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Last Updated: Friday, 4 May 2007, 06:10 GMT 07:10 UK
Fighting for Afghan hearts and minds

British forces in southern Afghanistan have launched a major offensive in Helmand province. BBC correspondent Alastair Leithead is with the Royal Anglians on the front line.

0900 LOCAL TIME (0530 BST) :: 4 MAY

If the RAF gave out air miles I'd be on to a winner.

It's been a busy few days, bouncing from place to place mostly by helicopter, and as the tents are all identical, you can easily get disorientated and walk out of the front door expecting to be in one place, just to find yourself in another.

Alastair Leithead in Helmand province
The BBC's Alastair Leithead is with the Royal Anglians on the front line

This morning I woke in FOB Price in Gereshk to some pretty hairy news - the Royal Engineers had struck a mine on the way back to base after they finished building the defensive posts for the Afghan Army which they had been working on day and night for the last couple of days.

Fortunately nobody was injured, but I'd been on that same track just a few hours earlier and it's a reminder of the random risk of mines left over from the Soviet war.

They were never properly marked and the floods that come each spring when the river swells to the torrent it is at the moment the mines can shift and move around in the mud.

There was also news last night of another British fatality.

A Grenadier Guard, manning a checkpoint in Garmsir in the south of Helmand, had been shot during a firefight with a small group of Taleban fighters.

He'd been airlifted out very quickly but died of his injuries - his family and friends have been told.

The fight went on and a bomb was dropped on the Taleban position, although it's not known how many were killed.

The hope is that people will see the hand of the government, feel they are getting something out of it and turn their backs on the Taleban

I heard the news out at the front edge of the ground British forces had taken as part of Operation Silicon.

I got back there towards sunset to see how the engineers had done in 36 hours - it was amazing how the ground had been levelled, and the main defensive post built.

They use flat-pack wire supported sack-cloth containers that once filled with rubble and soil make huge sandbag blocks that can be stacked and arranged to build a small base.

Three had to be built and the last one was just being finished as the darkness came and the full moon provided them light to work by.

I came back before they finished, but it was on the same way back to the base a few hours later that their vehicle struck the mine.

There had been some fighting going on - not as intense as in the previous days, but still some clashes.

It seemed the ground gained by the 1st Anglians had been held, and the point of the defensive posts was to help the Afghan National Army to use them to secure the area.

Lashkar Gah had been interesting - hearing about all the development work being done from the Provincial Reconstruction Team where the main British Task Force Helmand command is based in the provincial capital of Helmand.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DfID) have a large presence there now - compared to the last time I was there almost six months ago.

The DfID strategy is long-term, channeling money through the government structures to try and help build the capacity to spend it in the right places and through the right channels.

That is going OK, I was told, but it's a long process, so the quick impact projects were explained to me.

map

I was taken out to Lashkar Gah town in an armoured vehicle convoy with armed guards to see a police checkpoint - one of more than half a dozen across the city to help show security is improving.

They also took me to a park which is being built landscaped and planted - for everyone, but also exclusively for women at certain times of the week.

"It goes deeper than just hearts and minds, it's about creating stability and a normal life," James Mortimer from the FCO told me.

"It's about having a range of projects and creating a range of opportunities - stimulating the local environment and having a number of reconstruction projects that will extend over a number of years."

The hope is that people will see the hand of the government, feel they are getting something out of it and turn their backs on the Taleban.

The problem is there's no confidence in any justice system, security is still a huge problem and corruption is the biggest failing of all.

People don't trust the police or the government departments and that makes persuading them all is well so much more difficult.

There's certainly more confidence within the Provincial Reconstrution Team headquarters - new buildings and a lot of extra staff, but the challenge is huge, will take time and demands a long-term strategy in a place where politics want to see immediate results.

1200 LOCAL TIME (0830 BST) :: 2 MAY

It was a shorter stay than expected at the front line - there was a trip to the hotspot of Sangin with the brigadier planned which meant a night-time move back to the fixed base.

