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Afghan embed: waiting in a Taliban heartland

By Nick Paton Walsh

Updated on 02 July 2010

After William Hague warned of further sacrifices to soldiers in Afghanistan, Nick Paton Walsh writes from Kandahar where Nato is set to launch a make or break operation to retake the Taliban's heartland.

Soldiers in Kandahar, Afghanistan (Reuters)

Every night so far, it's happened at least twice. A distant thud you might just catch, followed by a screech of sirens. A rocket attack.

This should come as no surprise, given how this is Kandahar airfield, from where Nato's make or break operation to retake the Taliban's heartland will launch. But the audacity and daring makes you draw breath, given how pointless it seems, to attack the mightiest machine in military history with a few home-made rockets.

After a while lying down and sitting in the dust the moment passes, give or take the occasional bit of smoke on the night skyline.

Last night I was in the gym obliviously in headphones, when I wondered whether the Afghan Whigs had ever included a loud siren in their repertoire. Seeing my fellow narcissists fall to the floor, I did the same. Here, normal drills (run, hide in a bunker) go out the window, and after 90 seconds everyone carries on before. I suppose everyone wants to look good for the end, whenever it comes.

Nick Paton Walsh blogs from Kandahar

KAF, or Kandahar Airfield as it's known to normal people, is gripped by a new pace of life. No matter the changes at the top - the dizzying prospect of working towards a six month timetable when you've just got a new CEO with perhaps a load of new aides behind him - they are trying to get moving here.

Get control of the city centre, with Afghan police and trainers; get a grip on the sprawling and hostile rural areas around the city; and finally, and perhaps more impossibly, get their heads around turning the morass of conflicting tribal allegiances here into something that one day might co-exist with a normal government.

Hague: further UK sacrifice in Afghanistan
After his first major policy speech in Brussels, Foreign Secretary William Hague tells Jon Snow there will be difficult months ahead for British troops in Afghanistan. Last month the campaign suffered its bloodiest month on record with at least 102 allied deaths during June.

"Is this the end of the sacrifice? Well, no it's not of course," Hague told Channel 4 News.

"It is going to be a difficult few months I think, coming up, because there is so much activity, there's such a lot going on to try to improve the security situation on the ground."

The foreign secretary said the escalating number of deaths was heartbreaking, "but we have to remember we are doing this for the security of our own country. We are doing it to the point where Afghans can look after their own affairs without presenting a danger to the rest of the world."

Watch the Channel 4 News interview in full here.

While Nato are ratcheting up here, so, in turn, are what the new Nato commander, David Petraeus, called "an industrial strength insurgency". As ever, every night, you don't see them, but you hear them. You know they're there, and that's probably the entire point.

Channel 4 News team in KandaharEach time you return, Nato airbases find new ways of showing how long in the tooth they are. The first time I came here in 2007, my 48 hours here on what seemed a flat bowl of salmonella and dust, were dominated by a remarkably vicious bout of food poisoning from a cold cut of meat that had my every orifice spewing turkey for long enough to make death enviable.

Kandahar airfield is not much better when you're not ill, try as they might, and over the last three years they have been trying.

The singular Burger Kings are now removed under McChrystal's counter-obesity strategy, replaced however with TGI Fridays, a Pizzeria, a kebab shop. There are German, French and American shops. A War On Terror chess set is available, in US, Australian and English flavours (the castle of a Twin Towers is Sydney Opera House or Big Ben accordingly).

More from Channel 4 News
- Hague: further UK sacrifice in Afghanistan
- Patreaus to Nato: no change in strategy
- Head of British forces urges talks with the Taliban
- Hague: UK must embrace 'networked world'

It's an occupation that seems almost mockingly amazed at its longevity. The Asian workers here have their own canteen. There is a choice of mobile phone network. The travelators play opera at you when you stand on them. The showers are strawberry flavoured.

OK, I made some of that up.

Channel 4 News team in Kandahar

Waiting is what you spend most of your time on an embed doing. Walking along the boardwalk (the name for the collection of shops and cafes in the camp centre) wondering whether a soldier has stuck a cigarette packet in his rifle's magazine chamber to stop the dust, as he claims, or as a baroque sign of protest.

Sat in your tiny portable cabin, blogging your way through the boredom. Or like one colleague, who shall remain nameless, finding new ways to attach digital cameras to your person, enabling you to film just that little bit higher.

Tomorrow the waiting is over, and we're headed out to the rural belt around the city, which is said to be 90 per cent in Taliban control.

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