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Last Updated: Friday, 10 November 2006, 05:46 GMT
Afghan conflict: Reporter's diary
The BBC's Alastair Leithead has spent nine days embedded with UK forces in southern Helmand province, where Royal Marines have been battling Taleban rebels. Here are his daily reports on life with the troops, with the most recent one at the top.

FRIDAY 10 NOVEMBER 0630 (0300 GMT)

Small stones and fine sand were whipped up into our faces as the Chinook transporter helicopter landed in the desert to whisk us back to Camp Bastion.

Fred, Peter and Alastair at the end of their journey
The end of the road for Fred, Peter and Alastair

Our embedded trip with the Royal Marine Commandos in southern Helmand had come to an end and we loaded up our equipment alongside tyres, a large gun that was being replaced and a few people heading back like us.

The final night had seen the Marine Commandos use two more rockets to kill, they say, a further three Taleban fighters in a bunker they had been monitoring for a number of days.

We accompanied the Afghan National Army on a foot patrol around a village and it was interesting to see the British mentoring and training team's idea of meeting people to gather intelligence rubbing off.

As I said on Thursday, it's the way forward to train up the army and police, but I remain to be convinced as to whether the language and cultural barrier is just too great to see major progress in the next few years.

We left them moving into another village where they came under fire - it's still a dangerous place.

Over the past few days our team of Fred Scott (cameraman), Peter Emmerson (producer) and I have had a unique insight into how the front-line forces operate.

We were very impressed by the soldiers' professionalism, commitment and morale - they welcomed and protected us in a very dangerous environment.

A soldier talks to an Afghan child
Winning hearts and minds

They are a specialist group of Commandos, at the sharp end of the continuing war against the Taleban - and incidentally Monday will mark five years since the coalition forced the Taleban out of Kabul.

They have the military prowess and the superior equipment - be it night-vision, heat-sensing goggles, the backup of artillery and air power and the tactical awareness.

But the Taleban have the best defensive positions, know the terrain, and by luring the British forces to attack them, are forcing the Marines to drop bombs on and around villages.

It's a real stalemate, and it really has been going nowhere.

The patrol commander would say they have taken the tactical advantage, by moving into the town, but yet remaining mobile, but the majority of people are still living in surrounding villages to avoid the fighting.

It's difficult to chase hearts and minds when they are running from you.

The war continues, and there's still no convincing proof the overall policy of security first, and then development and better governance hot on its heels, will make a difference.

Winning people over is still the aim, but it's not as easy as it may have seemed in the military war gaming.

But, on a lighter note, I have a quiz to bring this blog to an end.

The Royal Marine Commandos have a language all of their own - we had to pick it up as we went along. See how you would do.

Translate the following:

1 - "It's REDDERS today"

2 - "I'm THREADERS with this."

3 - "Pass the OGGIN"

4 - "Fancy a GOFFA"

5 - "It's GEN"

6 - "Spin the DIT"

7 - "Where's the GASH bag?"

8 - "That's HOOFIN' that is"

Answers:

1 - "It's HOT today"

2 - "I'm FED UP with this"

3 - "Pass the WATER"

4 - "Fancy a FIZZY DRINK" (NB: Can also mean a punch, or to be knocked over by a wave while on board ship)

5 - '"It's GENUINE"

6 - "Tell me a GOOD STORY" (preferably an exaggerated one)

7 - "Where's the RUBBISH BIN?"

8 - "That's GREAT/BRILLIANT/EXCELLENT"

THURSDAY 9 NOVEMBER 0630 (0300 GMT)

I spent some time with one of the British teams helping to mentor the Afghan National Army, the future of Afghanistan, and the exit strategy for the Nato and US forces. But it's an indication of just how long the whole process will take when you see the newly trained soldiers working alongside the Royal Marine Commandos.
Afghan Police Transport
Afghan National Police and their vehicle of choice - a pick-up truck

The transport of choice for the Afghan National Army (ANA) is a twin-cab pickup truck - there's enough room to cram an extraordinary number onto the back - all proudly armed with rocket propelled grenades, and with belts of ammunition wrapped around their chests.

The atmosphere, rather than being disciplined and professional, is far more party-orientated - they are constantly playing tricks on each other.

