Monday, November 30, 2009

EXCLUSIVE PICTURES: Merlin goes operational in Afghanistan

Pictures of a Merlin helicopter flying over Helmand, after 10 days of operational flying the helicopters have reached initial operating capability a month earlier than expected.

The aircraft arrived at Camp Bastion in southern Helmand Province earlier this month and beef up air support for British troops.

Pictures: Major Paul Smyth

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Military Cross honour proudest day of Navy woman Kate Nesbitt's life

By Chris Hughes, Mirror

She ran through a hail of Taliban bullets to rescue a wounded comrade who had been shot in the neck.

As the battle raged around her in Helmand Province, 21-year-old medical assistant Kate Nesbitt dressed the wound and stopped the blood flowing.

And yesterday, as she became the first Royal Navy woman to be awarded the Military Cross, Kate said: "This is the proudest day of my life."

Brave Kate, from Whitleigh, Devon, is only the second woman in the Armed Forces to receive the award. The first was Michelle Norris, of the Royal Army Medical Corps, who saved a colleague's life in Iraq in 2006.

Kate, who received her medal from Prince Charles during a ceremony at Buckingham Palace, said: "It was the biggest shock. I was really overwhelmed that they trusted me to do the job and never doubted me at all, that's what was important. I just did what I'm sure everyone else would have done for me."

Lance Corporal Colin Spooner, who carried on giving orders after receiving 48 shrapnel wounds when a mortar round landed behind him in Afghanistan, was also awarded the Military Cross.

Colin, 22, of Selby, North Yorks, refused to let colleagues carry him to safety in case they were targeted.

Instead he walked to a vehicle despite his wounds. He said yesterday: "I realised that I'd been hurt and I got dragged into a building and treated.

"It would have taken four blokes to carry me out but I knew we were still engaged so I walked. That's what did most of the damage. But I'd do it again."

PICTURE of the day: Sea King sortie in Helmand

A Royal Navy Sea King on a routine sortie packed with mail for troops at one of the forward operating bases.

Front door gunner scanning the ground below for threats.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

PICTURE: Helmand valley from the air

Helmand valley

Pictures: Major Paul Smyth

Afghan withdrawal would be folly - Guardian

Afghanistan's complex patchwork of success and failure is all a world away from the metropolitan commentators

By Robert Fox, for the Guardian

At the base of the 1st Battalion 5th US Marine Expeditionary Brigade at Garamsir in south Helmand they have a slogan on their T-shirts guaranteed to enrage Caroline Lucas and Simon Jenkins, two of Cif's most recent commentators on Afghanistan.

"Just do Marja" it reads. Marja is a quilt of small fertile plots just south and west of Lashkar Gah, the current provincial capital of Helmand. Like the irrigation channels that feed the fields of Marja, Lashkar Gah is largely the creation of a huge project by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) that made Helmand the bread basket of Afghanistan, and a magnet for tourism even.

Marja has become one of the big poppy growing plots of the world. Today it is largely under Taliban control, who run their "parallel government" there by night – which means robbing the farmers in the name of Islamic taxation, closing schools and demanding tribute in food, warm clothing, and young recruits for their jihad. It is also a centre for assembling IED roadside bombs, which they lay with astonishing deftness and speed.

Marja will be the first target of the Marine Expeditionary Unit now expected here before Christmas as a result of President Obama's anticipated announcement that he will send an extra 30,000 US military personnel to Afghanistan for the next two years. Squeezing Taliban out of Marja, and then Nad-e-Ali to the north, will remove the threat to commerce and farming along the west bank of the Helmand river.

Lashkar Gah is thriving and buzzing, compared with two years ago, when I was last here. The bazaars are booming full of all kinds of produce, a new line in iron bedsteads, small wheat-milling machines, and hundreds of motorbikes – most made in kits in China and assembled in Iran. Farmers and merchants now travel to Gereshk to the north and to Kandahar, less than three hours away. They say the roads are pretty safe, bar the risk of the odd rogue roadblock manned by Taliban or renegade Afghan police.

Lashkar Gah is at the centre of a security bubble or "protected development area" – a key concept of the "ink spot" approach of counter-insurgency theory and practice, recently retooled by General Stanley McChrystal. You take the main centres, such as Lashkar Gah, Garmsir, Gereshk and Musa Qala in Helmand, and protect them with international and then local forces. Confidence and commerce grow, and in time the different areas link together.

For the full article click here for the Guardian Online

PICTURE of the day: Apache and Chinook at work in Helmand

Pictures: Maj Paul Smyth

The volunteers under fire on Afghan front line - BBC

By Sophie Hutchinson
BBC News

For six months they patrolled the desert around Camp Bastion, protected bomb disposal teams and assisted medics evacuating seriously injured soldiers.

Now, members of an infantry company made up entirely of Territorial Army soldiers have received Afghanistan campaign medals from their colonel-in-chief, the Prince of Wales.

Around 80 soldiers from Normandy Company of 4th Battalion The Mercian Regiment were honoured for their role in Helmand province.

It was a gruelling six months but their commanding officer, Maj Chris Carter, said they had been able to draw on their "remarkable" experience.

"For half of my company they were on their second or more operational tour - those with more experience helped those with a bit less."

The soldiers, whose civilian jobs range from postmen to teachers, also helped reopen a school in the Basharan area, which had closed after the Taliban killed the principal.

The company, made up of volunteers from the Midlands and the North West, trained together for three months before being deployed to Afghanistan in April.

All of the soldiers returned home safely to their families, though not all had escaped injury.

Pte Anthony Myers, 19, joined the TA straight after leaving college. The Liverpudlian was shot in the shoulder while on patrol, but it took him less than two weeks to recover.

"We knew it was dangerous anyway - we were getting the news from people it was a bad tour. We were quite lucky because I was the only one injured.

"It did make it a little bit more real but it didn't scare me or make me not want to do the job. If anything it made me want to get back, back with the lads."

There are currently 9,000 UK troops serving in Afghanistan, the majority of them - like Normandy Company - in Helmand.

It has proved to be the most dangerous area for soldiers and 80% of British deaths have occurred in this southern province.

But despite the huge challenge faced by troops, one of the soldiers, L/Cpl John Mason, a 24-year-old trainee teacher from Stockport, has not been put off and is now hoping to join the Royal Marines.

He joked that being a soldier was easier than being in the classroom, dealing with adults rather than children.

During his time in Afghanistan he twice came under attack from the Taliban and was with Pte Myers when he was shot.

"You just have to take every day as it comes, especially when you're driving around on roads with IEDs (improvised explosive devices). You know there are dangers, but you reduce the risks and just get on with the job."

On Thursday the soldiers marched through central London, from Wellington Barracks to Clarence House, where they were honoured by Prince Charles.

