Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Lance Sergeant Tobie Fasfous killed in Afghanistan

It is with deep regret that the MOD must confirm that Lance Sergeant Tobie Fasfous from 1st Battalion Welsh Guards was killed in Afghanistan on 28 April 2009.

Lance Sergeant Tobie Fasfous was a specialist mortarman, responsible for directing and controlling the mortar fire used to support friendly troops, an essential role in suppressing the insurgents trying to attack patrols, and in enabling the Afghan National Police and Army to bring stability to the region.

He was taking part in a reassurance foot patrol alongside the Afghan National Army in the vicinity of Forward Operating Base Keenan, north east of Gereshk in Helmand province, when he was killed as a result of an explosion.

Lance Sergeant Tobie Fasfous, 1st Battalion Welsh Guards

Tobie was born on 4 February 1980. Having joined the Army, he completed his training in Guards Training Company, Catterick, in 2001 and joined 1st Battalion Welsh Guards when they were based in Aldershot. He qualified as a sniper, and served with distinction in Bosnia and Iraq, where his grasp of local customs and language quickly endeared him to the local community. His partner, Kelly, lives in Bridgend and his mother works in the Middle East.

Tobie was a bright, popular individual who proved his flexibility in operational theatres as far apart as Bosnia, Iraq, and, most recently, Afghanistan.

Each time, he showed himself undaunted by unfamiliar environments, and quickly demonstrated the compassion, understanding and professionalism of the British soldier on operations. He had intended to continue his career in the Army, and was interested in attempting pilot selection with the Army Air Corps to fly helicopters.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Brown In Afghanistan: 'It Is Relatively Safe' - Sky

Gordon Brown has visited Kabul to finalise what he calls a new approach to dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan - which he will unveil to Parliament on Wednesday.

It involves handing over Afghanistan, province by province, to Afghan control. A similar approach worked in Iraq.

Britain is helping train more Afghan police and the size of the army there will virtually double by the end of 2011.

The Prime Minister visited Helmand province for breakfast with British troops and a meeting with tribal elders.

With elections due here in August, Britain is providing £15m to help ensure those polls are free and fair.

At Camp Bastion, the Prime Minister's message to troops was upbeat.

He told them two thirds of Afghanistan is "relatively safe" and things are improving.

But there is a problem: what Gordon Brown is calling the "crucible of terror" - the ungovernable border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This is the stronghold of al Qaeda and of the Taliban, 60 miles from the Pakistan capital Islamabad.

Mr Brown said 25 to 30 million people were living in a "breeding ground for terrorists" between the two countries.

Future peace in Afghanistan will appear to depend on the military defeat of the Taliban and its allies in neighbouring Pakistan.

The Americans call it AF-PAK, a term Mr Brown does not like.

He insisted they are two distinct countries with two very different sets of problems.

But to solve the crisis in one, Afghanistan now depends on dealing with the problems of the other, Pakistan.

Hence the new approach to dealing with both countries simultaneously.

The Prime Minister said: "There is a crucible of terrorism in the mountainous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"Our approach to these countries is different, but must be complementary. Our strategy for dealing with this breeding ground for terrorism will mean more security on the streets of Britain."

Troops 'overwhelmed' by welcome home

HUNDREDS of people celebrated the return of 600 troops from Afghanistan yesterday as they proudly paraded through their home town.

The troops received a rapturous reception from crowds lining the streets of Barnstaple.

The personnel from the Commando Logistic Regiment who completed a six-month tour in Helmand province said they were "overwhelmed" and "moved" by the welcome they received.
After the parade, the regiment returned to barracks at nearby Chivenor to receive medals in the presence of the Second Sea Lord and Commander-in-Chief Naval Home Command, Vice Admiral Alan Massey CBE ADC.

Lieutenant Andy Cheal, regiment spokesman, said: "There were far more people than we expected – the streets were packed. Every single member of the regiment was overwhelmed by the turnout we saw today.

"Speaking to the lads after we finished, they said they were quite moved by it."
At the medal ceremony, two empty spaces were left on the parade ground for Corporal Rob Deering and Marine Damian Davies who were killed on front-line operations.
It was a poignant reminder of the sacrifices and courage of front-line troops in Afghanistan.

Cpl Deering was killed on December 21 after he went to the aid of comrades when a roadside explosion left them stranded in their personnel carrier. The 33-year-old died in a second blast as he approached the vehicle to help in Lashkar Gah.

More than 600 people gathered at his funeral at St Giles Church in his home town of Sheldon, Birmingham, to pay tribute to the man they described as "lion-hearted".
The medals ceremony was also tinged with sorrow for Royal Marine Damian Davies, a 27- year-old father from Telford, Shropshire, who was killed in a suspected suicide blast on December 12. Mne Davies, a member of the Landing Force Support Party, Commando Logistic Regiment, died after an explosion south of Sangin.

Lt Cheal said: "It is so important for everyone – family, friends, colleagues and even people who didn't know our fallen comrades – to really understand that Rob and Damo will never be forgotten. This parade is as much about honouring them as everyone else."

Commanding Officer Colonel Andy Maynard said they were delighted to be home and reunited with loved ones.

He said: "Mindful of what the tour has achieved, but also the price we have paid, the parade is our chance to celebrate our successes and remember those who were a key part of our accomplishments and who are no longer with us."
The parade was the latest of several held across the Westcountry to welcome home troops.

Thousands turned out to pay tribute to 300 from 24 Commando Engineer Regiment in Braunton, North Devon, on April 8.

The people of Plymouth also turned out in force on April 22 to welcome back the city's 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Exclusive: Marine was shot in the neck but refused morphine to fight on - Mirror

A hero soldier kept blazing away at Taliban... despite being shot in the neck.

Courageous Rob Weeks, just 19, refused morphine because it would weaken him and mean Commando comrades would have to carry him off the battlefield.

Despite his horrific wound, he gave fellow Marines covering fire when they finally helped him to safety Rob, from Weymouth Dorset, told last night how he and his comrades came under attack while on patrol in Helmand, Afghanistan.

He said: "I was peering round a wall and the next thing I knew I was on the ground - knocked down by a bullet through my neck.

"My mouth was full of blood but I managed to say 'man down' into my radio.

"A Marine near me gave first aid. He said the bullet was millimetres from my jugular vein.

"I found out later they could see the vein pulsating in the hole in my neck. They wanted to give me morphine but I refused.

"If I had taken it I wouldn't have been able to walk and it would have taken four men to carry me out. There was only eight of us and we were taking so much fire there was no way they could have afforded to use four people to help me.

"I was patched up and then while my comrades gave covering fire I ran back towards our base.

"I stopped and started giving them covering fire as they moved away.

"I think it was anger. I was full of adrenalin."

Marine Weeks, from 45 Commando based in Arbroath, Scotland, was offered the chance to recuperate at home after two operations in Afghanistan but turned it down.

Rob said: "I wanted to get back with my pals so I opted to stay."

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Britain 'cannot afford to send more troops to Afghanistan' because of the recession - Telegraph

Britain cannot afford to send more troops to Afghanistan because of the mounting costs of dealing with the recession, military commanders have been told.

The Daily Telegraph has learned that the Treasury is blocking Ministry of Defence plans to match a US troop surge with thousands more British soldiers on financial grounds.
Alistair Darling announced in his Budget on Wednesday that the Government will have to borrow £700 billion over the next five years as tax revenues fall and spending on items like welfare payments soar.

In private Whitehall discussions about Afghanistan, his department has argued that the ever-worsening state of the public finances means the Government simply cannot spare more money for an increased long-term commitment to the country.

Britain currently has around 8,300 troops in Afghanistan, the second-largest force after America's, which is set to grow to more than 50,000 this year.

Gordon Brown has authorised a short-term deployment of several hundred extra troops to Afghanistan to provide extra security for the country's presidential election this summer. That temporary increase will still go ahead.

For the full article on the Telegraph website click here

Brigade HQ prepares for Afghan deployment at new training lab

The headquarters staff of 11 Light Brigade, who will be taking command of Task Force Helmand in October 2009, have been undergoing rigorous training for their deployment at a new Command and Control Battle Lab.

Exercise Brilliant Lightening 6 saw 11 Light Brigade undergo Command and Control Tactics, Techniques and Procedures training at the recently created Command and Control Battle Lab at the Defence Academy.

The exercise has helped the brigade headquarters staff exploit the Command and Control tools available to them by developing their skills through mission-specific training.

For the full report click here for the MOD website

Friday, April 24, 2009

Afghan blog brings soldier fame - BBC

Afghanistan medics welcomed home - BBC

To watch the BBC video report click here

A 40-strong group of medics who have been treating front-line casualties in Afghanistan have returned to Plymouth. Nurses and medical assistants were greeted by loved ones following their three-month deployment.

