Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lethal bombing in south Afghanistan

Al Jazeera English

A roadside bomb has claimed the lives of 11 civilians in Afghanistan's southern province of Helmand, according to local government officials.

Daud Ahmadi, the governor's spokesman, told journalists on Sunday that "a civilian car struck a roadside bomb in Nawzad district" in the north of the province.

Blaming the Taliban for the attack, Ahmadi said the dead included two children and two women.

Thousands of US, NATO and Afghan troops have been pursuing a major offensive against the Taliban in Helmand's Marjah and Nad Ali areas since February 13.

Helmand is the most troubled region in Afghanistan with the highest level of activity by insurgents, mostly remnants of the Taliban ousted from the government by US-led forces in late 2001.

The current operation, called Moshtarak (Dari for "together"), is aimed at driving the Taliban from their strongholds and is part of Washington's new war strategy for Afghanistan announced late last year.

The town of Marjah continues to see sporadic resistance.

Over a dozen foreign soldiers and at least two of their Afghan counterparts have been killed during Moshtarak. Dozens of Taliban fighters have also died although the authorities have yet to give a precise figure.

At least 15 civilians have also been killed in the offensive, 12 of them by a rocket fired by US forces and intended to hit Taliban resistance.

Operations are set to expand to other Taliban strongholds, particularly in the neighbouring province of Kandahar, where the Taliban maintain a large presence.

About 121,000 international troops, mainly from the United States and NATO, are stationed in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban.

Open for Business in Showal

By the end of February over half the bazaar in Showal is open for business, with more shops opening on a daily basis. This is a complete change of fortune. Prior to Operation Moshtarak the bazaar had been closed entirely, primarily due to the threat of IEDs.

Local Afghan people are being sent the message through shuras and the local radio station that stalls are stocked and that coalition forces are constantly patrolling the area. And word is getting out.

However, at a recent shura local people are still worried about the threat of IEDs along the village roads leading into Showal. The Afghan National Civil Order Police Commander at Showal, Colonel Abdul Mohammed said ““We are here to provide reassurance of security”.

Security patrols are 'de rigeur' in Showal, and for A Company, 1 Royal Welsh Regiment there is a keenness to ensure routes are clear and encourage people to use the market. The ANA play no small part in these patrols, with their numbers weighted at 60% of the patrol.

There is an abundance of shops and stalls open ranging from fresh produce to footballs. And certainly, the meat-seller was doing brisk business; not least amongst his customers were ANA soldiers. “The food here is good, and so very fresh” said Narjeev, the 2IC of the ANA company in Showal. To prove a point, members of the British forces were invited to dine, on a regular basis, with their Afghan hosts at supper time.

The opening of the bazaar has been welcomed by locals. A local elder who did not wish to be named said “We had to travel as far as Lashkar Gah for food, which could take up to 4 hours in a round trip”. Now his family have access again to the bazaar and he is very keen that people should able to shop locally.

Elders in the village are spreading the word that the locals should feel confident to shop at the bazaar but also feeding back to ISAF that they must continue to provide security. It is a message that is not lost on CO A Company, Major Sean Hackney.

“Our aim is to restore business as usual, pre-Taleban intimidation”. So on a security footing and commercial footing progress is definitely being made, with growth in the number of stallholders touting for business being more palpable on a daily basis.

Pictures: Squadron Leader Dee Taylor

Death and swift revenge on Operation Dark Rest

Miles Amoore in Nad-e-Ali, Helmand for the Times Online

THE patrol set off in darkness. Through fields of poppy and wheat, 100 men from the Brigade Reconnaissance Force stumbled towards their target, a strip of compounds that had been used by the Taliban to fire on British troops.

“Right, lads, the Taliban are waking up. They’ve already pinged our position,” said Captain Andy Breach, the BRF’s intelligence officer, as he listened in to the insurgents’ radio under a moonless sky.

Then the mine exploded. With an enormous, ear-piercing bang, a cone of earth and rock hurtled towards the heavens 40 yards in front of me in a flash of purple from the phosphate in the home-made improvised explosive device.

“Contact IED!” Breach shouted into his radio.

An eerie pause followed as a plume of smoke spiralled away on the breeze above the dirt and gravel track we were following beside a canal. One of the soldiers shouted for a medic. As men raced past me, barking out orders in rasping voices, I sat on a bank in shock, an image of the explosion frozen in my mind.

“Foxy, get your vallon [mine detector],” said Colour Sergeant Stew Cain, grabbing the nearest medic and running towards the seat of the explosion. “Start clearing the area in case there are more devices.”

But Foxy never replied. In the gloomy, pre-dawn light, a group of soldiers found him on the track. They dragged him on to a stretcher, each man taking a corner, and sprinted towards a landing zone being cleared for a helicopter in a wheat field.

Breach, co-ordinating the medical evacuation from a ditch 10 yards away, asked for news of Foxy’s condition. Cain looked back at him and shook his head twice.

Sergeant Paul “Foxy” Fox, 35, from Manchester, married with three children — the youngest barely more than a year old — had died instantly.

I HAD known Foxy for only a month, but I fought back tears as I watched the two men stare at each other across the field, shocked by the loss of a friend.

A few minutes earlier, Foxy had been walking six men ahead of me, talking into his radio as he navigated the irrigation ditches and tree-lines, the rest of the platoon following.

This was Operation Dark Rest, aimed at killing or capturing a particularly lethal group of Taliban near the town of Marjah in central Helmand.

The soldiers of the BRF, an elite unit, had just had time to de-flea their sleeping bags after 10 days of living rough in compounds following the launch of the much larger Operation Moshtarak to regain control of the area.

Thus far they had seen relatively little fighting. Now they were targeting “a nest of vipers” who had shot and wounded six men from US special forces and seven Scots Guards in the space of a week.

The accuracy of the fire suggested that highly trained Pakistani gunmen may have arrived there from Marjah, where US troops have become bogged down in fierce fighting.

“We will likely take on casualties,” the commanding officer had said on the eve of Operation Dark Rest. “We may have to have down days, where we recoup for a day or two. We will need to stay alert. They only need to be lucky once; we have to be lucky every day.”

On Friday, the men woke at 3.45am, packing up their sleeping bags and ponchos before making a hasty cup of tea and gobbling some food. They lined up in their sections, sharing a final joke before they set out.

Foxy checked over the men in his section, ensuring they were in the correct order of march and that they had the right kit with them — night vision goggles, enough water to last the day, extra rations and ammunition. I was attached to 3 Platoon, where Foxy was one of three section commanders.

It was hard to see the ground with no moon to guide us. Some of the soldiers tripped in the uneven fields. Others lost their footing as they hurdled ditches, slipping into the water before scrambling up the bank.

For the full report click here for the Times online

Afghan flag flies over Marjah

A young boy smiles as the Afghan flag flies once again over the town of Marjah in the Nad-e Ali district of Helmand province. The flag was raised in a ceremony involving Helmand governor Gulab Mangal, community officials, and Afghan and ISAF security partners.

The flag-raising symbolized the return of government authority in the community, a focal point of governance activities since the start of Operation Moshtarak.

The goal of Moshtarak – Dari for "together" – is for the combined force (ANA, ANP, ISAF and the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team) to support the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in asserting its authority in central Helmand, thereby demonstrating the government’s commitment to the people living there.

Afghan mission 'gone well' but real battle to come

Chief of Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup meets Colonel Abdul Mohammed the ANA Commander at Showal. Picture: Sqn Ldr Dee Taylor, RAF

On a visit to Helmand, the head of the armed forces has said that British troops have performed superbly in Operation Moshtarak, and that the initial phase has gone well.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup was speaking as he flew in to Showal, formerly the heartland of the Taliban's shadow government.

