The gangs of Kandahar – the city’s real power?

First published by Channel 4 News / 16 May 2010

Author Stephen Grey writes about how “warlords” control the Afghan city of Kandahar, a population centre deemed by Nato to be its number one target in its battle with the Taliban.

Declared by President Obama as this ymilitia 1ar’s top priority in the ongoing war in Afghanistan, Kandahar is the country’s second city and the heartland of the Taliban rebel movement.

It is the centre of Nato operations this summer. I spent much of the last two months in and around the city, embedded first with Nato troops and then stepping “outside the wire” to operate independently, trying to read the temperature of a place that is frequently described in news reports as the Taliban’s greatest “stronghold” in the country.

A switch in strategy ordered last year by General Stanley McChrystal, the Nato and US commander in Afghanistan, has turned attention from heavy fighting in rural areas like northern Helmand where most British troops are based, to the main centres of population, which McChrystal now declares to be “the centre of gravity” of the military campaign.

The theory goes that if the bulk of the population are made to feel secure, they will resist the temptation to support the Taliban.

Real development can then take place, and the people may start to support the Afghan government, and the insurgency will wither away. But how do things seem on the ground?

The first thing to realise is that any kind of Nato offensive has as much potential to make things worse as it does to make things better. Continue reading The gangs of Kandahar – the city’s real power?

Afghanistan: Lost in Translation

ROUGH CUT: Afghanistan – Lost in Translation  (WEB EXCLUSIVE)


US troops operating in Afghanistan face huge risks on a daily basis. But are they denied the lethal weapon they need most?– Their voice!
Reporter STEPHEN GREY joined Marines in Khan Neshin, Helmand, as they prepared for and organised a shura (meeting) to discuss the construction of a new school. But poor translation (revealed only after the video tape was analysed later by a fluent speaker) led to a series of misunderstandings…

Taliban’s supreme leader signals willingness to talk peace

By Stephen Grey in Kandahar.

The supreme leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, has indicated that he and his followers may be willing to hold peace talks with western politicians.

In an interview with The Sunday Times, two of the movement’s senior Islamic scholars have relayed a message from the Quetta shura, the Taliban’s ruling council, that Mullah Omar no longer aims to rule Afghanistan. They said he was prepared to engage in “sincere and honest” talks. Continue reading Taliban’s supreme leader signals willingness to talk peace

Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, threatens to block Nato offensive

First published in The Sunday Times, April 11,2010Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrives at 10 Downing Street

Stephen Grey in Kandahar
The president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has cast doubt over Nato’s planned summer offensive against the Taliban in the southern province of Kandahar, as more than 10,000 American troops pour in for the fight.

Karzai threatened to delay or even cancel the operation — one of the biggest of the nine-year war — after being confronted in Kandahar by elders who said it would bring strife, not security, to his home province.

Visiting last week to rally support for the offensive, the president was instead overwhelmed by a barrage of complaints about corruption and misrule. As he was heckled at a shura of 1,500 tribal leaders and elders, he appeared to offer them a veto over military action. “Are you happy or unhappy for the operation to be carried out?” he asked.

The elders shouted back: “We are not happy.”

Just Cause: Unjust Means

Straying from reporting to comment, I gave a talk recently at King’s College, London, on the question: Is the Afghanistan a Just War? My reply was qualified:

that the cause  itself was right, but the way the war has been conducted since 2001 was very wrong..

“I will argue the means and strategy used by Britain have – at least thus far –been unjust: unjust to soldiers who risk their lives, unjust to the Afghan people and not only unjust but delusional, in that all the blood spilled risks been spilled in vain.”

THE FULL TEXT OF MY COMMENTS ARE BELOW:

US Marines in Khan Newshin

IS AFGHANISTAN A JUST WAR?

REPLY BY STEPHEN GREY TO GENERAL LORD GUTHRIE AT THE FIRST SIR MICHAEL QUINLAN MEMORIAL LECTURE, KING’S COLLEGE, LONDON, MARCH 24, 2010.