A new barracks, costing $70m and paid for by the US, is being filled with Afghan soldiers at the moment - when asked how long it would last, the contractor said, "It's the fittings I'm worried about - one of their favourite games is throwing their shoes at the ceiling fan."

But this again goes back to cultural differences - they are tough and hard-fighting men with war in their blood, but so much of what the west is giving or expects is so alien to them.

The kind of gun safety you see in the British Army is just not manly here - a few weeks ago I was told one ANA soldier accidentally fired a rocket-propelled grenade he was holding and the flash was right next to his face. His colleagues just laughed as he was taken off to hospital with serious burns.

One Thursday night in their camp, an argument went wrong, shots were fired and one soldier was killed and two badly injured.

The British role is not training, they say, it is "mentoring" - trying to suggest best practice.

Alastair Leithead visited an abandoned district centre
People moved out to surrounding villages to avoid the fighting

The biggest challenge is setting up a re-supply chain as there have been times when the ANA have fought, overstretched themselves, run out of food and water and have been ambushed on the way back to their base.

But as a British officer explained, they have had 12 weeks more training than many of the Taleban fighters and a Sandhurst model of officer training which is going on will take time but there is progress, however slow.

We went with them into the district centre and wandered around a market, completely abandoned - all the people have moved out to surrounding villages to avoid the fighting - not what you might expect from a "hearts and minds" mission.

And you just have to look at the Afghan National Police to see how far the army has come.

I am at the police checkpoint again in the town centre, and they have been smoking drugs and are now chatting, singing songs, and asking the British troops if they can try out the helmets, body armour and night vision goggles.

And they will soon be asleep while the British troops keep watch over the town overnight and hit Taleban sentry posts with remote controlled rockets.

It's easy to poke fun, but this is the future of Afghan security...and that alone illustrates how much of a long haul it will be for British forces - and how important the job is.

WEDNESDAY 8 NOVEMBER 0630 (0300 GMT)

Another night in the district centre - I'm writing this blog outside an Afghan National Police checkpoint, bolstered up by British forces for another night.

Again the fleece over my head is shutting out the light from my laptop, but it's not as important to be hidden here - the Afghan police are chatting loudly, the roaring fire boiling endless cups of tea in a bare and bombed-out building.

Soldiers with communications equipment
Maintaining good communications is vital

The situation in this town is something of a stalemate, with the Taleban six or seven hundred metres away not firing, nor even popping out to take a look - perhaps after last night's clash.

A shot has just been fired - it happens from time to time - punctuating the evening, but neither side at the moment is gaining any ground - and that situation is playing into the hands of the Taleban as each clash destroys buildings or farmland and nibbles away at the hearts and minds the British are so keen to win.

A meeting took place between the elders of the town and a high-level British officer - brokered by the troop commander over the past few days.

They drove out into the desert on the back of a tractor for a "shura" or meeting - grey and white bearded men crushed into the back. Unfolding themselves from the trailer they sat in a circle on red blankets with cups of tea in plastic cups provided by their British hosts.

The first meeting came about after they had spent 10 hours wandering the desert looking for the British patrol.

Their main complaint was that every time the British came near villages the Taleban fired on them and then the return fire from the Marines - artillery, aircraft and heavy weapons, as I have described, was causing people to flee and destroying homes - putting civilians very much in the line of fire.

Alastair Leithead
The BBC's Alastair Leithead is spending time with troops

They wanted the Taleban out, but they didn't want the daily skirmishes to go on, they said - it was bad for the people.

It's hoped this might be the first step towards some form of ceasefire - similar perhaps to the deal done in Musa Qala, which is still holding, despite scepticism that it's not the way forward.

But the British forces are keen to stress it needs to be an Afghan solution - it is something politically that must be done by the people themselves.

Everyone here agrees that the Nato mission, to bring peace and development to Afghanistan and win over the people for the democratic government, will not succeed through fighting alone - it will have to be a political solution.

Indeed, the indication from the elders here was that fighting was doing more harm than good.

Even the Nato force commander, Lt Gen David Richards, has warned the people could back the Taleban unless change comes quickly.

It's a very difficult situation, and one that needs close attention to Afghan culture and traditions - it's also a very slow process - a reminder perhaps of how long it is going to take to make a long and lasting difference in Afghanistan.