He said there were still pockets of resistance further south in Marjah, where the Americans have been fighting, and some resistance in Nad Ali, but that levels had eased considerably over the last few days.

Security was tight for Sir Jock's visit.

In the skies, an Apache attack helicopter was visible as it circled above, while soldiers from the 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh kept watch as the head of the armed forces came to talk to British and Afghan forces involved in Operation Moshtarak.

Speaking at a patrol base in the town, which appeared relatively quiet, he thanked British and Afghan forces for their work.

"Op Moshtarak is just the initial phase, and the clear phase went extraordinarily well, and it was a professionally-executed operation that went very smoothly. Our forces performed superbly."

However, he told the BBC that the coalition was not complacent.

"This is a tough fight, and it is a hard campaign, and you have got some pretty determined and quite clever opponents. They have a vote in this, and we have to be able to react to that, to enable us to keep them on the back foot," he said.

'Test the ground'

Just two weeks ago, the Taliban flag flew over this town; as the coalition moved in, it was replaced with the Afghan national flag that now flies from a tall white crane, visible from the low reinforced mud walled compounds that surround it.

However, soldiers here say that although many of the insurgents melted away after 4,000 coalition and Afghan troops launched the overall operation - 1,200 of them dropped in by air on D-Day - many insurgents remained to watch and test the ground.

Three British soldiers died during the "clear" phase of the operation.

Outside the military compound in Showal, young men from the town sit on the riverbank.

Some covered their faces as we passed; a few of the younger children smiled.

But the impression was of people waiting warily, wondering which side it will prove safest to support.

Last week, insurgents managed to place an IED makeshift bomb beneath a British truck, 20 yards from the crane. Nobody was hurt; only part of the charge went off.

"The Taliban haven't left - they're always looking for weaknesses, and they'll come back when they get the manpower again. But we're prepared for that," says Fusilier Dave Rollings, 24, from Cardiff, of the 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh.

Cpl Spiros Parry, 28, from Penygoves in Wales, agrees.

"It wasn't as heavy as we thought it would be, but it's still been eventful. Everyone's aware of the threat from IEDs, but the boys are doing well finding them, and the teams have cleared the routes for the convoys. So far, so good."

For the full article click here for BBC Online

Soldier's blog from Afghanistan frontline

By Trooper Pete Sheppard for Channel 4 News

Contact IED... We have a casualty". With these words over the radio, Trooper Pete Sheppard heard of the death of fellow soldier Sergeant Paul Fox.

Trooper Sheppard is a radio operator with Sergeant Fox's unit, the Brigade Reconaissance Force, which is involved in Operation Moshtarak in Helmand Province.

In the latest of his dispatches for Channel 4 News online, Trooper Sheppard describes the attack in which Sergeant Fox died, the reaction of his comrades-in-arms and their subsequent operation against insurgents suspected of the attack.
Sergeant Fox

It was relatively quiet for the remainder of the day yesterday but the evening was a time to reflect and remember.

Then, at 2030 hrs, we managed to get eyes on four people digging and loitering around the area of the IED strike that caused our casualty.

We were able to positively identify them as insurgents by using both our air assets and observation equipment, and we observed them re-planting another IED.

We were also able to track them moving away to their night time location. Again, another early start this morning, we were up at 0215!

The troops went out on a patrol to go and introduce themselves to the insurgents at their compound… The insurgents mounted a heavy resistance, using automatic weapons and grenades, but were quickly subdued by our guys.

We were able to obtain a lot of evidence including weapons and radios. A great result today! Everyone is chuffed with the positive strike.

We did have a minor casualty when gaining entry but he is going to be fine. Everyone is tired. We are just going to rest for the remainder of the day, whilst waiting to send the evidence and the detainees back up the chain of command for questioning and investigation.

Our American Explosive Ordnance Disposal team, which has been frequently attached to us, went on a further patrol and dealt with the IED that was replanted by the insurgents last night. Again another great find – we probably saved someone’s life by finding it and removing the device – and are particularly pleased to have captured the insurgents who laid it.

Another day down. One less to go. Oh, and just in case you didn’t crack it - Answer to the Thursday’s riddle; An Umbrella.

The BRF is outside a small Patrol Base and the vehicles are in a close knit formation. The surrounding area is rural, a lot of farming fields around us with a series of compounds in the near distance.

Our task on this operation is to find, fix and exploit any insurgents in the area. Over the last couple of days we have been conducting clearance patrols moving through compounds methodically. There is a small canal about 3 metres wide just in front of us running north to south.

Other than that the area around is still quite dry. There hasn’t been any large amount of rain for a while, only short light bursts.

Everyone was up for 0345 hours this morning to go out on more clearance patrols. Then at about 0615, there was a big explosion. Everyone looked at each other instantly. Then over the radio net came “CONTACT IED!” another look of shock came across our faces.

Seconds later – “We have a casualty!” everyone went quiet, then “it’s Foxy!” The adrenaline and training kicked in. We started to prep the ‘9 liner’, a situation report needed to send up the chain of command to make them aware of what had happened and of the injuries sustained.

Moments later the medivac helicopter was wheels up from Camp Bastion. Over the net – “he’s in a bad way!” Again, we looked at each other.

The guys still in our position were just shaking their heads. No words were said. From my position in Squadron Headquarters it was so frustrating not being right there and able to react with the guys; I felt helpless being positioned a bit further back.

However I know my job as a radio operator is very important, passing up all the vital information, especially with an incident like this. Still, I wished I could be there to help more.

Over the insurgents’ radios we heard them congratulating each other for the attack. I let out a few expletives. “I hope the lads bloody smash these guys!” I said.

Everyone looked very annoyed at their boasting and I’m sure they were thinking similar things. After the helicopter landed and Foxy was airlifted away the troops came under small arms fire.

This is not typical of insurgent activity as we had an Apache helicopter overhead and the insurgents normally, very rightly so, are scared of it.

A few moments later they went back into hiding, unwilling to risk getting spotted by the Apache. They called over their radios for more back up. Roughly 15 minutes later the boss heard confirmation over the radio – “Your casualty is KIA”.

I looked at Donny (who had just replaced me on the radio stag) in disbelief willing him to say that I had misheard it. He just looked down and shook his head.

The troops continued to be engaged with small arms and a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) until approximately 0900, and then it went quiet. We then proceeded to advance and the lads began searching local compounds. However, nothing and no-one had been found by lunch time.

The insurgents were tantalizingly close. Over their radios they declared that they could see us, they claimed they were starting to mass troops, that they were going to stop us from leaving and that they were ready to start firing at us.

All talk, because once again it was a quiet, albeit somber afternoon. The troops on the ground weren’t officially told of Foxy’s death until they had all returned in from the patrol. This was to prevent them from not thinking straight.

The OC was told first and he then told the Corporal Major. Moments later the Squadron Corporal Major (SCM) called everyone over and told them the news.

Everyone was shocked and p*d off. It is hard losing a character like him from the team. We stayed in our small leaguer for the remainder of the day with no more patrols going out.

At about 1900 we held a service in the field, not far from where he had fallen, in memory of Sgt Paul ‘Foxy’ Fox . It started with the SCM saying “Right everyone gather round.

The Fijians are going to do a service and a few prayers for Foxy.” Jon Jon – one of the Fijians, said a few words about him. Then Rocko read a verse from the Bible, Book of Psalms, Chapter 91.

Jon Jon then went into what this verse meant. After this the group of Fijians soldiers started to sing an amazing hymn called “I need Thee, O I need Thee” They sang this in English to start of with and then for the last verse they sang it in Fijian.

