War in Afghanistan: Britain's Vietnam
The DAILY MAIL
Last updated at 14:58pm on 1st October 2006
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A quad bike bounces across battle-ravaged desert, the remains of three dead British soldiers lashed to its back, while a Chinook buzzes overhead.
Exhausted squaddies exchange desultory small-arms fire with an invisible enemy. An infantry unit nervously patrols a burning village.
Watch the dramatic footage shot on the frontline
• Soldiers in action in Agfhanistan
• British troops in a firefight with the Taliban
• Gallery: see more pictures of the troops in Afghanistan here
These are the images that reveal the gritty, deadly reality of the British engagement in Afghanistan. And they have been released to the world by the angry and beleaguered troops themselves.
The pictures were captured on digital cameras over recent months by infantrymen belonging to the Battlegroup of the 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment. For the most part, they have been sent back to Britain by e-mail, sidestepping the Government's attempts to keep the true nature of the conflict away from the public gaze.
This is a deployment that Ministers, safe in their plush Whitehall offices, have characterised as a peacekeeping mission. John Reid, now Home Secretary, notoriously predicted that the British would serve their tour of duty without a shot being fired. Visits to troops by news teams have been discouraged or stage-managed.
But these unique pictures, backed up by commentary in the e-mails, tell the truth - of savage and bloodthirsty firefights, of unremitting skirmishes with the Taliban and of shortages of ammunition and even rations.
Water has run out, so soldiers drink from disease-carrying rivers. They eat bread scrounged from Afghan troops.
Squaddies are tormented by sand flies and scorpions and are driven mad by stress. They are attacked by Taliban militiamen on motorbikes who open fire while clutching children in front of themselves.
Battles take place against a backdrop of burning villages reduced to rubble by aerial bombardment. On occasion, panic-stricken combatants have used satellite phones to call England with the harrowing message that they are about to die.
The evidence has been delivered to The Mail on Sunday by soldiers who say that their enemy is more numerous, more determined and better equipped than politicians have acknowledged. This, they say, is no peacekeeping mission. This is a new Vietnam.
A soldier who agreed to an interview via e-mail said: "It is a lot worse than people know back home. Politics f****** politics. It is a massive cover-up really, to not get the real truth."
There is also, allegedly, considerable pressure on the Paratroops not to talk about Afghanistan when they return to Britain this month.
"They are using scare tactics,' said the soldier. "It is not fair. The Commanding Officer said that he would mallet anyone he found out was speaking out about this."
Yesterday, however, the Ministry of Defence officially welcomed the soldiers' testimony - raising suspicions that the cloak of secrecy that has hitherto surrounded operations has been ordered by politicians rather than the military.
In the e-mails, the soldiers speak starkly of the savagery of engagements that are kept secret from the public back home.
One said: "You see the Taliban cutting around on dirt bikes, their weapons in one hand, their kids in the other. They think we will not shoot them. There have been some terrible incidents. It is horrible to kill a kid, nothing could prepare you for it."
During an ambush that led to the deaths of three British troops in the town of Musa Qalah on August 1, a senior NCO was forced to take drastic action to retrieve a body and try to rescue a captured soldier.
An e-mail in the possession of this newspaper says: "That place <[>Musa Qalah] is a ****hole anyway. The first wagon got IED'd <[>hit by an Improvised Explosive Device] then as a rescue wagon came down they RPG'd it <[>hit by a Rocket Propelled Grenade]. It was war-fighting, even so much to say we had bayonets fixed."
The soldiers had to use a spade to cut the body of one of their comrades from the wreckage. "Then we released the hatch to get the body out while getting contacted <[>shot at] at the same time. The worst bit was stepping over the body to gather it all up and looking for dog tags."
One of the British casualties was still alive and had been captured by the Taliban. About 100 British soldiers surrounded Musa Qalah and non-Taliban personnel were given 30 minutes to leave. Anyone who remained was considered a legitimate target - again raising shades of Vietnam.
The captured soldier was dead when found by his comrades. It is unclear whether he was killed by the Taliban or died of his wounds.
Last night the MoD said there was 'no better illustration of the extraordinary commitments being made by British soldiers'.
The performance of the Royal Air Force is also called into question by the ground troops. This follows the claim by Para Major James Loden last week that the RAF was 'utterly useless'.
