the US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, says the mission is to protect the population and isolate them from the Taliban, but the marines are finding it no easier to defeat the Taliban than it has been for the British, who have fought in the province for three years. Villagers are rarely willing to express a simple opinion, let alone inform soldiers where the enemy is hiding. One marine described the way the Taliban blended with the population as “unbelievably frustrating”.
In terrain crisscrossed by canals with weak and narrow bridges, the platoon has to approach villages on foot. Even when they have surrounded the Taliban, the marines have found the enemy has an uncanny ability to slip away in the ditches. All this adds to the strain of facing improvised explosive devices, which are the main threat.
“We are all brothers here,” said Lance-Corporal Corey Hopkins, 22, from Georgia. “And it hurts to see your brother hurt or put him in a bag for the last time. It pisses you off. It makes you mad. You know people out here know what’s going on, but they won’t tell you.”
Corporal Gregory Williams, 22, from North Carolina, said: “It’s going to take a lot of proving out here to make them talk to us. It’s working so slowly.” The marines are trying to implement a strategy dictated from Washington that bids them separate the population from the insurgents. But attempting that means a battle not only against the Taliban but against a feudal system that places real power in the hands of landowners such as Haji Khan.
When we talked to the grey-bearded men in the village, in the shade of one-room mosques, most appeared friendly. Asked if they wanted a school or more doctors, all said such questions were a matter for those who own the fields.
The marines hope to open a school and provide medical facilities. They are also offering to pay Khan and others to provide jobs to improve the canal system.
At a shura, or village meeting, at South Station last Friday, Khan showed up with 40 elders and heard Captain Chris Conner, commander of Charlie Company, promise development. “From the bottom of my heart, I want to say that we are here to help you,” he said.

The villagers welcomed the canal scheme and the idea of making use of a doctor at the base. But Khan and another landowner rejected the idea of a school. “Security is still too bad. We’ve seen how they are burnt down [by the Taliban] elsewhere.”
Some marines were unconvinced about paying money for the canal to a tribal leader and drug baron who gave them almost no help and would probably keep the cash.

Later, a marine intelligence officer said the drug economy and the feudal system made the strategy of winning hearts and minds extremely complex. As drug producers, men such as Khan had a “working relationship with the Taliban”.
Nobody knew of the announcement last week in Kabul of a new round of national elections. Nobody voted in the first round. “We never even heard of elections. If we had, I suppose we might have voted,” said one villager.

The Ghost Patients


More than 250,000 people languish on hidden NHS waiting lists. Some die

before even appearing in official statistics. Insight investigates.

(Published in the Sunday Times, May 5, 2002)


When Iris Bailey suffered chest pains and was diagnosed with angina, she was

told that she needed a test to show how well her blood was circulating. The

waiting list for the thallium scan was three months – a delay not included

in published government figures.


Bailey, having worked as a hospital porter, accepted it with good grace and

put her faith in the National Health Service. The grandmother from Harlow,

Essex, kept busy helping to plan her son Gary’s wedding and hoped her

condition was not serious. Three weeks before she was due to have the scan,

she again suffered chest pains. This time it was decided that she needed an

angiogram, a heart test, at St Bartholomew’s hospital in London and that the

wait would be two weeks – another delay that many hospitals do not count in

the official waiting list figures.


David, another son, was so concerned that he sought assurances that his

mother would not die waiting for the angiogram. On the day he handed a

letter to the hospital’s management his mother, 75, had a fatal cardiac

arrest. It was more than four months since she had first felt ill in October

2000 but none of her waits counted in official statistics.


“For anyone to die waiting for a test is atrocious,” said David Bailey.


Independent health groups, such as the King’s Fund, say it is an indictment

of the waiting list system – a key measure of hospitals’ performance. Bailey

was an invisible patient left to languish.


What is even more shocking is evidence that hospital trusts are discreetly

moving patients from the published waiting list to the hidden ones.

Wittingly or not, it helps the government to trumpet improvements in NHS



The truth is, however, that many thousands of patients, perhaps similar to

Bailey, will still be waiting for tests and treatment that could save their

lives. An investigation of the way hospitals and the Department of Health

count NHS waits has revealed that an estimated 250,000 patients do not

appear in published figures.


To be fair, some will be waiting for scans or tests that will reveal nothing

untoward. For them the delay will not matter clinically, despite the anxious

wait. But for others, such as those needing radiotherapy for cancer, the

wait could be lethal.


As Joseph Meirion Thomas, a consultant surgeon at the Royal Marsden

hospital, puts it: “I would want to give pre-operative radiotherapy to

between 5% and 10% of my patients with sarcoma (cancerous tumours) to give

them a surgical advantage, but none gets it because of the waiting list.


“It’s disgraceful. It’s a waiting list that is creeping up and it’s a

waiting list you don’t know about – the hidden waiting list.”


IN opposition, Labour castigated the Conservative government over its

failure to publish details of patients waiting to see a consultant after

referral from a GP. Things would be different, it promised, if Labour was



Subsequently two published waiting lists set the standard. The first is the

outpatient list which shows the waits from referral by a GP to the first

appointment with a hospital consultant. The second is the wait for treatment

in hospital as an admission or a day case.


