The Sunday Times May 28, 2006

British troops in 5-day chase of Taliban
Tim Albone, Lashkar Gah

Tough soldiers.

IN the wild, unforgiving terrain of southern Afghanistan, over which people have fought for centuries, the latest players on the battlefield are crack British troops in light, manoeuvrable Land Rovers.

The Pathfinders, an elite unit of 16 Air Assault Brigade, spent five days on a gruelling pursuit of Taliban militants across this rugged landscape, it emerged yesterday. The hunt culminated in their first engagement with the Taliban since 3,300 British troops arrived in Helmand province.

Violence in the region has intensified in recent weeks as the poppy harvest — the mainstay of the local economy and the scourge of heroin-importing countries — comes to an end and farmers sympathetic to the Taliban resume the battle against government forces and the “foreign invaders”.

In the past fortnight more than 400 people, most of them anti-government militants, have been killed. The casualty rate reflects the reckless streak of the Taliban whose specialities, beyond intimidating the local population into giving them food and shelter, are suicide attacks and roadside ambushes.

The Pathfinders, who saw action recently in Sierra Leone, are also a formidable bunch. Their physical selection is on a par with that of the SAS.

“They are very, very tough,” a military expert said. “They are the hand-picked elite. They undergo long forced marches.” They are also known for the “halo”, or “high altitude low opening” parachute jump.

None of this stops them from feeling somewhat vulnerable in WMIK Land Rovers — specially adapted armed vehicles without roofs or doors. Yet there is no better vehicle for this difficult terrain, say the Pathfinders, who prefer speed to armour.

Their dash through the mountains began on May 17, when they were unexpectedly summoned to the rescue.

A poorly trained police force of 100 in the town of Musa Qala had been cornered by a much greater force of Taliban fighters. “They said there were 500 Taliban, but I am not sure how accurate that is,” said a British source. Already 13 policemen had been shot dead. They needed help, and quickly.

Travelling down roads that are often little more than rutted gravel tracks, it was a white-knuckle ride. Often the dried out riverbeds or wadis made an easier route. The threat of ambush slowed things further: despite being far more rigorously trained than the Taliban, the British soldiers were well aware that their enemy knew the terrain a lot better. The 30 Pathfinders also knew they were greatly outnumbered.

By dawn on Friday, May 19, they were perched high above Musa Qala with a good view of policemen storming out of the town in Toyota pick-up trucks — the standard vehicle for Afghan fighters, whichever side they are fighting on.

The tables had turned. Driven by a desire to avenge their heavy casualties and aided by reinforcements from other parts of the province, the police had seized the advantage. A long line of their vehicles was snaking up the valley in pursuit of the Taliban.

The British tagged on to the end of this extraordinary convoy. They were soon deep in enemy territory, a land where very few, if any, coalition troops had ever set foot. This was where Mullah Omar, the fugitive one-eyed Taliban leader, was reported to have fled after American military might put paid to his eccentric medieval regime in late 2001.

With temperatures pushing 50C and the threat of ambush growing ever greater, it became an even more uncomfortable journey.

When the Pathfinders reached the outskirts of a town called Baghran in the mountainous far north of the province on Saturday the sound of gunfire greeted them: the police had resumed contact with Taliban fighters on the fringes of the town. For the moment, however, they seemed unwilling to push forward.

The British called in air support. Soon a giant American B1 bomber was flying lazy circles at low altitude over the town.
Its menacing rumble alone seemed enough to dampen the spirits of defenders who knew only too well the devastation one of these American planes can unleash. The policemen pushed into town without meeting further resistance.

There followed a shura or meeting between British troops, Afghan police and the town’s elders over glasses of sweet tea. “The elders said to us, ‘The Taliban are here and we are scared’,” said the source. “They were pleased to see us.”

It was not until later in the day that the real trouble began. The British were on their way back to Musa Qala when, but for their extraordinary stealth and training, they might have driven into a lethal trap.

“In a place called Paysang, we became aware that there were a few people there who shouldn’t be there,” said the source. “There was a large gorge and it was evident that they were setting up an ambush.”

The chatter of gunfire began echoing down the valley as Taliban fighters opened up on the British with their Kalashnikov assault rifles and machineguns, and the British returned fire with M4 carbines — not the standard issue for British soldiers but nonetheless a highly effective weapon.

The British sources would not confirm whether any fighters were killed or wounded.

Again the British called in air power, this time French Super Etendard jets based on the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean. Backed by British troops, Afghan police assaulted the Taliban from different positions. The exchanges carried on for much of the rest of the day and once the French jets had done their work American A10 Warthog anti-tank aircraft were called in to make a few low sweeps over enemy positions.

As the Pathfinder source put it laconically: “A couple of shots were fired. A few of our guys came into contact, but the contact finished and we carried on into Musa.”

Afghan police say the five days of fighting left 60 Taliban dead. The British arranged for two injured Afghan policemen to be evacuated. Another policeman had been killed, the only death among police ranks since the British had joined them.

Arriving back in Musa Qala last Sunday, the exhausted British soldiers found several families loading up their belongings to cross the river and leave. They had been threatened by the Taliban.

“When they saw us and heard what we and the police had to say, they decided to stay. They also said some other families were planning to leave but they would tell them to stay as well,” said the source.

The British set up patrols with the police and strengthened the force’s compound. Today they will be replaced by US special forces. Returning to base, the Pathfinders will have their first hot shower and cooked meal in 14 days.

The Taliban have often claimed that the British are too frightened to fight them face to face, a charge proudly denied by Colonel Charlie Knaggs, head of the British presence in Helmand. “There are now a few Taliban in the north of Helmand,” he said, “who couldn’t say that they hadn’t faced British troops without telling a lie.”