On the frontline with UAE forces in Helmand
Our patrol leaves Firebase Tamba at 9 on an overcast morning. Our 25-man force, comprising US Special Forces (the elite Green Berets) together with a squad of United Arab Emirates Special Forces and a dozen members of the Afghan National Army's elite Commando Brigade is scheduled to conduct a "hearts and minds" visit to the mud-walled compounds that sprawl along our segment of the Helmand Valley, where we will knock on doors and offer the Afghan government's message of hope to anyone who will listen.
We leave the base and walk north, our progress observed by villagers, too old or too young to be labouring out in the fields, where a rich opium harvest is expected. The temperature is pleasant and the seemingly idyllic harmony of man and nature makes me realise how seductive the Afghan picture can seem. It is hard to believe this lush valley is the main artery of a billion-dollar global heroin industry.
Our force moves with practised fluency. The green berets, tough, taciturn and highly experienced veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, have mentored these Afghan commandos well. The Afghans walk with confidence and hold their weapons at the ready. There is even a ripple of banter along the ranks as one of the Green Berets, who has a habit of renaming the Afghans, calls out: "Justin! Yes, you ... Justin Bieber. Keep in formation!"
The Afghan commandos stand out from the local Pashtun. Recruited from other provinces - they have paler complexions and a different bone structure. Their presence is a reminder to the peasant farmers in Helmand that there will be unfinished business when the coalition finally departs. The ritual greetings of "Salaam Alaykum, peace be upon you," are exchanged, but without conviction.
The Emirati soldiers are drawn from the seven emirates of the UAE and are elite soldiers in their own right. The sergeant I walk behind comes from Fujairah. He walks with purpose, weapon ready, eyes watchful at all times. He has two tours of duty here under his belt plus emergency service in Lebanon and Pakistan. I cannot name him, but can say that his two young children, Mansoor and Salamah, pray every day for his safe return.
Wherever we pause, a crowd gathers. The presence of Muslim troops stimulates curiosity among the Afghans who are willing to shake hands with these men from "Arabstan". The Emiratis hand out copies of the Quran, notebooks, pens and chocolate.
These Arab soldiers come from a nation that has matured to become a voice of wise counsel, looked on with respect as a generous and compassionate neighbour.
On a patrol a week earlier I had watched Emirati forces use possibly the most effective weapon I have seen in 10 years of observing the conflict in Afghanistan. Namely, a modest invitation extended by the senior Emirati on patrol to village elders to join them at midday prayer. Significantly, the Afghans did not refuse. Afterwards, the Emiratis picked up their weapons and the patrol continued.
This is a potent force at work - one the Taliban dare not challenge and one the coalition cannot wield. The robust kindness offered by these Emirati troops is a simple but powerful weapon for change in Afghanistan.
The UAE firebase to the north is a good example of this. There, Afghan men can drive their families along a UAE-funded tarmac road, visit a UAE-built clinic where their women and children can receive treatment from Emirati female doctors, while a UAE-funded radio station offers news and music programming in Pashtun and a mast provided by Etisalat provides competition for other mobile networks.
But westerners in the coalition can build bridges, too. I take photos, then show the kids their portraits on the screen of my digital camera. These are met with shrieks of delight. Even the adults submit, with barely concealed enjoyment and for a few moments the almost unanimous local disapproval of the coalition is stalled by gratitude at our small acts of charity.
We move steadily north, taking in homesteads as well as farmers tending their poppy allotments. The subjects of harder-edged conversation are depressingly consistent: the unavoidable pestilence of the Taliban; the lack of an alternative crop; when will the Americans leave?
At midday, the US captain judges three hours is long enough for the patrol, so we swing our formation south, aware we will be stopping to chat to locals many times on the homeward leg. The burnt-out steel hulk of an armoured personnel carrier blights the horizon. Our 23-year-old Afghan interpreter chirps: "It's a Viking. I worked with the British marines two years ago."
Hours seem to pass before we see our firebase, a kilometre away and look forward to a rest. One burly and tattooed Green Beret, much liked by the Afghans and Emiratis, throws his head back and yells: "And so ends ... the most boring," he pauses to inflate his lungs then barks, "[expletive] ... patrol," another lungful, "in the history of Afghanistan." There are smiles all around.
His words must have carried further than he imagined, because a moment later, a crack overhead tells us we are in contact with the enemy. We are on the ground before the expletives have left the air. Justin Bieber's Afghan namesake is returning fire with a long burst from his machine gun. A Green Beret yells out to save ammunition and orders an advance towards the enemy. My body armour and helmet no longer feel uncomfortable.
