Saturday, August 8, 2009
by Deborah Linton
AS he picks over the rubble with his fingers, Warrant Officer 2 Bobby Gardner is inches from death.
Lying on his front and carrying 100lb of equipment on his back, he dusts away the sand, patiently and carefully uncovering the enemy-laid booby trap.
The Stockport soldier is among the hundreds of brave frontline troops playing a 'game of chess' with the Taliban, risking their lives each day searching Helmand's desert with metal detectors and their fingertips for improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The homemade Taliban bombs, responsible for the majority of this month's casualties among British forces, can be made from the simplest of household items.
Sgt Maj Gardner, 40, from Cheadle Heath, talks somberly about the countless near misses he has experienced. He said: "It's scary. There's been a Taliban pressing the button to detonate as we've found it and we've walked away unhurt. It's down to good drills but mostly it's down to good fortune that more haven't been killed.
"When the detector finds something and you get down on the ground to dig your first instinct is to panic but you have to compose yourself. "Sometimes we find none, sometimes we find ten a day and if it takes you three hours to sweep an area then so be it - this is soldiers' lives on the line. They're putting them in new places all the time, where you'd never expect them."
The trigger could be contained in a cook pot in an Afghan home, an empty water bottle or hidden underneath a lads' mag. Once activated, it could set off up to 20 kilograms of explosives. Taliban forces are constantly developing new methods for bomb making in a bid to outsmart the coalition. Every soldier in the British army learns how to sweep for explosives.
Sgt Maj Gardner is serving with 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment. The unit has lost two men during the current tour - one shot in the chest while clearing an Afghan compound, the other in an explosion. Mercian troops have been deploying in eight-man teams living and working on the ground alongside the Afghan National Army (ANA), training them in the drills that will save the lives of them and their civilians. Sgt Maj Gardner has been training 120 ANA troop in Garmsir, in southern Helmand.
"Most of them come from the north of the country," he told us. "A lot of them do it because they've had family killed by the Taliban and they're still killing their animals, children. They say Afghanistan was a better place to live before and they want that back. When we're involved in firefights, they're good fighters but their methods are poor. They think they're invincible. Their officers pretty much tell them everything. They've not got the initiative of British soldiers yet."
Many of the young men joining Afghanistan's growing national army have grown up in the same schools and villages as the brutal enemy they are fighting. While they chose to fight to protect their country, boys who were once comrades in the school playground are being recruited into a life of insurgency by the Taliban. In Helmand, the Afghan prime minister has ordered that 1,000 warriors be trained up by coalition forces. Across the country, there is a commitment to shape a 134,000 strong national force.
NA company commander Maj Shawanli told us: "Day by day our soldiers are developing. Everyday when we're going on a mission sometimes we are finding a mine. We find a lot of IEDs. The Taliban are brutal people. They don't want the women to go to school and the girls to go to school. This is our way to develop our soldiers so our country can develop." Sgt Mazamil, 22, from Jalalabad - a northern border town to Pakistan - has been in the ANA for two years. "I wanted to join. It was my target to come here" he said through an interpreter. "The Taliban came to destroy our country - roads, buildings, schools, hospitals also. I wanted to make a difference to my country."