Page last updated at 11:39 GMT, Saturday, 13 February 2010

Nato's mission control at Kandahar Airbase, Afghanistan

Kandahar Airbase

Kandahar airport is at the centre of a fresh campaign by Nato and the Afghan government for control of southern Afghanistan. BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner, who was left partly paralysed in an attack by jihadi militants in Saudi Arabia in 2004, paints a portrait of life in his new temporary home.

The RAF are used to flying people in wheelchairs. They do it the whole time.

It is just that they are normally coming out of Afghanistan, not going in the other direction.

So, there were a few wry smiles as I rolled up to check-in before dawn at Brize Norton airbase in Oxfordshire, for our team's 10-day embed with Nato troops in Kandahar.

"Your usual seat, Mr Gardner?" quipped someone far too chirpy for this unreasonable hour of the day.

Our ageing Tristar jet turned out to be unserviceable. Apparently the batteries did not work and the cabin was overheating, so they put us in another one.

Lots of legroom upfront, I noticed, then I realised why. Stretchers. "We fly the wounded straight back from theatre," said the aircrew.

Undignified arrival

Four-and-a-half time zones later, we readied ourselves for a night landing at Kandahar airbase, with everyone onboard slipping into a practised drill.

Off with the iPod and on with the body armour and helmet. Lights out and blinds down.

Map

It is just a precaution as the Taliban have a habit of firing the occasional Chinese-made rocket at the airbase.

The captain was in a jovial mood. "Welcome to Candy Bar," he announced, as his desert-camouflaged passengers spilled out into the winter drizzle and I got carried down the steps by the loadmaster.

After five years in a wheelchair, I have become quite accustomed to undignified arrivals.

We have come here to report on Operation Moshtarak, the much heralded Nato and Afghan mission to push the Taliban out of their last major stronghold in central Helmand.

Nato commanders have realised that more than eight years of fighting and bombing insurgents have won them few friends amongst the population, especially here in the south, where ethnic Pashtuns predominate.

Incoming!

The new strategy, signed off by US President Barack Obama, emphasises protecting civilians and working more closely with Afghan government forces.

There is now an admission that Nato, with all its military firepower and technology, has failed to bring lasting security to much of the south.

This is partly because until now there have not been enough troops to hold the ground taken from the Taliban, and partly because there has not been the political will in Kabul to follow up military success with good governance.

Kandahar Airbase
It did not feel like I was in Afghanistan - in fact it did not feel like I was anywhere other than in a portable cabin colony transplanted on to another planet

But now the Americans have arrived in the south in huge force, and President Karzai has been jolted by the international repugnance at last year's much-criticised elections.

So, this operation has been planned side by side with the Afghans, both politically and militarily. The idea is to swiftly follow up the eviction of the Taliban by putting in place newly trained police and a local government in waiting.

As long as good governance and the rapid delivery of services ensues, say British officers, the residents of central Helmand will realise they are better off throwing in their lot with the government than they were with the Taliban and the drug lords in charge. That, at least, is the plan.

Perhaps the insurgents had decided to express their disapproval in the way they know best.

Because shortly after dark on our first day the sirens went up, just as we were wolfing down some supper in our cramped workspace in a portable cabin.

"Incoming!"

Everyone knew the drill.

Down on the floor for two minutes then up and off to the nearest bunker until the all-clear sounds on the camp loudspeakers.

Kandahar Airbase is a vast sprawling place about the size of London's Heathrow airport and with more than 25,000 servicemen, women, and civilian contractors.

So the chances of actually being struck by one of these missiles is probably lower than being run over by a bus back home. Still, everyone dreads the siren going off when they are on the loo.

Metal junk

The next morning, I was allowed a glimpse into the coalition briefing room - a sort of military United Nations.

Here, sitting before plasma screens giving the latest battlefield updates, were grizzled US Marine Corp colonels, blond-haired Dutchmen, tanned British cavalry officers and an Afghan liaison officer with an interpreter whispering constantly in his ear.

Kandahar Airbase
Kandahar's airport is busier than ever

But this was for me a bubble within a bubble. It did not feel like I was in Afghanistan. In fact it did not feel like I was anywhere other than in a portable cabin colony transplanted on to another planet.

Kandahar base is an unlovely place. When I was here in 2003, I could not wait to leave it, with its sad, lifeless trees, its abandoned metal junk left over from the Soviet period and its stacked metal shipping containers.

But the airbase is busier than ever, with assorted Nato warplanes screaming down the runway, troop-carrying helicopters hovering like hornets and the occasional, slightly sinister, silhouette of a remotely piloted aircraft being guided into land by an RAF pilot sitting in a windowless cabin.

This is Nato's headquarters for the whole of the troubled south, and whatever the outcome of Operation Moshtarak, Kandahar Airbase is beginning to adopt a veneer of permanence.

The rusting metal containers dumped on the plains of Afghanistan are likely to be here for a long time to come.

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