Sangin was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting last summer with British troops pinned down in the government compound facing waves of Taleban attack day and night.

There had been a couple of breakdowns during our two days on the ground which did cause pretty major delays and diversions, but it seems it's more serious than that

Things had been worsening at the start of this year and the precursor to Operation Silicon - Operation Silver - was carried out earlier this month to secure the town.

Commanders felt they had an opportunity to push the Taleban back, and with the ground still being held it's being seen as a success so far.

Things have quietened down on the front and the engineers are making fast progress on the defences.

One issue worth a mention is something pretty much everyone has mentioned to me - the shortage of vehicles.

One officer said only two thirds of the WMIKs (Weapon Mounting Installation Kit), which are heavily armed cut down Land Rovers, are operational.

There had been a couple of breakdowns during our two days on the ground which did cause pretty major delays and diversions, but it seems it's more serious than that.

The Task Force Helmand spokesman, Lt Col Charlie Mayo, said 170 WMIKs had been requested, but only 126 operational, but that commanders don't always get what the ask for.

He did say a fifth of the vehicles were not operational because they needed repairs, or had been damaged or destroyed by enemy fire.

"It's tight, but we are not at our critical level, and more vehicles will be arriving soon,' said Col Mayo.

"They are taking a hell of a hammering," he added, and the conditions are incredibly difficult - the heat and dust, and the constant use of vehicles that don't rest when the soldiers do as they are passed from unit to unit... because of the shortfall.

New vehicles have also been delayed and extra troops have been deployed without extra transport.

Last summer the issue was a shortfall in helicopters - they are still under pressure, but more operations are being done on the ground now - hence the problem.

The transport to Sangin didn't arrive, by the way, so I was brought back to Camp Bastion and on to Lashkar Gah to find out more about the British operations - the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development.

2100 LOCAL TIME (1730 BST) :: 1 MAY

I managed to get to the front line after dark with an almost full moon lighting the river and a view over the valley ahead and the Taleban positions.

After two days of hard fighting the British troops here are getting a little rest, while the Royal Engineers will be working through the night to build the defensive positions.

I'm sitting with a few of the troops sheltering in the open next to their heavily-armed Land Rovers, hearing about their experiences.

There's the loud calling of frogs in the marshlands close to the river, but other than that it's quiet tonight.

Colour Sergeant Peter Yates from the Argylls, 5th Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Scotland, who's from Oban, is one of the British troops helping to mentor the Afghan National Army (ANA).

There were some efforts by the Afghan army to catch some fish earlier in the day - with rocket propelled grenades

"The Afghan soldiers are actually very motivated in the field - they may not have much experience, but they show no fear.

"At times it's hard to hold them back as they don't know the big picture and that there are other things happening on the battlefield," he told me.

"It's been physically and mentally very difficult - we're still struggling with the heat - but the food is second to none if you like corned beef hash."

There were some efforts by the Afghan army to catch some fish earlier in the day - with rocket-propelled grenades - and some of them have found a comfortable spot to bed down - on a huge pile of marijuana discovered in one of the compounds.

Captain Rob Worthington is from Queen's Company of the Grenadier Guards and they have the job of training and fighting with the ANA who took this strategically important position in the Sangin valley.

"Morale is high both among the British and the Afghan forces - we're keen to get on with the task in hand. The local people are happy that we are here and have been helping us identify Taleban positions," he said.

"We'll be here for three weeks to hold the ground we've captured before we hand it over to the Afghan National Police."

I joined the engineers as they left the comfort of Forward Operating Base Price this afternoon and cleared a road through what was, until a day ago, Taleban territory, coming under fire at one point as they drove along an irrigation canal.

They stopped at a small bridge, not big enough for trucks with supplies to cross over, so in the heat they unloaded and built a metal bridge in just a couple of hours.

