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Last Updated: Friday, 9 November 2007, 17:49 GMT
Afghan Diary: Tracking the Taleban

Baluchi Valley
The BBC's Alastair Leithead has been embedded with British troops in southern Afghanistan and has spent several days with the Gurkhas.

In a series of reports, he has been describing operations against the Taleban from across the south of the country, including in Helmand province.

DAY 3: PREPARING FOR BATTLE

The colonel had flown in to give battle orders and the troops were making preparations for an assault on suspected Taleban strongholds.

The company commanders consulted the maps, their intent was spelled out and the plans were all in place.

A baby was brought in with a terrible facial skin rash - made worse by the powdered stone her father had rubbed

We were to stick with C Company and Major Charlie Crowe, as his men flew back to base to prepare for another air assault in the early hours of the following day.

But then the news came in that there were simply no helicopters available.

The British aircraft had returned to Helmand and the Dutch national rules say their helicopters cannot fly at night - and they were the only ones available.

With the serious risks of flying into a battle in daylight, it was decided the Gurkhas would have to march into position on foot, and then fight.

They pushed an extra eight kilometres down the valley, then waited and rested after what was now eight days on the ground, carrying everything with them, always alert and only getting helicopter re-supplies of food and water every couple of days.

And whatever people say, British rations are good.

Each 24-hour box contains 6,000 calories and with the hot weather supplements of pasta, pureed fruit and milkshake mix to break the monotony, the soldiers struggle to get through their daily allocation.

But the Gurkhas are Nepalese British troops and they have a few important traditional differences.

The Gurkhas have a reputation for being fearless fighters, for using their long curved Kukri knives in the heat of battle, and for their penchant for goat curry.

Afghan National Army soldier
Foreign troops? Most of the Afghan forces are from the north
And so the sergeant major left with a bundle of dollars on his own little operation and came back an hour later with two goats led by pieces of string into the compound and to an untimely end.

I missed the bit in between, but the curry was a good addition to the evening's rations - even if it did contain pretty much every part of the goat.

The evening was quiet, the threat seemingly low, despite the reputation of the Taleban in the valley.

Then news came in of an attack on a Dutch vehicle further south - a roadside bomb had hit the convoy and one Dutch soldier was dead.

Coincidentally there had also been an accident - an armoured car had overturned and six more Dutch troops were injured.

With hospital bed space limited and heavy fighting expected, the mission was postponed for 24 hours.

Roadside bombs are a key weapon used by insurgents in Afghanistan now, as in Iraq.

Just a couple of weeks earlier, Gurkha Major Alexis Roberts had been killed when one of the armoured vehicles had been hit by a powerful explosion.

The medic on this mission, Dr Dougie Reid, was in the same vehicle, and he still wonders how he got out alive.

There's a reason the flags at ISAF headquarters spend most of the time at half mast.

DAY 4: HURRY UP AND WAIT

There was disappointment at the 24-hour delay in the operation, as you could feel the troops mentally preparing themselves for a long march and a potentially fierce battle to take the Taleban command positions near Tarin Kowt.

So the day began early - at 0400 - with a march across the river at the end of the Baluchi Valley to burn off some of that tension, and to practice a difficult night move along the riverbed.

At certain times of the month there is no Moon for much of the night, and so movements are difficult.

But the British forces have night vision goggles and so are more confident that they could easily repel any night time Taleban ambush.

It was to be a long, hard, day though, and the troops rested and slept, preparing themselves once again for the fight they knew was coming.

Map showing Uruzgan

Soldiers appear to spend a lot of time waiting around - hurrying to somewhere, just to wait as plans change and commanders plot their next move, or change their minds.

The Afghan National Army unit was further up the valley, waiting to be called forward when the time was right, to search compounds and talk to local people.

The language of southern Afghanistan is Pashtun, but most of the ANA are northern, Dari, or Persian speakers, so they can come across as much as foreigners as the international forces.

But they have a good knowledge of local customs and culture - something it is vitally important to get right if the "hearts and minds" mission is to be successful.

They are the exit strategy for the Nato troops, but they seem a long way away from providing the kind of security needed to look after Afghanistan without outside help.

One of those we had been marching with had slipped and shot himself in the foot - he was driven back to base for treatment.

Basic safety drills don't appear to be a high priority.

At 2100 the waiting ended and the long march into position began.

DAY 5: GURKHAS ATTACK

For eight hours, the long line of more than 100 Gurkhas filed along the dry river bed, crossing streams and negotiating obstacles in the pitch darkness.

We moved with them, focusing hard on the feet of the man in front to see where to put the next step, but troops heavily laden with ammunition still tripped and fell as C Company pushed deeper and deeper into Taleban-held territory.

The colonel had said this was what their 10 days in the Baluchi Valley had been leading up to - an assault on a compound that intelligence said was the most likely command centre for the local Taleban.

As the hours ticked by, the Moon slowly rose above the horizon to join the millions of stars in the clear night sky and the temperature continued to drop.

We are used to explosions now, but all I know about the British troops is that they frighten me
Rohula, local farmer

Dogs barked in compounds either side of the valley as the Gurkhas tried to move, unseen and unheard, into position ready for the attack.

At shortly before 0500, with a final check on the map and the radios, mortar fire started to rain down on a thick mud-walled compound barely visible through the orchard.

It was smoke and light, rather than explosives, designed to confuse the insurgents.

Then there was a pause as the lead platoon moved forward and placed explosives on the side of the compound wall.

As it began to get lighter and the mullahs began their calls to prayer, there was a pause and then a bone-shaking explosion, but the anticipated gun battle didn't follow.

The troops quickly and silently moved inside to find it was deserted apart from a farmer, his wife and eight children, huddled in a back room frightened by the blast.

The tension lifted as dawn broke and they realised there was to be no battle this morning - the Taleban commanders had moved on.

"They're in the mountains," Rohula, the farmer, told me. "They are not here. We are used to explosions now, but all I know about the British troops is that they frighten me."

As the helicopter airlifted us out of the valley and back to base in a cloud of dust, I couldn't help thinking there would be difficult times ahead in the Baluchi Valley

In the next compound there was a more friendly welcome with green tea and smiling faces.

A teacher said the Taleban had left when the military operation had begun further up the valley.

He told Major Charlie Crowe they had beaten him for refusing to stop teaching and that he was now pleased to see the foreign forces.

They secured another local compound as their base and put a patrol out into the surrounding settlements, but there was an eerie silence.

The troops and local men of fighting age eyed each other suspiciously.

The white flag of the Taleban still flew over at least two compounds - there were few people around and those who were said they knew nothing about any insurgents.

There had been no anticipated battle, but this was a different atmosphere to elsewhere in the valley, where the small, sequined children tending the camels and helping to plough the fields had looked on with curiosity.

This was not a comfortable place to be, and as the troops caught some sleep and the helicopter airlifted us out of the valley and back to base in a cloud of dust, I couldn't help thinking there would be difficult times ahead in the Baluchi Valley.

VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
British troops blast their way into a compound





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