Ladies and Gentleman, It is honour to speak here tonight and share the platform with an eminent speaker.  I returned from Afghanistan last night and a spell with US troops just outside Kandahar. I haven’t brought back a message of gloom.  I agree the cause for intervention in this country is a just one, even if wrongly described by our government. But I will argue the means and strategy used by Britain have – at least thus far –been unjust: unjust to soldiers who risk their lives, unjust to the Afghan people and not only unjust but delusional, in that all the blood spilled risks been spilled in vain.

Before I get to that, let me declare my prejudices. You haven’t invited me to talk theology. But, as the son of a Catholic theologian, I’m not entirely neutral on the question of the so-called ‘just war.’  Suffice to say, I’m not fan of holy war – whether Islamic jihad or Christian jihad.

To me war is an evil, a monstrous act that reflects our own weakness in failing to conceive so far a peaceful alternative. That doesn’t mean that soldiers in Afghanistan or voters like us who sent them there should be wracked by guilt or be ashamed of what we’re doing. I just don’t think you should look to God for re-assurance. Christian religion is there to look for and articulate the alternatives to war – not to bless the killing.

Continue reading Just Cause: Unjust Means

It’s going to be quite a hunting season

First published in the Sunday Times on March 28, 2010.

by StephParatrooper of 82nd Airborne on a hill overlooking Kandaharen Grey in the Arghandab.

BY the yellow light of dusk, two American Black Hawk helicopters traced their silhouettes across the mountainside. “Medevac birds!” a soldier said. “Something’s happening.”

Taliban gunfire and a rocket-propelled grenade had just struck a joint US-Afghan base on Route Red Dog, near the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. An ammunition store blew up and an Afghan soldier was wounded by shrapnel.

The insurgents rode off on motorbikes. But as darkness fell, they attacked another outpost. From two miles away, I heard American paratroopers firing more than 1,000 rounds back. Afghan soldiers on a hill behind us opened up with heavy machinegun fire, right over our heads.

It was the Taliban’s first direct attack this year on American bases in Arghandab valley, northwest of the city — the first shots of what many soldiers believe will be the decisive battle of President Barack Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan.

The paratroopers of 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, from the 82nd Airborne Division, have faced a largely hidden enemy since they arrived just before Christmas. Within days a chain of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) killed a company commander, Captain Paul Pena, and another soldier. The leader of the platoon I joined lost a leg.

Last week, however, the Taliban were moving into the open. A suicide bomber who attacked one patrol killed only himself. But as spring warmth and irrigated water restore the vegetation to this valley of grapes and pomegranates, the opportunities flourish for insurgents to mount ambushes.

“This is going to be quite a hunting season,” said a paratrooper, one of nearly 20,000 foreign and Afghan soldiers committed to the forthcoming offensive.

Many are guarding the approaches to Kandahar, which is not only Afghanistan’s second city, with a population of more than half a million, but is also the spiritual home of the Taliban.

While the focus of most recent fighting in southern Afghanistan has been on the neighbouring province of Helmand, where British troops are based, Kandahar was long left largely to a contingent of a few hundred Canadian troops. According to commanders of the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), this inattention contributed to a steady deterioration of security.

In the city, residents describe a pervasive fear resulting from assassinations, intimidation and suicide car bombs.

In much of the surrounding countryside, the Taliban are either in open control or have threatened government officials to the point where they are too afraid to open schools or clinics.

Describing the forthcoming campaign at his bustling Kandahar airport base, Major-General Nick Carter, the British head of Nato’s southern command, revealed that his approach would be radically different in the city and the countryside.

In the countryside, Nato and Afghan units will push into new territory to restore government authority “where perhaps none exists”, Carter said. It is here that his commanders expect the heaviest fighting.

Nato’s combat power will be boosted by two new American brigades, the 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division and the 1st Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division.

The RAF Regiment will play a role in securing Kandahar airfield and British special forces are in the region to launch raids on top targets.