After receiving their medals, they are now returning to their civilian lives, but all of them know that they could be asked to return to Afghanistan in a year's time.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

CO 3 RIFLES reports from Helmand

Picture: Commander of 2 Platoon, A Company, 3 RIFLES, Lieutenant Palmer Winstanley, discusses the patrol with his Afghan National Army counterpart

Lieutenant Colonel Nick Kitson, Commanding Officer, 3 RIFLES

We had the great honour to take over from our sister battalion, 2 RIFLES, on Monday 19 October 2009 here in Sangin. It was fantastic to arrive, to catch up with many familiar faces and trade stories.

2 RIFLES have given much and made many sacrifices but they have also made remarkable progress during their time here. They have left us many opportunities which we are eager to take forward for the people of Helmand.

We have assumed the role of Battle Group (North), with our area of responsibility in northern Helmand province stretching from Sangin up to the Kajaki Dam.

Throughout the area the Helmand River winds its way along the flood plain from the dam southwards through the mountainous desert landscape. It creates a strip of richly farmed fertile land either side of it, laced with irrigation channels and known as the Green Zone.

Patrolling is our main activity. We are bringing security and stability to the area, reassuring the local population around us and encouraging them to go about their normal routine.

As and when the need arises we will launch deliberate operations and take the fight to the enemy, clearing areas of insurgents and disrupting their activities.

We also work closely alongside our Afghan hosts in the nascent Afghan National Army and Police, exchanging ideas and tactics with them so they grow in ability and confidence in order to tackle the insurgency.

I am hugely impressed by their professionalism and dedication. We all have much to learn from them too and have much faith in their abilities.

Most have been pleasantly surprised by the living conditions in the Forward Operating Bases, not exactly home-comforts but certainly manageable, and accommodation is generally decent.

The majority of our food comes in the form of 'compo' rations, prepared by a small and dedicated detachment of chefs, who are always finding new ways to turn fairly basic ingredients into exciting meals for hungry riflemen. We top these up with fresh produce whenever the opportunity arises.

The Royal Engineers are always hard at it, trying to make our stay more comfortable by improving the showers, toilets and lodgings.

The temperature is now a very agreeable 25 degrees in the day but drops off sharply to around five degrees overnight. We expect the cold weather to hit over the next few months.

Who knows, maybe we shall see a white Christmas in the desert! We shall certainly see rain and the liquid mud it will create around us.

This is already proving to be a tour that will test and shape us all. The operation remains a difficult and a dangerous one but all the men and women under my command are totally up to the challenge.

We have all received excellent training to get us to this point and we have access to some of the best kit I have seen during my time in the Army.

PICTURE of the day: the moon from Helmand

Tonights moon as seen in Helmand

Picture: Major Paul Smyth

Plea for end to unsolicited gifts for UK troops - BBC

Helmand Blog Video:

Members of the public are being urged not to send unsolicited Christmas presents to troops in Afghanistan.

The Ministry of Defence said mail from relatives was getting lost among gifts addressed simply to "A soldier" or to individuals not known to the sender.

It also said many presents were perishable and often went to waste.

Anne Forbes, from Operation Welly, which sends gifts to troops, said she took advice from military welfare officers on whom to send parcels to.

Capt Charlie Malcolm, who is in charge of post at Camp Bastion in Helmand province, said: "For personnel deployed overseas, personal mail from loved ones is very important.

Attack risk

"But the system can be completely overwhelmed by the public's generous donations, which results in mail from family and friends being delayed.

"The main cause of this is the huge and unmanageable number of welfare parcels, sent by well-meaning members of the public, to recipients not personally known to the sender."

The MoD said the onward delivery of parcels to troops on the front line required additional flights and convoys which placed the personnel manning them at extra risk of attack.

Many of the items sent were also either already readily available or "not suitable for the Afghan environment", it added.

A spokesman said some items were addressed simply to "A soldier in X regiment", but the armed forces nevertheless felt a moral obligation to deliver them because of the effort made.

Other parcels were addressed to individuals whose names had featured in news reports, he said, which could lead to them receiving hundreds of parcels from strangers.

Lt Col George Waters, who oversees operational welfare at the MoD, added: "There is no denying that the knowledge that complete strangers are thinking of you provides a boost to morale.

"But what the troops on the ground want above all else is to receive their personal mail and the sheer number of welfare parcels in the system causes serious delays to those all-important personal items."

The MoD is asking people who wish to support British troops to give donations to recommended service charities, some of which do send parcels but in consultation with the military.

Click here to see a list of charities: Public support for our Service personnel.

Soldier is 'Herriot of Helmand' - BBC

A soldier from Suffolk has been nicknamed the "Herriot of Helmand" by his colleagues after setting up a veterinary clinic for Afghan farmers.

Captain Miles Malone, 28, of the Royal Army Veterinary Corp, invites villagers from a remote area of Helmand Province to bring livestock for free check-ups.

He hopes de-worming and vaccinating goats, sheep, cows and donkeys will help improve communities.

His main task is to care for dogs who sniff out explosives or guard camps.

But he is also leading the new veterinary clinic project - now into its third month - for farmers from the small villages to the north-west of Camp Bastion, the main British base in Helmand.

'Benefit whole population'

Capt Malone, from Mount Bures, near Sudbury, said improving the animals' health would result in improved meat and milk production, increasing their value at market and boosting the diets of locals.

"A farmer may well be more concerned about an animal dying than he would his child or one of his wives," he said.

"It sounds harsh, but life is harsh here.

"If a farmer's herd is in poor health, his family's income will be reduced and all the family members will suffer.

"Once you start to understand the way Afghan society works and the crucial dependence on animals for existence, you can see why a project like this could really benefit the local population."

The project helps to improve relations with the local population, making them more likely to give UK troops information about the activities of the Taliban, said Capt Malone.

The British soldiers also try to educate the Afghan farmers about how to look after their animals.

Sgt Major Greg Reeve, 39, from Upavon in Wiltshire, said there was a staggering ignorance among the villagers about how to care for their livestock.

He said: "Farmers here have absolutely no idea about animal husbandry.

"There is near total ignorance about causes and spread of disease, breeding cycles and how milk is produced.

"If a goat stops milking, it is said to be Allah's will rather than the fact that it has not bred for 18 months and therefore has no anatomical reason to produce milk."

Click here for BBC online

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

IED threat shadows Marines' every move

A long, dusty road under a bright blue Afghan sky. To the left, a stagnant irrigation canal; to the right, drying cornfields. Marines from Charlie Company walk slowly, eyes fixed on the dirt, the drainage culverts, the weeds, the mud houses.

Suddenly, at the front of the column, a metal detector in the hands of a young lance corporal begins to buzz.

Staff Sgt. Sam McDaniel moves quickly into place, gently probing the ground for evidence of a buried bomb, by far the No. 1 killer of U.S. forces in Afghanistan -- and responsible for three of the four American deaths reported Sunday and Monday.