The Royal Navy staff were operating mainly at Camp Bastion hospital, a base in Helmand province for about 3,000 British troops.
They will now have a break before returning to duty in the UK, including at Derriford Hospital in Plymouth.

Nurse Nicky Richardson said: "It's been hard being away from the family, but it's the job you signed up to do so you just get on with it."

For the full story on the BBC website click here

45 Commando marines return home - BBC

The final marines from 45 Commando who have been on a six-month tour of Afghanistan are due to return home.

The Arbroath-based group have been in Helmand Province capturing Taleban weapons, protecting roads and destroying heroin and poppy crops.

Nine of their members were killed during operations.

The 50 marines who are returning to RM Condor will be the last of the 800 from 45 Commando who have been serving in Afghanistan since October.

Commanding Officer Lt Col Jim Morris believes it was a tough but worthwhile deployment.
"Opium to the street value of over £20m was found and destroyed as well as the chemicals and equipment to produce it," he said.

"In addition a large number of Taleban weaponry and associated equipment was also destroyed. The operation was an enormous success and local Afghan reactions have been extremely positive.

"There are now eleven schools that have opened since our arrival in Helmand, families are moving back into southern Sangin, the bazaar is thriving and we have secured an area in the centre of the town which is about to receive a new Afghan health clinic, school and government offices."

For the full story on the BBC website click here

Commander pays tribute to team - PA

A Royal Marine commander returning from Afghanistan paid tribute to the courage of his team as they battled with insurgents to bring security to the region.

Lieutenant Colonel Jim Morris said much progress was made during the six-month tour by the Arbroath-based 45 Commando despite the dangerous nature of the work.

The Commander credited the marines' "remarkable" determination, cheerfulness and bravery throughout the operation.

Hero shrugs off legs loss - The Sun

A BRAVE soldier has shrugged off the horrific loss of both his legs and declared: “I won’t let it stop me.”

Green Beret Commando Gregg Stevenson said he was RELIEVED his injuries were not worse after stepping on hidden explosives in Afghanistan.
And he is vowing to return to frontline duties just as soon as he is fitted with prosthetic legs.
Gregg, 24, was on foot patrol and looking for mines in Helmand Province when he was sent flying by a massive explosion. The Taliban weapon blew both his legs off from the knee and also took the top off his left index finger.

But Gregg - who serves with the 24 Engineer Regiment - believes he owes his life to his 6ft 4in height. Last night he said: “I was lucky that I was so tall. Because I was six-foot-four the explosive missed my vital organs.

“It wasn’t really a shock that it happened as my job was to look for mines and explosives on the front line so I knew what the dangers involved.

“I’m staying positive and just trying to get back on with my life as normal. My family were upset when they were told what had happened but they knew I wasn’t in Afghanistan doing a desk job. I won’t let it stop me.”

Gregg, of Foulridge, Lancs, was on his first tour of duty to Afghanistan during his three years in the Devon-based battalion which supports the Royal Marines.

He was just two weeks from completing a six-month stint - but now faces months of treatment before he can resume his career.
For the full story on The Sun website click here

Thursday, April 23, 2009

2 RIFLES take up the reins in Sangin

2nd Battalion The Rifles have taken over from 45 Commando Royal Marines in Afghanistan as the Battle Group (North), based around the strategically important town of Sangin.

2 RIFLES, based in Ballykinler in Northern Ireland, took over control on Saturday 18 April 2009 as their flag was raised above their headquarters at Forward Operating Base Jackson in Sangin where it will remain in place until October 2009.

The Battalion, part of 19 Light Brigade which took over responsibility for Helmand province at the beginning of April, will receive support during its time in Afghanistan from personnel in all three Services which in total will make up a Battle Group of more than 1,100 troops.

Petraeus: "Tough months" ahead in Afghanistan - Boston Globe

Gen. David Petraeus warned Tuesday of "tough months ahead" as the U.S. steps up its presence in Afghanistan to help stabilize the country.

Petraeus, who heads U.S. Central Command, said the U.S. faces a reinvigorated Taliban insurgency and a rise in the trafficking of illegal narcotics, which he said helps fuel the insurgency.

The top goal, he said, is helping prevent Afghanistan from sliding to its pre-9/11 days that allowed the country to become a safe haven for al-Qaida leaders plotting attacks.

Getting there won't be easy, he said.

"We are going to make progress but it's going to get worse before it gets better," Petraeus said. "When you go into an enemy's territory ... they are going to fight you for it."

President Barack Obama has ordered an additional 21,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan this summer to bolster the record 38,000 already in the country.

Petraeus is credited for crafting the surge strategy that helped turn the tide and reduce violence in Iraq, a turnaround that he said hinged on a series of "big ideas," the most important of which was a strategic shift that had U.S. troops spending more time living and working closely with Iraqi citizens.

Under the new strategy, the goal was not simply to clear an area of insurgents, but to try to bring some stability in the aftermath of any raid.

"You can't commute to the fight," he said. "You can't clear and leave. You have to clear and hold, and then build."

Another important lesson was sorting out insurgents who could be convinced to join the county's political process from those hardcore "irreconcilables" who were dedicated to their cause and couldn't be flipped.

Failing to learn that lesson early on, and failing to invest more directly in the rebuilding of the country, helped allow the violence in the country to escalate dangerously before the surge, he said.

Petraeus made his comments during a forum held at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bomb death trooper took off helmet to cool down before explosion - Telegraph

A comrade of Princes William and Harry was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan after taking his helmet off to cool down, an inquest heard yesterday.

Fijian Ratu Babakobau, 29, was searching a dry river bed when his armoured vehicle hit a mine while on routine patrol in the Nowzad area of Helmand Province.

Three other soldiers and a translater were injured - one of whom was blown 30ft out of the vehicle by the force of the blast.

Princes William and Harry said they were "deeply saddened" by the death of their colleague, who was affectionately known as 'Baba' by pals.

Yesterday the inquest in Trowbridge, Wilts., heard how Trooper Babakobau had taken his helmet off just moments before the blast.

Group commander Captain Rowland Spiller said: "He had his helmet on but on his return to the vehicle he took it off due to the intense heat.

"Suddenly felt a blast come from behind and I felt the whole vehicle lurch to the right."

Trooper Babakobau died of massive blast injuries on May 2 last year.

He is survived by wife Camari and two young sons, Ratu Seru and Ratu Sakeasi Sucumailodoni Selamu. The two-day inquest continues.

Shot helmet Pte mum’s shock - The Sun

THE mum of a soldier left without a scratch after a bullet went right through his helmet told of her shock yesterday.

The Sun revealed yesterday how Private Leon Wilson was targeted by a sniper whose shot whizzed out the other side of the headgear — missing his scalp by just two millimetres.

Mum Jennifer Hughes said: “He rang me and said ‘I’m OK mum but I’ve been shot through the head’. I was in shock he had come so close.”

TA volunteer Leon, on attachment to the 2nd Battalion of the Mercian Regiment (Worcesters and Foresters), was knocked on his back by the 7.62mm Taliban bullet.

But dad-of-three Leon, 32, returned to the battle in Helmand, Afghanistan, within an H0UR, after finding a new helmet.

Jennifer, of Knutsford, Cheshire, said: “I’m proud of what he does.”

200 new armoured vehicles for front line operations

A fleet of nearly 200 new armoured vehicles to support front line troops on operations has now been ordered by the MOD.

The £74m order for around 110 enhanced Jackal 2 vehicles and more than 70 Coyote Tactical Support Vehicles has been awarded to vehicle manufacturer Supacat, which has formed an alliance with Babcock.

The enhanced Jackal 2 features improved manoeuvrability and reliability, and will be able to carry three crew members; one more than its predecessor.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Bath soldier looks forward to Afghanistan stint

A soldier from Bath says he is looking forward to serving in one of the most inhospitable regimes in the world.

Nineteen-year-old Nicholas Addey is coming to the end of a tour of duty in Basra, where he says his rifle company's stint has been "quiet".

But as he and thousands of British soldiers prepare to lead the drawdown of forces from Iraq, another country is already firmly in the minds and on the lips of men serving in 5th Battalion The Rifles (5 Rifles) - Afghanistan.

Although some of the 600 troops serving with 5 Rifles at Contingency Operating Base (COB) Basra have experienced a total of four tours, in 2003, 2004, 2006 and the present one, for many of the younger troops such as Rifleman Addey, their current deployment is their first.

And perhaps surprisingly, when asked about the future, the men eagerly talk about their hopes, and not fears, of serving in Asia.

The battalion, equipped with the formidable Warrior Armoured Vehicle, has a tour booked in 2011, and although there's no guarantee, the men are fully aware it is more than likely they will be deployed to the war-torn country.

