Page last updated at 18:05 GMT, Monday, 12 November 2007

Afghan Diary: Tracking the Taleban

The BBC's Alastair Leithead has been embedded with British troops in southern Afghanistan.

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


It's only a short but brisk walk up to the high ridge line above Kajaki that gives British forces a major advantage over the Taleban but, barely a year ago, the Royal Marines had to fight their way along it, inch by inch.

A blast in a Taleban trench
Taleban trenches have been regularly attacked

Sparrowhawk West is the name given to the base with the best position of all - 270 degree views south down the valley towards Sangin and out across the no man's land of mud compounds and desert scrub where much of the fighting takes place.

We had visited the area set aside for the Remembrance Day service up over the dam itself and kept on walking up the ridge to see the stunning views.

Fingers of soft rounded hills point out into the reservoir like a spread hand and dominating the foreground are the pylons that take the hydroelectric power off into Lashkar and onto Kandahar.

These places would benefit from any extra power generation but we were to get a close-quarters lesson in why securing this area is so difficult despite holding the high ground.

The patrol left around 0930 and their objective was to reach a ridge just a few kilometres from the base, which overlooks Taleban territory, and then to clear any mines or booby traps left by the Taleban.

This is how the fighting goes here in Kajaki - pushing out, pulling back - and in the nine months since I was last here it doesn't seem to have changed very much

A team of Gurkha engineers went out in front as a search team and they quickly found an improvised explosive device (IED).

It was homemade and had a pressure plate of two metal trays linked to a detonator, an artillery shell and an anti-tank mine.

It made quite a bang when blown up by the bomb disposal experts and would have killed or injured whoever was going past if it had not been found.

By this stage, the Afghan National Army, with their British trainers, had already started fighting with the Taleban on one flank.

A rocket had landed just behind us from that battle and as the troops moved up onto the ridge, the bullets started cracking much closer overhead.

The area was declared clear of mines and the gunners jumped into shallow trenches as incoming fire zipped above us and rounds landed with splashes of dust.

Those with telescopic sights or binoculars spotted where the firing was coming from and the machine gunners opened up. Mortars from the base and rockets from the top of a hill rained down on the Taleban compound.

The Taleban were always going to fight over this high ground, I was told, and their firing was getting more accurate.

As the insurgents began attacking from another side, the British troops used a smokescreen to cover their tactical withdrawal as everyone ran for cover.

This is how the fighting goes here in Kajaki - pushing out, pulling back - and in the nine months since I was last here it does not seem to have changed very much - if anything the Taleban frontline has moved closer to the base; something the men of 40 Commando are determined try to change in the coming months.


There could not have been a greater contrast to the fighting than the scene of more than 100 men standing in silence in their body armour and green berets high up on the edge of the dam overlooking the previous day's battlefield.

The Royal Navy chaplain and a bugler were flown in for the service of remembrance and the company sergeant major organised the lectern, the white wooden cross and the union and regimental flags.

The wind kept the flags full as we looked down over the reservoir on one side and a small power station and river on the other, the view flanked by the last peaks of Hindukush mountains before they peter out into the Helmand desert.

The Last Post sounded at 1100 local time (0630 GMT) and then came two minutes of silence.


Remembrance Day has to me always been a time to reflect and to look back on previous fallen soldiers.

It was strange watching the men of 40 Commando, having been with them in battle the day before, fighting a war in the present rather than the past.

A wreath was laid at the foot of the cross by the youngest marine in the camp and prayers and blessings brought the service to an end.

And then in no time, the flagpoles were down, the cross was folded up into the back of an armoured vehicle and the open ground, with such a stunning view, was back to its daily role of helicopter landing pad.

The rest of the day was quiet. There were no rocket attacks, no mortars and the troops milled around the camp, a few playing headers with a football, others working on their vegetable patch.

They will be here for a while - long enough at least to be able to judge a winner of the company gardening competition.

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