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thedrifter
10-30-06, 08:22 PM
Troops turn away from 'ink spots' for control
From Anthony Loyd in Lashkar Gah

AMONG the dust and rubbish beside a street junction in the centre of Lashkar Gah lies a barely distinguishable black scorch mark. It plays on the minds of British soldiers patrolling the city.

It was here, just under two weeks ago, that a suicide bomber finished his conversation with children working a nearby stall, stepped into the road and blew himself up in front of a British Land Rover, killing Marine Gary Wright. Intelligence reports suggest that more suicide attackers are waiting to kill more British troops. And there are a limited amount of ways to avoid such attacks.

The Royal Marines, though, do not seem unduly disturbed. “Yee ha! We’re going to war!” one cried out as he got off a helicopter in Lashgar Gah. His commanding officer was more expansive but equally relaxed.

“If you listen to all the rumours then you would never go out or do anything,” said Colonel Ian Huntley, the Royal Marine commander in the capital of the restive Helmand province of Afghanistan. “It was always expected that there would be a period of asymmetric war, suicide bombings, et cetera. Generally, though, the place is relatively benign. I’m sure there are many worse places in the world to work.”

The colonel’s phlegmatic approach typifies the attitude of 3 Commando Brigade, which arrived in Helmand a month ago. Its mission — to support the Afghan Government with the necessary security measures to allow civil development — had been slanted more to war fighting than reconstruction after the outgoing 16 Air Assault Brigade spent the summer engaged in heated battles with insurgents.

Development was all but non-existent in Helmand by the time the Marines arrived, its concept still pinned on the failed idea of “ink spots”, whereby isolated northern towns, including Musa Qala and Sangin, were supposed to be the seeds of an expanding stability rather than the scenes of fierce fighting and rancour.

In the absence of officials from the Department for International Development, who rarely venture out of Kabul, the development of Helmand — the key to making progress in southern Afghanistan — has fallen largely on the military’s shoulders. The “ink spot” idea has been killed off, replaced by the concept of the “ADZ”, the Afghan Development Zone, a lozenge-shaped area, approximately 40 km (25 miles) long by 20 km wide, stretching along the Helmand river valley from the town of Gereshk to the city of Lashkar Gah.

Despite the threat of the suicide attacks, British patrols are deploying daily from their base in Lashkar Gah, home to about 350 soldiers and Marines, and assessing the potential of redevelopment sites within the ADZ.

The speed of progress might be slow, but the mission is up and running. And unlike in Iraq, where British officers and men have expressed doubts openly about the advantage of their continued presence in the country, in Helmand hope in the mission still remains high.

“I’m broadly optimistic,” Colonel Huntley concluded. “A short, quick plan is accepted as false. We’re trying to get this country from the medieval to the 21st century. We have to be patient and look not for big results but for trends.”

Fifty-five insurgents and a Nato soldier were killed in a six-hour battle in the Daychopan district of Zabul province in southern Afghanistan yesterday, according to Nato.

Ellie

thedrifter
10-30-06, 08:26 PM
A hidden enemy frustrates efforts to rebuild Afghanistan
By Raymond Whitaker in Gereshk, Afghanistan
Published: 31 October 2006

"Effing brilliant," said a Royal Marine as J Company, 42 Commando, returned to base from their heaviest clash with the Taliban since they arrived in Afghanistan a month ago. Their elation and relief was understandable, but the engagement also showed the movement remained a threat, even in the relatively secure centre of Helmand province.

Up to a dozen Taliban fighters were believed killed. No marines were hurt, but the company found an Afghan civilian with a leg wound lying in the road after the encounter. He was brought to the Gereshk base and evacuated by helicopter to the hospital at Camp Bastion, the main British base in Helmand.

The encounter began yesterday afternoon as the company was completing a patrol on the eastern bank of the Helmand river about six miles outside Gereshk, an area known to be heavily infiltrated by the Taliban. "Just as we were returning to our vehicles, we came under mortar fire from two positions, one on each side of the river," said the company commander, Major Ewen Murchison.

"At first the fire was inaccurate, but then it started coming closer to us, and one shell fell 25 metres from some of the men. We saw a group of five to seven armed individuals down on the river bed, who were signaling with mirrors to the mortar crews, apparently to direct their fire. We neutralised them with machine-gun fire. One of the mortars was in range, and we neutralised that too." Although two RAF Harriers were scrambled from Kandahar air base, the pilots could not identify the second mortar, which was mounted on a truck. Major Murchison said he decided against a follow-up operation, which could have run into a prepared ambush, and casualties could not be verified.

"Every time we've gone out in force before, they've always moved out," said one of J Company's officers, Captain Tom Vincent. "This was the first time they've been prepared to stand up and have a go. That's why the lads are so happy." His commander added that for some of the younger men, "it was the first time they've heard the thump of a mortar and the whizz of the shell going past. It's an interesting sound if you've never heard it before."

Rarely, though, are encounters between British forces and armed Afghans so straightforward. Major Murchison described an incident earlier in the patrol, when they detained an Afghan with a shotgun who appeared to be passing on their movements by mobile phone. Although they found two AK-47 ammunition clips beneath his bed when they searched his home, they could not find any clear evidence that the man was connected to the Taliban or the opium trade, and he was released. It lent force to the major's comment that "it is difficult to distinguish between the Taliban and ordinary hoods".

Gereshk, the commercial capital of Helmand, is an important target for the Taliban, because it straddles a strategic intersection. "But they do not need to take the town," said the marines' commander. "They can sit outside and have an influence, both economically and through intimidation. It is our job to restrict their freedom of action and allow the Afghan security forces to build up competence and confidence."

The death of a marine in a suicide bombing in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, this month signalled that British forces faced a new threat, although Major Murchison said he was more concerned about roadside bombs, three of which had exploded in Gereshk in the past three weeks.

As for the main mission of British troops in Helmand, to support development, the major made it clear that only a handful of smaller projects were possible at the moment.

Ellie