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Being watched on the Afghan frontline

By Alex Thomson

Updated on 15 March 2010

Embedded with the Coldstream Guards as they come under heavy fire in Afghanistan, Alex Thomson writes that the Taliban insurgents are constantly on the watch for Nato's next move.

British soldiers, Afghanistan (Reuters)

It will be the longest and deepest mission that the Coldstream Guards' elite 1 Company has undertaken in seven months. Into an area which has seen few - if any - Nato forces.

And so it is that, as ever, there are two briefings to be had the day before: official and unofficial, officers and men.

Official: enter Major Toby Till, commander of 1 Company, in the briefing tent at the P4 base in the Helmand district of Babaji.

You get the impression these days that he pretty much is telling us just what he's told his men. Nothing "hush, hush" or can't say, about this. We will go in before dawn in three Chinooks to land in a field, not a mile from the base itself. So much for the security of the area after nine years of American-led occupation.

And then? Well, nobody really knows of course. But one thing Major Till is certain of, we will be watched almost from the moment the first soldier hits the mud of that poppy field, by the insurgents.

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There is a clear plan to search a number of compounds and conduct surveillance on how the insurgents are coming in from the west, via tunnels under the major irrigation canal, to mount ambushes and plant IEDs.

There is much talk of "partnership" with the Afghan Army who will be coming along. "Partnership" you note - the days of "mentoring" are gone, in this new politically-correct world of Afghanisation.

Afghan "partnership"
Across the rest of the day in no fixed place at no fixed time - the unofficial brief. For starters, squaddies do not talk about partnership with the Afghan National Army (ANA).

They offer other observations: "See one Afghan compound and you've seen 'em all. And you'll all get bitten to f*** by fleas".

Helpful, true to a point (certainly on the flea issue) but not exactly tactical.

But there is more.

"You'll get dicked from the first moment you get in. They'll watch everything you do. You fart - they know it. You'll get no contacts on day one."

"And then?" I asked this guardsman, desperate to come along, but down for other duties.

"Then they open up anyway they can. Loads of contacts then. Everywhere you go the next two days of it. No question."

And on that last critical point both official and unofficial briefings coincided precisely.

Once I had actually managed to jump from the Chinook in darkness, with no night vision, heavy pack, and body armour into the thick mud of the landing field, I felt suddenly confident.

A feeling which remained through day one as the army went about what it calls "human terrain mapping" (who came up with that?).

In a nutshell it means, get into every compound you can, search for arms, drugs or fertiliser (meaning ammonium nitrate for use in homemade explosive), confiscate where appropriate and talk to people.

Who lives here? Seen any insurgents? Where are they? Do you trust ISAF (Nato) and on and on and on it goes.

Balls of opium and the odd AK47 are confiscated. The AK47 owner is handcuffed and arrested. He is then un-handcuffed and de-arrested. Nobody seems sure why. He has his daughter who makes green tea and naan. I have breakfast with him.

But the gun is confiscated. It is - and I am not joking - illegal here. Yeah, yeah - like poppy. So has Nato just taken this family's security away or stopped an AK falling into insurgent hands. Equally, the family next door have lost their opium stash. Drugs trade interdicted? Or family nest egg nicked by Nato?

Afghanistation rears its head again. Only the ANA must enter compounds first - unless the Guards are under fire. ANA should not kick in doors. But they do and try to stop us filming it.

And there is more that is politically correct. No longer can soldiers talk about "a dicking screen" or "being dicked" - for so long the pungent army phrase to describe the other lot watching your every move.

No, no. Now it is to be "observation" screens or some such. "Richard screens," goes the army joke.

Warfare over the airwaves
But whatever you want to call it the insurgents have watched our every move. We know this because the interpreter Joe, is listening to them all the time on their radio frequency.

In some areas of Helmand interpreters and insurgents regularly get on the radio with each other to generally take the piss and wind each other up. The joy of modern warfare.

No foreign voices. No Chechens, British or Pakistani accents - just local insurgents chattering away and issuing orders over the airwaves. Local people defending their ways and compounds against the foreign invaders as they see it - and the equally foreign Afghan Army, with its Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks: different lingo, different people. But come to fight the Pashtuns again in the southern fields and wadis.

All the while I can't help noticing how quiet it is. One of our company claims to have shot in insurgent through the stomach, coming through one of the canal tunnels, but it's never completely confirmed. But nobody is firing. Just like the squaddies assured us nobody would. On the first day.

Of course that did not continue. From early morning the next day things rapidly ramped up. The insurgents were clearly watching the Guards' and ANA's moves, trying to predict where they would go next.

Yesterday I had questioned the point of walking in two feet of mud and silt in drainage ditches. Today I was begging for one whenever the Guards were forced to cross open ground.

Every time it would provoke the sudden cracks, a spatter of incoming AK47 rounds. It was short. But it was aimed alright and close.

Every time the Guards moved, the insurgents had moved their firepoints too. Nato had up to date weapons, the Predator drone overhead controlled by some bloke in the Nevada Desert; F18s giving high surveillance and low passes for show of strength.

The insurgents, though, were having none of the "sows of strength". No sooner had one F18 flown low over the poppy fields chucking out flares, than the insurgents are on the radio:

"Don't worry don't worry! This is nothing! This cannot hurt us!"

And moments after the jet had passed, they were opening up on the Guards all over again. Just as the Guards had predicted.

Clearly the insurgency here is highly adaptable, establishing competent on-the-day rolling ambushes across country they obviously know intimately. They know who owns which compound and so forth, by name.

They fire accurately, if sparingly. Ammunition is not wasted. Fire points quickly set up then moved on at speed before detection and return fire.

There is no denying their determination, competence and adaptability in taking on the greatest arsenal the world has yet seen, on their terms not those of the Pentagon, for nine years now.

True, they are assisted on this patrol by the Afghan soldiers who opened fire accidentally on their British partners. The partners were less than amused.

So it is that even in an area now flooded with western soldiers and thousands of Americans, so much of the operation is more or less held down by a small number of determined fighters armed with little more it seems, than a few RPGs, AK47s aplenty and a capacity to produce IEDs.

Alongside that of course, the insurgency's greatest strategic asset: human intelligence and surveillance system and knowledge of the country that Nato will never, ever come within a million miles of.

The so-called Afghan National Army will struggle almost as hard as well.

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