These figures, however, still do not cover the whole pathway from “pain to

scalpel”. Missing are waits for diagnostic tests, often to see whether

surgery is required; they can be as long as 20 months. The government says

these figures are not collected centrally and are not available.


Indeed, John Hutton, the health minister, told the House of Commons in

February: “Data is not collected on the number of patients waiting for



The reality is that angiogram waiting lists – and lists for other diagnostic

tests – are being compiled in hospitals across the country. They are just

not being published.


One manager at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital Trust said, “I’ve

got these waits on the wall in front of me”, but refused to release the

figures. Other trusts also declined to reveal the figures after seeking

guidance from the health department.


Yet some hospitals are willing to release the figures on request; some even

include these delays in their official waiting list figures. They are now

finding themselves under pressure from the NHS Executive to remove them.


“They tried to persuade us to remove angiography off the waiting list but we

refused,” said one manager at a hospital which records angiograms in its

figures. “We think it’s a proper surgical procedure.”


The second category of tests being excluded from the official lists are

endoscopies, used to help to diagnose cancer among other things. Those

hospitals that have been counting patients waiting for these tests are now

being instructed to remove them.


In a letter to chief executives of trusts in southeast England last October,

Bob Ricketts, then an NHS regional director, advised that the removal should

be gradual to “avoid sudden lurches in figures”.


A third large category of excluded diagnostic tests are computerised

tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, which can

be used to diagnose cancers, cardiovascular diseases and bone disorders.


Previously unpublished data from more than 30 trusts, obtained by The Sunday

Times, reveals long delays and huge regional variations for such scans.


At the Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre Hospitals NHS Trust there were 523 patients

waiting up to 14 months for a CT scan at the end of March and 1,753 patients

waiting up to 20 months for an MRI scan. But at Hillingdon Hospital NHS

Trust there were just 89 patients waiting a maximum 21 days for an MRI scan.



At South Devon Healthcare NHS Trust there were 227 patients waiting up to 18

months for angiograms on March 31. But the maximum wait at Bradford

Hospitals NHS Trust was five weeks.


Hospitals point out that urgent cases can be given priority. The health

department claims that because such scans may be for preventive purposes, or

show nothing wrong, it is not meaningful to include them in the published

waiting list figures. Try telling that to a patient who finds, via a delayed

scan, that his cancer has become inoperable.


BUT perhaps the most damning omission from the official lists is for

radiotherapy cancer treatment. Alan Milburn, the health secretary, has made

tackling cancer a priority. But hundreds of radiotherapy patients are on

hidden waiting lists of up to six months.


Some cancer centre managers complain that their “invisible” patients are

given lower priority because their treatment does not count towards official

waiting list targets. “We asked for in excess of Pounds 1m (for this

financial year). It was reduced to Pounds 650,000 and has now been reduced

again,” said Jo Yardley, general manager of Kent Oncology Centre in



“The waits cause immense anxiety yet I have never reported on radiotherapy

waits for any (national) performance programme. It’s something that we have

been crying out for for years.”


Guidelines from the Royal College of Radiologists stipulate that breast

cancer patients should receive post-operative radiotherapy within a month.

But it is not uncommon for patients to suffer delays of up to three months –

a delay that appears on no published government waiting lists.


There are cases such as Joy Barthorpe, 72, of Battle, East Sussex, who was

diagnosed with breast cancer last October and had her operation on December

28. She has been told that her radiotherapy will not start until June 24.


Thomas Liston, 46, from west London, was put on a three-month wait for

radiotherapy for a brain tumour. His waiting time was reduced but he died

earlier this year before he received treatment.


These are not isolated incidents. The dangers of delay are reflected in a

report published in the British Medical Journal in January 2000. It said:

“Six weeks is the approximate volume doubling time for many tumours and

introducing an additional delay of four weeks between planning and starting

radiotherapy must prejudice outcomes.”


THEY are calling it Not The Waiting List. That is the title of a report that

the Association of Community Health Councils for England and Wales is

preparing to illustrate how many different types of waits are excluded from

government figures. Whether all of them should be part of published waiting

lists, or can be collected in practical terms, is debatable. What is clear

is that waits for certain diagnostic tests and treatment for some serious

illnesses are at present hidden from public scrutiny.


As Liam Fox, Tory health spokesman, said: “If you are interested in clinical

outcome, then one of the critical factors is access to diagnostics. The

horrendous delays in getting access may often mean that patients may die

before they get the treatment that they require.”


Hospital managers admit the disarray. Several, such as Plymouth Hospitals

NHS Trust, say they do not count angiograms, while several others, such as

the Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Trust, say they do.


It creates a system that is both confusing and distorting, skewing managers’

attention away from life-threatening diseases to treatments for mundane

conditions that happen to reduce published waiting lists.


“When the money comes in, the chief executives want to put the money into

achieving the targets over which they will get sacked,” said Hilary Thomas,

professor of oncology at the Royal Surrey County hospital. That means

concentrating on published waiting lists.


“The public should know that one patient might be getting their varicose

veins surgery done to meet some silly target in a manifesto and another (who

does not appear on the waiting list) might not get radical treatment for

cancer and that may make a difference to whether they live to old age or



That, says Thomas, is “morally wrong”.