September 27, 2007 – Times Online
Legendary Nepalese warriors are the best troops to drive out the Taleban, say their commanders Photographs by Peter Nicholls
Catherine Philp in Upper Gereshk Valley
Lit by the fireworks of an artillery barrage, the Gurkhas crouched in the desert chill, waiting for the command to move. In silence they crept across a bridge slung over the canal into enemy territory. Dawn came and went without a sighting. And then the Taleban attacked.
Barely 12 hours into Operation Palk Wahel, or Sledgehammer Hit, the biggest British military offensive in Afghanistan since the spring, the Gurkhas had met their enemy. Rifle cracks filled the air, bullets pinging in the dust as rocket-propelled grenades skimmed overhead.
“Get down,” a commander screamed, and the men scurried to a ditch beside the poppy field, firing towards the trees where the Taleban were hiding. Overhead the eerie grunting of fighter jet cannon could be heard strafing the enemy.
It was the resistance that the Gurkhas had been expecting since they crept out from the desert under a fingernail moon and into the notorious “green zone”, the dense sliver of fertile land alongside the Helmand river that the Taleban have made their domain.
Pushed out by British troops from the towns of Gereshk and Sangin at either end of the valley, it was here that the Taleban retreated, taking refuge in the fortress-like mud compounds set in a maze of towering corn criss-crossed with streams and irrigation ditches.
“It is nothing like the rest of Helmand, it is more like the Normandy bocage,” Lieutenant-Colonel Jonny Bourne, the commanding officer of the Gurkhas, said, evoking the beautiful but treacherous terrain that Allied forces had to fight through after the 1944 Normandy landings. “The Taleban know that in the desert we can beat them every time. But in the green zone they have the upper hand.”
British troops have battled through the green zone several times in the past six months and driven the Taleban out, but each time that they have moved on, the Taleban have come back, wreaking vengeance on villagers who cooperated with the foreigners.
This time it is meant be different. Military commanders and civilians have planned the offensive together. The idea is to hold territory so that reconstruction can begin, wooing locals away from the Taleban.
“If you drive out the Taleban, you’ve got to endure,” said David Slinn, the civilian head of the provincial reconstruction team for Helmand. “There have been lessons learnt.”
So, on their first day on the Helmand front line, the Gurkhas crept across a metal footbridge into the Taleban stronghold. To the south soldiers from the Mercian Regiment, nearing the end of their tour, would move northwards to join them.
The Gurkhas, the legendary Nepalese warriors, were chosen for this role. No other regiment could be better suited, their commanding officer said, for this combination of ferocious fighting and winning of local hearts and minds. “The Gurkhas have a natural advantage here,” Colonel Bourne said. “They have an affinity with the people here. It’s in that interaction with the people where we want to make a real difference.”
Before that, however, would come the fighting. “They are the loveliest people in the world,” Colonel Bourne added. “But when the switch is flicked, it gets very nasty.”
Pinned down in the poppy field, the switch flicked. “Excuse me,” a Gurkha machinegunner whispered politely before squeezing past to take his position and blast towards the enemy.
Before battle Sergeant Tarjan Gurung, a smiling veteran of ten years with “Do or Die” stencilled on the back of his helmet, had explained the mood. “Everybody finds it quite exciting,” he said. “You’re going to face a real enemy who will stand and fight.”
As the battle raged, Captain Jit Bahadur appeared panting in the ditch. “Nobody here injured?” he asked. “That’s good luck. It is a very heavy ambush from the enemy.” Minutes before the ambush, C Company had stopped to rest from an all-night trek, ripping open rations for a quick lunch. “If they had attacked when we were resting, it would have been a disaster,” Captain Bahadur said.
The company commander was considering withdrawing. “The resistance is very heavy,” Captain Bahadur said, shaking his head. Everyone knew, though, that retreat was not an option.
In the village of Hyderabad the summer fighting had driven out the entire civilian population, leaving their homes to the Taleban, who used them for their defences. The Gurkhas found empty compound after empty compound, walls smashed from heavy bombing and littered with the old rations wrappers of troops that had gone before them. “I remember this place,” muttered Sergeant Don Jenkins, a Royal Marine who had taken part in an operation in July. “We lost Atherton here.”
In another compound they laid a bar mine to blast through the mud wall for fear of another ambush on the other side.
Captain David Stanhope looked anxious. He had come with the Gurkhas to assess what reconstruction could be done as soon as the fighting was over. In his rucksack he carried bundles of dollars ready to be doled out for quick-fix projects. “But there’s no one here,” he said. “I don’t know what we can do with no civilians.”