TUESDAY 7 NOVEMBER 0630 (0300 GMT)

The sun is just coming up over the horizon and the ration-pack hot chocolate is slowly heating the BBC team up after the most dangerous night yet with the front line 3 Commando force in Helmand.

They had a slow day sitting it out in the desert waiting for a spare part for one of the vehicles and meeting up with the British team mentoring the Afghan National Army.

Afghan National Army soldier
The Afghan National Army have been keeping the Taleban at bay

We will be spending a few days with them, so it was the first chance to see some of the Afghan soldiers who will take over responsibility for security in the country when international forces eventually leave.

It was as we bedded down for the night that the call came to stand by and be ready to move at a moment's notice.

The town which the Marine Commandos have been moving in and around, but which I've been asked not to name here for security reasons, is pretty much under the control of the Taleban, apart from the small collection of buildings and compounds which make up the district centre.

The Afghan National Police (ANP) have been fighting off nightly attacks on a number of fronts, but felt they needed help and called for British reinforcements.

The most dangerous part of the trip was the route in, not knowing if another ambush would be waiting - as it had been when the patrol left the town a few days ago.

It was like daylight driving towards the town, the moon still full, and I felt a mixture of excitement and fear about the operation.

A pistol was left near us "in case things go wrong" - we had been shown how to use one, just as a last resort, the day before.

Extra mortar bombs were loaded in the vehicle and as we began the dash into the town you could see bullets flying across from right to left far in front of us.

But surprisingly it was quiet - we reached the checkpoints and snipers took up positions, and a rocket was made ready.

The Afghan police who were manning the sandbagged positions excitedly pointed six or seven hundred metres away in different directions saying "Taleban" and then trying to explain to us in sign language how they had held them off.

On top of one of the mud buildings used as a firing position there were bullet cases scattered about the rickety roof - Afghan police gave out tea.

Then there was movement out in no-man's land, picked up by night-vision and heat-sensitive binoculars - the Marines said they saw through the sights men carrying weapons, and that had been confirmed from another viewing point.

The snipers fired two shots and illuminating shells exploded above, lighting up the town.

Then after a few minutes the sniper fired again - twice - his voice crackled over the radio confirming he had seen through the telescopic sight one man killed.

Then there was a pause and a crack as a rocket roared from the roof - three men had moved into the open, again the Marines said they had been identified as Taleban through high-tech viewing equipment.

The rocket was guided at them - one Marine said he saw it "charging towards them, they looked up and then they disappeared".

The radio again confirmed all three men had been killed - there was a strong reaction from the Marines behind the sandbags.

And then it fell silent - the night was spent watching and waiting, before withdrawing back into the desert.

MONDAY 6 NOVEMBER 0630 (0300 GMT)

Helmand province is a dangerous and unpredictable place and my emotions have been flying about, but tonight it was the sense of space and beauty that dominated all others.

Patrol force
The route into the town was the most dangerous part of the trip
I think it's a full moon that's lighting up the camp tonight, and it's like daylight as the commanders are sitting in a circle discussing tactics and the "bootnecks" are bedding down for the night.

As the patrol drove out here to a remote part of the desert the moon lit up the day's dust, kicked up by the wind and by the odd car that races across the hardened sand.

It was calm and peaceful, and in marked contrast to the town centre where the fighting has been continuing.

We were drinking tea and having a little ration pack lunch today in view of the tree line which marks Taleban territory, when we heard two mortar bombs launch - everyone scampered for helmets, but the rounds fell well short.

More followed and the vehicles edged just a bit further out of range - the next landed close to where the patrol had been parked up.

The pattern is rushes of adrenalin followed by much calmer, peaceful moments when the war can seem a long way away -but it has a habit of very quickly reminding you where you are and what the reality is in much of southern Afghanistan.

And there are other dangers - the 24-hour ration packs are very good and if there's time are heated up on small, metal solid fuel stoves which are light and ideal for boiling water.

ANA and British mentoring team
Afghan soldiers will eventually take over security
The silver bags of ready made food are popped on and 10 or 15 minutes later the meal is piping hot.

I struck a heavy duty match or two on the side of the car and lit the stove, wandering off and thinking little of it, but the first match head had flicked onto a rucksack and it had caught fire.

Fred the cameraman spotted the flames licking about a gun propped up at the side and the fire was out in no time, but the fuel, and thousands of rounds of ammunition on board could well have gone up. That's when you realise the value of military discipline, and the dangers - other than coming under fire - of living a semi-nomadic life in the desert.