The soldiers are now weeks away from the end of their current stint - with most scheduled to leave early to mid May - after Major General Andy Salmon, head of coalition forces, stood down and handed over military command to the US Army last month.

Maj Gen Salmon's consensus that the British Army is leaving Basra a much safer and optimistic place is shared by the 5 Rifles troops.

Rfn Addey, is out on his first tour, after arriving last December.

Rfn Addey, who will return to the battalion's base in Paderborn in Germany, said: "This has been a quiet first tour. There's been no contact with the enemy."

Rfn Addey, who was recently engaged to Trisha Hazell, 18, said it was the lack of action that has set his mind on fighting in Afghanistan in two years' time.

He said: "I joined because I wanted to fight, I wanted to make people proud, I wanted to be on the front line.

"The training we've done - we've not used it all on this tour. People join the Army for those reasons."

One of 5 Rifles' principle tasks in Basra is to provide protection on the base and assistance to the Iraqi Security Forces in Basra City when required - or as many of them like to dub themselves, they are "the insurance policy".

But they have not been called into the city once on this tour, and indirect fire on the COB is unusual these days - there have been only five attacks in the past eight months, compared to 28 in March 2008.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Soldier's 'lucky' bullet escape - BBC

Watch the BBC video here

See the Sun newspapers report here

A soldier has been described as "the luckiest in the British Army" after a bullet hit his helmet, but missed his head by 2mm.

Private Leon "Willy" Wilson, 32, a Territorial Army soldier from Manchester, was knocked over by the impact of the shot in Afghanistan.

The father of three was back on duty within an hour of the near-miss.

Bin Laden deputy slams Obama plan for Afghanistan - AP

Al-Qaida's No. 2 leader has ridiculed President Barack Obama's plan to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan in a new Internet audio recording released Monday.

Ayman al-Zawahri also urged al-Qaida in Iraq to "break the borders" of neighboring countries and liberate Jerusalem from the Israelis, whom he called "crusader invaders."

Al-Zawahri's comments were posted on a militant Web site Monday and came as the Obama administration plans to increase troop levels in Afghanistan and start withdrawing forces from Iraq.

"What Obama is doing by increasing the troops is adding more fuel to the fire that is already burning," he said.

Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant also criticized Pakistan's U.S.-allied government for its attempts to make deals with Muslim fundamentalists along its border with Afghanistan in hopes of draining support for extremists.

He accused Obama of encouraging Pakistan's government to make such deals, calling the strategy "a delusion."

"Obama is cheating you, the problem will not end there. It will escalate," he said.

The U.S. has expressed concern about the Pakistani government's peace efforts in the region.

Al-Zawahri also warned the Obama administration against any cooperation with Iran in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

"The more you cooperate with Iran, the more hatred you will generate from Muslims," he said.

In the 41-minute recording, al-Zawahri also criticized Egypt's mediation in talks between rival Palestinian factions. He said those talks are aimed at pressuring the Islamic Hamas group to accept peace with Israel.

Afghanistan beat Scotland to win their first One Day International - Telegraph

After just missing out on qualification for the 2011 World Cup Afghanistan celebrated their first match with official One Day International status by defeating Scotland in the fifth-place play-off at the ICC World Cup Qualifiers in South Africa.

Playing in Benoni, the Afghans, who had already beaten Scotland in the Super Eight stages just two games ago, won by 89 runs after setting the Scots a target of 296 to win from their 50 overs.

Afghanistan's fearless playing style was once again crucial as Noor Ali raced to 45 off just 28 deliveries, before fifties from Mohammad Nabi and Samiullah Shenwari carried the side to 295 for 6.

Afghanistan's final total was effectively six an over and proved too much for Scotland.

Neil McCallum scored 25 from 33 deliveries to offer some hope but he was given out lbw and after that Afghanistan took over.

There was a late flurry from Scotland through final pairing of John Blain and Gordon Drummond.

But, with 10 overs still in hand, Blain was finally bowled for 41, having shared a 63-run partnership with Drummond, who was left undefeated on 25. Hamid Hassan ended with three for 33 from his eight overs.

Before the match Hassan had revealed the pride he felt at his team's achievements.

He said: "It is the proudest day of my life knowing that I am going to have the opportunity to play one-day international cricket for Afghanistan. I feel absolutely wonderful – it is a brilliant achievement for our country."

Next up for Afghanistan is the ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier for the tournament to be held in the Caribbean in 2010.

Afghanistan, along with Canada, Ireland, Kenya, Namibia, Holland, Scotland and the United Arab Emirates will have ODI status for the next four years.

British troops also paying heavy price in Afghanistan war -

Like most of his countrymen, Pte. Colin Walstow admitted that he "did not have a clue" that Canada was fighting only 60 kilometres to the east of where he was serving as a combat medic for the British army in Helmand Province.

Most Canadians suffer from a similar myopia.

They have been so focused on Canada's war in Kandahar that most don't know the British have been fighting and dying in almost similar numbers in neighbouring Helmand.

Since 9/11, 152 Britons and 117 Canadians have died in Afghanistan.

Britain has dispatched 8,300 troops and five infantry battalions to Helmand. Canada has about 3,000 soldiers and one infantry battalion in Kandahar.

The British have mostly fought from light-armoured Land Rovers. That is a path that Canada abandoned shortly after moving their forces from Kabul to Kandahar in 2006 because its jeep-like vehicles were considered vulnerable to improvised explosive devices.

Canadian soldiers mostly use armoured personnel carriers and heavily armoured RG-32 trucks to get around. They also have Leopard tanks.

"If you've got the enemy within, laying bombs and attacking with small pockets of men, there are not many scenarios in this small zone for armour," said Col. Greville Bibby, the British contingent's deputy commander, adding that the populated terrain in this province was not practical for heavy vehicles.

"Our experience in Northern Ireland is that you can't influence the people from behind 10 inches of armour. You can't do it whizzing past with armour, pushing them off the road."

Still, the similarities between how the Commonwealth allies are prosecuting this violent, opium-fuelled war in the Taliban heartland are more striking than the differences. After the Brits and Canadians won some very one-sided early battles against insurgents in Helmand and Kandahar, the enemy now mostly causes mayhem by planting IEDs.

Contact has been particularly light in recent weeks because so many of the insurgents have been out harvesting opium.

However, the fighting season is expected to begin again in earnest in a few weeks.

The British contingent in Afghanistan is the 19th Light Brigade — the last of the light brigades immortalized in Lord Alfred Tennyson's poem about the heroism of the troops carrying out a senseless cavalry charge against the Russians during the Crimean War.

And just as the Canadians are about to hand over the largely unpopulated northeastern and southeastern half of Kandahar to a U.S. Army Stryker Brigade, the British are transferring the largely unpopulated southern half of Helmand to a U.S. Marine Expeditionary Brigade.

The Brits and the Canadians have embraced the growing American presence and have adopted nearly identical strategies to try to win Afghans over. They are using provincial reconstruction teams comprised of civilians and soldiers that are "as joined at the hip as an organization can be," Bibby said.

The British and the Afghan government already have established five protected communities within a security bubble since they began the program early last year.

Brig.-Gen. Jon Vance, Canada's commander in Kandahar, revealed a similar strategy last week, with work to begin soon to secure the town of Deh-E-Bagh.

"We're not trying to turn Helmand into Hampshire," said Bibby, who is No. 2 at the Helmand PRT to a British foreign affairs official. But the security bubble strategy "works. It is absolutely fantastic to see. It is all about them doing it. I can tell you that if we pulled out, the locals would be very angry. They are really hungry for this."

Bibby and other soldiers at Lashkar Gah, which is the British headquarters, expressed frustration with their own journalists for seldom wanting to report on the non-military war.

"The British media focus on the kinetic stuff," said Sgt. Paul Crawford, a Royal Engineer who had served previously in Iraq and Afghanistan. "They want to film firefights. But the majority of what we do is stability and construction."

One of the ways the British army has tried to do that is to send six-member teams of experts to the most far-flung places.

"We are trying to map the human terrain to understand as much we can about the human environment," said Maj. James Bunyard of the The 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh. "It all boils down to developing capacity. We want to hand over to civilians, to other foreigners, or better yet, to Afghans. This is a very complex environment. Everything we do is about getting an Afghan to do something for himself."

As in Canada, there is also a war to be won at home. While hugely supportive of their troops, many Britons remain skeptical about the mission.

"My impression is that there is a lack of understanding as to why we are here," Bibby said. "Like so many things political, the media use this to discuss political implications, rather than what is actually happening on the ground."

There were hard facts to support the contention that "there are absolute signs of progress," said Lt.-Col. Nick Richardson, a Royal Engineer who runs media operations in Helmand.