One such deserted compound became home for the night. Running low on water, the troops filled bottles from a foul-smelling well, dropping purification tablets inside. Later an order came round to ignore the water and hope for a supply the next day – the risk that the Taleban might have poisoned the well was too high. Second Lieutenant Emile Simpson, 24, on his first day of operations, nursed a painful rib, probably broken, from what he believed was a bullet that glanced off his body armour.
Major Charlie Crowe, the commander of C Company, examined a map. By Day 3 the company needed to reach the “Witch’s Hat”, where the Taleban had turned a medical clinic into a fortress overlooking a lush marijuana field, digging deep defensive ditches around it. British troops had stormed the surrounding settlement, known as “Waterloo”, in April, freeing from the Taleban a local official scheduled for beheading the next day because of his ties to the Government. But the troops had not stayed, and the Taleban had returned, bringing punishment to those seen to cooperate with the foreigners and the Government.
A second dawn came and the company was moving through another bombed-out compound when it came under fire again. Gunfire erupted for several minutes until a cry came of “Stop, stop!” Their attackers, it turned out, were from the Afghan National Army, which, after one of its sentries was hit by gunfire, began firing immediately on a known Taleban position – the one the Gurkhas were now clearing.
A similar confusion a day earlier had thrown the second Gurkha company into a battle with the brigade reconnaissance force for ten minutes before both sides realised their mistake. That same night A Company had become lost for four hours on its way to a resupply point.
Two days in and the fatigue was showing – at least for the commanders and British officers, medics and specialists attached to the company. A third night would bring little more sleep. As the soldiers dozed, Major Crowe pleaded over the radio for his troops to be allowed a night’s sleep before the assault. He was overruled: the company must be in position by the time dawn came. “I think this is where the battle will really begin,” Captain Bahadur whispered.
This time, however, the Taleban had already fled. When the company arrived through the marijuana field at the Witch’s Hat, they found it deserted. The artillery barrage that lit their passage into the Helmand bocage three nights before had pounded the building almost to dust. The Gurkhas looked around, wondering at the desertion. If they were disappointed, they did not show it. “Seems they knew we were coming,” Major Crowe remarked.
On the other side of the canal Captain Stanhope was talking to a farmer who had returned to the village that morning. Naimatullah Agha Lala had left five months earlier because of the fighting and was living with other villages in the pacified town of Gereshk. He had returned to collect animal feed after hearing that British troops were retaking the area.
It was not the first time that he had seen the British here: a few months ago he had even been given a compensation form for the damage that the fighting had done to his house. “But then you went away and the Taleban came back. We are caught in the middle here. The Government thinks we have links to the Taleban and the Taleban think we are with the Government.”
Captain Stanhope handed him leaflets promising reconstruction. The farmer responded: “It’s not good to take this. If the Taleban see me with it, they will say we are cooperating.”
This time, Captain Stanhope said, the British would be staying. Mr Lala said he hoped so. “If you go from this place again, the Taleban will automatically come back again,” he said, looking doubtfully at his leaflet. “Can I throw this away now?”
Over the radio the commanders assessed the enemy withdrawal. The Taleban had either fled south to consolidate or retreated north towards their stronghold of Musa Qala. The next days would begin to tell.
The Taleban had suffered a bad summer, and the retreat suggested that they were struggling to replace their fighters, forcing them to sacrifice territory, instead. Perhaps they, like the civilians, did not believe that the British would stay this time either, and that if they bided their time they could soon be back.
“This is our chance now to show we are going to dominate, that we are not going to allow this place to fall back into Taleban hands,” Major Crowe said.
Fighters on familiar terrain
— The Hindu warrior saint Guru Gorakhnath named his disciple Bappa Rawal’s people “Gurkhas” in the 8th century and ordered them to liberate Afghanistan, then a Hindu-Buddhist nation, from the advancing Muslims.
— In 1879 Gurkha regiments served in the British Army during the Second Afghan War, clashing with Afghan tribesmen.
— Afghanistan gained its independence from Britain in 1919 after the war for independence in which Gurkha troops fought for the British. Nepal’s independence was recognised by the British four years later.
— Nepali and the Afghan language Dari belong to the Indo-Iranian family.
— Gurkhas, traditionally recruited from the lower foothills of the Annapurna mountains, are able to acclimatise quickly to high altitudes across much of Afghanistan.
— The Afghan climate swings between extremes. Winters are cold and snowy while summers are hot and dry. The climate of Nepal ranges from subzero temperatures in high-altitude regions to subtropical in the lowlands.
Sources: NOAA Satellite and Information Service ; explorenepal.com ; army.mod.uk ; khukurihouseonline.com