It is part of a cat-and-mouse game repeated countless times here in the insurgent stronghold of Helmand province and across the country. Route clearance teams, alert for constantly shifting tactics, comb the roads by day. Searches also uncover small stashes of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, the main bomb-making ingredient. At night, Marines using night-vision goggles and sniper rifles, and given shoot-to-kill orders, watch for insurgents burying the bombs.

For the full report click here for the LA Times

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

VIDEO: Herriot in Helmand - pioneering vet clinic in Taliban country

Under the watchful eye of Kalashnikov armed Afghan Army guards, perched on top of four-wheel drive Ranger vehicles as security look outs, a British Army Vetinary Officer and his moustachioed Sergeant Major survey the distant desert horizon for signs of movement. Both carry pistols at their waists. This is Helmand Province and Taliban country: unpredictable and dangerous.

Here come the first customers of the day, announces Captain Miles Malone as a herd of livestock accompanied by human figures appears, still several kilometres away on the bronzed desolate moonscape stretching ahead.

Miles, dubbed the James Herriot (after a vet in a British TV show) of Helmand by fellow soldiers, a cheery 28 year old Captain from Suffolk in the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, is a member of 102 Theatre Military Working Dogs Support Unit, normally based in Sennelager, Germany. But he is currently half way through a seven month deployment to Afghanistan based at the British forces main hub of Camp Bastion.

Miles main role in Afghanistan is to provide preventative healthcare and emergency care to the working dogs used to search out IED components and suspicious objects or to guard and provide protection to camps where troops are based. But he has also become the dynamic force behind a new project set up to improve the standard of living for local Afghans and the relationship of British forces with them.

His vetinary clinic, held once a month, invites farmers from the small villages dotted to the northwest of Camp Bastion - away from the Green Zone where the majority of fighting has occurred- to bring their livestock for a free checkup and dose of preventative healthcare.

Animal livestock forms the lifeblood of these local communities. By improving the health of the herd, we can in turn have a positive impact on the health, wealth and general wellbeing of the population.

If we reduce the disease state of the animals, the knock on effect will be improved meat and milk production. This not only increases the value of the animals at market, but it increases the amount of protein in the locals diet. The meat doesnt contain worms or diseases which can be transmitted to humans, so the health of the local population also improves.

During the two day clinic over 600 hundred head of sheep, goats and a couple of donkeys were inspect, wormed and vaccinated. When all is done, Miles stretches his aching back, sips some water and cracks a broad grin. It is the satisfied smile of a job well done, by a man confident in the fact that he is making a difference.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Cheap wheat gives farmers grain of hope in fight against Taliban

Robert Fox, Defence Correspondent

Hundreds of farmers blew into this town, the capital of Helmand, over the weekend - their "tuk tuk" motorbike trucks kicking up clouds of dust - in a peculiarly Afghan gesture of defiance to the Taliban.

They lined up to sign a pledge that they would not grow poppy next season, and to get sacks of wheat and fertiliser in return.

This was all pretty peculiar as the farmers come from the notorious Marja region west of the capital.

It is known for its beauty, its fertility as the garden of Helmand, and for being an area out of government and Nato control where local Taliban roam more or less free.

This did not prevent the droves of farmers, grizzled ancient sons of the soil and almost beardless boys atop their motor carts, signing up for the government's scheme for subsidised wheat, fertilisers and insecticide.

This is the second full year of the government wheat scheme. Altogether 39,864 farmers have signed up, a big increase on the 32,000 last year.

When farmers in Marja first planted government wheat a year ago, the Taliban murdered a district councillor.

The farmers called a Shura - a traditional form of consultation - and told the Taliban they intended to go on buying the wheat seed because they needed to - to earn a living.

The Taliban backed off, but kept a wary eye. Even at the wheat distribution at the government warehouse this weekend, one of the international supervisors muttered: "You can bet the Taliban are here watching. Some of the farmers will have pretty close links to the bad guys, and some no doubt will try to grow a bit of wheat and a bit of poppy."

The farmers buy their two sacks of wheat and four of fertiliser at a knockdown price of 700 Afghanis or $18 (£11) because of the near-collapse in the opium price last season.

The price of dry opium, the poppy resin concentrated in brick form, has fallen steadily in Helmand from $225 a kilo in January 2005 to $75 in April this year.

"The market has been saturated, but the price is likely to jump up a little bit next spring," said an expert from the British Government's special counter narcotics team in Helmand.

"But the overall trend of the prices has been a steady decline in recent years." Britain is one of the main international backers of the narcotics scheme.

Local Marja elder Haj Mohamed Talib, a striking figure in a high black turban, explained: "At least Kabul is now offering something really useful.

"The government also gives us pharmacies and clinics and the Taliban don't give us anything to help the poor and the sick."

Haj Talib, known as the local Mr Fixit, bustles over to the huge figure of Ray Watson, 50, a former Zimbabwe tobacco farmer who has become a key figure in an exotic agricultural organisation called Rift Valley Agriculture.

This was formed by a band of farmers thrown off their farms by war veterans in Zimbabwe over the past 10 years.

They are now known as experts in "extreme agriculture", helping farmers in lands battered by communal violence and war.

Now subcontracted to the British development ministry, Ray and his friend Fanae Ferreira, 51, whose Zimbabwe farm was confiscated in 2000, go out on the ground in places such as Marja to show the farmers new techniques in crop husbandry.

"The opportunity for different crops is huge - potatoes, pomegranates, wheat, alfalfa, tomatoes, you name it - the problem is getting it to market" said Ray.

"We show them how they can do better, and the increase in yields has been huge."

New roads are gradually being built across Afghanistan - shortish stretches at a time, and often under heavy security by British and Afghan forces.

The traffic between Lashkar Gah and the commercial centre of Gereshkt, and on to Kandahar has gone up visibly these past few weeks.

The roads are a big challenge to the Taliban because most people want them and are prepared to travel them even at the risk of being held up at Taliban, gangster or even renegade police roadblocks.

Since many of the new surfaces are tarmac, it is very hard to bury bombs in them quickly and undetected.

Lieutenant Paddy Rice 'luckiest soldier in Afghanistan' after Taliban sniper shooting

British Army officer, Lieutenant Paddy Rice, has been described as "the luckiest soldier in Afghanistan" after surviving being shot by a Taliban sniper.

By Sean Rayment, Defence Correspondent, Nad e'Ali, Afghanistan

Lieutenant Paddy Rice of the 1st battalion Grenadier Guards was wounded in the back and neck while on duty in central Helmand.

The bullet struck the officer just beneath his left shoulder blade, then travelled inside his back and up to his neck, where it left his body, passed his right ear before blasting a hole through his helmet.

After being injured, Lt Rice, who was serving with the battalion's Inkerman Company, was flown by a Medical Emergency Response Team Chinook helicopter from his base to Camp Bastion, where his wounds were cleaned and left open for three days before being stitched under general anaesthetic.

The 25-year-old Guard's Officer was offered the chance of recuperating from his wound in the UK but refused and is now back serving with his platoon on the front line in the Nad e'Ali area of central Helmand.

