Page last updated at 11:46 GMT, Friday, 25 July 2008 12:46 UK

Attack becomes defence in Helmand

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Helmand

Troops running in the river
2 Para have been fighting almost every day since their arrival in Helmand

At 3.30am, lit by a three-quarter moon, a line of heavily armed men filed out of their British Army base.

Just a few hours earlier their Helmand camp had been attacked by mortars and rockets, but now they were preparing to take the fight back to the Taleban.

The notorious "green zone" of trees and fields is just a few hundred metres from forward operating base Inkerman in the Helmand river valley, but it's where the insurgents fight from.

The mission was using darkness to push deep into their territory and then strike at first light.

They expected to meet heavy resistance, but they couldn't have predicted that their well-planned offensive would turn into a race back to camp within hours.

It's been a hot, dusty and already bloody summer for the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment.

Their base is a northern buffer to stop attacks on Sangin - an important town where a fragile bubble of security has been created to try and win people over by improving their lives.

And the Taleban now have an arsenal of weapons to throw at UK forces: rockets and mortars fired into the camp, ambushes with small arms fire and rocket propelled grenades, booby traps or roadside bombs, and suicide bombers.

Just a few weeks earlier three British soldiers were killed within sight of their base after a suicide bomber rushed a patrol and blew himself up.

Thoughts of that attack and of the bombs now so regularly planted for them would have been in the troops' minds as they took up their positions and waited for sunrise.

A look at the scene of a battle in Afghanistan

Before they left news had come in of another British serviceman being killed and two badly injured further up the valley.

By first light they had overheard the Taleban who had been taken by surprise and they started to move quickly through the compounds looking for weapons.

Then word came back to the commanding officer, Maj Stuart McDonald who had come to Inkerman base with reinforcements from 3 Para, that they had seen Taleban fighters, and he gave the order to open fire.

A rattle of a machine gun was heard from just ahead and using a remote controlled spotter plane to identify insurgent positions he called in mortar fire and artillery.

The troops cheered and laughed as the bombs struck and the smoke rose.

As we pushed forward, one soldier we saw on the patrol grinned and said: "At least we got them first this time."

For once Maj McDonald and British troops here were on the offensive.

With the cover of tree lines, high-walled mud compounds, two-metre high corn and deep irrigation ditches the Taleban are difficult to fight on their own territory.

They have a network of spies, or "dickers" as they are known, who watch British movements and report back to the fighters.

It's the same tactic that was used in Northern Ireland and it's very effective for planning ambushes or laying improvised bombs in the path of the soldiers.

But this time they were caught out.

The first mortar had fallen short and landed right where we had been sitting amid the command group
Alastair Leithead

A sniper moved forward to watch a tree line just a few hundred metres ahead. We moved up next to him as more mortars were called in.

We felt them overhead, there was a eerie whizzing sound and then the fields shook with smoke and dust. But amid the explosions, shouts from behind to "check fire" - stop firing - were heard.

The first mortar had fallen short and landed where we had been sitting amid the command group.

The soldier we had been chatting to had been hit by shrapnel. It wasn't life threatening, but he'd lost a lot of blood when an artery in his arm was punctured.

The second in command, Capt Sean Williams, had also been hit in the knee by shrapnel. It was surprising more troops were not injured or even killed in the blast.

The mortar bomb had been faulty - it had not been human error - but a week after a British Apache helicopter fired on friendly forces in the same valley, it was a reminder of how risky fighting these operations can be.

Soldier ready to fire
It's a strange war where neither side seems to gain much ground
Alastair Leithead

Suddenly the operation went from offensive to defensive - they were a kilometre and a half (about a mile) from base and the Taleban had the advantage.

Through the thick mud of irrigated fields and over open ground the stretcher bearers moved as fast as they could, finally reaching the safety of camp and a medical helicopter.

Maj McDonald was expecting to be ambushed, but the Taleban "dickers" were not quick enough.

Following the patrol for a few hours was just a snapshot of a typical day in Helmand - moving a short distance from a base, clashing with the Taleban and then pulling back into camp.

It's a strange war where neither side seems to gain much ground, and it was amazing how one small incident changed the whole dynamic - from attacking to defending.

Commanders say more troops would mean they could hold the gains they make and stop this cycle of taking and re-taking ground, but Helmand is a very big place and would need thousands more troops to make that difference.

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