There were a few missing parts of the bridge, but the ANA came up with a solution to get all the vehicles across and all the necessary equipment forward to build the front-line bases.

The commanding officer said it would also be left behind to help the locals.

That's what it's about now - having cleared many of the Taleban fighters out, it's a matter of trying to win the support of the people to stop them from coming back and re-establishing themselves in the area.

And the troops say the locals are now helping to point out where the Taleban are.

2345 LOCAL TIME (2015 BST) :: 30 APRIL

I had nothing but respect for the men of B Company 1st Royal Anglians who headed back out for another night in the desert and another day of fighting ahead of them.

Their faces said it all as I took my bags off the Viking armoured vehicle (not a moment too soon) at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Price in Gereshk.

Rather than writing this crammed into a corner of the Viking in the dark, the only relief from the heat of the day bottled water so warm I've had colder cups of tea, I'm lying in my sleeping bag in a tent looking forward to a shower and breakfast in the morning.

The power supply in the van - a Heath Robinson affair taped together by an electrical engineer at Camp Bastion - had dramatically gone up in smoke in the back of the Viking.

No power means no way of recharging camera batteries, laptop or satellite dish for e-mailing reports and broadcasting TV and radio, so I took the opportunity of an unplanned stop at FOB Price to jump ship.

And then there is the issue of holding the ground gained as the poppy harvest ends and more Taleban foot soldiers potentially return to the insurgency

One of the vehicles had broken down - the second one to need towing in as many days - and it had to be brought to a base for repairs - a three-hour round trip at night after a long, long day.

It's not an easy way of life, sleeping rough in the desert, being woken periodically as sandstorms gust through, sandblasting the temporary camp, and living on cold rations, as fire to heat them up would give away the position after dark.

It was hot sitting in the back of the vehicle filming and broadcasting; it was even hotter among the drainage ditches and compounds in the Lower Sangin Valley where the fighting was intense.

An embargo was placed on our embedded reporting - for "operational reasons" - but the clashes I wrote about on Monday morning continued all afternoon.

For seven hours, the British forces fought the Taleban - at one point on three separate fronts - but by the end of the day they said they had reached their objective.

There had been aerial bombardments from fast jets and Apache helicopters, and relatively close-quarter fighting as the Nato force moved forward compound by compound.

We drove up to the front line position at dusk and saw that homes had been abandoned.

Two donkeys wandered the streets, broken tethers hanging around their necks, and a huge Afghan dog sat by a broken door, presumably of its owner's house which was now empty, watching the line-up of British military vehicles rumble past.

As we waited for the order to pull back for the evening, I thought what it must be like on the other side in the battle - at the receiving end of high-tech fire power.

Without the sophisticated supply lines or equipment, the determined Taleban fighters are still fighting hard and at times put British troops under a lot of pressure.

People in the valley had been warned the operation was coming - but it's hard to know if everyone got the message.

Civilians fled the heavy fighting, and the engineers moving up behind to provide projects to try to win people over may have trouble finding many people to ask.

But I'll find that out soon, as the plan is to switch units and see just how easy, or difficult, it is to bring in the next stage - development and rebuilding - to persuade the people that the international forces, and the government of Afghanistan, are worth supporting.

The fighting's not over either - the Taleban will no doubt be fighting for every inch of ground.

And then, of course, there's the issue of holding the ground gained as the poppy harvest ends and more Taleban foot soldiers potentially return to the insurgency.

0930 LOCAL TIME (0600 BST) :: 30 APRIL

The infantry soldiers started taking heavy fire on the ground as they were making their way through the valley.

The Taleban had clearly been expecting them, after all the information campaigns and statements from the governor - used to try and warn civilians to get out of the area.

British troops planning Operation Silicon
The mission is part of a larger operation launched in March

They fired rocket propelled grenades and mortar bombs at the British troops - they returned fire with mortars, heavy machine guns and Javelin missiles - anti-tank rockets used here (at great expense) to destroy compounds.