The drama unfolded on the afternoon of October 26th, while Lt Rice was on the roof of British base known as Compound 23 in the Chah-e'Anjir area of central Helmand.

The soldier was dressed in his body armour and helmet and was in a kneeling position when he was spotted by a Taliban fighter who opened fire through a "murder hole" – in a mud wall.

He said: "I climbed on to the roof of the Compound 23, where my soldiers and I were based, and was trying to move a radio into a sangar (defensive bunker). It was an exposed position so I was wearing my body armour and helmet. I then felt a thump in the back of my back, as though I had been kicked, and I knew immediately I had been shot."

The bullet passed through his body, slicing open Lt Rice's back and leaving an eight inch long gash running diagonally from his shoulder blade to an area just beneath his skull.

He continued: "I put my hand up to the back of my head and I could see blood and I think I said something to my platoon sergeant, Gert Botha, such as "I've been shot".

"I was helped down from the roof and I radioed company headquarters, gave contact report (a message informing others that there has been an enemy attack), and said "there is one casualty and it's me – I've been shot". I wasn't panicking I had considered how I might react if I was shot or injured but because everything seemed to be functioning normally I think I realised I would be OK.

"I know that I was very lucky to escape with what is actually a flesh wound, albeit a nasty one. If I had been looking up the bullet would have hit the back of my head and that would have been a different story."

For the full story click here for the Telegraph online

Sunday, November 22, 2009

First female helicopter crew takes on Taliban

From left: Stephanie Cole, Michelle Goodman, Joanna Watkinson and Wendy Donald at their US training base

THE RAF is to fly its first all-woman combat helicopter crew into action in southern Afghanistan.

The four women are expected to fly a number of missions taking troops and supplies to the frontline against the Taliban in Helmand. They will also airlift casualties to the hospital at Camp Bastion.

The Merlin crew includes Flight-Lieutenant Michelle Goodman, 32, from Bristol, the first woman to win the Distinguished Flying Cross. She and her co-pilot, Flight-Lieutenant Joanna Watkinson, 28, from Reading, have been preparing in California for the difficulties of flying in Afghanistan. The hot air, dust and high altitude pose particular problems for helicopters.

Loadmasters Sergeant Stephanie Cole, 24, from Wiltshire, and Sergeant Wendy Donald, 31, from Liverpool, have also been training at the US airbase at El Centro.

Alongside their main role of ensuring that the troops and supplies are properly loaded on board, they will man its 7.62mm machineguns.

All four would have expected tours of duty in Afghanistan at some stage in their careers. It is coincidence that a full complement of female helicopter crew will, for the first time, be in Helmand simultaneously.

Goodman and Watkinson have been training in evasive flying to avoid Taliban missiles while Cole and Donald practised their gunnery skills. All four women are aware that they might be shot down or forced to ditch the aircraft in hostile territory and have prepared for the possibility.

Goodman, a veteran of four Iraq tours, said: “Obviously we always bear it in mind but when you’re in the middle of a dangerous sortie you just get on with your job.

“If we thought about the threat continually we would never be able to do our jobs. It’s only when we compare notes during the de-brief that you know the full extent of what happened on a dangerous mission.”

Goodman won her DFC in 2008 for the night rescue of a soldier wounded by mortar fire in Iraq. She said she was expecting some “banter” from the infantry about female aircrew picking them up.

Watkinson’s husband is an RAF navigator. Her grandfather was an RAF pilot and her grandmother was one of the first women to be commissioned into the army.

“When I was younger, I always just thought that it was one of those make-believe dreams that you could one day be a pilot,” she said.

“There will be people that will always turn round and say, ‘Oh, you can’t do that, you’re a girl’. I’ve had a few people tell me that in the past and I’d like to see them one day and go, ‘hah, told you’.”

Canadians begin new push to clear Taliban from towns

Canadian soldiers have opened a new phase in their operation aimed at chasing insurgents from Panjwaii district, southwest of Kandahar city.

A company has moved into the northern limits of Nakhonay, a town of around 2,000 people thought to be an insurgent stronghold.

Earlier this week Canadian Forces joined an Afghan National Army unit in seizing the village of Haji Baba, which is located a short distance to the northeast of Nakhonay.

Canadian soldiers entered Nakhonay on Thursday and have met with little resistance as they begin to secure the area.

The military says by taking control of Nakhonay they will be able to limit Taliban access to the roads into Kandahar city.

Known as Operation Hydra, the action involves 1,000 Canadian soldiers working alongside some 200 Afghan National Army fighters.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

PICTURE of the day: the .50 Cal at sunrise

The basic armament - a top mounted .50 caliber machine gun on the British Jackal 2.

Picture: Major Paul Smyth

VIDEO: New target system for Apache

It's well known the most feared weapon in the British Army's arsenal in Afghanistan is the Apache attack helicopter. The Taliban accept that when it arrives overhead, the battle on the ground is already lost. But now a new upgrade to the fleet of these aircraft has given commanders in theatre a new way to track down those who threaten the lives of British soldiers in Afghanistan.

The pilots, engineers and ground crew from Wattisham have now been fully trained in the use of the new target acquisition system or M-TADS. Many of them are currently preparing for a tour of duty in the region by honing their battle skills in the deserts of Arizona.

PICTURE of the day: ANA and Brit soldiers at a Shura

Afghan soldiers or ANA at a Shura or meeting in the Nad e'Ali district of Helmand province, southern Afghanistan.

Picture: Heathcliff O'Malley

VIDEO: ITV News in Afghanistan - resupply mission to remote Patrol Base

Broadcast on ITV News in November 2009 - correspondent John Ray climbs aboard a Mastiff armoured vehicle in a Queens Company, 1 Grenadier Guards convoy, on a resupply mission to remote Patrol Bases in Battlegroup (Centre South) area of operations.

By kind permission of ITN.

© ITN 2009

Friday, November 20, 2009

VIDEO: ITV News in Afghanistan

Broadcast on ITV News in November 2009 - correspondent John Ray visits the distant outposts of the war in Afghanistan and talks to Brigadier James Cowan, commander of British Forces in Helmand Province.

By kind permission of ITN.

© ITN 2009

PICTURE of the day: Sunset in Helmand picture 2

Helmand sunset

Picture: Maj Paul Smyth

PICTURE of the day: Sun set in Helmand

Sunset in Helmand

Picture: Maj Paul Smyth

Sergeant Robert Loughran-Dickson RMP killed in Afghanistan

It is with deep regret that the Ministry of Defence must confirm the death of Sergeant Robert David Loughran-Dickson of the Royal Military Police in Afghanistan on 18 November 2009.

Sergeant Loughran-Dickson died as a result of gunshot wounds sustained whilst taking part in a routine patrol in the vicinity of Patrol Base Wahid, in Nad-e-Ali District, Helmand Province.

Sergeant Robert David Loughran-Dickson, 4th Regiment, Royal Military Police

Sergeant Robert Loughran-Dickson, known as Robert to his family, Rob or L-D to his friends and colleagues, was 33 at the time of his death.

The youngest of three children, he was born and raised in the town of Deal in Kent. Together with his two sisters, he attended a local village primary school of fewer than 100 children, followed by the town's secondary school.

Sergeant Loughran-Dickson attended further education and, following this, in 1997 he enlisted into the Army, in the Royal, Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME).

In 2001 Sergeant Loughran-Dickson transferred to the Royal Military Police and, over the course of his career, deployed on operations in Kosovo, Iraq, Northern Ireland and finally Afghanistan. He was initially posted to 156 Provost Company and subsequently moved on to 160 Provost Company, 4th Regiment Royal Military Police which led to his deployment on Operation Herrick 11, in Helmand Province.

Sergeant Loughran-Dickson held a variety of positions during his time in the Army, including Police Post Non-Commissioned Officer, Motor Transport Non-Commissioned Officer, and Crime Reduction and Local Intelligence Officer. This last job was the one in which he got the most job satisfaction, giving crime reduction presentations, visiting schools or processing intelligence, and the job where he gained his promotion to Sergeant.

He was a keen runner, who enjoyed preparing for, and running marathon races, as well as hill-walking and swimming.

Sergeant Loughran-Dickson was the proud father of a son, also named Robert, born in September 1992.

The Dickson family paid the following tribute:

"Robert is a true hero in many ways of whom the whole family are extremely proud. He gave the ultimate sacrifice doing what he loved and was devoted to.

"A beloved father, son, brother and uncle. You lit up our lives and that light will stay bright forever. You will be greatly missed but always loved by all."

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Combat chef cooking on gas

Meet 23-year old LCpl Stevie Allan. He's a combat chef with an impressive array of awards to his name, including Scottish Junior Chef of the Year.

LCpl Allan has just arrived at the Forward Operating Base at Wishtan, Helmand, where he'll be working in a brand new, winterised cookhouse. The new kitchen has been named 'The Jordan Rossi Cookhouse', after Sapper Jordan Rossi who was tragically killed by an improvised explosive device while on patrol nearby in May. It's a much-needed improvement, offering greater space and better appliances - essential for feeding over a hundred soldiers three times a day.

A trained soldier as well as a chef, he spent parts of his pre-deployment training as a member of an Infantry platoon, and is trained to handle the full range of Infantry weapons, from the pistol to the Grenade Machine Gun.

He said: "One minute you can be in the kitchen cooking, the next you can be in a Sangar firing at insurgents, or be sent to an isolated Patrol Base. You just never know."

When he gets home in April, LCpl Allan hopes to get a new car and take a well earned holiday, before having a crack at the notoriously difficult Commando Course in Devon. In the meantime, he's planning culinary feasts for the coming months. Tinned rations may be hard to glamorize, but he plans to put in a big effort for Christmas and, of course, Burns Night - complete with haggis!

Navy surgeon saves lives and limbs in Afghanistan

Currently on his fourth deployment to Afghanistan, Royal Navy Surgeon Commander Graham Hill believes that this is his hardest tour so far.

Cdr Hill, who is normally based at the Queen Alexandra Hospital in Portsmouth, is currently saving lives and limbs in his post at the operating table of Camp Bastion's field hospital in Helmand province.

He deployed to Afghanistan in October 2009 for an eight-week tour as the UK Joint Forces Medical Group's Field Hospital Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon.

"My main role here is to assess and operate on the traumatic limb injuries which come through the Emergency Department's doors. I also treat the usual breaks and sprains from physical exercise but I'd say about eighty per cent of my work is on trauma," siad Cdr Hill said.

The British-run medical facility at Camp Bastion cares for British, American, International Security Assistance Force and Afghan National Army battlefield casualties, as well as local Afghan civilians who have been caught in cross fire or injured by the Taliban's homemade roadside bombs:

"This is my fourth deployment to Afghanistan," Cdr Hill said. "Previously the hospital was in tents so it is the first time I've worked in this purpose-built facility.

"The whole hospital is designed to treat very serious battlefield wounds and has first class specialists and state-of-the-art medical equipment to do that effectively."

Bastion's hospital is currently staffed by around four hundred Army medics from 33 Field Hospital, based in Gosport, Hampshire, 254 General Support Medical Regiment based in Preston, Lancashire, and Territorial Army personnel from 256 (City of London) Field Hospital (Volunteers), as well as Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, American, Danish and Estonian medical professionals.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

PICTURE of the day: Afghan farmer

Mediaops is out on the ground in Helmand. For security reasons I can't post this story just yet, so keep your eye on the blog and we'll reveal all soon.

Picture: Maj Paul Smyth

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Corporal Loren Marlton-Thomas killed in Afghanistan

It is with deep regret that the Ministry of Defence must confirm that Corporal Loren Owen Christopher Marlton-Thomas from 33 Engineer Regiment (EOD) was killed in Afghanistan.

Corporal Marlton-Thomas was mortally wounded by an improvised explosive device (IED) on Sunday 15 November 2009 whilst conducting a route search to clear devices in the vicinity of Patrol Base Sandford, in the Gereshk area of Helmand province. He died of his wounds on Monday 16 November 2009.

Corporal Loren Owen Christopher Marlton-Thomas

Corporal Loren Marlton-Thomas, aged 28, and known as 'Loz' to his comrades, deployed on Operation HERRICK 11 as a Royal Engineer Search Team Commander within the Joint Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Group; part of the Counter-IED Task Force responsible for minimising the threat posed to ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) and the people of Afghanistan.

The cornerstone of 4 Troop, 49 Field Squadron (EOD), 33 Engineer Regiment (EOD), in Wimbish, Essex, he deployed to Afghanistan in September 2009 as an Acting Corporal. In the relatively short time that he had been in theatre he had proved himself more than worthy of the rank and responsibilities of a Section Commander.

Cpl Marlton-Thomas made the decision to serve his country by joining the Army in 1998. He had his mind set on a life full of challenge, excitement and adventure.

He initially considered a life in the Parachute Regiment; however, he quickly found that his talents were better suited to life in the Royal Engineers. In typical Sapper-style he was a man of many talents, a first rate soldier, an extremely competent combat engineer and accomplished blacksmith. Not one for barracks routine he really came to the fore and flourished in the operational environment.

Prior to embarking on his career in EOD, 'Loz' served in a number of units including 35 Engineer Regiment in Paderborn, 21 Engineer Regiment in Osnabruck and 25 Engineer Regiment in Northern Ireland.

His military experience led him to complete operational tours of Northern Ireland on Op BANNER and Iraq on Op TELIC 11. On both tours he served in the Advanced Search Troop giving him a wealth of search experience which translated into him being an exceptional Team Commander.

Corporal Marlton-Thomas epitomised the men of courage and nerve that he led; Advanced Search teams, the 'improvised explosive device hunters', are a unique breed who stalk their concealed quarry along the tracks and wadis of Helmand.

He was extremely proud of this life-saving and critical role that his team performs and demonstrated his true merit as a leader of men in this role.

Cpl Marlton-Thomas's wife, Mrs Nicola Marlton-Thomas, paid the following tribute:

"Loren was Army-barmy right back to being a Cadet. He did the job he loved and paid the ultimate price for his friends, comrades and country. We are proud to say we knew and loved him. A true hero in our eyes - you may be gone but you will never ever be forgotten."

Rifleman Andrew Ian Fentiman of 7 RIFLES killed in Afghanistan

It is with sadness that the Ministry of Defence must confirm the death of Rifleman Andrew Ian Fentiman from 7th Battalion The Rifles (7 RIFLES), attached to the 3 RIFLES Battle Group.

Rifleman Andrew Fentiman was killed as a result of small arms fire whilst on a foot patrol near Sangin in central Helmand province during the morning of 15 November 2009.

Rifleman Andrew Ian Fentiman

Rifleman Andrew Ian Fentiman was born in Cambridge on 29 July 1986. He joined 7 RIFLES as a Potential Officer in 2007 following two years at East Midlands University Officer Training Corps. Having volunteered to serve with the 3 RIFLES (3rd Battalion The RIFLES) Battle Group, he completed an assault pioneer course in May before being mobilised in June 2009.

Rifleman Fentiman attended the Reserves Training and Mobilisation Centre in Chilwell before joining A Company, 3 RIFLES, during pre-deployment training. He quickly proved his mettle, earning high praise from OPTAG (Operational Training and Advisory Group) training staff for his reactions during a demanding exercise in Norfolk.

In civilian life he read Mechanical Engineering at the University of Leicester before becoming a regional sales manager for Team Studio Ltd, a software firm based in Huntingdon. He intended to return to his civilian job after he had completed his tour of duty.

Rifleman Fentiman was killed by enemy fire during a foot patrol in Sangin, Afghanistan. The patrol was tasked with interdicting enemy activity and reassuring local nationals. He leaves his parents, Kevin and Lynda, a brother, Adam, and a sister, Elizabeth.

Lieutenant Colonel Nick Kitson, Commanding Officer, 3 RIFLES Battle Group, said:

"Rifleman Andrew Fentiman was one of the welcome volunteers from our Territorial Army [TA] brethren, in this case 7 RIFLES, who have answered the call to come out to Afghanistan with us. It was an honour and a great act of commitment that he chose to accompany us and share the burden.

"A real ambassador for the great British public that supports us so well, he was up for the challenge and gave of himself selflessly. A university graduate, he was something of a novelty to his platoon. Bright and enthusiastic, he fitted in instantly. I have infinite respect for the commitment and sacrifice of this brave Rifleman who had so many opportunities ahead of him yet chose first to serve his country and his regiment. He was liked and respected by all and will be sorely missed as he now makes his way home to his family. Our thoughts are with them and all of his loved ones at this most difficult time."

Monday, November 16, 2009

Troops' morale high on Afghan front line

Troops from 2nd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards) (2 Yorks] – who are based at Weeton Barracks – have been deployed in Helmand province where they are teaching soldiers of the Afghan National Army.

As well as facing the stress of being on the front line, soldiers have to deal with being away from their creature comforts and their loved-ones.

Commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel David Colthup said: "Living conditions vary depending on location and the length of time British forces have been operating in a particular area, with the more recently established bases having a more austere feel.

"Each team is entirely self-sufficient, cooking their own food from ration packs and in many instances making improvised gym equipment to maintain levels of fitness.

"Despite the daily challenges of operating with the Afghan National Army (ANA) and adapting to a prolonged period away from normal comforts, morale among the teams is continually high."

The Battle Group consists of six Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams (OMLTs) – four infantry, one combat support including reconnaissance, engineers, communications and artillery and one for combat service support or logistics.

The infantry element is deployed across the Helmand area in which UK forces operate; where they live, sleep, eat, patrol and fight alongside the soldiers of the ANA on a daily basis.

Lt Col Colthup said: "The role itself involves mentoring Afghan soldiers from the ANA.

"Complementing the work done by the other battle groups within Task Force Helmand, the work is critical in developing the ANA and building the capacity needed by their security forces to defeat the insurgents and protect the people of Afghanistan. Mentoring is not a new concept.

"It has been used in Afghanistan for nearly four years now.

"We work on a day-to-day basis with Afghan counterparts deploying forward where necessary to support artillery gun positions, engineer work or resupply convoys to the infantry Kandaks," Lt Col Colthup added.

The hidden beauty parlour of Helmand

Make-up and fashion have become a form of resistance for many women in Afghanistan. Katrina Manson reports from Lashkar Gah.

Pamela Anderson and Afghanistan's most dangerous, conservative province might not at first glance seem to have much in common. But step into a busy, cramped room in Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province, and there she is: blonde locks, wide darkly made-up eyes, and petulant pink lips smiling down from a large mirror.

The crinkly laminated poster of the Playboy model's face is not the only surprise in a room filled with hairspray, fake eyelashes and lipsticks. For this is a hidden beauty parlour in a land where women appear in public only when shrouded in full-length burkhas that obscure even their eyes. Tucked into a private home down a dusty dead-end alley, women are indulging in playing at dressing-up in the province in which the fight against the Taliban rages and where more than 90 British troops have lost their lives since the start of the Afghan war in 2001.

It's the night before Roya's wedding, a white dress hangs on the wall, and she is leaning back. Wearing light, flowing fabrics of red, blue, gold and purple dotted with sequins, three more giggling women pack into the parlour. With a rapid, practised hand, beauty therapist Malika spreads lashings of gaudy, garish bright blue eye-shadow over Roya's eyelids before painting a thick goo of glitzy red lipstick on her parted mouth. "It's a form of personal resistance," says a justice expert at the British-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), "and they're doing it with and for each other."

utside is the gritty Afghan reality familiar in the West from the coverage of the war. In the hot and dusty streets, bearded labourers pour concrete into ditches, auto-rickshaws painted with love hearts weave and swerve through a town which was planned by the Americans in the 1950s as a suburban "Little America" in Afghanistan. Amid the shopping stalls and mobile fruit-carts, men sit smoking and chatting as they drink green tea on the pavements, breaking off for the odd bit of trade.

Women are not allowed to run their own shops in the bazaar, the main shopping area, or to shake hands with men. Indeed, they rarely leave their homes. "Although we'd like to, we're not allowed to have this shop outside," explains Malika, "because it would not be safe and in any case our family would not allow it. But we like to wear colourful clothes and we love different colours – in fact, we'd like more make-up and more colours." Her tiny home-based boutique, one of three in the battle-hardened town whose name means "army barracks", makes 5,000 Afghanis (£60) profit a month.

For the full story click here for the Independent website

PICTURE of the day: Merlin arrives in Helmand

The first RAF Merlin helicopter has arrived in Afghanistan as part of a move to boost air support on the frontline.

VIDEO: Himal Observation Post, Helmand

On the 2nd of November 2009 soldiers from the Household Cavalry Battle Group provided overwatch for a vital re-supply convoy.

Filmed and edited by SSgt Stu MacKenzie

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Afghanistan: British troops in Helmand kill 80 Taliban in 10 days of fighting

British troops in Helmand have killed up to 80 insurgents in 10 days of bloody fighting, The Sunday Telegraph can disclose.

By Sean Rayment. Picture by Heathcliff O'Malley

The battles occurred in two separate areas of Nad e'Ali in central Helmand, where the 1st battalion the Grenadier Guards Battle Group are based.

More than 60 insurgents are thought to have been killed close to Patrol Base Waheed after the Taliban launched a series of "Kamikaze-style" attacks against British troops.

In the southern area of the district, which is also controlled by the Grenadier Guards, soldiers from the battalion's reconnaissance platoon killed an estimated 16 fighters in a carefully planned ambush last Saturday, although it is difficult for the British Army to be precise about enemy casualties.

The attacks follow the deaths of five members of the battle group who were shot dead by a rogue Afghan policeman 12 days ago. Although the Taliban claimed that the policeman was an insurgent agent, there is a growing belief among British commanders that he was probably acting alone.

The first battle began last week when soldiers from the Grenadier Guard's No2 Company, commanded by Major Richard Green, ambushed Taliban fighters, who had been launching a series of "shoot and scoot" attacks against the British base.

For the full article click here for the

VIDEO: British troops take aim at the Taliban in Helmand

Caution: Strong language

Afghanistan dispatch: British troops take aim at the Taliban in Helmand

The murder of five British troops by an Afghan policeman has sparked fresh soul-searching over the future of the mission against the Taliban. Yet as Sean Rayment reports, morale remains high despite the daily dangers.

As the weak dawn sun rose over the fertile plain of Nad e'Ali, a hidden British sniper trained his sights onto a Taliban commander.

Watching carefully as the insurgent moved between two brown mud-walled buildings, the soldier prepared for the kill. Hiding on the roof of an abandoned compound some 700 metres from his target, he waited patiently and, when his target emerged, he firmly squeezed the trigger of his .338 sniper rifle.

A second later the bullet struck home, hitting the Taliban leader on the right side of his rib cage. He recoiled, stumbled and was dead before he hit the ground.

The sniper, filled with a deep sense of satisfaction, smiled, reloaded his rifle and scanned the ground for his next target. It was, he admitted to me, a "little bit of pay back" for the five British soldiers who were shot dead by a rogue Afghan policeman on November 3rd. "I'll be honest", he continued, "It felt quite good. They are the bad guys and they were going to try and kill us, but we managed to get the drop on them."

An hour or so later as the battle continued, four unarmed Afghans came to collect the body. The sniper, who can not be named for security reasons, requested permission to engage but was told not to open fire. In Helmand, the British Army does not shoot unarmed Taliban fighters, because of the possibility - no matter how remote - that they might be innocent civilians. Commanders call this practice "courageous restraint", and it has become one of the defining characteristics of the war currently being fought by the British in Helmand. While the Afghans crave prosperity and freedom, security remains at the top of their list of "must haves" and the side which can deliver that will ultimately win the support of the wider population.

The death of every civilian, accidentally killed by either side, ultimately plays into the hands of the Taliban propaganda chiefs, as the Grenadier Guards recently discovered.

In the hours after the shooting of the five British soldiers at the Afghan Police station known as Blue 25, the Taliban launched an attack against the same base and in the ensuing battle four civilians were killed, including a child. The Taliban immediately blamed the deaths on Nato, and claimed that it was in retribution for the deaths of the soldiers. It took many hours of negotiation by British commanders before the local population accepted that the deaths - if any were caused by the British - were a tragic accident.

Nad e'Ali, the area in which The Sunday Telegraph was embedded with the Grenadier Guards Battlegroup for the past two weeks, is a key area in Helmand. Situated around eight miles to the east of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gar, it was until September last year a former Taliban stronghold and the insurgents want it back. The Guards have no intention of giving it to them.

For the rest of the report click here for the

Biometric tests to identify rebels in Afghanistan

By Stephen Grey

THE inhabitants of combat zones in southern Afghanistan may face biometric tests in a new initiative to prevent the Taliban from infiltrating villages.

After studying counter-insurgency methods employed from the Boer war to the conflict in Iraq, British commanders are drawing up plans for “gated communities” from which the enemy can be excluded by identity checks. The checks may involve fingerprints, retina scans or even DNA tests.

Brigadier James Cowan, the new commander of British forces in Afghanistan, revealed last week how far the campaign in Helmand is being rethought.

“In counter-insurgency you are not here to beat the enemy. You are here to win the people — because the enemy will always be able to regenerate,” he said in the first newspaper interview he has given in his new role. “What you have to be able to do is give people the security they crave.”

The shift in emphasis from killing Taliban fighters to counter-insurgency has often been misleadingly presented as simply trying to win “hearts and minds” — perhaps with crude bribes such as building wells or health clinics, or through short-term job creation.

For the full story click here for the Times Online

A shocking glimpse of the lives of women in war-torn Afghanistan

Charlotte Cross combines a career in TV journalism with volunteering for the Territorial Army in the Information Operations Team. Both these passions have taken her to Afghanistan, where she has gained an insight into the lives of local women struggling for simple freedoms.

It was the smell that did it. The moment I stepped off the plane at Kandahar Airfield, I knew I was back. It was the middle of the night, I couldn’t see much, but that musty, sandy smell just hit me. It was unmistakably Afghanistan.

With the smell came the memories: my close-knit team of soldiers, with whom I’d shared my every waking moment, the ordinary Afghan people I’d worked with, the interpreters and the women. I wondered how life had changed for them in two years, whether they were even still alive.

I remembered the fatigue I’d felt after six months of working long days, the frustration of trying to get things done in such a difficult environment, the drudgery of day-to-day living, and the constant fear of what was lurking just outside the wire.

In 2006, I’d spent six months in Helmand Province with the Provisional Reconstruction Team. I worked in Psychological Operations, more commonly known as ‘winning hearts and minds’. Part of my job was chatting to local people, asking what help they needed to rebuild their war-ravaged lives.

That meant going outside the relative safety of the camp, travelling in a vehicle or patrolling on foot through Helmand’s streets. And, of course, being inside a camp isn’t always safe. Bullets and rockets would come whizzing over the walls, on one occasion hitting a colleague of mine in the leg.

As an officer in the TA I had volunteered to go, leaving my day job as a journalist in London. I was based in Helmand’s capital, Lashkar Gah, sharing a room which more closely resembled a concrete bunker with two other female officers. At the end of a hard day in a male-dominated military environment, it was a place I could come back to and gossip with the girls.

Wearing a uniform every day, with hair scraped into a bun and without the morning ritual of putting on make-up, inevitably makes you feel less feminine. Nevertheless, some of my male colleagues would be overprotective towards us, worrying about letting us out on the more dangerous patrols. We used to joke that we had to overcome a degree of old-fashioned sexism among our own men, never mind among the Afghans.

It gave me a degree of empathy with Afghan women and the hurdles they face in their struggle for equality. But my day-to-day discomforts were nothing compared with the trials they face in winning simple freedoms such as education or the opportunity to work. Even if the Taliban aren’t around, many people continue to live as they did when they were in power, scared of the repercussions should they ever come back.

For the full article click here for the Daily Mail website

Saturday, November 14, 2009

VIDEO: What soldiers want at Christmas

As the season of good will approaches, the British public are being urged to help the forces as much as possible by refraining from sending Christmas parcels to troops in Afghanistan.

Soldiers serving in theatre are literally being overwhelmed by support from the British public who generously post unsolicited parcels, putting a massive strain on the Forces Post Office in Camp Bastion, resulting in packages from friends and family taking longer to reach the intended recipients.

We are all overwhelmed by the support and the amazing generosity and is it very much appreciated.

We are working with the forces charity SSAFA to enable generous members of the public to donate money to the charity as an alternative to sending parcels.

The Operational Welfare Fund is focused on providing support direct to the front line and enables commanders on the ground to bid for those items which they know will boost the troops' morale.

Afghanistan dispatch: British troops take aim at the Taliban in Helmand

The murder of five British troops by an Afghan policeman has sparked fresh soul-searching over the future of the mission against the Taliban. Yet as Sean Rayment reports, morale remains high despite the daily dangers.

As the weak dawn sun rose over the fertile plain of Nad e'Ali, a hidden British sniper trained his sights onto a Taliban commander.

Watching carefully as the insurgent moved between two brown mud-walled buildings, the soldier prepared for the kill. Hiding on the roof of an abandoned compound some 700 metres from his target, he waited patiently and, when his target emerged, he firmly squeezed the trigger of his .338 sniper rifle.

A second later the bullet struck home, hitting the Taliban leader on the right side of his rib cage. He recoiled, stumbled and was dead before he hit the ground.

The sniper, filled with a deep sense of satisfaction, smiled, reloaded his rifle and scanned the ground for his next target. It was, he admitted to me, a "little bit of pay back" for the five British soldiers who were shot dead by a rogue Afghan policeman on November 3rd. "I'll be honest", he continued, "It felt quite good. They are the bad guys and they were going to try and kill us, but we managed to get the drop on them."

An hour or so later as the battle continued, four unarmed Afghans came to collect the body. The sniper, who can not be named for security reasons, requested permission to engage but was told not to open fire. In Helmand, the British Army does not shoot unarmed Taliban fighters, because of the possibility - no matter how remote - that they might be innocent civilians. Commanders call this practice "courageous restraint", and it has become one of the defining characteristics of the war currently being fought by the British in Helmand.

While the Afghans crave prosperity and freedom, security remains at the top of their list of "must haves" and the side which can deliver that will ultimately win the support of the wider population.

For the full report click here for the Telegraph website

PICTURE of the day: Javelin and mortar

Engaging Taliban positions with with a mortar and a Javelin medium range anti-tank guided weapon.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The truth about our boys in Afghanistan

Every reporter will have experienced it and every one of us fails to actually tell the real truth when we are asked this recurring and obvious question: “Stuart, another soldier dead in terrible circumstances. Opinion polls show the public is against the war. Surely it must affect morale?”

The real answer “Does it chuff, they love it.”

They do and that is the difference between civilians and military; it is why you and I and everyone wringing their hands about the poor soldiers facing horrendous conditions and danger totally don’t get it.

It is why they can kill people without question.

It is why they joined up in the first place.

If you think about it logically do soldiers, first and foremost, really want to build schools for poor Afghan kids? No, they want to kill Taliban.

I am not saying this lightly, I am not saying they are bloodthirsty or in any way unprofessional. It is a simple fact: they are soldiers and soldiers fight wars and they are in one.

They are mightily upset when one of their mates gets killed or injured, but the way they deal with it is to clean their weapon, make sure their kit is squared away and get ready to go outside the wire and kill the bastards trying to kill them.

A couple of months ago I met up with a mentoring team of 10 British soldiers who had been held up in their base for months. Firefights every day; supplied by helicopter drops for weeks on end. They controlled no more than a few hundred yards of dusty road outside their front door.

They were attacked night after night. It was like a movie of explosions and shooting and camaraderie – trust me I have seen the pictures they filmed.

They were led by a very nice posh officer lad and a classic gruff sergeant. They were the happiest blokes I have ever met.

“It was f****** great mate. The lads f****** loved it. Thank f*** we didn’t lose anyone but we f****** twatted them – every time we went out. We knew where it would start, we knew what they would do and we just went out and tried to f*** them up. F****** brilliant.” That was the sergeant.

The officer: “Stuart, the lads did a great professional job. I think they relished the opportunity to engage with the enemy and implement the changes we and the ISAF forces have been tasked with achieving. The goals are difficult and achievements will sometimes be difficult to quantify but we feel we achieved a fair, if modest, degree of success.” I think that translates as “We f***ed them up.”

I have met many, many soldiers over the years and this example is absolutely in keeping with the general view of the military.

After spending another long night on the floor of a dusty tent, with no air conditioning in the day and freezing cold at night, eating awful MRE’s (meals ready to eat) when it was clear there could be a cook, I took it upon myself to ask the commanding officer why his men lived in such terrible conditions when it was pointless.

“Stuart I don’t ask much of my men,” the colonel told me.

“But I may ask them this: ‘Men, we will take that town tomorrow and we will prevail whatever the cost to you or your comrades.’ I am telling them to roll out of bed and kill people and risk being killed. That is why they live like animals, because I want them to behave like animals. It is war.”

He was American and as you might gather - a bit scary - but he had a point I suppose, even if we might find it totally alien.

Few of us ever wanted to be in the army and few have ever experienced what war is like. I have experienced it. It is strange and frightening and frankly exhilarating when it's over and you have survived.

But it is what soldiers have trained for and crave. The current deployed men and women see themselves as the “chosen generation”. Not for them tours of Northern Ireland to experience battle – but full-on conflicts, and they are at the centre of it.

We may debate the rights and wrongs of Afghanistan and Iraq and we may hate the dreadfulness of war and the effect that it has on civilians - something I have focused on in the many conflicts I have covered.

But please do not think that another soldier killed in an incident in Afghanistan ever affects the soldiers’ commitment – quite the opposite, it makes them more determined.

Stuart Ramsay, Sky News' Chief News Correspondent, is on assignment in Afghanistan.