I've now been denied access to matches.

SUNDAY 5 NOVEMBER 0600 (0230 GMT)

The front line team of 3 Commando Brigade managed to stay out of trouble today in the Helmand desert, but picked up quite a lot of information from local people.

Alastair Leithead reflects on what might have happened after his match set a rucksack alight
Reflecting on a lucky escape...

There was a report back from the town where the ambush had taken place yesterday - and if believable it was good news for the British forces.

During the battle a number of artillery shells were fired, and one had, according to intelligence, hit a group of withdrawing Taleban fighters.

Reports like this often come in - for example after Wednesday's clash they heard more than 30 insurgents had been injured or killed - but it's almost impossible to verify, or to know if civilians were among the casualties.

We saw first hand how a bombing raid was stopped at the last minute to avoid "collateral damage," but the dropping of a 2000lb bomb in part of a village had been only seconds away.

Some information comes from funerals and eye witnesses, but there's no way of telling what could be the impact of the bombing and the shelling.

A British soldier cleans his weapons
Military discipline is crucial for living and coping in the desert

And the Marines on the patrol are the first to admit how difficult it is to tell civilians from Taleban fighters when they are not actually shooting at them.

Some of those the patrol came across today complained that the fighting was doing more harm than good to the village and its residents, and more should be done to stop the fighting.

But with the Taleban very much in control of the town it's not easy - the Afghan security forces there were bombarded heavily after dark.

On the drive today, we also managed to get a good look at the landscape along the Helmand river valley which winds right through the province.

Some members of the patrol team
The Marines picked up some pleasing news from the locals

Most people live along the narrow band of water-fed greenery which rears out of mile after mile of barren desert.

Many are nomads, their houses tents surrounded by straw and with perhaps a mud hut for extra protection.

Sheep and goats are tethered, camels tied nearby, and ferocious dogs keep strangers at bay.

The children, many wearing clothes inlaid with sequins that sparkle in the desert sun, gather to gawp at the passing patrol.

It's a scene and a place from another age caught up in war once again.

SATURDAY 4 NOVEMBER 0630 (0300 GMT)

There was a quiet start to another day in the desert, but the afternoon brought another fire-fight, the second in two days and this one even closer than the first.

BBC team reflected in sunglasses
The BBC team has frequently come under fire with British troops
The Royal Marines 3 Commando Brigade are pushing out into southern Helmand province, trying to get a feel for the Taleban - how much of a threat they are and in which areas, and our three-man crew is with them.

There were reports of thousands of refugees being forced out of the towns where fighting has been the most intense, but today the intelligence proved to be wrong.

The patrol came across people living in tents outside the town with families and animals in tow, but with the help of a translator, the troop commander discovered they were nomadic Kuchis and knew little about the Taleban.

The patrol medic is David Blades, 26, and his job isn't just to help his own colleagues, but assist the local people however he can.

So after chatting about the fighting, it was down to the injured foot and the nasty case of heartburn - the latter was easy, but the former was impossible to cure - the patient had glass in his foot, but it had been there so long the skin had healed up and needed an operation.

Go to a proper doctor was the advice handed out with some fresh bandages - but given the current situation that's most unlikely to happen.

"For a bit of hearts and minds we can obviously help the locals to the best of our ability, but often they need better treatment. Giving some medicine at least makes them feel better," he told me.

This mission is the first time David has come under fire, and he admitted "it was a bit nerve-wracking at first, but I'd rather be here than in the hospital back at base as it's what we are trained to do."

And that training had to kick in once again a few hours later.

After heading into a town to meet the local police intelligence officer for an update we came under fire leaving the village.

Homes in Helmand
Homes in Helmand province evoke another age
At first we thought it was stones cracking under the car tyres as we crossed a river, but seconds later the bullets where whipping overhead, each round getting gradually lower as we raced for cover.

The whole patrol was being ambushed. The heavy machine guns rang out from the armed vehicles, but the attack was from a number of directions. Somehow nobody was hit as the artillery shells landed where the attack had begun.

The British troops at first could not return fire as there were civilians - children - running for cover as the bullets sprayed around, and just seconds before a 2000lb bomb was due to be dropped the firing subsided and with too many civilians around it was called off.