The vehicle I am in moved up onto high ground to watch the battle unfold and communicate with the rest of the forces what was going on.

I am sitting in the back of the Viking armoured vehicle again writing this and listening to the bombs and rockets exploding in the valley below.

It has been more than an hour of fighting now and many plumes of smoke can be seen about 2kms away where the fighting is centred.

One of the soldiers said he was pleased when things had started quietly, but thought it would get more difficult as the day progressed.

This is Taleban heartland and it appears the insurgents are putting up quite a fight.

0700 LOCAL TIME (0330 BST) :: 30 APRIL

At first light the infantry dismounted from the armoured personnel carriers and headed on foot towards the green belt of trees and poppy fields irrigated by the Helmand river.

British troops on Operation Silicon
Troops have secured a number of Taleban compounds

The objective is to negotiate the high compound walls and deep irrigation ditches and push the insurgents further up the Lower Sangin Valley.

It is Taleban territory and has been out of government control since British forces arrived last year - the mission is to take ground and hold it.

A few sporadic shots were fired as Operation Silicon began at 0500 local time (0130 BST).

Apache helicopters circled menacingly overhead as the platoons pushed forward slowly, heavy guns on the high ground watching their progress towards the known Taleban positions.

I am now on high ground waiting and watching to see what unfolds in the valley below.

Soldiers I spoke to said they thought it was more dangerous than anything they had done in Iraq

It had been a tortuous drive from Camp Bastion, packed like sardines in the back of the Viking armoured vehicles - their twin cabs and tracks making them look like something out of Star Wars.

Inside the air is stuffy, the air conditioning ineffective - the feeling, crammed in the back, is a combination of being in a sauna and a washing machine.

One Viking had broken down, so it took longer to crawl out into the desert, well away from sight to prepare for the early start to the mission.

The wind whipped sand across the camp throughout the night, a nearly-full moon helping people sort out their equipment, clean their weapons and get last briefings from higher chains of command before getting a few hours of sleep.

It is the biggest operation the 1st Battalion Royal Anglians, known as the Vikings, have taken part in since they took over from the Marines - and soldiers I spoke to said they thought it was more dangerous than anything they had done in Iraq.

More than 3,000 troops are involved in Operation Silicon, with British forces taking the lead, and more than a thousand Afghan National Army soldiers also pushing up the lawless valley.

They will go into people's homes to explain what is going on and put an Afghan face on a multinational operation.

Fighting alongside are Dutch, Danish, Estonian, Canadian and American forces who are moving up the valley through the difficult terrain alongside the river from Gereshk.

Lt Col Stuart Carver, commanding officer of 1st Battalion Royal Anglians, said the mission was to build on an earlier operation which took back control of Sangin town - where British forces had been heavily bombarded in their small base by the river.

British Scimitar tank in Helmand province
British Scimitar tanks are being used in the operation

"Operation Silicon is to extend the government of Afghanistan's authority in the Lower Sangin Valley which for too long has been semi-controlled by the Taleban," he said.

"It's part of a longer term plan to restore the whole of Helmand to government control and we will be targeting the ideologically motivated Taleban."

British forces said they launched an information campaign ahead of the operation, with leaflet drops and radio messages telling local people it would be beginning soon and warning them to stay inside their homes when fighting begins - and to leave their houses if the Taleban are using them to fight from.

It is impossible to know how many people would have received the message.

So far, all is relatively quiet and progress is slow and careful.

Although the valley is a Taleban heartland it is not known if there will be much resistance as many people are harvesting the opium poppies at the moment - the raw materials for heroin.

The information campaign also warned the local people to expect action - the British commander said he would be happy to push through without a fight, but he says that would be very unlikely.




SEE ALSO
Troops kill 'scores of Taleban'
30 Apr 07 |  South Asia



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