Sunday, January 3, 2010

Sitting ducks of Helmand

Picture: David Gill

British supply convoys are a big target for the Taliban and have led to fierce battles, Sunday Times takes a journey on the road to Sangin

By Miles Amoore for the Times

Tactics used by the Taliban to cut supply routes in Helmand have forced the army to change the way it maintains its remote bases. Taliban mines block the only main road that connects the British bases, pushing the supply line out into the desert where it is vulnerable to ambushes and minefields.

The burnt-out shells of civilian lorries that line Route 611, the main north-south road through the upper Helmand valley, bear witness to the potency of Taliban tactics. Many of the wrecks are now booby trapped with improvised explosive devices, better known as IEDs.

To reach remote bases along the Helmand river, supply convoys are obliged to drive for days through Taliban-held territory, dodging IEDs, mortar fire and ambushes.

“Every time you step outside the wire everyone is a target,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Martin Moore, commanding officer of 10 the Queen’s Own Gurkha Logistic Regiment. “We use helicopters but certain commodities just have to go by road.”

Beyond the “green zone”, the lush valley that straddles Route 611, lies the Helmand desert, a mixture of wadis and sand banks broken by sharp mountain peaks.

Military convoys with up to 200 vehicles can stretch for six miles as they trundle along, kicking up dust and sand clouds. Afghan security companies often attach their lorries to British convoys for protection.

The convoys travel through a stretch of sand and shale that at times narrows to less than half a mile, allowing the Taliban to scatter mines across the route.

Last month I joined a convoy from Camp Bastion retracing the route of an October convoy to Sangin and its nearby forward operating bases that had become the most heavily fought over in recent times. The Taliban laid clusters of mines to block our progress but two strikes did little to hinder us and an ambush outside Sangin felt like a formality compared with the fighting in October.

Then 70 lorries — heavy equipment transporters, fuel tankers, lightly armoured Land Rovers and heavily armoured Mastiffs — had set off to resupply troops in Sangin with 400 tons of stores, rations and ammunition. The route, equivalent to driving from London to Brighton and back, took the Gurkhas eight days.

For the full article click here for the Times Online

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