Special Report: Greece’s triangle of power

This first appeared on Reuters.com
A presidential guard marches by a newspaper stand featuring news about Greece's election results in Athens in this June 18, 2012 file picture. REUTERS-Pascal Rossignol-Files
A nexus of media, business and politics lies behind the country’s crisis, say critics.

By Stephen Grey and Dina Kyriakidou

(Reuters) – In late 2011 the Greek finance minister made an impassioned plea for help to rescue his country from financial ruin.

“We need a national collective effort: all of us have to carry the burden together,” announced Evangelos Venizelos, who has since become leader of the socialist party PASOK. “We need something that will be fair and socially acceptable.”

It was meant to be a call to arms; it ended up highlighting a key weakness in Greece‘s attempts to reform.

Venizelos’ idea was a new tax on property, levied via electricity bills to make it hard to dodge. The public were furious and the press echoed the outrage, labeling the tax ‘haratsi’ after a hated levy the Ottomans once imposed on Greeks. The name stuck and George Papandreou, then prime minister, felt compelled to plead with voters: “Let’s all lose something so that we don’t lose everything.”

But not everyone would lose under the tax. Two months ago an electricity industry insider revealed that some of the biggest businesses in the land, including media groups, were paying less than half the full rate, or not paying the tax at all. Nikos Fotopoulos, a union leader at power company PPC, claimed they had been given exemptions.

“It was a gift to the real bosses, the real owners of the country,” he said. “The rich don’t pay, even at this time.”

This time the media made little fuss. “The news was not covered by the media … because media owners were among those favored,” Fotopoulos said later. Leading daily newspapers in Athens either did not mention or downplayed his claims, a review by Reuters found.

To many observers the episode illustrates the interplay between politics, big business and powerful media owners. The interwoven interests of these sectors, though not necessarily illegal or improper, are seen as an obstacle to Greece’s attempts to rescue its economy. They are, say critics, partly to blame for the current crisis and for hindering reform.

Continue reading Special Report: Greece’s triangle of power

Raiders of the Night

A shorter version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times on June 5, 2011.

BY the light of a full moon, a team of America’s most elite Special Forces fast-roped from helicopters into the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.

Creeping through the pine nut groves of Qalandar district, Khost province, they approached a hide-out of bunkers, tents and make-shift buildings that was now used as a training camp for suicide bombers.

Their target, tracked to this location from Pakistan, was a senior leader of the Haqqani Network – a ruthless branch of the Taliban.

In the fire fight that ensued, the special force operators faced counter-fire from machine guns and RPG rockets, and even a suicide bomber that attempted to creep up on them. But at the end, they had killed both their target and 18 of his fighters.

Michael Waltz, a reserve officer with US special forces, was deployed to the region. And he recalled the attack won support from local people: “The elders were thrilled, even though we had destroyed some of their crop. There was an actual procession that came down from the mountains, down to our base to thank us.” Continue reading Raiders of the Night

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

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.

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.

Officers attack 'MoD muddle'

From The Sunday Times
March 22, 2009
by Tony Allen-Mills

SENIOR British Army commanders have denounced the government’s strategy in Afghanistan as a “constant muddling through” that has resulted in a “failing” approach to defeating the Taliban after three years of bloody confrontation.
In a series of outspoken interviews, several high-ranking officers who commanded British troops in Helmand province express anger and frustration at what one brigadier described as “making it up as we go along”.
Brigadier Andrew Mackay, who commanded Helmand’s Nato forces for six months last winter, claimed a British failure to deliver economic development or reconstruction for ordinary Afghans meant that “one of the central tenets of counter-insurgency doctrine is failing”.
Major Nick Haston, who was Mackay’s deputy chief of staff, revealed he had resigned from the army in protest at bureaucratic incompetence. He said troops had been so short of vital equipment that his staff bought spares on the internet. “I would say that some of the people that procure (equipment) in our Ministry of Defence haven’t a clue,” said Haston. Continue reading Officers attack 'MoD muddle'

Understanding the Taliban

Stephen Grey
First published 24 April 2008 in the New Statesman

Rethinking the war in Helmand has made the British army revise some of its basic assumptions. Working with “reconciled” Taliban commanders is part of that new strategy

There is a popular slogan seen stencilled on American gun trucks: “We do bad things to bad people.” Prince Harry had those words on the back of his cap. In the Afghanistan War, the difficulty is working out who those bad people are. An even tougher question is: which of them to kill, and which to put in positions of power and authority?
Winning the war here is not for the squeamish, and a long way from the “ethical foreign policy” of early new Labour. It all boils down to dealing with those bad men. Some of them are already our allies. Others, including men who are currently trying to kill our soldiers, will have a place as our future allies. As one intelligence officer said to me: “In this country, you get to power because, at one stage or another, you’ve done something really awful. You can’t waste time looking for the good guys.”
He was probably exaggerating. But you can still see the problem in Musa Qala, the former Taliban stronghold and opium bazaar, wrested back into coalition and government hands last December. I was present during that combat operation and watched as the Afghan flag was raised in the town centre. I have just returned from a trip back. Continue reading Understanding the Taliban

Terror on road to Taliban stronghold

From The Sunday Times, December 9, 2007

Stephen Grey in Musa Qala, Helmand

First there was a loud bang; then we were enveloped in dust that descended like a shroud. “Mortars!” someone shouted.

In a panic, we scrambled for the relative shelter of our vehicle on a hill opposite Musa Qala, a Taliban stronghold under siege this weekend by Nato and Afghan forces, and dived inside.

Sand thrown up by the explosion swirled through the hatches and we reached for our helmets, keeping low in case of incoming fire.

Only when the dust had settled was the horror revealed: the blast had been caused not by a mortar, but by a mine that had been detonated when a British vehicle passed over it. One of the men with whom we were travelling was killed and two others wounded. The dead man’s next of kin were informed last night.

It happened as a British convoy passed along a wadi – a dried-out watercourse – in the desert near Musa Qala. We were standing at the top of the pass and stretching our legs as we waited for troops to recover an Afghan army truck that had got stuck in the sand 25 yards away.

The mine, probably one left by Soviet occupiers in the 1980s, exploded as the British vehicles steered past the truck.

Helplessly, we watched as British and US medics crawled across the Afghan truck to retrieve the casualties from their vehicle, its armour plating twisted by the force of the blast. Continue reading Terror on road to Taliban stronghold