By Patrick Bishop
During the four months that the British media has been consumed by the disappearance of a blonde four-year-old girl from a holiday apartment in the Algarve, 26 British families have lost sons as young as 18 on the dusty fields of Afghanistan, but barely a word has been written. Death in Helmand province is now so common that it warrants no more than a down-page brief.
Yet when the first British troops were sent out to southern Afghanistan in the spring of last year it was with the unexciting and not particularly risky-sounding task of providing security while reconstruction got under way. The core of this force was to be provided by the elite of the British Army in the form of 3 Para. The last time the Parachute Regiment had been involved in heavy fighting was during the Falklands, 24 years earlier, and they were keen for action.
The men (there are as yet no women) of 3 Para have a saying, “Be careful what you wish for.” By the summer of 2006 they were engaged in almost continuous combat – their six months in Helmand saw 498 engagements in which they lost 14 soldiers and one interpreter, and 46 were injured. This was war.
I experienced this myself when I accompanied C Company of 3 Para on a hearts-and-minds mission to a village called Zumbelay and ended up in a Taliban ambush. For more than two hours we were pinned down by rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), mortars and Kalashnikov fire from all sides. We were unbelievably lucky to escape without a casualty, and the story that came out of that engagement was the first real questioning of the official picture with its optimistic talk of “ink-spots” of development.
After that, Ministry of Defence restrictions made sure that most of the action took place far from the glare of the media. This was often frustrating for men who were fighting the fight of their lives with no recognition. Some mobile-phone footage appeared on YouTube, and leaked e-mails about erratic supplies found their way into the papers. But for the most part the story went untold.
The record has now been put straight with Patrick Bishop’s wonderfully compelling account of that summer in Helmand. Based on interviews with everyone from the commanding officer to privates, the book tells a fast-paced story of incredible bravery that at times reads like a thriller. I found it hard to put down.
It is difficult to read Bishop’s story and not be angry. Underlying the tales of gallantry, hardship and camaraderie is one of a confused command structure; intelligence that had completely underestimated the Taliban threat; and woefully inadequate resources for the job in hand, particularly troop numbers and helicopters. All this was aggravated by the ill-fated strategy of establishing so-called platoon houses in dusty outposts, apparently at the behest of the local governor and an Afghan president who feared these district centres falling to the Taliban. Referred to by many as the “tethered goat strategy”, this meant small numbers of British troops holed up in places such as Nawzad, Sangin and Musa Qaleh that became bywords for the unexpected war.
Conditions in these platoon houses were appalling. Apart from the dust, temperatures that often reached 50C, isolation and lack of defences, not to mention food or clean water, troops found themselves under relentless attack, knowing if they were mortally injured the chances of a medevac were slight. Tight rules of engagement prevented them from firing until they had seen a weapon raised against them. The US allies made things worse by carrying out operations without informing them. Most worryingly for the future, they were working with an Afghan army and police force they could not trust (either high on drugs or tipping off the Taliban). And “Terry Taliban” was an enemy that never gave up despite overwhelming odds – such as helicopters dropping 500lb bombs. Incredibly, as the Paras pounded away to stay alive, messages came back from headquarters in Northwood in Middlesex that they were using too much ammunition.
Nowhere highlights this more than the story of Musa Qaleh. The Pathfinders who were sent there for a few hours ended up fighting a 52-day war of attrition. The Royal Irish Regiment who eventually replaced them were told they couldn’t leave and let it fall into the hands of the Taliban. Corporal Danny Groves told Bishop he “couldn’t understand. . . As far as I was concerned the town was in the hands of the Taliban. All we had was a 100-metre by 100-metre square dartboard at which they threw darts in the form of RPGs whenever they fancied”.
Perhaps most remarkable among the many tales of individual heroism is that of Corporal Bryan Budd. He was one of eight men on patrol in Sangin when they were ambushed by the Taliban, and three were wounded. The gunmen were only 20 yards away. If the Paras stayed where they were they might all die. Instead, Budd ran towards the enemy, firing and pushing them back, sacrificing his life to enable the others to crawl back to safety in a ditch.
These brave men who had seen their companions killed were, not surprisingly, left questioning a mission that had never been properly explained to people back home. What they had done seemed to be destruction rather than reconstruction. “What was it all about?” asked an officer as their deployment ended. “Well I flattened the town and I killed a lot of Taliban . ..”