So on the third day on patrol it had been an even closer encounter, but the troops survived unscathed and headed out to spend another night deep in the desert.

THURSDAY 2 NOVEMBER, 2100 (1730 GMT)

The rocket propelled grenade skidded between our two vehicles, a mortar bomb detonated in the air just 30 metres from where we had stopped - well in shrapnel range - and ahead of us the Royal Marine Commando's heavy calibre machine guns were firing into the wood.

A Kuchi man explains the situation
The nomadic Kuchi know little about the Taleban

It was the first "contact" with the Taleban since arriving in the desert, and although it was a surprise when the rocket came so close, it wasn't unexpected.

Just a few minutes earlier the troop commander and translator had spoken to some elders, representing a number of villagers forced out of their homes, they said, by the Taleban.

"Don't go over to that side," the warning had been, "or they will kill you."

But the job of the specialist 3 Commando force is to use different methods to establish where their enemy is and in what strength - and that means heading into danger.

What they learned from approaching the tree line was that the Taleban were well established and in some numbers.

Medic David Blades treats an Afghan man
Medic David Blades does what he can to help
They - and we, filming from the back of a vehicle while keeping our heads well down - were fired upon by mortar bombs, more rocket propelled grenades, heavy machine gun fire - the whole range of weapons the insurgents have.

In turn the Royal Marine Commandos threw everything at the small compound identified as the source of the incoming fire.

After heavy calibre fire and rockets came artillery from 15km away, then an air strike and a 1,000lb bomb, and then a move back into the desert to regroup. A final rocket from the Taleban landed short and a major engagement with their enemy came to an end.

"It doesn't get much closer than that", we were told as the force talked through the frontal attack on the approaching patrol.

Quite enough excitement for the morning, but the task of checking vehicles on the road and asking passengers if they had information preceded a supply drop from a Chinook helicopter.

Back to full strength the patrol worked on into the night, scouring the desert for movement under the light of a three quarter moon, and with the help of special night vision equipment.

Bomb explodes
The Marines hit back at a suspect position using a 1,00lb bomb
In this case the advice of some displaced and disgruntled villagers tipped off the patrol, but it shows how much of a battle can grow from an exchange of fire...and how much damage the bombs and rockets must be doing to buildings and to a mission which is supposed to be winning people over, not destroying homes.

The force insist there is little they can do, and they have engineers ready to move in and help with development projects.

But for now without being able to even approach the village without coming under attack, it's clearly going to be a long process.

WEDNESDAY 1 NOVEMBER, 1900 (1530 GMT)

I am writing this lying in a sleeping bag in the middle of the desert with a fleece over my head, having asked a colleague to make sure no light can be seen through the gaps.

Desert convoy

It is 1900 and the Royal Marines 3 Commando force has bedded down for the night.

Surrounding us are pairs of highly armed if scantily-armoured patrol vehicles, with a .50 calibre machine gun on each pointing out from our small corral. Each vehicle will be manned all night long.

We are a few kilometres from a town that is still largely under the control of the Taleban. The force is tasked with roaming the desert for weeks on end, feeding back information to headquarters and fighting back if attacked.

The Marines drove through the town to show their presence. They expected to come under fire, but it remained quiet.

There were a few children playing, a few farmers ploughing their dusty fields and a few people driving camels to their own corral, the huge beasts hopping, their front feet bound together to stop them running away.

We headed back into the desert and grabbed our rations just before sunset - it was too late to light the small solid fuel stoves and heat up the meal in a bag - as we had to be in place well out of sight or sound of the town before it got dark.

Troops relaxing by their vehicles
Troops do get down time, but there are few diversions in the desert

But after a day being battered about in the back of a small patrol vehicle, open to the beating desert sun, any food hot or cold was welcome, as was the chocolate.

The BBC team had joined the patrol at Camp Bastion in Helmand province at first light and the convoy bounced its way cross-country through mile after mile of barren desert.

They met up with the artillery gunners who provide support for the force as it stays constantly on the move, never staying overnight in the same place twice and always prepared to call for artillery support and for air power if needed.

The force we are with is a specialist unit used to these arduous conditions - and to the risk of ambush and attack. This could prove to be a fascinating week.




SEE ALSO
3 Commando: Hunting the Taleban
01 Dec 06 |  Panorama

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