Opium, muck and bullets: The Mail joins the Gurkhas on patrol in Afghanistan
Night has come and with it heavy rain, blocking the light of a full moon. Nothing stirs in the desert village, where some 30 heavily armed men crouch at the foot of the straw-and-mud outside walls of the residential compounds.
It is the day that a short, local Taliban ceasefire is supposed to be ending. Intelligence reports suggest that village elders had brokered it with the insurgents to allow farmers to sow wheat and opium poppies in the fields surrounding Patrol Base Woqab, the remote and embattled Afghan home of B Company, 2nd Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles (2RGR). That period of grace is over, apparently. The planting is done.
Attacks will begin again.
This evening the Gurkhas’ 5 Platoon are pushing a foot patrol out towards the FLET (forward line of enemy troops) to show them who is in charge.
Photographer Jamie Wiseman and I are with them.
Earlier, as the light had faded and we jogged through fields of poppies, an American F-18 fighter bomber flew up the valley at an ear-splittingly low level — called in as a ‘show of force’ to protect our patrol, following reports of Taliban troop movement.
Now there is silence, save for a far-off guard dog, the shifting of military boots in cloying mud and the occasional crackle of a radio.
Almost complete darkness. Then a faint rumble, which grows louder.
The Taliban pushing the wheelbarrow along a side road is some ten metres from the foremost rifleman before he realises, no doubt to his great shock, that he is not alone.
He drops the barrow and legs it back up the pathway. ‘Stop!’ a voice yells in English. But the man is off and away into the pitch black.
The reasons are soon clear. In the barrow is a pickaxe and a sack.
A Gurkha tentatively shifts the bag’s opening to reveal metal shell casings and wires. It looks like an IED ( improvised explosive device).
A black labrador called Max and handler Lance Corporal Stu Canavan are called forward.
Max is trained in detecting explosives. Max gets very excited by what is in the wheelbarrow.
Last month, three Royal Marines from the Gurkha’s 3 Commando Brigade were killed by a boy suicide bomber while on patrol in Helmand.
His device was in a wheelbarrow such as this one.
But the fact that tonight there is a pickaxe and the Taliban ran away suggests a different modus operandi to our patrol leader, the youthful and enthusiastic Lieutenant Oli Cochrane, from Kent.
He deduces that the IED was on its way for burial in a nearby road, to be detonated later when a British patrol passed.
Cochrane decides, to my consternation at least, that he will personally wheel the barrow and its contents through the darkness and mud, back to base for examination.
As he has only recently had a bullet stopped by his radio pack and seen his rucksack riddled in the same action (in which one of his men was killed), then fate is surely being tempted.
First, though, he must clear his hair-raising task with HQ.
As I listen to him seeking permission, I am reminded of a notice I saw in the breakfast tent in Camp Bastion, the comparatively luxurious and secure main HQ base.
It read: ‘For health and safety reasons, this toaster has been taken out of service.’
Sounds like Cochrane’s kind of toaster.
Thankfully, perhaps, HQ tells Cochrane: ‘No.’
Our Gurkha platoon is ordered to stay put in this exposed position and wait to be relieved. A bomb disposal team will arrive the next morning.
Meanwhile, the rain becomes heavier.
The Royal Gurkha Rifles have been in the news a lot because of the Government’s disgraceful blocking of their Nepalese-born veterans’ right, if desired, to stay in the UK after retirement.
No soldier who left the regiment before July 1, 1997, when its HQ was moved from Hong Kong to Kent, can live in Britain, because they cannot demonstrate ‘strong ties’ with the UK.
In September, the High Court ruled in a crucial test case that this was unfair and ordered the Government to review its policy.
The judge, Mr Justice Blake, said their great sacrifices had earned them ‘an unquestionable moral debt of honour’ from the British people.
But the Government is still dragging its heels, in spite of a 250,000-name petition, fronted by Gurkha officer’s daughter Joanna Lumley.
Meanwhile, the tough hill soldiers get on with what they have done for almost two centuries — fighting and often dying for Great Britain for a fraction of the pay and pension of their British-born comrades.
Forty-five thousand Gurkhas dead and some 150,000 wounded so far.
Thirteen Victoria Crosses won. Prince Harry served with the regiment’s 1st Battalion when he was in Afghanistan.
Within a fortnight of arriving here in the autumn, the Gurkha Rifles lost its first man, during its first contact with the enemy.
Rifleman Yubraj Rai was shot dead as he crossed a field. Three of his comrades risked their lives recovering his body under heavy fire. That is the Gurkha way.
Soon afterwards, as the Gurkhas sought to push the Taliban back from the district centre of Musa Qala, Colour Sergeant Krishnabahadur Dura, 36, was killed. An IED tore through the 25-ton Warrior armoured vehicle in which the married father-of-two was travelling.
This got headlines in the UK because Dura was the first British soldier killed inside a Warrior in Afghanistan (his widow has since been told that she could be deported from the UK, because she has no rights to stay).
The fact that a female British army officer, travelling with him, lost a leg in the attack also got reported.
What hasn’t been is that another Gurkha in the Warrior lost both his legs. The married, early twentysomething, is now at Headley Court, the military rehabilitation centre in Surrey.
‘He is very worried and wants to return to the regiment after rehabilitation,’ Major Shiva Limbu, a Falklands veteran and the battalion’s most senior Gurkha, tells me. ‘We want to find him a job. But it depends on what the MoD decide.’
Major Shiva, who has served for 28 years, is proud.
‘When I saw these boys on the training range back in the UK, I didn’t think they could uphold the tradition of their ancestors,’ he admits.
‘But I was wrong — they have proved themselves.’
The indolent X-Box-culture has reached Nepal, too. But as the Gurkhas have 22,000 recruit applications every year, for only 230 places, they still get the best of the best.
Of the veteran’s campaign, the Major says: ‘It matters a great deal to us serving out here to know the British public still cares about the Gurkhas.’
Our journey to Patrol Base Woqab begins at Battle Group North-West HQ in Musa Qala, a small town where the Helmand desert meets the Hindu Kush.
It was taken from the Taliban a little more than a year ago.
Since their arrival in autumn, the Gurkhas have pushed the Taliban farther back, a couple of miles from the centre north and south.
The Taliban attack these extremities almost daily. Every evening, HQ briefs the outlying posts by secure radio.
It is like Radio 4 at the top of the hour. The briefing begins with the weather forecast and ends with the English football results. The grim stuff comes in between.
Tonight’s reports tell of the approach of suspected suicide bombers from Pakistan and a car bomb on a pick-up intended for the district centre.
A particularly cunning IED maker, one Mohammed Gul, has been killed in an air strike. This good news gets an ironic cheer. But a ‘friendly forces’ soldier has been killed by a mine near Kajaki. Grim faces.
There is a row of plywood phone booths next to the ops room. Two days earlier, someone had put a tape across their doors.
This happens quite frequently here and it’s never good. It means that someone has been killed or wounded.
The tape is to prevent personnel from telling someone at home before the MoD informs the casualty’s family.
On this occasion, a soldier has lost a leg.
Back in the UK, you would not know this because it is MoD policy not to report the wounded, only the deaths.
Outside the briefing, an Afghan translator sits improving his English by reading a book titled Why Is Pubic Hair Curly? It adds to the unreal atmosphere.
Patrol Base Woqab is some two miles north of Musa Qala district centre. The only armed forces beyond it are Taliban.
Woqab was set up in November after a Gurkha offensive. The straw-and-mud compound in the middle of poppy and wheat fields used to be a Taliban firing point.
Now the Royal Gurkha Rifles emblem, a crossed kukri knife, flies from a birch trunk flagpole.
Conditions are primitive. Naturally there is neither running water nor mains electricity. Most of the men don’t have a solid roof over their heads.
Ablutions revolve around a drainpipe and an oil drum.
Here, B Company 2RGR and their support specialists are a gathering of nations.
The Nepalese Gurkhas are led by Major Ross Daines, from Bulawayo. Their observation point is commanded by an Australian Gurkha officer, inevitably nicknamed ‘Dingo’.
The dog handler Canavan is an Ulsterman and the base is resupplied by the ‘Welsh Cavalry’, aka the Queen’s Dragoon Guards.
But the most arresting feature is the mud. Days of rain have turned the camp into a quagmire, more like the Ypres salient of 1917 than Afghanistan’s heat-and-dust image.
Lance Bombardier Daniel Travers of 29 Commando has a more modern analogy. ‘Glastonbury without the music.’
There are several cases of foot rot caused by the wet and cold — trench foot, it used to be called 90 years ago.