"During the Taliban time, there were one million kids in school. There are six million now. Back then, eight per cent of the population had access to health care. It is now 80 per cent. And 35,000 kids are alive because of immunization programs."

Unlike Ottawa, which has announced its combat mission in Kandahar will end late in 2011, Britain has an open-ended combat commitment in Helmand.

"It has been challenging. We are almost working at capacity," Bibby said. "But we can do it and I am confident that we can keep going at this level as long as we keep doing it."

Walstow, the combat medic, said there was an "atmospheric change" every time he "crossed the bridge" and left the relative peace of Lashkar Gah.

The 20-year-old private said he had already been told that it was likely he will be back in Helmand again sometime in the winter of 2010/2011.

Luke's Taliban 'adrenalin rush' - South Yorks Star

SHEFFIELD soldier Luke Nally is beginning a well-earned holiday from a tough but successful six month tour in Afghanistan where he had been helping to train the Afghan army.

Luke, aged 24, a rifleman with the 1st Battalion The Rifles, was working in the heart of the volatile Helmand province including areas like Musa Quala which was recently under control by Taliban insurgents.

Luke said: "We worked in small teams of around ten British troops and roughly 40 Afghan Nation Army soldiers.

"We patrolled with them on a daily basis, helping to develop their patrolling skills and general awareness of the environment we worked in. When we were not on patrol we took them through such things as weapon handling, shooting, map reading and life-saving drills.

"Throughout the tour my team had numerous contacts with the enemy, coming under fire from small arms and rocket propelled grenades. It was definitely an experience I won't forget, it gives you an adrenalin rush which helps you to do what you need in that situation."

Luke is back in Sheffield and looking forward to spending some time with his parents Andrew and Mary.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

British troops seize weapons stash just days after arriving in Afghanistan - Daily Mail

British soldiers captured a haul of deadly weapons just days after arriving in war-ravaged southern Afghanistan.

Troops from the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Scotland, led a helicopter swoop on a supply route used by the Afghan resistance.

The soldiers from the Inverness-based battalion arrived in Afghanistan at the end of last month and officially became the regional battle group for the south of the country on Friday.

About 200 soldiers set off on a mission just 24 hours later, deploying at dawn on Saturday into Taliban heartland on a gruelling 36-hour operation.

Soldiers from Alpha (Grenadier) Company dropped from helicopters on to a known enemy supply route - and uncovered a stash of lethal explosives.

This included anti-personnel mines, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, which are the weapons fuelling an insurgency gripping Helmand province and the surrounding areas.

British troops have faced some of their fiercest fighting for years in southern Afghanistan.

The captured weapons were destroyed in a controlled explosion.

Around 30 Afghan National Army soldiers were also involved in the operation, as well as a small number of Canadian and US personnel.

Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Cartwright, commanding officer of the Black Watch, hailed the 'positive result' of the operation.

He said: 'The fact that Alpha Company deployed on operations so soon after their arrival in theatre demonstrates their flexibility and high level of preparation.

'It's pleasing to have had such a positive result.'

Major Matt Munro, commanding officer of Alpha Company, said: 'There is no doubt that our first deployment proved the excellent training that we have been through together.

'The use of helicopters gave us the initiative which we maintained throughout.'

The Black Watch battalion has taken over as the regional battle group from Plymouth-based 42 Commando Royal Marines.

It will support a range of operations across southern Afghanistan and is part of the UK's contribution to Nato's International Security Assistance Force.

Soldier’s blogs are a big hit with regulars

A WORCESTER soldier fighting in Afghanistan is proving to be a big hit with punters after he started sending blogs from the frontline back to his local pub.

Almost as soon as Colour Sergeant Michael Saunders landed in the dusty deserts and humidity of Helmand Province, the 35-year-old former Nunnery Wood High School pupil began writing to his sister, Tracey Tyrls.

The chef and waitress took them into the Marwood, The Tything, and they have proved so popular that a wall has now been dedicated to printouts of the blogs that describe the daily life of the soldier, who is serving with the 2nd Battalion Mercian Regiment (Worcesters and Foresters) on their third tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Mrs Tyrls said: “Michael loves to write and it’s a great way for him to keep us up-to-date with what he’s doing in Afghanistan. I find it reassuring to get letters from him regularly.

“It’s a bonus that it’s proved so popular and regulars have been following his progress with interest. With 2 Mercian deployed in a really challenging role out there, there are lots of soldiers from Worcestershire in the thick of it.

“I think it’s good for people to realise that although thousands of miles away, what’s going on in Afghanistan affects the people of Worcester more than they might think.”

We previously reported in your Worcester News how the Mercians have been charged with passing on their skills to the Afghan National Army and conducting joint patrols around the province.

C/Sgt Saunders’ job as platoon quartermaster sergeant for the combat infantry signals platoon means that he is responsible for the distribution of communication gear to 21 locations in Afghanistan.

C/Sgt Saunders, who has a three-year-old daughter, hopes his letters from the desert will help people to understand what the Army is doing in the country and what daily life there is really like.

Afghanistan nurse trainer wins award from Royal Navy - Nursing Times

A medical assistant who has been training nurses in Afghanistan has been awarded a certificate of recognition by the Royal Navy.

Natalie Chinniah, 26, of Buxton, Derbyshire, volunteered to teach a group of Afghan nurses trauma management at a hospital in Helmand Province.

All 12 nurses graduated from the two-month course in March. The project will help to enable the hospital to operate its own ambulance service.

Ms Chinniah has served as a medical assistant to the Joint Forces Medical Group since September 2008. She is regularly attached to a foot or vehicle patrol in Helmand Province.

The current tour is her second in Afghanistan since she joined the Royal Navy in 2004.

She said: ‘The tour has been a real experience. I’ve been shot at and have been on the receiving end of rocket attacks.

‘I have been able to put my medical training to good use; on one hand I have used it to treat people who have been injured in battle and on the other hand I have used it to help train the local nurses in trauma management.’

Ms Chinniah will be returning to the UK in April.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Poland sending more troops to Afghanistan

Poland's defense minister said a fresh contingent of troops will raise the number of his country's soldiers in Afghanistan to 2,000.

Defense Minister Bogdan Klich said Polish troops were in service of NATO's most important mission -- to stablilize Afghanistan and the surrounding region, Polish Radio said Friday.

Poland is also dispatching two helicopters and a transport plane to Afghanistan.

At a departure ceremony of a paratrooper battalion from the southeastern town of Krakow, Klich told the troops their task included providing safety of civilians in Afghanistan.

The rise of the troops number from 1,600 to 2,000 is the Polish government's strategic move to assist the international mission, along with $9 million allocated to help lessening poverty of civilians in the region.

Friday, April 17, 2009

City welcomes returning soldiers - BBC

To watch the BBC video report click here

Crowds of well-wishers have lined the streets of Plymouth to officially welcome home members of the 29 Commando Regiment, Royal Artillery.

A total of 450 Plymouth-based soldiers paraded through the city to mark their homecoming following a six-month deployment in Afghanistan.

The march began from their base at the Royal Citadel on the Hoe and ended at St Andrew's Church for a service.

Two members of the regiment were killed during the tour in Helmand Province.

Capt Tom Sawyer, 26, from Hertfordshire, died in an explosion during an operation against enemy forces in central Helmand province on 14 January.

A month earlier, 26-year-old Lt Lewis Aaron, from Essex, was fatally wounded when the gun position he was commanding in the Gereshk area of Helmand Province came under attack on 15 December.

The 29 Commando Regiment, Royal Artillery were in Helmand Province in the south of the country providing specialist artillery support for 3 Commando Brigade, which is based at Stonehouse in Plymouth.

This was their second tour of duty in Afghanistan in the past two years.

A medal presentation took place at the Piazza at lunchtime following the remembrance and thanksgiving service.

Afterwards the troops marched up Royal Parade, around the fountain and past St Andrew's before heading back to the Citadel.

Although the majority of the regiment is based in the Royal Citadel on Plymouth Hoe, it also has batteries in Poole and Arbroath.

Lt Col Neil Wilson RA, commanding officer of the regiment, presented the medals at the ceremony in the Piazza.

He said: "Having been stationed in Plymouth for the past 57 years, we very clearly see the city as our home base.

"The people of Plymouth have supported us superbly throughout our deployment and today gave us an opportunity for us to say thank you."

One member of the regiment unable to attend the ceremony was Cpl Simon Vaughan who remains seriously ill in Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham after being injured by a road-side bomb in December.

However, while the ceremony took place, he simultaneously received his medal in hospital, from Lt Col Colin McClean, in the presence of his wife and son.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Afghanistan's Journey to the Brink of the 2011 Cricket World Cup

What comes into your mind when you think of Afghanistan?

