Page last updated at 17:13 GMT, Tuesday, 2 September 2008 18:13 UK

UK troops in huge turbine mission


British forces transport the massive hydro electric power turbine

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Helmand

Almost three thousand British troops in southern Afghanistan have successfully transported a huge hydroelectric power turbine through Taleban territory.

In one of their biggest operations in Helmand, a convoy of 100 vehicles took five days to move the massive sections of the turbine 180km (112 miles).

The $6m (3.4m) turbine will produce electricity for an extra 1.9m people.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the operation was a reminder of Nato's "fundamental purpose" in Afghanistan.

The operation to increase the output of the Kajaki dam in southern Afghanistan is part of a development project which has been planned for two years.

Late at night

The convoy travelled the length of the Helmand river valley - through areas insurgents have controlled for more than two years - carrying seven 20-30 tonne sections.

A spokesman said it was the largest route clearance operation the British military has carried out since World War II.

Mr Brown said: "It is yet another example of the skill and courage of our forces, but also a reminder of the fundamental purpose of why they are there - the long term development of Afghanistan, giving the people a stake in the future."

Around 1,000 other Nato troops from the US, Australia, Denmark and Canada were involved and 1,000 Afghan soldiers protected the turbine through one of the most dangerous parts of the journey.

Canadian forces took the convoy on the first leg late at night on Wednesday 27 August.

The sections were surrounded by layers of steel to make them look like ordinary containers

They moved out from Kandahar airbase along the main highway and up the Helmand valley to a meeting point in the desert where British forces took over responsibility.

It was slow going from there, where the road is little more than a dirt track.

Hundreds of British and American special forces troops went in first, sweeping through the green zone of trees, fields, deep irrigation ditches and high-walled compounds where the Taleban are concentrated.

Although it is impossible to verify, British commanders estimated they killed more than 200 insurgents - without any losses or injuries to Nato soldiers - in heavy fighting which included artillery fire and air strikes.

Unmanned drones

Lt Col James Learmont from 7 Para Royal Horse Artillery said they then tricked the Taleban into thinking the convoy was heading straight up the valley, but actually went through the desert on a track used by local people.

British troop convoy transporting turbine
Planning for the massive operation began two years ago

Fifty Viking armoured vehicles drove alongside the main convoy which stretched 4km. It included fuel trucks and the eight heavy equipment transporters carrying a crane and the Chinese-made turbine.

The sections were surrounded by layers of steel to make them look like ordinary containers and to offer some defence against small arms fire, or rocket propelled grenades.

Protection from the air was provided round the clock by British Harrier jump jets and Apache helicopters, as well as French, Dutch and American aircraft. Unmanned drones watched the area ahead of the convoy for any impending insurgent attack.

Infantry troops from all three battalions of the Parachute Regiment covered both sides of the route - leapfrogging ahead of each other in 13 Chinook British and ISAF helicopters, as the slow-moving load edged towards the Kajaki lake at the head of the valley.

Royal Engineers stayed out in front, clearing improvised bombs and strengthening the road as they went along.

There was a serious risk of direct attack or roadside bombs, so Pathfinder reconnaissance troops were sent ahead weeks before and discovered the alternative route.

Although much rougher and slower it was considered a lot safer.

They took, and held, high ground to protect the vehicles and called in airstrikes in the full knowledge of how damaging any civilian casualties would be to the support of their presence in Helmand.

There were many breakdowns along the way with tyres blowing out and air brake pipes being damaged on the bumpy road.

The Royal Regiment of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers did the rolling repairs and kept the convoy moving as quickly as possible, which at times was only 4km per hour.

Oqab Tsuka

Planning to get the turbine into the Kajaki hydroelectric plant started in 2006 - 30 years after it was originally built by USAID, which has paid for the turbine and is responsible for the development project.

Soldier welding steel onto turbine section
The parts were covered in steel to protect and disguise them

For the past four months, 60 British officers have been planning for every eventuality and war-gaming what might happen on the ground.

They were surprised how well the mission had gone - there had been criticism of the plan from military and non-military quarters, saying it should wait until next spring because the Taleban had been so active.

The power station only ever had two turbines with power lines heading off down to the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, but a space was left between turbines one and three for this latest addition.

Indeed, the operation was codenamed Oqab Tsuka, but known as "T2" among the troops.

When turbine two eventually comes online, and when a new grid of power lines are put up in the dangerous valley, it will be able to provide 51 megawatts of power.

But this could take two years or more depending on the security situation and the fear is that people's expectations are high now the turbine has been delivered and they will be expecting electricity very soon.

At least getting the turbine in and achieving one of the main aims of the last three years is a sign of progress in the Helmand valley where most of Britain's 8,000 troops are based.

Map showing Kandahar airbase and Kajaki hydroelectric plant
7 sections of turbine, each weighing 20-30 tonnes
100 vehicles in convoy, stretching for 4km
50 Viking armoured vehicles alongside
Round-the-clock air protection from British, US, French and Dutch aircraft and unmanned drones
3,000 British forces involved
1,000 other Nato troops and 1,000 Afghan soldiers helping protect convoy
200 insurgents killed, according to British commanders

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific