Sunday, November 15, 2009
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 Telegraph.co.uk