Page last updated at 11:00 GMT, Saturday, 4 July 2009 12:00 UK

UK troops face critical Afghan task

Soldiers from the Afghan National Army and 3rd Battalion (The Black Watch) The Royal Regiment of Scotland board a Chinook helicopter in the desert in the Upper Sangin Valley, Helmand Province (file photo)

British forces in Helmand, southern Afghanistan, are paying a high price as the Taliban fight back with ever more deadly explosive devices. Caroline Wyatt, just back from Helmand, says it is a critical time for the coalition forces.

What should have been a simple seven-hour flight to Kandahar took rather longer.

Two days, in fact, after technical problems with our ageing RAF Tristar kept us on the runway at Brize Norton for several hours.

The trooper flight was packed with soldiers, sailors and airmen on their way to Helmand.

There were mutterings of discontent as a new fault diverted us to another base in the Middle East, but they were muted.

For British forces, it seems, this was no rare occurrence.

The air-bridge to and from Helmand Province is under severe strain, as RAF technicians work overtime transporting servicemen and women to and from a battlefield thousands of miles away.

Map of southern Afghanistan

The delay gave me time to glance into the next cabin. Where first class would normally be, was an uncomfortable reminder of the reality that lay ahead for some of the young men and women we were travelling with.

Several rows of seats had been taken out, replaced by stretcher beds and medical equipment, ready to evacuate the most badly injured.

It was a thought that lingered for the rest of the journey, perhaps for them, too.

When the Taliban were toppled from power in 2001, few could have imagined that they would still be fighting back eight years on.

Nor that they would have learned so much from the insurgency in Iraq, such as how to build and lay ever more lethal roadside bombs.

Election worry

I was relieved when we took a helicopter to Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, avoiding the roads.


Morale is boosted by squaddie humour, and the letters and parcels that come not just from their families but from strangers across the UK

Our Chinook sent the familiar choking mix of sand and pebbles flying into the air as we emerged into the 45C heat.

Several Afghan journalists were waiting there to speak to Helmand's Governor Gulab Mangal who was visiting the British headquarters.

As we watched, Aliyas Daee, a radio journalist from Helmand, told me quietly that he was worried about the presidential elections, and whether voting really could be free and fair.

"Life is very hard here," he said. "We need security, but people are still scared. People want to go and vote in this election, but I know many who won't because they don't feel safe enough."

He tells me, though, that the Taliban are not as strong as they once were.

"They fight like musketeers," he says - and I fend off a bizarre mental image of a bearded D'Artagnan in flowing Pashtun robes, before Aliyas goes on to explain. "The Taliban come from nowhere, fire their guns, and then they run and hide."

US marines in Helmand province
US marines are keen to win support in areas under Taliban influence

So what do people in Helmand think of the British and American forces here? Nazir, a young translator from Kabul, smiles when I ask.

"People are still hopeful, as they've promised us everything. In Helmand, a lot of people are jobless and illiterate.

Those are the things we need help with from the foreigners. We've had a lot of war for 30 years, so we always hope for something new - peace. And with more troops, we hope for more peace."

But Aliyas and Nazir are not sure how long the optimism will last unless there is more visible progress.

Difficult conditions

We fly on to a Forward Operating Base overlooking the town of Sangin, a former Taliban stronghold, where the men of the Second Battalion of the Rifles are based in what looks like a crumbling Afghan fortress.

The town I can see from the camouflaged lookout post appears to have changed little since the first or second Afghan war.

"Oh yes, the Afghans tell us about that a lot," says one officer cheerfully. "They tell us 'my father fought yours' - it's as though it only happened yesterday, though what they mean is our great-grandfathers or their fathers."

Life for the soldiers is basic in the extreme, their washing hanging out to dry on lines strung between the sandbags. Socks dangle incongruously next to a machine gun.

Their cramped living quarters are protected by yet more sandbags stuffed into the empty window frames, which do little to keep out the stifling heat.

Patrolling in these temperatures is difficult, in heavy body armour and carrying 80 pounds (36kg) of equipment or more.

Lt Col Rupert Thornoloe and Trooper Joshua Hammond
Lt Col Thorneloe and Trooper Hammond were killed by an explosion

"It hasn't been an easy tour," says Sergeant David Lloyd. "But we didn't expect it to be."

Several of his platoon were injured and flown back to the UK after a roadside bomb hit their vehicle. Several others from their unit have died.

Almost everyone I meet has seen friends killed or wounded in this campaign.

"But we can't afford to look back for long," Sergeant Lloyd says. "We talk about it - and then we get on with the job."

He tells me, though, that morale is boosted by squaddie humour, and the letters and parcels that come not just from their families but from strangers across the UK - addressed simply to "A soldier in Helmand".

This week more soldiers lost their lives in the bloodied sands of Helmand - including a man his comrades called an inspirational leader, the most senior Army officer to die on operations since the Falklands War.

I wondered when I heard of his death how many more must die, trying to bring peace to this far away land.




FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific