Monday, March 2, 2009

Step aside, limey, this is how to fight the Taliban

From The Sunday Times
March 1, 2009
Jerome Starkey in Delaram, Farah province

THE American marines call Route 515 the most dangerous road in Afghanistan. It is a bumpy desert track linking Helmand with Iran, and until recently it was beyond the reach of anyone but smugglers.

The men from Weapons Company expect to get blown up every time they leave their camp to patrol between the poppy fields in giant mine-resistant, ambush-proof trucks. “We’ve taken some hits,” said Sergeant Marquis Summers, in an unusual moment of understatement.

Automatic grenade launchers and 50-calibre machineguns peer over their turrets, but it is the mine rollers at the front – like massive snowploughs – that offer the best protection. They are designed to trigger pressure plates before the armoured vehicles pass over buried explosives.
In a month the marines have found more than 30 improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, buried in the road. The remains of the marines’ charred Humvees are piled up in Camp Bastion. Two of their comrades have died in the battle for control of the road. The soldiers say the Taliban pour petrol on the bombs to ignite their trucks.
Nato’s most senior commander in Afghanistan, David McKiernan, an American, has conceded that the British are locked in a stalemate in Helmand. Privately, British officials admit they do not have enough soldiers to control the ground. “We clear an area and the Taliban run away,” said one official. “But the soldiers can’t stay, so the Taliban creep back. It’s pointless.” American Green Berets and marine special forces are operating in parts of Helmand virtually untouched by the British. Small patrols drive into hostile areas to draw Taliban fire. Last Tuesday, 16 militants were killed in Nahr Sukh, a few miles from British headquarters in Lashkar Gah, when special forces called in airstrikes on a compound from which they had been attacked.
Nato officers say the number of troops in Helmand is expected to double when 8,000 marines and 4,000 soldiers promised by President Barack Obama start arriving at the end of May. Although Britain has about 8,300 troops in Afghanistan, only 4,500 are based in Helmand. The Americans are expected to outnumber them by the end of summer. Most of the marines in Helmand will be deployed in Garmsir to sever supply lines with Pakistan.
Major-General Mart de Kruif, Nato’s senior general in southern Afghanistan, said central Helmand was the Taliban’s top priority. “They see it as their heartland,” he said. “And they are fighting hardest there because there is a clear nexus between the insurgency and the drugs trade, which they are fighting to protect.”

There are signs of tension between the allies. American commanders even suggest that the British do not have a clear “campaign plan”. “Headquarters staff wanted to know what was going on, what was the goal,” said a western diplomat familiar with the row. The Americans have refused to take orders from Britain’s Taskforce Helmand, which is nominally in charge. They report directly to a regional headquarters in Kandahar. Americans joke that ISAF, the acronym for the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force, which includes most British forces, stands for I Saw Americans Fighting.
America’s focus on the routes through Helmand is linked to a clampdown on the drugs trade. US officials have been frustrated at Britain’s reluctance to tackle poppy farmers and heroin traffickers for fear of alienating local people. American diplomats advocate aerial spraying to wipe out poppy fields.

Lieutenant-Colonel David Odom, of the US marines ground combat element, stationed in Farah, said the insurgents used the roads west of Helmand to move “weapons, drugs and poppy money” to and from Iran and Pakistan.

The flying drones that patrol the roads day and night have watched thousands gather at impromptu bazaars to trade guns and drugs, often within a few miles of their bases. Even the Americans do not have sufficient troops to stop them.

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