War. The Taliban. Poverty.

No matter what your opinion may be of the Islamic state, it may be time add another word to the list.


The Afghanistan national cricket team is on the precipice of achieving one of the most incredible feats in the history of sport. They are merely one match away from qualifying for the 2011 Cricket World Cup.

The eyes of the cricket world are firmly focused on South Africa as the Indian Premier League is set to commence this weekend on foreign shores. Sadly, many of those gazing in awe at the stars of the Twenty20 game are blind to the beauty of what has been happening on the cricket pitches of South Africa this past week.

Cricket in Afghanistan dates back to 1839, when the game is reported to have been played by British troops in Kabul. However, unlike many other countries influenced by British sport, the vast majority of Afghan people didn’t take to the game.

For over a hundred years the game remained dormant in Afghanistan. In fact, it wasn’t until the early 1990’s that the game became a relatively popular activity for Afghan people.

Afghan refugees, who had found sanctuary in neighbouring Pakistan, learned to play the game. Whilst still residing in the squalor of their refugee camps they formed the Afghanistan Cricket Federation in 1995.

The seeds had been sown. However, cricket in Afghanistan was cast aside in 1996 when the Taliban came into power, since they prohibited all sports.

As the world welcomed a new millennium, the Taliban had a change of heart. Cricket, in 2000, became the first sport, and only, sport to be approved by the fundamentalist regime.

Afghans were now free to play cricket when and where they wanted, but the good news didn’t end there. Just one year later, Afghanistan was bestowed with the honour of affiliate membership of the International Cricket Council.

Since then they have toured Pakistan, playing numerous teams from the second tier of Pakistan’s domestic league, as well as trekking around the home of cricket, England.

Wins were scarce, but that didn’t matter.

In 2007 they got their hands on some silverware, well, they had to share the ACC Twenty20 Cup with Oman after a tie in the final, but still, a trophy is a trophy.

For the full story click here

Soldier is wounded in Taliban firefight - Evening Telegraph

A SOLDIER from a Derbyshire regiment has been wounded following a firefight with the Taliban in Afghanistan

He was shot in the arm when troops from the 2nd Mercian Battalion came under attack while escorting a convoy of lorries taking supplies to British soldiers in remote outposts of Helmand Province.

Major Jez Jerome, who is co-ordinating information from the battalion's headquarters in Belfast, said: "We have only had one soldier suffer minor injuries so far after receiving a gunshot wound to the arm.

"But he rallied his men around and continued fighting using his weapon with one arm.

"He is the only member of the battalion to have suffered any injury at all, which is great news

Meanwhile, the last wave of Derbyshire soldiers to be deployed to Afghanistan will fly out on Saturday.

About 100 members of B Company of the 2nd Mercian Battalion will head to Helmand Province to join about 300 comrades already stationed there.

B Company will provide infantry support to the Light Dragoons in Southern Helmand, along with soldiers from A Company.

The remaining soldiers will be working in operational, Mentoring and Liaison Teams.

This will see small teams of British soldiers working with and alongside the Afghan National Army for the duration of the six-month tour.

Major Jerome said: "B Company fly out on Saturday and, apart from the rear party, that's the whole battalion deployed."

Taliban execute eloping young lovers in Afghanistan - Guardian

A young couple who tried to elope in one of the most lawless and conservative parts of Afghanistan have been publicly executed by Taliban gunmen after their parents handed them over to be tried by insurgents.

Officials from the south-western province of Nimroz say Gul Pecha, in her late teens, and her boyfriend Abdul Aziz, 21, were shot by a firing squad outside a mosque in their home village of Lokhi on Monday.

The couple had fled to a nearby village and were planning to start a life together without the permission of their parents, according to the province's police chief Abdul Jabar Pardeli.

But they were found by their parents and turned over to the Taliban, who held them for four days in Lokhi's mosque before putting them on trial.

Ghulam Dastageer Azad, the governor of Nimroz, said the couple's execution was "against Islam, against the law and against the constitution".

An unofficial justice system, often dispensing brutal punishment to people found guilty of petty crimes or breaking the Taliban's strict interpretation of Islamic values, has become the hallmark of areas where insurgents enjoy a high degree of influence.

A recent report by a human rights group said the Taliban systematically terrorise civilians with threatening "night letters", executions and limb amputations in order to force communities not to support the government.

Taliban commanders are even issued with manuals telling them what techniques to use and who to target.

Officials say the couple's home district of Khash Rod is under almost complete Taliban control.

Sadiq Chakhansor, the head of the provincial council, said he thought the couple were intending to flee to Iran, where many young people from the region grew up as refugees, enjoying a relatively liberal environment before returning to their much more restrictive homeland.

Although the provincial governor, chief of police and leader of the local council all claimed Taliban gunmen were responsible for the murders, a spokesman for the movement denied Taliban involvement.

"I have contacted our fighters in the area and I can say that none of them were involved," said Qari Yousuf Ahmadi. "But it was a very bad thing for these people to escape from their homes without permission and it is right that they should be punished according to Sharia law."

There are almost no Afghan or foreign troops in Khash Rod, which is seen as a resting area and a passageway for militants moving through into neighbouring Helmand province where most of Britain's effort in the country is directed.

Afghan 'anti-rape' women attacked - BBC

Dozens of Afghan women who tried to protest against a new law they say legalises rape within marriage have been attacked in the capital, Kabul.

Police intervened after supporters of the law threw stones at the women and tried to seize their banners.

The law was signed by President Hamid Karzai but is currently being reviewed after criticism from abroad.

Its most controversial article says a woman must make herself available for sex with her husband when he desires.

The law's defenders say it actually protects the rights of women.

'Revisit and overturn'

Thursday's demonstration took place outside a religious centre run by a cleric who helped draft the law which is aimed at Afghanistan's Shia minority.

"We actually see it as a law that is limiting women's rights... We all stand against this law, we want a reform of the law, we want a revisit of it and overturn of it," one of the protesters, Sima Ghani, told the BBC.

Another protester said the new law was reminiscent of the worst excesses against women during the Taleban's rule of Afghanistan which ended in 2001.

The protesters were quickly swamped by hundreds of Afghans, both men and women, in a counter-demonstration.

They pelted the women with small stones and gravel as the police struggled to keep the two sides apart. Some chanted "death to the slaves of Christians".

President Karzai ordered an urgent review of the law - which he says has been misinterpreted by Western journalists - earlier this month.

It has been criticised by US President Barack Obama, the UN and Nato chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who said it went against the values of his troops.

Aides to President Karzai insist that the law in fact provides more protection for women.

The counter-demonstrators - who support the new law - insist that the legislation stops women from being harmed.

"Muslim women have rights which are stated for them in the Koran, not rights that other countries set for them. We want the rights which have been set according to Islam," one of them told the BBC.

Among the law's provisions are that

• wives are obliged to have sexual relations with their husbands at least once every four days

• women cannot leave home without their husband's permission

Critics say the law limits the rights of women from the Shia minority and authorises rape within marriage.

The law covers members of Afghanistan's Shia minority, who make up 10% of the population. A separate family law for the Sunni majority is also being drawn up.

The BBC's Martin Patience in Kabul says that the legislation has some support, particularly among conservative religious clerics who play a prominent role in public life.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

British bomber 'fighting for the Taliban against British soldiers' - Daily Mail

A British bombmaker is fighting for the Taliban against British troops in Afghanistan, it has been revealed.

DNA from a terror suspect with British nationality has been found on an unexploded roadside bomb planted by the Taliban.

The sample matched with a database of UK terror suspects and confirms mounting fears that British nationals are now fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The DNA sample was taken from an roadside bomb that was diffused by bomb disposal experts in Helmand Province.

It is believed to be an exact match with a known Muslim extremist who was naturalised in England after arriving from Pakistan, according to the Sun.

He was radicalised in Britain before disappearing two years ago and heading to Afghanistan.

Recent intelligence reports show that rising numbers of home-grown jihadists have joined the Taliban so they can kill British soldiers.

Carla Bland, whose 21-year-old brother Wayne was killed in a bomb blast in August told the paper: 'These people are traitors and sick in the head.

'It’s hard enough for the soldiers over there without having to face their own people as well.

'My brother was trying to help Muslim people. These bombers aren’t helping Afghans - they’re just making it worse for everyone.'

Senior military sources say UK troops are engaged in a 'surreal mini-civil war' in the dusty badlands of Helmand Province.

Surveillance operations from the warzone has picked up voices talking with West Midlands and Yorkshire accents, according to official briefing documents.

The electronic 'chatter' shows that young disaffected Muslims are travelling to southern Afghanistan to commit violence against British targets.

MI5 has estimated that up to 4,000 British Muslims had travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan for military training, with 'dozens' switching to the front-line.

