Afghanistan's forgotten frontline

Posted in Afghanistan | 18-Sep-08 | Author: Terri Judd| Source: The Independent

Sergeant Abdul Nassir, 22, insisted: "We are here to serve our country. We will die for freedom. We want to clean our country from terrorists. We want to clean our country from Pakistan."

Five weeks ago Private Noorulah gave a string of prayer beads to his commanding officer as a token of friendship and respect.

A few days later he was standing sentry at a patrol base when a 14-year-old suicide bomber approached. The 25-year-old Warrior – as the Afghans call their lowest rank - shot the teenager but not before another boy, believed to be just nine, remotely detonated the explosives killing Noorulah and a fellow soldier.

"He worked in my office for me. He was a very good man. He saved a lot of lives that day," said Lieutenant Colonel Abdulhai Neshat. Clutching an invisible set of beads with a pained, guilt-ridden look, he explained that he had searched high and low for this precious memento from his dead soldier, but somehow it had disappeared.

Lt Col Neshat has grown used to coping with loss of his soldiers. He keeps their photographs but does not display them for fear of harming morale amongst his remaining troops.

"My first loss was ten months ago, Sergeant Anwar. He was quiet and calm, a very brave man. The day before he died he was near Gereshk and he called me and told me ‘Don't worry I will stay here and I will look after things'. The next day he was killed by a mine," he explained, adding that the 30-year-old had a wife and three children in Kabul.

"It is always very difficult when you see the wife and children and they are crying and looking at you, hoping you will say their father or brother is alright. It is very difficult to upset them," continued the commanding officer.

Daily the western press details the deadly toll on Nato soldiers battling in Afghanistan, highlighting the suffering of families left without a husband, father or son. But the Afghan National Army (ANA) troops who perish alongside them are rarely more than a statistic in print. Isaf headquarters cannot seem to provide complete figures for their losses since being formed two years ago. In the last five months the ANA has suffered almost 100 casualties in Helmand province alone - of which 27 were deaths.

The ANA has a current strength of 70,000 nationally and the US has recently endorsed a further 10 billion pounds to build its force up to 122,000 - but it lacks armour, air power or medical support. Last week during flying visit to the country, Gordon Brown said he believed the army would have to be even larger. The Prime Minister also promised Britain would provide more resources for training in Helmand.

A recent article in the Daily Afghanistan, Kabul, said: "Ultimately after seven years, foreign forces have realised that instead of enduring heavy expenses and bearing the brunt of fighting, it will be better to train the Afghan national army to resist against the Taliban and carry out the task of foreign forces in the country."

Lt Col Neshat's battalion – the 3rd Kandak, 4th Brigade – stands at 250, less than half its proposed strength of 600 thanks to training commitments or soldiers going absent without leave. In the past five months they have had eight men killed and 27 seriously injured.

In their immaculately tidy accommodation block within the remote British outpost of Forward Operating Base Delhi in Garmsir, the enthusiastic faces of the ANA Warriors mirror the ethnic diversity of the country. The broad, oriental features of the Hazaras mix in alongside Pashtu and Tajiks, the paler faces of the northern soldiers with the darker skin of their southern brethren – all fighting for one country despite the cacophony of different dialects. Some, older soldiers who once trained under the Russians, are worn by experience and the sun. Others are shockingly fresh faced.

Bashfully grinning as he was pushed to the front, Warrior Kabir Mohammad, shifted from foot to foot in his vastly oversized combat trousers as he explained he was just 15.

But with the bravado of a teenager, he insisted: "Yes, my mother worries about me. But I am in competition with the enemy and I will win."

While many are drawn by the meager $160 monthly salary, Sergeant Abdul Nassir, 22, insisted: "We are here to serve our country. We will die for freedom. We want to clean our country from terrorists. We want to clean our country from Pakistan."

"After 35 years we want to bring peace to our country," added Warrior Myosin Ali, 23.

Major Rob Armstrong, of the 1st Battalion, the Royal Irish, officer commanding the British mentoring team which has been working alongside one of seven Afghan Kandaks in Helmand for the past four months, insisted they had made dramatic progress. Some were ferociously brave and fatalistic, others might cower but slowly they were learning to rely on skill and tactics, not just Allah, to get them through a fight.

"We have been teaching them to be medics but when it happens they run to kill the Taliban," explained Major Armstrong. "They feel it is the will of Allah to decide if a man is injured. We have tried to say maybe Allah wants you to stop him from dying."

Despite an outwardly stern, pragmatic approach to death and injury, the Afghan soldiers admitted to grief at the loss of their men.

Sergeant Major Mohammed Khalid said: "I have lost three men and more are in the hospital at (British Camp) Bastion. I pity my soldiers who have injuries. Every operation I pray to god all my men will come home safe. That is my greatest wish."

Each coffin has been draped in an Afghan flag as it is put on a Hercules plane home, in a poignant repatriation ceremony similar to those for British forces.

"When they get to their home town a defence ministry official will tell the people of their sacrifice. Their family will still be paid their salary," explained Lt Col Neshat, who after 23 years with the Afghan army - bar a break working for a mine charity during the Taliban era - has trained at both a Soviet military academy and an American staff college.

The bond between the Irish mentors and Afghans is obvious in a camp where banter flies between the two armies and "No worries, no curry" has become a catchphrase.

"Their soldiers are exactly the same as ours. Sometimes the men moan about the pay, sometimes they moan about the work," explained Company Sergeant Major Dominic "Brummie" Hagans.

Their fiercest fighting took place this summer when they took over a former Soviet school as a patrol base in Marjah for two days. Seven weeks later they were still battling the Taliban daily, having suffered 27 casualties including Warrior Jamah, 25, who lost his leg in a roadside bomb. With far less protection than their Nato counterparts, their Ford Rangers are an even greater prey to the increase in terrorist roadside bombs.

At one point morale was so low amongst the Afghans that Major Armstrong's team of 100 had been reduced to 66 with many hiding in the back of vehicles leaving the base.

As an officer, he explained, the three keys to commanding were lead by example, compassion and compulsion. The latter he explained did not work with the local army though their officers could be ferocious with their own men.

"It was almost at the point when they were refusing to go on patrol. All the Brits down there were scared and all the ANA were scared. The difference is my British guys were spurred on by a sense of duty. But they know that at the end of six months they can go home. The ANA has to deal with it month in, month out and there is no way out."

Their common sacrifice was brought sharply into focus four weeks ago with the death of 25-year-old Sergeant Jonathan Mathews (or Hubas "excellent" John as the Afghans called him), of the 4th Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland, attached to the Royal Irish. Another young Ranger in the Royal Irish lost both legs in a mine strike.

Describing the death of Sergeant Matthews as the worst day of his life, Major Armstrong said he was moved by the number of Afghan officers who came to pay their condolences and ask to be present at the repatriation ceremony.

"They said ‘We have lost soldiers but this one matters to you.' They seemed to acknowledge that we would feel differently at the loss of a British soldier," explained Major Armstrong.

Lt Col Neshat explained that he was grateful to the British for helping him fight "our common enemy. He added: "We just want to send our children to schools, to have hospitals. We just want a normal life like you do."