US and other foreign troops will mostly be kept out of Kandahar city, however, as Carter strives to avoid urban warfare. The emphasis there will be on police action — roadblocks, security checks and controls on militias and weapons.

“You are not going to see a whole lot of ISAF soldiers stomping around the city. That’s not what the Afghans want,” Carter said.

For the famously cerebral general, the key mission in the months ahead will be not so much killing rebels but starting to address some of the causes of their rebellion. He therefore prefers not to call his campaign a battle. “I am not talking about an operational offensive,” he said. “I’m talking about an assertion of credible government.”

Carter regards political reform and confronting corruption as critical. Among his problems, observers say, is Ahmed Wali Karzai, the head of Kandahar’s provincial council and President Hamid Karzai’s brother.

Sources close to General Sher Mohammad Zazai, the Afghan army corps commander in Kandahar, say he is afraid to drive into the city because he believes he may be killed by men loyal to Ahmed Wali. A feud between the two men is said to have begun when Zazai seized a cache of Karzai’s weapons. The atmosphere of distrust between senior figures has allowed the Taliban to gain support.

Carter said that, working with the Afghan government, he was promoting a plan to create local precinct councils that could counter the dominance of certain tribes in the region.

“Ultimately, the answers will all run back to Kabul,” he said. “President Karzai will know how he wants to resolve the problems of Kandahar.”

While Carter stresses political solutions, however, the Taliban may try to undermine them by provoking the pitched battle that Nato wants to avoid in the city. Fighters are said to be storing weapons around Kandahar, including in market stalls.

Haji Sahib Ahmad, a businessman, said the Taliban had secured a firm foothold in the city. “People are very worried about the war coming to their street,” he said. “The Taliban will resist and many innocent civilians will be killed by the Americans… The war will not solve anything.”

The paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne have worked hard to win over the people of the surrounding area, walking almost everywhere and living among the villagers in small bases.

Compared with British soldiers in Helmand, the Americans in Kandahar have a huge amount of money to spend. Each platoon has a discretionary pot of $25,000 (£16,700) a month for local supplies and $15,000 to help the Afghan police and army. American soldiers are providing medical treatment for children and funding the rebuilding of several mosques. “We’re doing a whole lot of stroking,” said Jeremiah Mason, a platoon sergeant.

On a hilltop with sweeping views of the city, Lieutenant Jordan Ritenour, the 23-year-old platoon leader, pointed round in a full circle. “I mean, there’s Taliban there, there’s Taliban here, there could be Taliban in that house right there,” he said, looking straight down.

He pointed out one village where a wife of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, used to live. Further down the Arghandab valley is the village of Sangesar, Omar’s former home, where, in the village’s white mosque, the founding meeting of the Taliban movement was held in 1994. Sixteen years later, the Taliban are not expected to cede this ground without a fight.

Ritenour also indicated a twist in an alleyway below us where the IEDs that killed the previous company commander were detonated. Nearby is a school he had been trying to reach that day. The school has been refurbished but lies empty because, villagers say, the children fear it will be attacked.

At a meeting the next day, local elders swore they had seen no Taliban. “There’s a contradiction in what you’re saying,” Ritenour told them. “You say it’s safe and secure round here and no one supports the Taliban. But you say also the children are too afraid to go to school.”

Many soldiers struggle with a broader question: what difference will all the handouts make to winning the war? Will they secure hearts and minds or is it more likely that in Afghanistan, as one paratrooper put it, “any act of kindness is taken as an act of weakness”.

As the thousands of troops prepare to spread out across the region — fighting and then sticking around to live among the people — the answer may determine whether Obama’s surge ultimately succeeds or fails.

‘Give the insurgents a role’

Pakistan’s military command has told the US that the Taliban must be part of any future government in Afghanistan if the war is to be brought to an end, writes Christina Lamb.

“The conflict won’t end if you don’t give a role to the main player,” a senior official told talks in Washington when the Pakistani delegation brought a 56-page list of demands for aid ranging from power stations to spy planes.

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