‘I ask them to keep their feet as dry as possible,’ says Royal Navy medic James Patrick, from Billingham. ‘But here, that’s just not possible.’
In one of the base sangers — fortified observation posts — Lance Corporal Min ‘Taliban Killer’ Limbu is on watch. He is the company’s best sniper, with four confirmed kills.
Below him, Bollywood film music wafts from a tent. Ancient copies of Country Life and the Kathmandu Post are to hand. B Company’s noticeboard is a brave attempt at normality.
There is a calendar with an Irish snow scene next to a plinth mounted with a fist-sized piece of 107mm rocket which just missed the camp four days before Christmas. A Gurkha has written beneath it: ‘Everyone were (sic) very lucky.’
Another piece of paper sets out the forthcoming ‘2RGR Brigade Six Nations rugby match prediction sweepstake’.
In other parts of the camp, intense games of chess are being played by the Gurkhas.
A huge wok is sometimes used to curry goat, bought from their local police colleagues for an extortionate $100 a head.
‘Yubraj being killed so soon in the tour was a big shock for the boys and I think it took them about six weeks to recover,’ says Major Daines. ‘Morale is very high now.’
But war is never far away.
First light brings the chug of heavy machine gun fire and the whoomph of a 105mm shell being fired from a Commando artillery position into the compounds beyond our poppy fields.
Armed Taliban and their ‘dickers’ — spotters — have been seen probing the position of the Gurkha platoon guarding the IED. The artillery strike kills at least one of the enemy and ‘seriously alarms’ two others.
Today’s deadly game of cat-and-mouse has begun. ‘Can you run the route that you walked back last night?’ we are asked. ‘We might have to cross enemy firing points.’
We return to the IED position safely. One section of 6 Platoon, now guarding the IED, has woken up soaked to find they have also been sleeping on what was obviously the village toilet.
‘F***ing cold last night,’ Capt Gajendra Angdembe grins. ‘Boys were whingeing.’
Now they are concentrating on protecting a bomb disposal team, led by Captain Tom Bennett, from Kent, from the Taliban probes.
Bennett ascertains that the barrow contains four wired-up 105mm shell cases, filled with home-made explosive. It is known as a daisy-chain IED and it is an infantry patrol killer.
One of the barrow handles is a British heavy machine gun casing. ‘Cheeky,’ observes one of the sappers.
There is no detonator — it was probably being carried by the man pushing the barrow. Bennett makes the device safe — ‘I never get blase doing this. You only need to make a mistake once’ — and the battered barrow is wheeled off, with scrap iron and pickaxe inside. The sappers whistle the theme to Steptoe And Son.
A hole is found in an empty compound and the shells are placed in it, ready for disposal by explosion.
The area is cleared. There is a crash and a large object flies over our heads and into a compound beyond, from which an Afghan clutching a kohl-eyed baby girl emerges.
The flying object was one of the artillery shells.
Captain Angdembe orders his platoon to move, the bomb disposal team in tow. Taliban dickers are already on the move to see what caused the bang and help cut off the Gurkhas’ return to Woqab.
Later, the platoon mounts a patrol towards the district centre. And once again we run into a Taliban. This time there is no escape for him.
Dressed in a black turban and green shawl, the man is astride a Honda motorcycle when, in a warren of farm compounds, he rounds a corner to be confronted by the platoon.
He is seen to throw two objects into an irrigation channel.
Both are recovered. One is a walkie-talkie. The other is a Russian-made automatic pistol. ‘Taliban commander,’ comes the message down the patrol line.
By the time I reach him, he is squatting against a wall in plastic handcuffs. He watches coolly as his hands are tested for explosives residue.
‘I am not a Talib,’ he says. ‘I killed a man, so I have problems and have to carry a gun.’
‘One hundred per cent Taliban!’ declares an Afghan policeman. Capt Angdembe agrees.
This year, the Americans plan to double their troop numbers in Afghanistan to 60,000. British forces could rise from 8,100 to 10,000.
Most of these will be deployed in Helmand to push the Taliban out of their heartland.
In the meantime, the Gurkhas hold the line for our Queen and country in the most appalling conditions, as they have done for nearly two centuries.
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In: Afghanistan, Middle East
Tags: Afghanistan, UK, British Army, Gurkhas, 2RGR, ISAF, Musa Qala, Helmand
Location: Musa qala, Helmand, Afghanistan (load item map)
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