Fijian choir singing is phenomenal. It really touched us all, the harmony of their song. It was blissfully quiet everywhere, all that could be heard were these soldiers singing in remembrance.

A Mortar illume round was then fired from our 81mm mortar to mark the start of a minutes silence. Everyone jumped at the loud bang it made.

Emotions were deep at this moment, thinking about Foxy and even the little things, like the last thing he said to me – asking me if I had any spare sugar for his brew, and then thanking me afterwards. Another mortar round bellowed out breaking the silence.

Then the OC came to the centre and read a poem:

“Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep;
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripening grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry
I am not there, I did not die.”

It was a very moving poem. The SCM said “Right everyone, now’s the time to go away and talk about the fond memories we all have of Foxy. When we go to Cyprus we’ll have a drink for him and when we get back to Windsor, after the medals parade, we’ll have a toast.”

Sergeant Paul Fox killed in Afghanistan

It is with regret that the Ministry of Defence must confirm the death Sergeant Paul Maurice Fox, of 28 Engineer Regiment, attached to the Brigade Reconnaissance Force, who was killed in Afghanistan on Friday 26 February 2010.

Sergeant Paul Fox, from St Ives, was born in Manchester on 16th December 1975. He joined the Army and entered the Corps of Royal Engineers in August 1994 and was trained as a combat engineer and Welder Royal Engineer Class 1.

Having moved steadily through the ranks, excelling at all stages with his professionalism, he was posted to 28 Engineer Regiment, 45 Field Support Sqaudron in 2006.

In 2008 he was recommended by his Officer Commanding to join the Regiment's Reconnaissance Troop and was chosen for the Recce Selection Cadre, and having come top of the course became a Troop Sergeant with the Brigade Reconnaissance Force (BRF). It was with the BRF he deployed on Op HERRICK 11 in October 2009.

He was killed on the 26 February 2010 by an Improvised Explosive Device while on foot patrol in southern Nad-e Ali.

Sergeant Fox's family issued the following tribute:

"Paul was a legend not only to his loving wife, children and family but also to anyone who ever knew him. Paul was a proud soldier who will be deeply missed."

Lieutenant Colonel Matt Bazeley RE, Commanding Officer, 28 Engineer Regiment, said:

"Sergeant Paul Fox was above all else a quite outstanding man. A tremendous soldier, impressive leader, fine engineer, good friend, cracking SNCO but principally just a great man.

"He volunteered for selection and training to join the Brigade Recce Force; a job and operational environment that was made for a man of Sergeant Fox's ability.

"He had been employed as a Troop Sergeant from the start of Op HERRICK 11 and had quickly established himself amongst the very best in this demanding role. He was that good.

"His quick wit, committed sense of purpose, dedication and capacity was beyond doubt. Having been casevac'd from the field on an earlier occasion he was determined to get out of hospital and back out with his men as quickly as he could.

"His sense of duty and responsibility for them was such that he would never take a step back, always look after their interests, take the lead where others may have stumbled, drive on when situations or circumstances were against him. He was that good.

"I was lucky enough to have got to know Sergeant Fox well since taking command. He would drop in for a chat and bit of banter when passing through Lashkar Gah and he brought with him the freshness and enthusiasm of someone who was doing an incredible job, fantastically well and enjoying the challenges of that task.

"His loss is a quite shocking sadness and I know that we have lost a great Royal Engineer. While our feelings of loss are huge it is to his family and friends that our hearts go out.

"What he was to us as a colleague and friend he was even more so to them as a son, husband, friend and father. Our loss is nothing compared to theirs and our best wishes go out to them.

"Sergeant Paul Fox was the Sergeant every Commanding Officer wanted under command, the SNCO every RSM trusted, the colleague every other SNCO knew as a friend, the man every JNCO aspired to be like, and the leader every soldier depended on. He was that good; he was my best."

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Our armoured vehicle is stuck in mud!

Oliver Harvey, The Sun

THE harsh voices crackling over the walkie talkie are Taliban fighters - and they are enough for the Grenadier Guards officer in our party to call for silence.

Their broad Pashto on the intercepted conversation is soon translated for us, as one insurgent barks: "Praise be to God, I'm in the same place as yesterday."

Shifting nervously, I glance over at 3 Platoon Queen's Company leader Lieutenant Mike Dobbin, a charismatic officer in the Guards tradition. He is surveying the cost of an attack the previous evening by a 25-strong Taliban raiding party on the isolated Afghan National Police outpost where we are now standing.

Bullet holes pepper the mud-walled compound. Lying on a filthy mattress inside is an Afghan policeman with a poorly dressed wound where a bullet had entered and left his calf.

Lt Dobbin, who during his four-and-a-half month tour has survived a direct hit from a roadside bomb that took out his armoured vehicle, smiles and says of the radio chatter: "We could be in for an interesting night."

In the light of a gas lamp, Sun photographer Andy Bush and I watch combat medic Michael Piantkiwskyj, 30, expertly re-dress the cop's wound.This is the other side of the brave British Army in war-torn Afghanistan - helping patch up the devastating toll Taliban bomb and gun attacks take on the country. And saving lives on a daily basis.

Guardsman Michael, from Northampton, did part of his 22-week medical training in a busy UK A&E department. He says: "Our policy is everyone gets treatment. I've seen amputations and dead bodies - that's what a medic does."

Lt Dobbin, from Reigate, Surrey, and a Cambridge economics graduate, explains that his patrol have come to bolster the attacked unit in this wind-blown compound at Kalabost, which guards the road into provincial capital Lashkar Gah. Nearby, scraps of brilliantly coloured red and green cloth flap in the breeze on antennae-like poles, marking old graves.

The lieutenant signals it is time to go. Addressing, the police commander he says: "Tell your officer he is a brave man." With that we quickly move in single file to the compound yard and prepare for the journey back to Lashkar Gah. Our interpreter, listening to the chat on the walkie talkie, believes the Taliban are not in the immediate vicinity. But it is still a hair-raising walk through the chill of a moonless Helmand evening to a 27-tonne Mastiff armoured vehicle.

Setting off in the pitch black across the bleak, lunar-like desert landscape, we soon come to an alarming halt. The Mastiff is stuck in the cloying, gloopy soil, left as thick as treacle after winter storms. I look around uncomfortably but the Grenadiers are untroubled. Eventually freed from the mud after a few worrying minutes, Sergeant Richard Archer, a Spurs fan commanding our Mastiff, then turns to address the crew.

Until now the sergeant from Burnham, Bucks, dad to five-month-old daughter, Ava, has been businesslike but jovial. Now his voice takes on more urgency. He says slowly: "We have reports of a suicide bomb at a hotel used by the Afghan police. The details are unclear but there are believed to be casualties."

Lashkar Gah - where Britain's task force is headquartered - was targeted early on Tuesday with a bike bomb. Seven civilians - one a child - were killed near the bus station, where women in burkhas shop for succulent oranges and huge cauliflowers grown in this fertile finger of green that is the Helmand Valley. Intelligence suggests the bomb is part of a wave of attacks on coalition forces in the town. At the sergeant's command, the Mastiff roars towards the scene.

The chatter in the back is matter-of-fact and punctuated with laughter as the men discuss their first crushes and which Premier League footballers could be gay. When we arrive at the disaster area it becomes clear the building has collapsed and not been subject to a Taliban attack. The four-storey hotel, which could boast being one of just two buildings in the mud-walled, low-rise city visible on Google Earth, is no more.

Two Afghan soldiers are believed to be trapped in the rubble.

The Brits try digging through the mass of twisted metal and thick concrete to look for their Afghan comrades. But it is a pointless task and Lt Dobbin orders his men back to HQ following a five-and-a-half hour patrol.

The top gunner in our Mastiff is Lance Corporal Mathew Mooney, 26, born in Coventry and raised in Australia. With an unmistakeable Sydney twang, he says: "My hairiest moment was being caught under heavy fire in a drainage ditch, but it's the bread and butter of the job. If you don't want to be in Afghanistan as a soldier you're in the wrong job." The youngest member of the platoon, who turned 18 in October, is Guardsman Simon Dent. An engineer's son and a keen runner, he keeps in touch with mates at home in Coventry on Facebook. He says: "Most of my friends are about to sit their A levels and I'm fighting the Taliban. "I've been shot at and you do get scared. The most rewarding thing is when the locals here wave and thank you."

Earlier in the day the platoon - on a six-month tour - had shown the importance of winning "hearts and minds" in the military strategy here. Helmand's Provincial Reconstruction Team - including staff from the British Government's Department For International Development (DFID) - say 44 schools have opened across Helmand since 2008.

DFID are funding road building, a new district hospital, a business park is under construction at Lashkar Gah airport and nearly 1,500 loans have been given to small businesses. The generals say winning over the population will deprive the Taliban of their hiding places and support structure.

The platoon are mobbed as they drop off pens and stationery at a 200-pupil boys school at Kalabost. The Afghan lads, some with reasonable English and a thirst for learning, say they appreciate the security the coalition forces provide. Ten-year-old Baryalai, who wants to be a doctor, says: "I would like to thank the people of Britain for sending their soldiers to help us. They will rebuild our country."

Headmaster Sor Gul, 54, adds: "The Taliban will be finished soon. There will be peace but we need factories and jobs."

Back at base, Lt Dobbin takes off his helmet to reveal blond hair, smooth cheeks and a fresh complexion. Remarkably, this leader of men, a Helmand veteran, is still only 25.

PICTURE of the day: Op Kapche Azadi

Pictures by SSgt Mark Jones on Op Kapche Azadi, Part of Phase 2 Operation Moshtarak
D Squadron, 1st Royal Tank Regiment operating in the Bolan Desert (South East of Shamal Storrai) providing security and engaging with the locals.

Viking Group on patrol in the Bolan Desert

Viking Group leaguer up for the evening

Boy on Bicycle

An inpromptu meeting with locals

Sunset in the Bolan Desert

A Shurah was held on 26 Feb by District Governer Habi Bullah with 70 Elders secured by the Afghan National Police.

Issues of future development and regeneration are discussed.

Afghan Police stand guard

Afghan engagement in stabilisation and development is key to success

UK troops to remain in Afghanistan 'for five years'

BBC Online

Britain will be "militarily engaged" in Afghanistan for a further five years, the head of the Army has said.

General Sir David Richards told the Daily Telegraph, while on a visit to Helmand, that he expected the military conflict to "trail off in 2011".

But British troops will continue in training and support roles, he said.

He also warned that coalition troops could not afford to fail and said UK forces now "for the first time" had the resources they had wanted.

Sir David said in August that he believed the UK would be committed to Afghanistan "in some manner" for the next 30 or 40 years, possibly through roles in development, governance and security sector reform.

Sir David said: "The combat role will start to decline in 2011, but we will remain military engaged in training and support roles for another five years, and we will remain in a support role for many years to come."

Speaking on a visit to Afghanistan during Operation Moshtarak, which is an ongoing offensive to attack the Taliban, he said the campaign was showing some "very optimistic signs".

He added: "A year ago the Taliban thought they had us on the run, but now the tables have turned. They are under relentless pressure and they are now having some serious thoughts about continuing the fight.

"I do not think we can afford to fail in Afghanistan because of the intoxicating effect failure will have on those militants who oppose democracy and our freedoms.

"The Taliban is now beginning to realise that they can lose this war, which was not the view they had a year ago."

Sir David's comments come after the deaths of three British servicemen in three days.

A soldier from 28 Engineer Regiment, attached to the Brigade Reconnaissance Force, died on Friday after being caught in a blast near a check point in Nad Ali, Helmand. He has not yet been named.

Rifleman Martin Kinggett from A Company 4 Rifles was shot dead in Sangin on Thursday and Senior Aircraftman Luke Southgate died in an explosion north of Kandahar airfield on Wednesday.

A total of 266 British service personnel have died since the conflict began.

Soldier's blog from Afghanistan frontline

By Trooper Pete Sheppard for Channel 4 News

Identifying insurgents on the Afghan frontline

Trooper Pete Sheppard is a radio operator with the Brigade Reconnaissance Force (BRF), which is part of Operation Moshtarak against insurgents in Helmand Province.

"We are aware that the insurgents are watching us, which is frustrating as we can't visually identify them".

It was an early start this morning. Everyone only had about four hours kip - minus an hour on stag duty.

We leaguered up (putting the vehicles in a defensive formation) on the outside of a small patrol base close to the area we would be going in to exploit over the next few days.

The base is surrounded by a wall of HESCO. This provides protection to the people inside; but it seems we are on the outside providing greater security for the base.

The troops left early this morning on clearance patrols. However, no insurgents were seen nor even any evidence of them.A small number of the compounds had been set up with IEDs but the lads spotted these and information got passed up informing the headquarters of the situation on the ground.

We are aware that the insurgents are watching us, which is frustrating as we can't visually identify them unless they are doing something incriminating.

However, attached to us are the Afghan Task Force, and they are able to spot someone who is suspicious and pick up on the small things that look out of place. It really makes a difference having them with us and we rely on their local and cultural knowledge.

When the guys got back, we started our routine which included grabbing the opportunity to catch up on sleep before the next day.

One of the guys on my wagon, Donny, is due home in 28 days today. He is sure to remind us each day of this countdown to see if people bite. He is a funny guy and has a small boy back home who is very mischievous going by the stories he tells me of him.
Just chatting like this I think everyone is keen now to return home and see our family and friends.

But the good thing about the Forces is the guys you work with; the banter and the jokes. Squaddies have their own sense of humour which most of the time can only be appreciated by other squaddies! And when we are out on tense operations like this it is vital that our sense of humour is maintained.

We will be out here for a few days and this area is not fully cleared of insurgents, so it will be interesting what tomorrow brings.

In the meantime another lad called Joe that I work with likes to give us a riddle to try to solve. It gives us something to think about whilst on stag. So here is today's....

What goes up a drainpipe down, but not down a drainpipe up?

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Taliban are getting increasingly desperate in their attacks on coalition forces

Con Coughlin, The Telegraph

I have just returned from Afghanistan (a more detailed dispatch will shortly appear in the Telegraph) where I found the mood among British troops to be remarkably upbeat. Following the success of Operation Mostarak, the military campaign to drive Taliban insurgents from the strategically important Helmand town of Nad-e Ali, there is a clear sense among British and other Nato commanders that an important corner has been turned in the relentless campaign against the Taliban, and that the insurgents are on the run.

This would explain the increasingly desperate tactics the Taliban are employing, such as today’s car bomb attacks in Kabul, to try to impress their supporters that they remain a force to be reckoned with.

But terror tactics alone are never going to determine the outcome of a conflict. If the Taliban want to prevail, they have to hold on to territory that they can use as a bargaining chip in any future negotiations on the future of the country.

But the fact that Nato forces – which have been immeasurably strengthened by the arrival of extra U.S. troops in support of Washington’s military surge strategy – means the Taliban are gradually being forced to concede ground – in some cases even laying down their weapons. This means the only tactic open to them is to resort to car bomb attacks on heavily-populated civilian areas, which is an illustration of the Taliban’s weakness, not its strength.

Senior Aircraftman Luke Southgate killed in Afghanistan

It is with sadness that the Ministry of Defence must confirm that Senior Aircraftman Luke Southgate from II Squadron Royal Air Force Regiment was killed in Afghanistan on Wednesday 24 February 2010.

Senior Aircraftman Southgate was part of the Kandahar Airfield Force Protection Wing and was conducting a patrol to protect Kandahar Airfield, and all who operate within it, from the ever-present threat of rocket attacks when he was killed by an improvised explosive device whilst driving his WMIK Land Rover.

Senior Aircraftman Luke Southgate

Senior Aircraftman (SAC) Luke Southgate was born in Bury St Edmunds on 10 March 1989 and was soon to celebrate his twenty-first birthday on operations in Afghanistan.

He joined the RAF on 10 August 2008 as a Gunner in the Royal Air Force Regiment and quickly proved his potential during basic training at Royal Air Force Honington.

He was identified early as one to watch owing to his natural soldiering ability and leadership potential that earned him the Frank Sylvester Trophy for Top Student on his Trainee Gunners Course.

On completing training he applied for parachute duties and was subsequently selected to serve with Number II Squadron Royal Air Force Regiment where he promptly qualified as a Direct Fire Weapons Specialist on Machine Gun Flight. He was attached to D Flight for his tour of duty in Afghanistan and deployed in January 2010.

SAC Southgate was immensely proud to be a member of the Royal Air Force Regiment and even more so to be a machine gun specialist. A reserved character, he was an extremely fit and strong gunner who was described as 'happy, compassionate and fiercely loyal to his friends, who consider themselves lucky to have known him.' He used his strengths for the good of the team in the selfless style in which he led his life.SAC Southgate intended to remain with II Squadron Royal Air Force Regiment for another two years before volunteering for a new challenge with UK Special Forces. However, his more immediate priority was to move in with his beloved girlfriend Caley of whom he openly spoke with loving affection.

The heart-felt thoughts and prayers of his squadron and regiment are with SAC Southgate's loved ones, particularly his parents and his girlfriend Caley whose tragic loss is shared far and wide by his fellow brothers in arms. The RAF Regiment has lost a friend and an exceptional gunner who had a glittering future ahead of him. SAC Southgate will always be remembered with fondness and admiration.


Senior Aircraftman Luke Southgate's family paid the following tribute:

"We cannot find the words to describe the tragic loss of our dear son Luke. He was the best son, brother and boyfriend any of us could ever have wished for. He died doing the job he loved and always wanted to do. He will be in our hearts always and our thoughts forever."

Afghanistan: Under their flag, but still under fire

Kim Sengupta, The Independant

Ten days ago, in this dusty town in Helmand the Taliban banner was triumphantly torn down and replaced with the Afghan national flag, a highly publicised celebration of the capture of Showal, where the insurgents had been running their "shadow government" for the Marjah region. A week later, just 20 metres from that newly hoisted flag, a roadside bomb exploded under a British truck.

The device had been planted on the main route into the town centre some time previously but the battery pack had been connected overnight, the telltale sign was a mound of fresh earth covering the twisted white electrical flex. One British officer noted the "sheer neck" of the Taliban in daring to activate the device in the presence of large numbers of coalition troops.

Fortunately, only the detonator and a small portion of the charge had gone off, for the full 30lbs would have made short shrift of the truck's crew and of others nearby. But the violence in the area, which was hailed as one of the first to be retaken in Operation Moshtarak, was a potent reminder that this war is far from over and many of the Taliban fighters have lived to fight another day.

If more evidence were needed, 24 hours later, on Wednesday, another improvised explosive device was found on the same road. And a shura, or public meeting, taking place in the same area near Shaheed came under fire, setting off a gun battle.

However, it cannot be said that a counter-offensive has started, that the Taliban are co-ordinating a massive response to what has been billed as the biggest Nato operation since the war began in 2001. The Taliban attacks, so far at least, have been sporadic, but they are designed to send a message that the insurgency is alive in this area, which is not only of great symbolic significance but is also a strategic arms and heroin depot for the militants, and a sanctuary where attacks can be planned and then launched elsewhere.

Operation Moshtarak got under way almost two weeks ago, heralding the start of Washington's much-trailed Afghan "surge", and the stakes could not be higher in what is now very much Barack Obama's war. The military push is to be followed by massive reconstruction and development, and a return of civic society that will hopefully pave the exit from a war that is becoming increasingly costly in "blood and treasure".

To read the full article click here

Soldier's blog from Afghanistan frontline

By Trooper Pete Sheppard for Channel 4 News

Trooper Pete Sheppard enjoys some brief rest and recuperation back at base after ten days of "hard work" fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan's tough conditions.

We arrived back in Camp Bastion at supper time last night, having finished the first phase of Op Moshtarak

I'm part of the Squadron HQ element of the BRF, so we drove back to camp and arrived yesterday evening. The rest of the troops were still clearing out on the ground and didn't get back until late evening.

The last 10 days have been hard work. The fields out on the ground are being irrigated at the moment so they are very boggy. Some of the guys were sinking up to their knees.

Limbu, our friendly Gurkha from the Queen’s Own Gurkha Logistics Regiment (we call them 'Loggies'), stepped into a large muddy ditch waiting for the helicopter pick up. In the dark his section didn't notice him flailing around trying to get out. He tried to take his heavy Bergen off to pull himself out but only managed to plant his face into the mud! It took two guys to go back and pull him out. I wish I had got a picture of him caked from head to foot! Everyone was knackered! But glad to be back in camp to have a shower and eat normal food. Some went to the cookhouse but for many Camp Bastion's own form of Pizza Hut was the favourite choice.

The boxes sent from friends and family at home were also a real treat to come back to. They are great, and the lads raid them for toiletries, biscuits, sweets and chewing gum.

We just about had time to visit the NAAFI to get all the little things like chocolate, pop and noodles – anything to break the routine of ration packs. Though with things heating up out here the chocolate isn't going to last long anymore.

After a sound night's sleep it was back down to our compound, to replen (sort out!) the vehicles in preparation for going straight out again.

The lads think it is going to be a hang out over the next few days. Lots of tabbing and long days in general on the ground. But while things are going well we want to keep at it.

We are leaving soon, so it is the last minute vehicle and kit checks, then off we go!

Rifleman Martin Kinggett killed in Afghanistan

It is with sadness that the Ministry of Defence must confirm that Rifleman Martin Kinggett from A Company, 4th Battalion The Rifles (4 RIFLES), part of the 3 RIFLES Battle Group, was killed in Afghanistan on Thursday 25 February 2010.

Rifleman Kinggett, a 19-year-old soldier from A Company 4 RIFLES, serving as part of 3 RIFLES Battle Group, was killed by a gun shot wound in Sangin, Helmand Province.

He was on a routine foot patrol, part of a larger operation to provide security for the local population in Sangin. During the patrol he and his comrades were required to provide covering fire for the evacuation of an injured colleague and Rifleman Kinggett was shot and killed.

Rifleman Kinggett, from Dagenham, joined the army in 2007 but left for a short while, before re-enlisting in 2009. He attended the demanding Combat Infantryman’s Course at the Infantry Training Centre, Catterick before joining 4th Battalion, The Rifles in April 2009. Very soon, he was involved in Pre-Deployment Training for Afghanistan.

He deployed with A Company in October 2009 as dismounted Rifleman (foot patrol based) on his first operational tour to Afghanistan on Op HERRICK 11, as part of 3 RIFLES Battle Group.

Rifleman Kinggett's family paid the following tribute:

"Martin was a loving son, brother, grandson, uncle and boyfriend. He will be missed by many many people who know him and loved him. He gave his life doing what he loved, he always wanted to be a soldier. He will always be our hero."