RAF spy planes have 'listened in' to the conversations of Taliban fighters, and officials now believe the British jihadists are mounting missions against British and Western targets in the warzone.

A Ministry Of Defence spokesman refused to comment on the latest report.

We’re sick of war: a Taleban leader risks his life to point out a new route to peace - The Times

Facing another bloody summer of fighting in Helmand province, the Taleban commander uttered words that could cost him his life. “We all want peace. We want to put down our guns,” he said quietly.

A powerfully built man with a flowing beard and a disarmingly soft voice, Commander Mansoor is — according to checks with Western and Afghan sources — a mid-level Taleban commander from southern Helmand, part of the bloody insurgency fighting against US and British troops in Afghanistan.

At a meeting with The Times arranged by tribal intermediaries, however, he painted a picture of war weariness and of local communities desperate to find a way to escape a war that is seemingly without end.

As the conflict enters its eighth summer Nato is hoping that it can exploit such popular disillusion. Mullah Mansoor (not his real name), meanwhile, is simply looking for a way out. “Local people do not like the Taleban or the Western forces, they even don’t like us local Taleban” he conceded. “They say to us, ‘if you want to go to Paradise fight in the desert, fight in the mountains but don’t fight in my house’. My wish is just to have peace and security in my area.”

It is hard to assess the prevalence of such feelings within the Taleban in parts of the south of Afghanistan. There are signs, however, that the insurgency is suffering internal turmoil brought on by opposition from local communities who blame all sides for the ceaseless fighting and more than 2,000 civilian deaths last year.

A tribal elder linked to Mullah Mansoor said that ten villages were ready to support him if he was able to deliver a deal with the Afghan Government that would bring local peace. “The Taleban will attack us but we have a lot of people and a lot of guns,” Mullah Mansoor said.

Other tribal elders in Helmand told The Times that communities were terrified by the prospect of US reinforcements and an increase in fighting. Some have been petitioning the Helmand Governor, promising to keep out the Taleban themselves if Western forces promise not to conduct operations in their areas, though some suggest that this is a tactic to protect the local drugs trade or even to buy local insurgents respite from attack.

The offers have echoes of the “Musa Qala deal” of 2006 in which British troops withdrew after receiving assurances that local tribes would prevent the Taleban from taking control; that deal was opposed by US officials and failed after four months, with the Taleban seizing the town.

Since that time there have been persistent reports that the Taleban is worried that its credibility is being damaged, not just by the anarchy and violence the war has unleashed but also by charges of criminal behaviour. “There is a very big increase in the number of criminals in the Taleban in Helmand,” Mullah Mansoor said. “When someone grows poppy and the Government tries to stop him he says ‘I am a Taleb, you can’t touch me’. When he is a robber he says ‘I am a Taleb, you can’t touch me’; when he kills someone he says ‘I am a Taleb, you can’t touch me’.”

It is a charge that undermines the Taleban’s strongest suit: its reputation for bringing security and impartial, if brutal, justice.

Some analysts now believe that Nato could make significant gains by playing on such concerns. “At a district level, communities are saying to the Taleban, ‘we are Taleban supporters, we have this district for the Taleban, now please keep your fighters out of this area’,” says Martine van Bijlert, a director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network.

Britain and America have both publicly stated their support in recent weeks for attempts to peel away what are regarded as moderate elements within the insurgency but it is not clear how that will be achieved in practice, considering the decentralised nature of the Taleban. In Helmand the British Government is supporting a shift towards a bottom-up approach to local government that seeks to empower local tribal leaders. With British support the “Afghan social outreach programme” has recently created paid councils of local elders in the Nad Ali and Garmser districts of Helmand. British diplomats talk about the “grassroots legitimacy” that these structures have quickly acquired.

It is part of a significant refocusing away from strong central government development, which has been beset by corruption and incompetence, and the early signs in southern Helmand offer some encouragement. “Local people in Garmser are happy, they see progress,” claimed Haji Mahboob Khan, an Afghan senator from Garmser. “Garmser is now the most stable district in the province.”

Further north in Wardak province, American forces are supporting the development of village defence forces, as military commanders look for a way to replicate the impact of the “Sons of Iraq” militias that dramatically altered the power of Iraq’s insurgency.

Last Wednesday, though, the US envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, complained that Western intelligence services were still ignorant of the inner workings of the insurgency.

The Taleban is working to counter the damage to its reputation caused by indiscipline within its ranks. The movement conducted a reshuffle of its shadow government provincial governors in January. One Helmand Taleban commander told The Times: “The leadership has even killed some Taleban commanders for being criminal.”

“There is no control for the Taleban or for the Government,” says Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taleban minister regarded as one of the movement’s few serious intellectuals. “There is no justice. This is even worse than 1994 [when Afghanistan collapsed into factional anarchy].”

Figures such as Mullah Mansoor profess little enthusiasm for staying within the Taleban. “People want reconstruction of the area but the Taleban won’t allow it. The people ask us [the Taleban] to leave and they want to form their own government,” he said. “My last message is that all our tribe want is peace.”

Splitting the faithful

4,500 Taleban insurgents defected between 2005 and last year

95% want reconciliation if they can be assured of security, according to the Governor of Musa Qala

7,000 to 11,000 Insurgents in total, according to 2008 estimates

5% are “hard core”, say US officials

25% estimated as uncertain or wavering

70% fighting for the wage alone

$8 a day paid to Taleban footsoldiers

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Facing death every day: The most dangerous job on earth - Daily Mail

They are armed with just a pair of pliers and raw courage. As the widow of a hero bomb disposal expert prepares to collect his medal, ROBERT HARDMAN meets the bravest (and most modest) of the brave...

How on earth are you supposed to keep your cool in this thing? You can hardly bend your legs, you feel as if you are trapped in a diving bell and the whole lot weighs more than 7st. But this is the uniform of a small elite who must always keep the coolest of heads while all around are losing theirs. In fact, they might even crack a joke while they're at it.

They are the people with what is, arguably, the worst job in the world. They don't see it that way, of course. In fact, they are devoted to their profession and are universally regarded as the world leaders in their art. Which is just as well because, right now, the world needs Britain's bomb disposal experts more than ever.

Last week, the spectre of an Al Qaeda superbomb in northern England prompted an enormous police operation and many arrests.

Concrete details have yet to emerge, but one thing is beyond doubt: if any such bomb should surface, it will be the men and women of 11 EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) Regiment who will end up walking towards it while the rest of us are stampeding in the opposite direction.

As I stand here alone, holding a missile the weight of a small child with a mobile phone detonator attached, I cannot comprehend what makes anyone sign up for this sort of work. When one of my hosts cheekily calls the mobile attached to the bomb and it starts ringing - very funny, chaps - I am on the cusp of a coronary.

All right, I know I am at 11 EOD Regiment's Oxfordshire headquarters. I know this thing is a fake. I know I am being watched by some of the best and boldest experts in the world - and they are all laughing. But this thing still looks like a bomb, it's in my hands and it's going 'Brrring brrring. . .'

In recent days, this assiduously low-key branch of the Armed Forces has been propelled back into the spotlight for the saddest but noblest of reasons.

In last month's list of gallantry decorations from the Ministry of Defence, it was announced that Warrant Officer Gary O'Donnell had been awarded the George Medal for 'repeated and sustained acts of immense bravery' in Afghanistan, where he had defused more than 50 bombs.

What made this award so exceptional was the fact that WO O'Donnell already held the George Medal for similar heroism in Iraq, where he had tackled several devices under enemy fire.

It was the first time in 26 years that this decoration - just below the Victoria Cross and George Cross - had been given to the same person twice.

But the announcement was a posthumous one. The 40-year-old father-of-four had been killed by a Taliban device, which was threatening troops and civilians last September, just nine weeks after the birth of his son, Ben. It will be his widow, Toni, who goes to Buckingham Palace shortly to receive the Bar to his original George Medal.

The Mail has now learned that WO O'Donnell is to receive another honour. Next Thursday - on St George's Day - the men and women of 11 EOD Regiment will gather with his family at his old headquarters to watch a new wing be named in his honour. The O'Donnell building will be home to 40 members of this remarkable unit.

It is impossible to say how many lives this one man has saved. In one case, WO O'Donnell stopped a bomb going off in Afghanistan by jamming his finger into its clothes peg detonator. Another time, he was attempting to defuse a bomb when he realised that a man in a nearby crowd was trying to detonate the thing by mobile phone (he managed to deflect the signal using lead screens).

His commanding officer summed him up as follows: 'Bigger than life. Brave as a lion.'

