Thursday, January 7, 2010

Dam mission troops 'gaining upper hand' against Taliban

Corporal John Beavers (commander, front right), driver Lance Corporal Hayden Birks and gunner Rifleman Toby Graham, 3rd Battalion, The Rifles,

By Joe Sinclair - PA

British soldiers tasked with protecting a vital dam in Afghanistan say they have gained the upper hand against insurgents.

It is hoped electricity produced by the isolated Kajaki dam in northern Helmand can be used to win hearts and minds in the area.

But a lack of manpower means there is no prospect of bringing a third hydroelectric turbine at the dam into use and it is difficult to provide enough protection for locals to return to their homes.

Troops from C Company, 3rd Battalion The Rifles, are based at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Zeebrugge in an isolated and mountainous part of northern Helmand.

The soldiers often come into contact with the enemy and are under threat from gunfire, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and suicide bombers.

Major Mike Lynch, Officer Commanding C Company, said the unit had recently killed a Taliban commander, adding: "We've had a lot of success and we've pushed them back a long way. I think we have the upper hand up here at the moment."

But he said the majority of troops were understandably concentrated in other areas, such as Sangin, where there was more of a local population to protect.

Villages around the dam have been deserted since fierce fighting began in 2006 and there are not enough soldiers to provide a more complete security presence and allow locals to return.

There is also not enough security for the third turbine to be put in place at the dam.

A daring mission saw British troops transport the massive turbine from Kandahar in the summer of 2008.
Afghan Engineers show British Troops around the area where the proposed third turbine will be placed at the Kajaki Dam complex

The operation was hailed a great success and the extra electricity was supposed to help win Afghan hearts and minds.

Two turbines at the dam are already producing more electricity than the pylons are capable of carrying.

And for the third turbine to be put to use the road must be resurfaced and new pylons built.

Major Lynch said that in one sense British forces were "not here to do anything more than protect the dam".

The dam project is being overseen by USAID. And as well as British forces, the area is also protected by Afghan National Police and a private security firm, Hart Security.

One of the South African men who runs Hart Security in Kajaki, who did not want to be named, said he did not know what was going to happen with regards to the new turbine.

Major Lynch said insurgents were not trying to destroy the dam because they too benefited from the electricity it produced, which they were able to tax.

He added: "They would like to own the dam and us being here physically prevents them from doing that."

Local Afghans who work at the dam must travel through insurgent lines using a track which has been cleared of mines. They are often stopped and searched by the Taliban.
Captain Emma Spilsbury, SPS examines one of the underground spillways at the Kajaki Dam complex

Major Lynch said a lack of security in the area meant Kajaki was "a couple of years" behind places like Sangin, which is 35km away.

He said: "It wouldn't take much effort. Once the battle group or the man power was available I think we would see quite a change quite quickly."

He said not much could be achieved in the short term with the available resources but added: "If you can influence the local nationals and clear the area of insurgents than you are definitely taking it forward for the next Company that come in."

Locals are reluctant to cooperate with British forces because of the threat from the Taliban, who use physical and mental intimidation.

Major Lynch said even two insurgents could wield huge influence over a village.

He said: "They are very pro us, but they can't really take a proper side until we can guarantee them 24/7 security."

Tangye, the village opposite the FOB, used to hold a thriving bazaar with up to 1,000 shops.

Major Lynch said things were likely to get worse before they got better in the village.

Any attempt to get the shops up and running again was likely to come under attack from suicide bombers.

He said: "Psychologically we are on our own up here.

"We can't rely on people getting to us to help us when things go wrong.

"But the guys thoroughly love the job up here and it is definitely rewarding for them.

"It wouldn't take much to turn things around here. It just requires someone to give that direction."

Pictures: Sgt Rob Knight

1 comment:

  1. I get a better feeling for the news from here with the inclusion of a bit of doom and gloom in this report. If everything is a wonderful success as is sometime reported - why are we not on way home?