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Afghan flag hoisted over Marjah for the second time

Times Online

Helmand’s governor called on people to “come home” today as officials hoisted an Afghan flag over a besieged town in Marjah for the second time in as many weeks.

The area's main settlement was almost completely abandoned when General Moheedin Ghori raised the national colours in Loya Charahi, which means big square, last week. Since then pockets of diehard militants, snipers and roadside bombs have stalled the coalition’s advance.

Local elders said around 80 per cent of the densely populated farmland was under government control this morning, as Afghan dignitaries went through a flag raising ritual for the second time.

The commander of US Marines in southern Afghanistan, Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, said it was a “very historical day” at the ceremony to mark the official start of government rule. Tight security on the ground was an indication that the rural area has yet to come under complete control of the joint Nato-Afghan force. An Al Jazeera reporter in Marjah said that only hours before the flag-raising ceremony, improvised bombs planted by the Taleban were discovered in the main market.

Marjah – canal irrigated farmland home to around 80,000 people – has been ruled by the Taleban for almost two years. Officials said at least 20,000 people have fled the area and many more are still too afraid to leave their homes. But eyewitnesses said there were more than 200 locals there to witness this morning’s ceremony.

"The governor told the people to come back to their houses,” said Gulab Mangal’s official spokesman, Daoud Ahmadi. “Now Marjah is safe for them.”

Mr Ahamdi said locals reiterated fears that the Marines would leave, letting the Taleban insurgents filter back in. “The governor told them we are here for ever,” he said.

Abdul Ahad Helmandwal, a local tribal leader, said most of the fighting was confined to an area in the north of Marjah, on the border with Nad-e Ali, where British forces have also been involved in Operation Moshtarak, which means Togetherness.

To read the full article click here

VIDEO: Operation Moshtarak - Part 3

Josh Fortune, NATO TV

VIDEO: Afghan flag raised in Marjah

Symbolizing the Afghan government, the national flag is raised in a ceremony in Marjah. CNN's Atia Abawi reports.

Elvis Ain’t Dead - He's In Afghanistan

Thomas Ruttig, Eurasia Review

He has been spotted in Marja (Helmand, Southern Afghanistan). The only problem is: Marja does not exist. Because it is not on Google Earth. And Operation Moshtarak in Helmand is a fake. But let me start from the beginning.

Marja Centre - Operation Moshtarak

Back in Kabul, as usual the unexpected happened: The rumour of the day did not come from sar-e chowk(1) but from Austria, via email. A journalist is asking me to tell her whether I ever had been to Marja and can "confirm that this place really exists, how many inhabitants it has and whether it really is a Taleban stronghold."

I was flabbergasted but decided to check what’s up.It turned out that a journalist of Afghan (Helmand) background based in Germany writing on an off-the-mainstream website had raised doubts about Marja being, as described in media reports, "a town of 80,000 to 85,000 inhabitants (…), with even a town-like centre (…) in which street- and house-to-house fighting can happen, similar to what happened in Iraqi Falludja in 2004." Under the subtitle, "Marja – media metamorphosis of a hamlet of mud houses into a town of 80,000," Anahita Girishki raises a couple of very valid questions, but also goes into the trap of journalism made too easy by relying on the internet searches.

Actually, she does not really question Marja’s existence. (This - and the extension into the conspiracy theory that, consequently, the latest military operation in Helmand is a fake - is done in discussions on the internet that comment on her article and apparently are picked up by some irritated journalists.) She just doubts that – as quoted above – Marja is a ‘town’ big enough to be a town or, in other words, that the capture of Marja by US marines is such a big achievement as presented to and reflected by the media: ‘the largest Afghan town under Taleban control’. This might well be the case.

Here are her own words (in my translation from German):

"I am an Afghan myself and even from Helmand province. As a child and teenager, I travelled around Helmand a lot and got, without exception, to all localities with more than 5,000 inhabitants, i.e. in all villages which, with some courtesy, you could call a town. But Marja I only knew as a miserable, scattered cluster of huts in Nad Ali district. Now, it is of course possible that a small hamlet can grow to a larger town within two decades."

Indeed, Marja, will have grown in population over the past two decades, as all of Afghanistan has. Whether Marja really has 80,000 inhabitants, I am not able to say – as for any other area of the country. We don’t know what Afghanistan’s population is. There has never been a census in Afghanistan, and the one often referred to (from 1979) was based on samples and had never had been finished because of domestic upheaval. We move on very shaky ground when it comes to population figures in Afghanistan. (I liked one comment, though, saying that in Marja because Karzai got 80,000 votes there. Quod erat demonstrandum.) But what is clear to everyone who has been to Afghanistan and beyond Kabul: a 80,000-inhabitant Afghan town would definitely not look like a comparable one in Germany, like the famous university town of Tübingen.

Valid questions are, for example, whether Operation ‘Moshtarak’ is blown a bit out of proportion. We all know that the governments of the US and its NATO allies urgently need some success stories to tell because they think that makes them win the next elections. Yes, maybe, Marja is the largest – well – settlement that has been under Taleban control. Marja (and Nad Ali and other neighbouring areas) might be an important area in an economically important region, the irrigated zone along Helmand River (the biggest poppy plantation in the world initially thought to grow cotton and wheat). It might be part of a strategically important region that stretches further along the river to Kandahar and constitutes the Taleban heartland. But will a victory there (whatever this may be) turn around the war?

What will happen when the troops leave again? Yes, I know, they will ‘stay’. But for how long? Till the Afghan local administration – that famous ‘government in a box’ – will function well? How long will this take? Six months? Six years? And how many Afghan troops are there really in Operation ‘Moshtarak’ and what are they exactly doing? And, if they are half or 40 per cent or more, why are mainly Western soldiers reported killed?

Operation ‘Moshtarak’ also poses the question to news agencies who report from or about the region, to journalists embedded in the troops, to newspapers that use their material and to analysts like us whether we sufficiently double-check what is presented to us.

Last but not least, the question is valid what a ‘town’ (or even a village) in Afghanistan is. Some authors have asked whether there actually is something like a 'village' in Afghanistan. (In some areas, people refer to smaller units like mosques etc.) Some geographers might argue that there are no towns in Afghanistan. Just look at Kabul’s different quarters, with no functional infrastructure binding them together. Most of them are – sorry - villages where people who migrated there from the same area live together.

What sounds like academic questions is relevant today politically. Where do cities, towns, villages end? Afghanistan's districts have not been officially delineated. There are ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ districts. (Most governments of the past 30 years have created new districts as sinecure.) Some of the ‘unofficial” districts still function but the people appointed there are not entitled to be paid by the government. The parliament has not done its homework on this, and the international community and its embassies in Kabul seem to have forgotten about it. No census, no delineated district boundaries – how do you want to have voters’ lists? How do you want to have meaningful elections?

By the way, Marja really exists. It was founded in 1957, as one of these ‘model villages’ that emerged in the result of the US and Afghan-funded Helmand and Arghandab Valley Authority project. Pashtuns from many different tribes, among them apparently also kuchis (nomads), have been settled there. But indeed, if you only rely on Google and Wikipedia, you might have difficulties in locating Marja. It is also not on district lists of Afghanistan - simply because it is not a district but part of Nad Ali and most of the easily accessible material goes not down to the sub-district level.

But to stop your search there and then raise doubts about its existence is lazy journalism. There are good maps of Afghanistan that show the place. And if you google for ‘provincial profile Helmand’, you get one published by the Afghan investment agency (AISA) which mentions Marja a couple of times. (This took no five minutes, with a slow internet connection in Kabul.) Ms Girishki also refers to Marja-related climate data from the 1950s and an AIMS map, showing the place although spelled slightly differently (Marjeh). This is also not a bad source; AIMS is kind of the UN’s cartographical service.