The rest of the Army were in awe of him. The Parachute Regiment does not mess with words. Major Russell Lewis of 2 Para, himself the holder of the Military Cross and who knew WO O'Donnell in Afghanistan, said: 'I have seen many brave soldiers and he was one of the bravest. What he did was above and beyond the call of duty.'

Warrant Officer O'Donnell did not see it like that, of course. As his widow has explained: 'He just got on with it. He loved his job.'

That was the same response given this week by Captain Tom Bennett, 28, shortly after taking out a 45lb bomb near a crucial bridge in Afghanistan's Helmand Province.

As he approached the device - knowing there could be a remote detonation any second - he was ambushed by enemy fire on three sides, but pressed on under covering fire and attached a charge to the thing before withdrawing to press the button. Only half of the device went off, so the gallant captain had to run back through the enemy bullets and do it all over again. 'Just another job,' he said later.

So what does makes these men tick? I have come to 11 EOD Regiment of the Royal Logistic Corps in Didcot to find out. It could be any old military complex except for the odd truck saying 'Bomb Disposal Unit' and the flaming 'A' symbol on various uniforms (it stands for Ammunition Technician).

Inside I find Warrant Officer Class 1 Martin Laverack, 38, who has just returned from Afghanistan after six months. He hasn't even been home yet as he needs to debrief the regiment on all his discoveries. And he doesn't pause for a moment when I ask him what his worst moment was in Helmand Province.

'Losing Gary,' he says. 'I'd known him for 15 years. He was in the tent opposite me. We waved him off on a few jobs and that was it. It could have been anybody working on the one that killed him.'

Don't moments like that make him rethink his career? He looks baffled. 'If I couldn't do the job properly, I wouldn't be allowed to do it,' he says. What I cannot understand is why, given all the technology available, anyone needs to get killed any more.

WO Laverack explains there are often situations when you can't use a remote-controlled robot (known as a 'wheelbarrow'). Similarly, there are often situations where there is neither time nor space to use the hefty 7st bomb suit which took me 15 minutes to put on.

'If you are arriving by helicopter and people are shooting, your options are limited,' he adds.

So why not just shoot the blasted thing or spray it with petrol and light a match?

'Because we need to discover what we are up against.'

For obvious security reasons, he can't tell me much about techniques. But he says he signed up to be an ammunition technician in 1991 and, after five years' training, he faced his first job - a suspected IRA car bomb in Preston, Lancashire.

What was he thinking as he took what they call the 'long walk' from the ICP (incident control point) to the target?

'I was probably wondering what I was having for tea that night,' he says. WO Laverack does not do melodrama.

He loves the job, he says, because of the challenge and the unusual level of responsibility. He points out that it is not unusual for a young ammunition technician to have a colonel hanging on his every word as soon as an IED ( improvised explosive device) is discovered.

The outside world, he says, finds it very hard to grasp what he actually does, so he doesn't tell many people. His colleague, Warrant Officer Steve Fallon, says his own parents-in-law did not believe what he did for a living until he turned up outside their house in a truck with 'Bomb Disposal Unit' on the side.

But then this curious breed of men - and there are now a few women, too - have always been a modest bunch.

At the outbreak of World War II, there was not a single specialist unit charged with handling unexploded bombs. By the end of the war, during which the Luftwaffe dropped more than half a million bombs on Britain, the Armed Forces had tackled 45,000 which did not go off.

Quite apart from the death and destruction it could cause long after landing, an unexploded bomb (UXB) could cause as much disruption as an explosion if, say, its mere presence shut an entire airfield.

On land, the early bomb disposal teams were drawn from the Royal Engineers. Their kit consisted of a shovel, a pick-axe and a bit of string to pull out the fuse from a 'safe' distance if they could run far enough.

The best candidates, so the joke went, were 'unmarried and good sprinters'. Their life expectancy was less than ten weeks.

One of the bravest, and most modest, veterans I've ever met is Colonel Stuart Archer, now 94, who found himself leading a bomb disposal team in Swansea in 1940 when that city was being thumped by the Germans. On one occasion, two hefty UXBs were blocking a vital Battle of Britain airfield, so the young Archer simply dug them up, hauled them on to a lorry and drove them away - alone - to a nearby field for demolition.

Soon afterwards, he was called to defuse a series of bombs in, of all places, a blazing oil refinery. While everything around him was exploding, he spent hours in the inferno dismantling a single bomb and managed to extract not just a new type of fuse, but also a new breed of German booby trap.

These things had killed many UXB teams but he had the first specimen intact, to the delight of the boffins back at base. 'This was luck, luck, luck,' he said later. It was also monumentally brave, and George VI had no hesitation in awarding him one of the first George Crosses.

As the years progressed, a new breed of enemy evolved - the terrorist. While the Royal Engineers handled industrial ordnance dumped from the air, it required very different skills to tackle the improvised bombs of today's enemies.

That task fell to the ammunition experts of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, now part of the Royal Logistic Corps.

Bob Harvey, 70, learned the trade using a fishing rod to 'jerk' homemade bombs in Cyprus and Malaysia, and was presented with one of the first car bombs in Northern Ireland in 1972.

'It was 20lb of explosive with an alarm clock,' he recalls. 'We tried shooting it but when that didn't work, I had to go up and deal with it.'

He remembers the frantic on-the-job learning curve in those days - and the casualties.

'We lost three men in a week,' he recalls. 'There was real pressure to "get things back to normal", and the terrorist had the edge. It [the explosions] damaged my hearing and the stress affected me a lot. But I'd do it again.'

Mark Ritchie, 69, also remembers the pressure to 'get on with it' from his days as a warrant officer in Ulster, where he once dismantled 500lb of gelignite concealed in milk churns in County Londonderry.

'If you join the Army, you've got a job of work and you don't want to be seen as not up to the job,' he says.

The game of cat and mouse between terrorist and bomb disposal teams would last for years - which is why Forces all over the world still call on 11 EOD Regiment for its unique expertise.

The Army's kit was much-improved by October 1989 when WO Barry Johnson found himself tackling a set of mortar bombs next to a hospital in Derry. The remote-controlled 'wheelbarrow' was of little use and he decided to handle all the bombs himself. The last one blew him right across the road. But even as he lay there critically injured, he continued to give instructions.

Having been awarded the George Cross, Barry Johnson GC could have retired with distinction. But he didn't. 'I just wanted to get back to my family for Christmas, get my sight back and then get back to work,' says the 56-year-old father of two. And, in due course, he did all three.

He thinks he had it easy compared to today's bomb disposal teams.

'They're having to chuck smoke grenades just to get near the device without being shot at,' he says.

He has huge admiration for his fellow GC, Captain Peter Norton, who supervised a major bomb disposal operation in Iraq in 2005 despite having suffered dreadful injuries himself.

But let us never forget those who are left behind. Flo Grosvenor, 69, was a young mother with a six-year-old son when her first husband, Staff Sergeant Chris Cracknell, was killed with Sergeant Anthony Butcher while defusing an IRA car bomb 37 years ago.

'I remember the three officers in uniform coming to the door and they just looked at me,' she recalls. 'I was absolutely devastated. I just thought: "What do I tell my son?"'

Over the years, she has been greatly comforted by the friendship within the War Widows Association and by a 'lovely memorial' in Belfast. But it all floods back every time she hears of a military casualty.

'You never get over it. You live with it,' she says. 'Chris was always quiet about his job. He said that only a fool would not be frightened. But he loved his work.' So did Gary O'Donnell.

The world never gets any safer. But wherever there is terror and panic, just be grateful for the quiet soul making that 'long walk' into the unknown, armed with nothing more than a pair of pliers and the heart of a lion.

UN food agency to reach out to 9 million Afghans in 2009

Almost 9 million people in Afghanistan will benefit from United Nations food aid initiatives this year, the World Food Programme (WFP) announced today, with over 1.5 million reached in all of the South Asian nation’s provinces last month alone.

The agency plans to provide assistance to 8.8 million Afghans this year through a range of relief and recovery projects.

WFP’s food-for-work scheme has already helped over 500,000 people through irrigation canal, ponds, water channels and roads programmes.

The food-for-education plan seeks to help the Afghan Government to rebuild its education system. To address short-term hunger and boost school attendance, nearly 500,000 children received WFP food in schools, with an additional incentive for female students to encourage them to go to school.

In its efforts to tackle tuberculosis, the agency is urging patients to complete their treatment by providing them with food rations, with over 30,000 Afghans suffering from tuberculosis having received WFP assistance last month.

Every year the agency assists hundreds of thousands who are seriously impacted by droughts, floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters, and is also helping those affected by soaring food prices.

In a related development, nearly three million Afghan children under the age of five will be protected from polio under the latest United Nations-backed immunization campaign which has kicked off in nearly half of the South Asian nation’s 34 provinces.