We retrace our way to a vantage point on high ground. I take cover by the wrecked British Viking and we pause before moving north again. We have halved the distance to our opponents who, if they are still there, can only be a couple of hundred metres away.
Again we pause as the radios crackle with American voices discussing options. A US tracker dog "K9" team is on the scent of two men and there is a chance our group can follow up fast enough to catch Taliban. We're ordered further forward to a ridge overlooking the river and fields, which seem the most likely escape route.
Everyone remains vigilant as we consolidate at a narrow bridge across a deep irrigation channel flanked by high earth banks. It is a natural choke point for foot and vehicle traffic and must have been where the fugitives crossed. It is also a good site for an improvised explosive device (IED). As I consider this, I spot scraps of burnt yellow plastic, the telltale residue from an earlier IED blast. Just then the K9 sniffer dog becomes excited, indicating a spot where the earth looks freshly disturbed. Another patch of soil indicates where a blast has previously taken place.
Meanwhile the flanking pursuit group has detained two Afghans and brings them to our position. One is a skinny young man, the other is older and sleeker. Both appear confident and claim to be locals, but have soft hands, unhardened by hard labour in the fields. Suspicion mounts and their bravado evaporates when the Afghan commandos deal out some rough handling.
At this point the US captain announces we have to sit it out, control the area and wait for the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team to come in and clear the area where the dog has located the possible IED.
"The EOD guys are on task," the captain murmurs to a pair of his men, "they'll get to us next. Don't worry, we have a Predator [drone] up there." His thumb jerks upwards and lists other airborne technical wizardry that only the US war machine can boast.
A squad is instructed to secure an area a short distance downhill and further north-west. I admire this captain for his relaxed style. He is the archetypal "quiet" American, modest and unassuming, but with steel beneath the surface. I imagine his mind is racing as he calculates the odds against him. To back off from this incident would mean losing face with the Afghan community he has been trying to influence.
I rejoin my Afghan, American and Emirati companions who are now relaxing along the earth bank protecting the canal. I take off my helmet and sit against the soft earth for the long wait. A thud in the distance signals an EOD team may have finished what sounds like a controlled explosion and will perhaps get to us soon.
I show off my beaded watch strap to an Emirati soldier, explaining it is a gift from my wife, a lucky charm. This prompts Jeroo, our young Afghan interpreter, to offer his cheap watch as an exchange. I get up, perhaps urged by my good luck charm, and stroll some yards away to my right, checking my camera readings.
An ear-splitting crack stuns me and I whirl round to see a geyser of earth erupting from where I'd been sitting moments before. Screams of pain start instantly as the cloud of earth and dust subsides to reveal three prostrate figures.
I recognise the black hair of an Afghan commando as he lies in a fresh IED crater. The US captain is swearing loudly, lying on the bank, and clutching his right hand. He is covered in dirt and another American is lying yards from me.
Both men are groaning. The Afghan is silent, face down but struggling to raise himself on his elbows. As I move to him, I see he has no legs. I put my camera down and begin to drag him clear of the crater when an American Green Beret medic rushes in to take control. An Emirati soldier runs over to assist, but is ordered back to his position. I move to the captain and offer help. He is still down but obviously thinking clearly. He pushes me away.
The second blast is so close it rocks me with a concussive punch. Another brown cloud kicks up and we all seem suspended, breathless in a moment of dazed silence.
A renewed stream of ripe profanity and indignation tells me that, unbelievably, the US captain is still with us. He materialises from the settling cloud, covered in earth, dust and grit, lying at the foot of the earth bank. He has taken the full blast against his back, but his body armour has saved him. The medic and the badly wounded Afghan have also been caught in a storm of gravel and may have been the target of the second blast.
The medic calls for help with the wounded Afghan. He tosses me a tourniquet and points to the man’s shattered legs. His feet have gone, and the bone has been skinned clean showing ivory and pink with what looks like a sheet of smoked flesh lying beside it in the dust.
I get the tourniquet on over the left thigh bone and as I pull it to the man’s groin to get purchase against whole flesh, my fingers sink into ripped tissue.
The medic is yelling, maybe he is almost deaf, possibly because adrenaline is surging but mostly because he needs to believe: “Hang in there, buddy” he urges his Afghan comrade: “Hang in there, buddy ... you’re gonna make it!”
The captain needs help, too, and I seem closest. Unzipping his medic pouch I rip open the field dressing and work it around his bloodied hand. His face is a mask of pain and dust but he is amazingly rational and calls instructions on the radio and orders to his men.
As I tie the captain’s dressing, Jeroo the interpreter, untreated from the first blast and caught in the second, is sobbing with pain. His left arm hangs limp and bloodied from his ripped uniform. I get to him with a spare dressing, wrap it around his arm and tie it off to his right shoulder strap. I have two Emirati soldiers on my left, one offers a helping hand to the interpreter as his buddy kneels, weapon sighted, ready for any emerging threat.
Within minutes the blur of mayhem stabilises as the Green Berets wrench back the initiative from our unseen adversaries. I am relieved of my duties as temporary medic and pick up my camera again.
I catch the supporting teams of UAE and Afghan commandos beginning a search of a nearby compound. I see the legless Afghan with one stump now wrapped in clean white bandages, while the medic, shaking gravel from his hair, still works frantically on the second stump, knowing his efforts can mean life or death for the young man.
Meanwhile, mine roller vehicles have blazed a trail to us and are standing by, and gun crews are offering us all-round protection. A huge CH47 Casevac helicopter appears from the south; its basso
profundo rotor-beat is a heartwarming sound. We know there is a surgical team onboard, ready to work life-saving magic on our wounded.
Light grey attack helicopters orbit, too, circling like angry hornets. Minutes later, the Chinook is loaded and its twin turbines howl into lift-off. It surges forward, dips its nose to gather speed and streaks its way towards Camp Bastion and the field hospital.
The rest of us prepare for the walk back down the mine-free route. The Afghan commandos have searched houses and come up with the components of IED triggers; batteries, mobile-phone parts and circuit boards.
Having watched their comrade lose his legs, their simmering fury boils over and two more suspects are dragged from a nearby house. Women shriek in terror as they watch a son or a brother stagger and fall under a hail of blows and kicks as he is dragged into our column. I stand with the K9 team watching dispassionately.
That night, sleep is difficult and I wander up to the roof of our tiny firebase, to smoke and enjoy the cool and a night sky bright with countless stars. To the east an electrical storm is in full swing. To the west, another kind of storm rages; the Helmand Valley, a trophy US irrigation project in the 1960s, is now the scene of a more deadly American effort. To the north there is quiet and I recall, out there only some 20 kilometres away, is a UAE firebase with a clinic, radio station and Etisalat telecommunications mast. My mind churns through the day’s events – the Afghan peasants, their children, desperate for a chance in life, the seeming hopelessness of an existence torn between their Taliban tormentors and the American-led effort to bring enlightenment and a future.
The Afghan commandos, with few if any Pashtun in their ranks, are strangers in their own land and are as unwelcome in Helmand as members of the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), yet from somewhere they summon the courage to try.
The cycle of violence has to be broken. If the Afghan peasant can take so much punishment and still survive, why can’t the poppy be eradicated and a substitute crop be offered with guarantees that it will be bought? It is perhaps a naïve thought, but how can growing the poppy lead to anything other than organised crime?
The Americans, in spite of their heroism, commitment and bravery, are surely much misunderstood. I recall the Green Beret medic, working frantically and in pain himself, as he strove to keep life flickering in someone he hardly knows nor will likely see again. I learnt later that the Afghan survived.
And the charismatic, quiet captain, caught literally and metaphorically in the eye of the storm, who in spite of wounds and pain continued to lead from the front, and only allowed himself a rest when help arrived.
Both men had the wellspring of their courage tapped deeply on this day. All of the Green Berets know that if needed they would have gone straight back out on patrol, to set the example to their Afghans.
And soon they will be back out on patrol, with their UAE and Afghan comrades: they will go out and repeat the “spiel”, whether they believe it or not, and “walk the walk”, as the odds against their survival narrow every time they venture beyond the wire.
And the future? In a couple of years the Americans, the British and other western forces will leave Afghanistan, this so-called graveyard of empires – just as the Russians did before them. The future will be shaped by the Afghans, but with help from their Muslim friends.
As one Emirati officer – a graduate of Sandhurst – said to me: “You know, we were here before this trouble started, as Arab neighbours. And we will remain as neighbours long after the coalition and Isaf have gone. We may not be able to offer the solution but we can, as fellow Muslims, at least hold the torch for the Afghans to find the path for themselves.”
Alex Gardiner reported from Helmand Province in Afghanistan. The incident he reported on took place on April 7 this year.