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EDITIONS
Monday, 8 July, 2002, 21:06 GMT 22:06 UK
'My mission with the UK marines'
UK Marines in the mountains of Afghanistan
The marines swooped on vehicles again and again

Our day began at 0400. Or rather 2330 Zulu time, as the military say. They operate on a time equivalent to GMT to make global co-ordination easier.

As the thin sliver of a new moon hung above the Hindu Kush mountains, and a chill wind swept the runway we climbed aboard two Chinook helicopters. When the dawn glow turned the hills salmon pink we lifted, banked and headed south.

"Do you have ear defenders?" A crewman asked one of our number. "No? You'll be deaf then."


The commander spotted a suspicious vehicle - the pilot threw the aircraft into a vicious spiralling descent.

Sat in the left-gunners' seat I watched as we thudded over Kabul, just waking in a blue haze of mist, and over huge expanses of mountain to the rendezvous where we picked up the men from Yankee Company, 45 Commando.

We scoured the area along the border with Pakistan, speeding along low and fast to make us a smaller target to anyone on the ground.

The commander spotted a suspicious vehicle. The pilot threw the aircraft into a vicious spiralling descent. The G-forces pressed us into our seats. And we were out, running under the blast from the rotors.

The marines formed a defensive circle, weapons trained in all directions. Two men and translator advanced, halted a pick-up full of Afghan men, and searched it.


Most of the missions the marines have been on have been like this - hard slog, and no spectacular successes

They found nothing. In four months, most of the missions the marines have been on have been like this. Hard slog, and no spectacular successes.

When the 1,700 men and women of 45 Commando were sent here in March it was to take part in "warfighting operations." But despite all their patrols, they haven't once seen their al-Qaeda enemy. And only twice have they fired in anger.

"The fact that we have not come across al- Qaeda or there has not been a massive land battle, is not to say it has not been a success," says Lieutenant Jim McGovern.

"We have kept him out of this area which has been our ultimate aim."

'Fast and unpredictable'

A blast of air laden with grit and stones announced the return of the Chinooks, so painful we all crouched to avoid the downdraft. Then we were running for the open door, and off again in search of another target.

Time and time again we swooped from the sky on remote stretches of road. Sprinting across rocky plains, chasing after lorries and cars, sweat drenching the inside of our flak jackets, but always without success.

This tactic was developed in Northern Ireland. It is called an "Eagle VCP", short for Vehicle Check Point.


Every time my men go on the ground, the area is full of mines

Major Richard Hills
Military men love acronyms. We came across no HVTs, High Value Targets - senior men from al-Qaeda or the Taleban.

"What it means is the al-Qaeda are too scared to come here from across the border," says Major Richard Hills, the ground commander. "It's because they know we're here, and we're fast and wide-ranging and unpredictable."

There has been much criticism of the deployment back at home. In the absence of any major strikes against al-Qaeda, there have been suggestions the marines have been men without a proper mission.

It is a suggestion that is met with an angry response on the dusty plains of Paktia Province.


Just because they haven't been killed doesn't mean they haven't done a good job

Major Richard Hills
"I think the criticism should be levelled at the hype that was built up before we came out here, " says Major Hills.

"We came out here to do a job, and it was built up to be some kind of a war-fighting scenario, whereas it has turned out to be more a Northern Ireland type situation.

"But the blame should be laid at the people behind the hype."

And he says many of those criticising are doing so thousands of miles away, ignorant of the realities on the ground.

No casualties

"It's ignorance of the fact that every time my men go on the ground, the area is full of mines. Every time they go on the ground, they're susceptible to being shot at.

"People back home don't understand that. Just because they haven't been killed doesn't mean they haven't done a good job."

Marines at Bagram airbase
Most marines are tired and will be happy to return home
Yankee Company have not killed or captured any al-Qaeda. But they have not had any casualties themselves either.

It was only late in the day that the marines found a vehicle with more than 30 mortar rounds on board. A small achievement, but a symbolic way to end their mission in Afghanistan.

We climbed back aboard the Chinooks, and headed for Bagram Airbase. People sprawled on their seats with fatigue. For 45 Commando there has not been much glory, and they will be glad to be getting home.

Find out more about the Royal Marines in Afghanistan


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