The scheme, launched yesterday by the Ministry of Public Health with the support of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), seeks to stop the virus’ circulation within the South Asian nation and to halt its importation from neighbouring nations.

“Today, we call on all anti-government elements to allow the vaccinators’ access to the children of Nad-e-ali and Nawzad districts in Helmand,” said Nilab Mobarez, spokesperson for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). “These children have the right to be protected from polio.”

U.S. Launches New Covert Afghan Unit Against Narcotics - Middle East Times

The U.S. Barack Obama administration has launched a new covert unit designed to weaken and disrupt financing for the Taliban and associated terrorists in Afghanistan, U.S. administration officials said.

Run jointly by the U.S. Special Operations Command (SCOM) and the Treasury Department and called the Afghan Threat Finance Unit, it will primarily target opium dealers and criminals who are funneling monies to the Taliban, especially in the province of Helmand west of Kandahar where the Taliban have concentrated over 80 percent of their heroin production, these sources said.

Other targets will include corrupt senior officials of the Karzai government in Kabul, they said.

The program is part of the secretive economic counter-measures programs run out of Key West, Florida by SCOM as part of the war on terror. A similar unit, the Iraq Threat Finance Unit, was set up in 2005 to choke off funds going to Iraqi accomplices of al-Qaida and also targeted the Mahdi army headed by Moqtada al-Sadr, the virulently anti-American insurgent.

The Treasury Department's Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence is run by Stuart Levey, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, who was confirmed in his post last week, will co-head the new operation, according to department officials.

In recent testimony before the House of Representatives subcommittee, Lt. Gen. David Fridovich said the mission of the new unit was "to detect, identify and disrupt" financial networks supporting insurgents and terrorists.

The military's interest in such activity is relatively innovative and still being formulated, U.S. officials said. But several sources who spoke to the Middle East Times said the unit was an absolute necessity.

According to U.S. officials, Afghanistan one of the poorest countries in the world, with huge levels of illiteracy, unemployment, skyrocketing food prices, and terrorism that have so reduced the standard of living that most Afghanis spend about 80 percent of their income on scrabbling for adequate good. According to U.S. officials a total of 5 million Afghans are either receiving or are scheduled to get emergency food aid this year.

The country's extreme impoverishment makes it susceptible to corruption at all levels, U.S. officials said.

"When you have people struggling to survive, you can buy them for nothing," said a State Dept. Official.

Another U.S. official said: "Criminality has battened itself on the whole government system there. You can buy anything as long as you are ostensibly loyal to the government."

Said another U.S. source: "All key sectors of the economy are corrupt."

The major source of wealth in Afghanistan come from illegal drug trafficking, U.S. officials said. Vince Cannistraro, former CIA chief of counterterrorism said that opium has been a way for the Taliban to finance the operation of the Taliban since the 1980s, and that the Taliban have provided security for drug shipments and has collected a tax from the sales."

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, 19 of 43 designated terrorist groups are linked definitively to the global drug trade, and Cannistraro said, "Drugs are going to remain a major preoccupation in Afghanistan."

From Afghanistan, the thick gum sap from poppy bulbs is converted into heroin and smuggled through Iran and Turkey and into the Balkan countries of Albania, Bosnia and other countries, eventually ending up in Western Europe.

One congressional source said that that Taliban promoted poppy cultivation to finance weapons purchases as well as boosting the group's ability to mount military operations against Western targets.

But perhaps a greater worry is the pervasive corruption of the central government itself.

"Graft all over the Middle East keeps the wheels of commerce turning," said a former CIA official, but in Afghanistan its scale is staggering. Afghan police at checkpoints shake down truck drivers, often stealing whole cargoes of gasoline to resell. Illegal fortunes are made from smuggling hashish and chromite. Security forces sent to guard roads end up extorting fees from smugglers using the major highways or "taxing" trucks or farmers that use them.

Other illegal fortunes are made from paying ransoms for kidnappings, or falsifying invoices for arms purchases and selling the surpluses at a profit, officials said. Some municipal officials accept bribes for selling land for luxury housing, sources said.

A flood of larceny pervades even government offices and functions. Kabul's tiny government elite are busy siphoning off international or humanitarian aid monies or smuggling cargo, high-tech communications, luxury imports or construction goods, U.S. officials said. Construction is another target since contractors line their pockets, pay off thugs, and allow their subcontractors drain off additional funds for their own use.

In addition, the court system is dysfunctional, the chain of command riddled with judges and prosecutors who decide cases on the bases of bribes paid, plus there are officials who buy jobs for $50,000 and who recoup the cost through extortion or illegal transactions. Everything is for sale, including positions, promotions, assignments, U.S. officials said.

U.S. officials said that there is solid evidence that major officials including the chief of police in Kabul and key Ministry of Interior officials are deeply involved in aiding the drug trafficking in return for huge fees.

"Such blatant corruption is a recruiting poster for the insurgents," said a former CIA official."

For a government engaged in fighting an insurgency, corruption estranges the population, leaving it at the mercy of Taliban terror.

"If you want to wean a people from the clutches of an insurgency, the legal government must have some moral authority and credibility. The people must view government as being a source of benefits, not additional hazards or inconveniences," said one former CIA official.

One sinister factor that adds to the Taliban's power is that they do not hesitate to use terror to further their ends. According to French counterinsurgent expert, Roger Trinquier, since the goal of insurgency is control of the population, "terrorism is a particularly appropriate weapon, since it aims directly at the inhabitant. In the street, at work, at home, the citizen lives continually under the threat of violent death."

One of the stated goals of Obama's counterinsurgency campaign is to be able to circulate enough police or security forces in small villages to protect the people from such vicious predation, yet U.S. officials point out that the Afghan police and security forces are inadequate to the task. Although many Afghani villagers and tribes had no liking for the Taliban, U.S. officials recount that Taliban commanders resort to attacks agonist villages they feel aren't supportive, killing some and terrorizing others, often plundering their homes.

"If you are seen as disloyal by the Taliban, they will come after you," said one U.S. official.

Disloyalty can consist of being too friendly with foreign or Afghan troops, not providing sufficient food, information, or on-demand financing, U.S. officials said.

Lessening corruption and fielding efficient security forces in and around small villages would do much to stimulate the average population to believe "that his government can make him safe and give him aid," one U.S. official said.

The new financial threat cell is designed to do this, but it won't be easy. There is an enormous amount of money in motion all the time, according to Matthew Levitt, who is director of the Washington Institute's for Near East policy on terrorist financing. In recent testimony before the House, he noted that in 2006 foreign workers sent back to their home countries $255 billion up from $113 billion in 2000.

Levitt added that new technologies such as the cell phone or the Internet act to complicate tracking illicit transactions. Payments which use cell phones to move funds are growing with accelerating rapidity along with the use of such devices as U or e-gold.

Thanks to the Internet, the terrorists can communicate through chat rooms or message boards. Terrorists also use petty crime such as welfare fraud or "credit card bust-out" schemes to raise money, Levitt said.

There is also widespread bulk cash smuggling, the growing use of cash couriers. Or terrorists move cash from the accounts of family members or sometimes through charities or international aid groups. Much money is moved by hiding it in the transactions of legitimate business, he said.

But he added that the growing intensity of such efforts as the threat cell combined with more cooperation from the finance ministries of allied countries will eventually have an effect in making it harder for terrorists to recruit, to travel, to pay for operations

Minor government clerks charge bribes for normal civic transactions, the use of roads is "taxed." officials buy jobs for $50,000 and recoup the cost through bribes, police pilfer trucks of gasoline to sell,

Luxury housing meant to curtail drug shipments, take money and allow them to go through. A former World Bank official, Ashraf Ghani, recently told the Washington Post: "The whole country is criminalized."

But the Taliban's use of intimidation on the general populace is sinister. It victimizes anyone it regards as disloyal, or who is seen as too friendly to outsiders or anyone of a number of rationales. If a village does not show its dislike of the government or indifference to it, it can be made to suffer horribly.

Profits from drug money are a major target. "Opium laws have been a way for the Taliban to finance the operation of the Taliban since the 1980s, said Vince Cannistraro, former CIA chief of counterterrorism. It appears that Bin Laden and the Taliban have provided security for drug shipments and have collected a tax from the sales."

With the ineffectiveness of local police and security forces, the spread of Taliban power in the country has been inevitable: the Taliban now control 72 percent of the country

From Afghanistan, the thick gum sap from poppy bulbs is converted into heroin and smuggled through Iran and Turkey and into the Balkan countries of Albania, Bosnia and other countries, eventually ending up in Western Europe.

One congressional source said that the Taliban promote poppy cultivation to finance weapons purchase as well as boosting its ability to mount military operations. You cannot do anything through honest business or fair work; they don't exist when extreme impoverishment does.