Describing the failure to re-supply troops trapped in a compound in the war-torn village of Sangin, a Para NCO said: "A dz <[>drop zone] was marked, under fire and at night. It was extremely obvious where it was. The Hercules came and totally ignored it.
"They dropped it straight into one of the Taliban strongholds about 100 metres from our camp. We heard a big cheer from the Taliban. It was a massive blow to us. We had been expecting it for two days. We were cheering when it came in. Then we watched it sail away into Taliban hands."
'They could not see properly'
This was not the only re-supply run to go badly wrong. Another almost cost the lives of Canadian troops. "We were told a British convoy was coming up with the re-plen so we expected Brit wagons. There were two guys in one of the sangars <[>defensive positions built with sandbags]. It had got blown up twice by RPGs. They heard this rumbling and at the end of the street they saw some sort of tank poking around the corner. They had no idea what it was, but it was not Brit. They could not see properly. They thought it was ex-Russian stuff the Taliban had got hold of. So there's two guys running off down the street with 84s <[>shoulder-held missiles] just about to blow them up, until one of the guys saw this maple leaf on the front of one of the wagons. We got on the net <[>radio] and had a massive meltdown about why we were not told they were coming."
The mental and physical wellbeing of British forces is also called into question. E-mail testimony suggests that incidents of soldiers wetting and soiling themselves are now commonplace. They wake up screaming from nightmares and have even made harrowing calls to their families during enemy engagements.
In one incident, the Paras were called to rescue Afghan troops and French Special Forces who had been ambushed by the Taliban.
They were flown in by Chinook helicopter, but when they landed, were stunned by what they saw. The ground was littered with the bodies of Afghan soldiers, while incoming bullets hit the helicopter.
"I could not believe we were going to charge off this helicopter into a wall of lead,' said one. "Not everyone wanted to get off. One guy actually defecated. He sat rigid with fear inside the cargo hold until we pulled him up and pointed him towards the door.
"We had to fire and manoeuvre across open ground for 200 metres. The scene was like a human abattoir. We fought off the Taliban but were too late to save the French guys. All of us were shaking when we were flown back to base. One of the Afghan survivors said the French had been tied up then gutted alive by the Taliban. It was one of the most shocking things I had ever heard."
There have been mixed reports about the Afghan National Army. However, one soldier described them as 'shockingly hard'. They have continued fighting alongside the British despite having members of their families killed by the Taliban. Some British soldiers have told their families back home that they fear they are going to die. But after the French atrocity, they say would rather be killed than captured.
The Taliban, previously dismissed as a ragtag force without sophisticated weaponry or tactical knowhow, has evolved. The conflict has enabled the heroin trade to flourish, and with coffers overflowing the guerrilla army has bought equipment such as night vision goggles.
The Taliban has also contracted a legion of mercenaries who have poured over the border from Pakistan into the British-occupied Helmand Province. Contrary to MoD claims, soldiers say that the pace of the fighting continues unremittingly. In the past 48 hours, Paratroopers and Royal Marines, supported by heavy artillery, have conducted operations described as 'rip and insertions' in the Sangin area.
It is understood that at least two British personnel have been severely wounded in the fighting, which soldiers described as 'hardcore'. It was the last major thrust to be carried out by 3 Para before handing over to 42 Commando, Royal Marines.
The picture of life at the main British base, Camp Bastian, is a little more encouraging. Frustration at the rationing of food in the cookhouse leads to the soldiers pulling spoons from cooks' fingers and serving themselves.
They began the tour on what soldiers call 'peacetime munitions scalings', less than they would receive for battle. This supply was criticised as being too light - 120 rounds for their rifles and two grenades. Those with rifles now carry over 200 rounds, and many have exchanged their rifles for light machine guns, called Minimi.
Since British forces arrived in Helmand in May, there have been few success stories. One has been the effectiveness of the Apache helicopter, which has saved many lives.
Last night the Ministry of Defence said: "Incredible efforts are being made to ensure that front-line soldiers are given the best possible support in every way. The tough realities of combat will inevitably create friction about particular incidents, but each individual is doing their very best in the most challenging of circumstances.
"The MoD welcomes these gritty, hard- hitting reports, which portray the reality of difficult work on the front-line. The 3 Para Battlegroup has performed magnificently in extremely difficult circumstances. Alongside the Afghan National Army, they have stood up to the Taliban, who offer nothing to the Afghan people. We salute them."