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Last Updated: Saturday, 5 August 2006, 10:53 GMT 11:53 UK
Deployed to Afghanistan's 'Hell'
Alastair Leithead
By Alistair Leithead
BBC News, Kandahar

In the first ever land deployment outside Europe for Nato forces led by the UK and Canada, 8,000 soldiers are now positioned in six of Afghanistan's southern provinces. Helmand province, in particular, has been the scene of heavy violence.

An Afghan Kuchi nomad walks with his herd of camels past a British commando from the 42 Royal Marines, near Camp Bastion
Marines are providing security for Helmand's new British military camp

In the fierce heat of the Kandahar summer, eking out what little shade I could while waiting by the runway for a military flight, I got chatting to a British soldier.

He was on his way to what here they call "Hell"... the itchingly sandy and repressively hot Camp Bastion in the Helmand desert, miles from the nearest town, where sandstorms can last for days and where thousands of British troops are now based.

"When I joined up 10 years ago," he said, "people rarely knew anyone who had died in action. Now, pretty much everyone you speak to knows someone who's been killed here or in Iraq."

Helmand is not a pleasant place to be.

It is not only hot and dusty, but as a heartland for the Taleban and the biggest producer of opium poppies in the country, it is also a very dangerous place.

Counting the days

I spoke to a medic about how she was getting on.

"Eight weeks to go before R and R (rest and recuperation)," she said.

I smiled and added that most troops I spoke to knew exactly the number of days they had left on their tour.

Some argue this was supposed to be a peacekeeping mission, but in Helmand there is little peace to keep

"Fifty-seven" she quickly replied, and went on to explain that new technology was helping them keep track.

Every day when they log on to their computers, an updated bar chart shows how much money they have made so far, and a pie chart fills in another slice of their little circle showing how many days, hours and minutes they have left in the country.

It made me think of the play Journey's End, about British troops in the trenches during World War I.

One of the characters, Trotter, obsessively fills in his little circles every day with a pen, counting down to the end of his war.

And I am not the only one harking back to World War I.

In an off-the-cuff remark, one commander said: "At least back then troops were rotated out from the front line every 12 days."

"In one of Helmand's districts," he continues - the scene of some of the heaviest attacks - "the Gurkhas were only relieved after more than three weeks of intensive fighting."

At one stage, he tells me, they had to use hand grenades to fight off the Taleban. And hand grenades are only effective up to 30 metres.

Guerrilla warfare

There has been plenty of discussion about what the British troops are here to do: help the government bring security and then governance and development.

Map of Afghanistan

The line is well rehearsed.

Some argue this was supposed to be a peacekeeping mission, but in Helmand there is little peace to keep.

The Paras - some of the best of Britain's regular forces - were sent here and they knew they would have a fight on their hands.

But they did not expect to lose so many soldiers so quickly.

I think they expected more of an Iraq-style insurgency campaign rather than this guerrilla warfare that they now find themselves caught up in.

And they are caught up in it because they have gone on the offensive, moving into the remote areas trying to bring security by chasing the Taleban out.

It is in these operations that the Taleban militia are hitting them hard.

Measuring success

Of course everyone says Afghanistan is not Iraq.

British army commandos from the 42 Royal Marines look at an approaching vehicle through their rifle scopes
The mission is seen as one of Nato's most challenging

There is not the religious division and the insurgency has not reached anything like that kind of intensity, but having worked in both places there is something that worries me.

Sitting in Baghdad for a month at a time watching the news wires flashing up the latest reports of car bombs, roadside bombs, assassinations and kidnappings, I would sometimes find myself losing track, by the end of the day, of the number of incidents and the number of people killed and injured.

Now sitting here in Afghanistan I am finding myself doing a similar thing.

A key difference between the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan is that the majority of Afghans still want the international forces to be here and they know things would be a lot worse if they left.

The commanders in the Nato force and among British troops insist the Taleban are coming off worse and that hundreds are being killed.

That is hardly a measure of success, one can argue, but what they ask for is time.

The Nato force has only just taken over control of the south from the American coalition and they need six to nine months, they say, before they can be fairly judged.

In the meantime the Canadians, the British and the Americans are losing men and women.

I spoke to another soldier in Camp Bastion and asked her why she thought the British forces are here.

"I don't know" she said. "Something about drugs I think... but it seems more like we're here to be shot at by the Taleban."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 5 August, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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