Furthermore, plenty of Afghan journalists have been and are reporting from Marja, before and during the Operation ‘Moshtarak’. Check Reports about people killed there, Afghan and otherwise, photos of refugees and reports that they are sheltered and supported by relatives, Afghan authorities or international organisations in neighbouring districts also confirm Marja’s existence and that of Operation ‘Moshtarak’.

And finally, I have to confess: It wasn’t Elvis. It was Haji Zaher Aryan, Marja’s new wuluswal.

Taking It to the Taliban

Time Online

Two days before launching the most ambitious military campaign of the Obama Administration, General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, convened a meeting in Kabul of 450 tribal elders and scholars from Helmand province. The general's objective: to build support for Operation Moshtarak, a massive offensive on the Taliban stronghold of Marjah. McChrystal ran through the military phase of the plan, which would involve 6,000 U.S. Marines and British soldiers and 4,500 Afghan troops and police. Then he described how these troops would protect the town while a "government in a box" — a corps of Afghan officials who had been training for this moment for months — would start administering the town. The elders all signed off on the plan, but not before one of them warned the American general, "You have to understand that if you don't do what you say, we'll all be killed."

McChrystal repeated the chieftain's words Feb. 18 in a secure video teleconference with President Barack Obama and his top advisers on Afghanistan and Pakistan. By then, the operation, by all accounts, was going well. NATO troops had encountered only sporadic resistance; much of the town was under the control of the U.S. Marines. British-led forces, meanwhile, had taken the nearby community of Showal. Some government in a box was already being unpacked.

There was good news from other fronts too. In Pakistan, a joint operation in Karachi by the CIA and Pakistan's own spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had netted a very big fish: Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Afghan Taliban's military chief. In quick succession, the ISI had also rolled up two of the Taliban's "shadow" governors of Afghanistan's provinces and another senior figure. And in North Waziristan, near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, a missile launched from a CIA drone had struck at the heart of the Haqqani network, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group responsible for countless attacks on NATO troops. The network's current leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, survived, but his younger brother Mohammed had been killed.

After a year of mostly grim tidings from Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama could have been allowed a moment of satisfaction. But McChrystal's recounting of the Helmand chieftain's warning ensured that the mood in the White House's Situation Room during the conference call was somber. According to National Security Adviser Jim Jones, who was there, Obama added an exhortation of his own, using the idioms of counterinsurgency warfare. "Do not clear and hold what you are not willing to build and transfer," he told McChrystal, a maxim he had repeated often over the previous months. "You've heard me say it many times, but it bears repeating," Obama said as he signed off.

Q&A: Afghan journalist in Helmand

BBC News

Majid Dawari is one of the first Afghan journalists to see first-hand the effects of fighting in the southern province of Helmand, where the biggest offensive in Afghanistan since 2001 is continuing.

Unlike his Western counterparts, Mr Dawari was visiting the area without being embedded with foreign troops. Here he tells BBC Pashto's Emal Pasarly what he saw.

Have Nato succeeded in restoring a sense of order in Marjah?

On the front line, the Afghan army is based behind the US Marines, giving Afghans a supporting role. A large number of Afghan police are also now in Marjah. Wherever the army "clears" an area, the police stay put and build their security posts.

But ordinary people are yet to restart their normal lives. The main bazaar in Marjah remains closed and no-one is to be seen walking around the town.

Local people complain that they can't move freely because the clothes they wear are similar to the clothes worn by the Taliban. The army seems to be suspicious of everyone.

What are the military people doing to reassure people that they are safe?The Afghan army has been looking for shop owners to tell them that they will pay compensation to those whose businesses have been damaged. After that, some shops have reopened and I can see some local people beginning to come out their homes.

Are food and other essentials readily available?

Yes, but prices are very high here. For example potatoes are eightfold more expensive than in [the nearby town of] Lashkar Gah. Local people are very poor and they say they can't afford these prices.

How easy was it for you to get to Marjah?

Before the current military operations, Marjah was only 30 minutes drive from Lashkar Gah. But now it can take longer than three hours, because the Taliban has planted so many mines on the road. The best way for me was to accept Governor Gulab Mangal's invitation to visit Marjah in a military helicopter.

How reliable are communications with the town?

In the past few days the phone system has gone down in Marjah and the Afghan army has cut off the mobile phone system in the hope that this will interrupt Taliban communications. But it also made life for journalists very hard. You don't get much information unless you go to Marjah itself.

What is the latest on the fighting?

I have been reliably informed that foreign elements along with hard-core Taliban militants are now in the western parts of Marjah, close to the province of Nimruz, and are still resisting there. The "local Taliban" seemed to have returned to their homes, where they are hiding their light weapons.

What else is the Afghan army doing?

It is trying to win the hearts and minds of local people by handing over food, books and other help. They speak Pashto and can communicate with local people. But the Afghan police force who are now in Marjah are Dari-speaking and are not able to communicate with local people.

Is there any news from the Taliban side?

I was told by local people in Marjah that since the beginning of Operation Moshtarak, the Taliban have hanged six men alleged to be spying for Nato. That sort of action has made local people very scared to talk to me.

PICTURE of the day: Operation Moshtarak

Week 1: Reassurance and Resupply. Pictures by SSgt Mark Jones

Portrait of an Elder

Combat Cameraman SSgt Matt Woodhouse fascinates the local children

All smiles from 1 Royal Welsh as the first few days go well on the ground

The first Combat Logistic Patrol heads out towards Showal from Camp Bastion

The convoy of 35 vehicles stretches out along the main road east

A 'loggie'from the Queen's Own Gurkha Logistic Regiment (QOGLR)

Iso containers carrying vital equipment are dropped at each patrol location on the route

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

VIDEO: Top Dog: Bomb-Sniffer Treo Wins Animal 'VC'

Sky News

The life-saving skills of a black Labrador have earned him a top military honour.

Nine-year-old Treo's job is to sniff out roadside bombs in Afghanistan for the British Army - and he has proved rather good at it.

In August, 2008, while working as a forward detection dog in Sangin, Treo found a "daisy chain" improvised explosive device (IED) that had been carefully modified and concealed by the Taliban at the side of a path.

A month later, his actions saved another platoon from guaranteed casualties, again by finding a 'daisy chain' - made of two or more explosives wired together.
Now he has been rewarded with the Dickin Medal - the animal equivalent of a Victoria Cross - the highest accolade a military animal can expect.

Treo is now retired and enjoying life with handler Sergeant Dave Heyhoe back at 104 Military Working Dogs Support Unit, in North Luffenham, Rutland.

Sgt Heyhoe said: "Treo's work involves searching for arms and explosives out on the ground to the forefront of the troops.

"It's very important. We are part and parcel of the search element. We're not the ultimate answer but we are an aid to search.

"Another aid would be the metal detector - but Treo is a four-legged variety."Sgt Heyhoe says their relationship is now far more than a working partnership.

"Basically, me and the dog have got to understand each other and without that we can't be effective on the ground. He must know when I want him to go somewhere to search.

"Everyone will say that he is just a military working dog - yes, he is, but he is also a very good friend of mine. We look after each other."

Treo is the 63rd animal to receive the Dickin Medal - introduced by PDSA founder Maria Dickin in 1943 to honour the work of animals in war - and the 27th dog to receive the honour.

VIDEO: Marjah residents receive food aid

Al Jazeera English

Residents of the southern Afghan town of Marjah have received their first food supplies since the start of a joint US-Afghan military operation against the Taliban in the area 11 days ago.

