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BBC TwoNewsnight
Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 September 2007, 15:20 GMT 16:20 UK
On the ground with the Grenadiers
By Vaughan Smith
Freelance video journalist

Twenty years ago I left the Grenadier Guards to become a freelance cameraman.

The four Grenadier Guards featured in the film
The Grenadiers have been training the Afghan National Army
Three months later I was in Southern Afghanistan filming Afghans shelling Russians at Kandahar's Airport.

I could not have then imagined that Afghanistan's wars would drag on this long and that the Grenadier Guards would one day end up fighting in Afghanistan.

The Grenadier Guards, part of 12 Brigade commanded by Brigadier John Lorimer, have been in Southern Afghanistan all summer, often fighting in temperatures in the high 40s.

Training on the job

At the end of August I went to stay with them in Helmand for three weeks.

The troops spent much of the operation wading through water

Of the films that I took, the operation conducted on 30 and 31 August 2007 in the Sangin Valley best illustrated what British soldiers have been doing this summer in Southern Afghanistan.

The Grenadiers have been training the Helmand Brigade of the Afghan National Army.

But this is no normal training programme. The bullets are real and so are the Taliban. This really is training on job.

Controlling the troops

This operation was the first time that the ANA were employed by the British within a formal British military operation of this size.

Controlling this number of troops, trying to keep them safe while making quick progress and managing the communications and fire support is complex.

An Apache helicopter in the air
Helicopters are used to target the Taliban before soldiers are sent in
Training the ANA is the sort of work that would normally be done by Special Forces.

The four Grenadiers in the film have to have their wits about them. They have to be extra vigilant: they cannot expect ANA soldiers to behave the way British soldiers would.

The Grenadiers, while taking the lead in attacks, have to carry extra equipment.

The ANA are brave fighters, and are excellent at spotting the Taliban, but they are not used to British levels of military discipline and organisation.

The Grenadiers rely on translators for communication and this is very difficult when the bullets are flying.

In conversation, British officers loosely estimated that, during this operation in the Sangin Valley, they killed about 30 Taliban.

These are not official figures. It is not the British Army's policy to claim body-counts.


British soldiers seem respectful of the fighting ability of the Taliban. The Taliban are very mobile, know the ground better and try to surprise and disrupt the British and Afghan National Army advance whenever they can.

A soldier running along a dirt track
Running between compounds - but the Taliban have usually fled by the time they arrive
The Taliban are almost always the first to open fire, seeing the British before being seen. They fire with automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades.

The British, when they have worked out where the Taliban are firing from, return fire aggressively to encourage the Taliban to "keep their heads down" and therefore stop firing.

British tactics are methodical but more cumbersome. The British are not prepared to take unnecessary casualties and try to use helicopters or artillery in an attempt to kill the Taliban before sending soldiers in.

Most of the time, when the soldiers arrive they find that the Taliban have evacuated their positions, taking any wounded or dead with them.

The British, part of a larger NATO force, aim to clear areas of Taliban and encourage the farmers and townsfolk to return and carry on with life as normal.

It is too early to say whether they are going to be successful in the long run.

When NATO leave Afghanistan the Afghan National Army (ANA) will have to take over the fight against the Taliban, securing whatever gains NATO has achieved.

Modern warfare

The fighting in Afghanistan is tough and would be recognised by veterans of the Second World War. But the Taliban are not the German Wehrmacht and modern wars that are 60 years apart defy simplistic comparison.

A soldier takes aim
Taking aim - but the Taliban are nearly always the first to open fire
One important difference is that modern medicine greatly increases the chances of surviving a battle wound.

In the Second World War, more Commonwealth soldiers were listed as missing or killed than were evacuated as wounded.

In Southern Afghanistan today, a soldier that has the misfortune of being hit has roughly a 90 per cent chance of living.

But there is, consequently, a very much larger chance the injured soldier will end up facing life without a limb or two, lose their eyesight, or spend the rest their life bearing severe disfigurement.

The British public does not properly understand this loss because casualty statistics issued have yet to detail these severe injuries.

Carrying the 'kit'

There are stories about the British equipment not being good enough.

During my stay in Helmand almost everybody complained about the lack of transport helicopters. But then there is not much else to do, except complain, when you are waiting for a helicopter.

The soldiers don't grumble about their personal "kit". The boots are good, ammunition plentiful and the fire support too.

Some say that the larger radios that they carry are too heavy. This is important because the British carry everything with them all the time.

They fight with their packs on.

This report can be seen on Newsnight on Wednesday, 26 September at 10.30pm on BBC TWO.

You can watch and read more about Vaughan Smith's work at fromthefrontline.co.uk.

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