Afghan officials distributed bags of rice and tea in central Marjah, in southern Helmand province, on Tuesday, as sporadic fighting continued outside the city centre.

Nato forces launched the campaign, known as Operation Moshtarak, on February 13, in an effort to bring government control over southern Afghanistan. The US military has said Taliban resistance has begun to ease since the start of the offensive.

Al Jazeera's James Bays, reporting from Helmand, said Afghan officials are the most "up-beat" they have been since the start of the operation.

"The (Helmand) governor believes the offensive stage of this offensive could be over soon. He's talking about opening an interim district center in this town by Thursday," our correspondent said.

NATO: 600 new trainers for Afghan forces

The Washington Post

PALMA DE MALLORCA, Balearic Islands -- NATO allies have pledged 600 more instructors to train the expanding Afghan security forces - a key element in the allied strategy for defeating Taliban insurgents.

NATO spokesman James Appathurai said Wednesday that the new trainers, along with 1,000 pledged in December, make up about half of the number needed for the training effort.

"That already takes us about halfway to the total increase in trainers we will need by the end of 2010 - and brings the overall number of new contributions, since December, to about 39,500," Appathurai said.

The strategy formulated by the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, calls for gradually handing over responsibility for the war to Afghan government troops.

With European capitals tightening defense budgets and growing public opposition to what many see as an unwinnable war, NATO hopes the Afghan National Army will grow from about 97,000 troops now to 171,600 by the end of next year, and the Afghan National Police from about 94,000 officers to 134,000. Within five years, the Afghan security force should reach 240,000 soldiers and the police 160,000.

But in a dramatic political fallout, the Dutch government collapsed Saturday after Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende tried to meet a NATO request to keep the Netherlands' 2,000-strong contingent in Afghanistan from coming home this year. A majority of the Dutch parliament backed a withdrawal as planned this summer.

The Dutch crisis has prompted fears that other NATO nations could rethink their commitments to the eight-year war. Canada, which serves in the same southern region as the Dutch, also plans to remove its 2,800 troops from Afghanistan by next year.

Appathurai is accompanying NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who will attend a meeting of European Union defense ministers on this Spanish island.

The two-day meeting in Mallorca opened a day after U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates criticized America's European allies, saying their reluctance to resort to military force was limiting NATO's ability to fight effectively.

"Mr. Gates knows perfectly well the efforts that the European Union and the member states of NATO are carrying out in Afghanistan," Spanish Defense Minister Carme Chacon said.

Back from the front - Camp Bastion

By WO2 Sean Semple writing for The Mirror

ALONG with 15,000 NATO troops WO2 Sean Semple has been on Operation Moshtarak and kindly agreed to file frontline diaries for us whilst there.

This is the last of his reports as he is probably heading to other tasks and the Royal Engineers, to whom he was attached, are moving on.

Here's what the married father-of-two from Edinburgh had to say about his final hours on Moshtarak - the biggest ever joint operation in Afghanistan since 2001:

There is the slightest chance that we might complete all our tasks today and head back into Camp Bastion tonight, morale is on the up.

Our task today is to clear a route in order for the Royal Engineers to build a bridge over a large river, so the Trojan tank leads the way to the bridge build site.The bridge is not only going to provide an essential crossing point for the resupply of the forward patrol bases, but it will also enhance the quality of life for the local nationals.

The current method of crossing the river consists of pieces of wood bound together to act as a raft and a length of rope with which to pull yourself across.

Primitive but effective all the same.

It is certainly a lot hotter today, there is a far greater need to consume water when out on the ground in the heat.

For a soldier to go down with a heat related injury not only presents his colleagues with the additional burden of being a man down, but potentially the need for one if not more to provide critical medical assistance also.

The climate in this place is mad, it can be below freezing at night time and absolutely roasting hot during the day.

The face and neck is building up a nice bit of colour, the nose taking the brunt of the sun, the resemblance to Rudolph just now is strikingly similar.

I can almost hear the lecture from my wife about putting sun cream on. The rest of the body remains proudly Scottish white though.

After the bridge is assembled successfully, the decision is taken to head back to Camp Bastion to allow the Vikings group to prepare for their next task.

A long and dusty drive through the desert follows, we drive past a US counter IED team disposing of a device in the middle of nowhere, these bloody IEDs are everywhere.

As we arrive in Camp Bastion, we are met by WO2 Taff Williams, one of the Squadron Sergeant Majors, he greets us warmly and is pleased to see us back in one piece.

His relief is very quickly replaced by sarcastic mickey taking about appearing in the paper, squaddies do not do publicity very well.

First off the vehicles are the weapons, ammunition, and personal equipment.

Absolutely everything is covered in sand, all the kit is emptied and separated, some equipment is handed back in straight away after a quick clean.

A shower later on comes as welcome relief, as does a coffee and further squaddie banter.
Although the MSG is back in camp, there are still many more soldiers still out on the ground playing crucial roles in continuing to provide safety and improved infrastructure to the people of Afghanistan.

These guys do not have the luxury of having a shower, or relax in relative comfort.

Weeks to go for the troops on this Operational tour are getting few, and most will allow themselves to think about what they intend to spend their well earned post Op tour leave doing.

There are still many hurdles to jump until the tour is over, but you can rest assured that we are all doing our level best over here.

Battle starts to win over Helmand locals and wean them off poppy growing

Ronald Watson, The Times Online

Afghan civilians will today begin to pour into the district cleared by British troops in a pivotal phase of the operation to banish the Taleban.

Governor Mangal in Helmand Province

Teachers and civil servants, together with foreign engineers, will begin to try to cement the military gains of Operation Moshtarak by winning the trust of locals.

Over the coming weeks, thousands of farmers will be given alfalfa seed, maize and summer vegetables to help them to move away from poppy growing. Local government will set up bases in villages that have not seen an official for decades.

The moves will be signalled today by Gulab Mangal, the Governor of Helmand province, as he announces the end of the military offensive in Nad Ali district and the beginning of the civilian phase to follow it.Operation Moshtarak involves 15,000 US, Nato and Afghan forces fighting to clear the Taleban, and then envisages a concerted civic drive to prevent them returning.

British and Afghan troops met little opposition as they advanced through Nad Ali province. US Marines and Afghan forces have faced tougher resistance from insurgents in and around the town of Marjah to the southwest.

US commanders conceded yesterday that that part of the operation was behind schedule. Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, said that progress was slower than expected. Admiral Mike Mullen said that the operation in and around Marjah was “messy”.

Western officials are all the more anxious to highlight the success so far in Nad Ali, while conceding that the most important work in terms of ultimate success is yet to come.

Nato forces will continue to provide security around the district while the civilian phase gets into gear. The aim is for Afghan leaders to call shuras, or village meetings, to try to convince local people that the influence of Kabul is there to stay and that they need not fear the return of the Taleban.

British and US engineers will also oversee the refurbishment of infrastructure such as schools, health clinics and canals.

Douglas Alexander, the International Development Secretary, said that the civilian drive was vital to “help people help themselves”.

He said: “The operation is going well but we must also persuade the Afghan people that it is in their own best interests to resist the insurgency, and to support their own Government. The Government of Afghanistan will need to prove that it offers a better, fairer and more effective alternative to the Taleban.”

General Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan, said earlier this month: “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in.”

The plan is for the number of civilians going into areas cleared of insurgents to increase over weeks and months. Over time the number of Afghan officials is expected to quadruple to about 100. They will help to give jobs to locals to improve and repair infrastructure that has been neglected under the Taleban.

Officials also regard speed as vital to demonstrate that the Kabul Government is in charge and that the international community will not desert them.

Taliban Flee Marjah, For Now

CBS Evening News