In early 2006, the 'war on terror' took on a vital new phase, particularly for Britain. The level of commitment required and the difficulty of the tasks taken on by the UK government were significantly 'upped' from previous years. As part of the West's determination to confront the Taliban after 9/11, Britain had joined the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001. With the help of the Northern Alliance, an organization of mostly mujahideen fighters from northern Afghanistan, the Taliban was quickly defeated.
The first UK troops were deployed in November 2001, when Royal Marines from 40 Commando helped to secure the airfield at Bagram. A 1,700-strong battle group based around 45 Commando was subsequently deployed as Task Force Jacana. For the next four years, Britain maintained a force in Afghanistan but, with the Taliban having seemingly melted away, the extent of the fighting was limited. The West was determined that Afghanistan would not return to being an ungoverned space that could be exploited by the likes of al-Qaeda and where the Taliban could regroup.
On 7 December 2004, Hamid Karzai became the first democratically elected president of Afghanistan. The National Assembly was inaugurated on 19 December 2005 and, in contrast to the days of the Taliban, women were given a prominent role with a quarter of the seats held by females. However, the government's remit did not extend across the country, much of which was still detached from Kabul and in danger of falling back into Taliban hands. It was imperative to persuade the Afghan people that the new government was a power for good and that, with the help of the people, Afghanistan could become peaceful and prosperous. The reconstruction of the country was a vital step in that process. After more than twenty-five years of conflict much of the civil infrastructure was barely identifiable. The people lived in squalor, many without clean drinking water, and sanitation systems were reserved for only the most affluent. Afghanistan had plunged beyond third world: in large parts of the country, it was medieval.
On 26 January 2006, John Reid, the defence secretary, announced that 3,300 British forces would be deployed to southern Afghanistan in support of Karzai's new government. It was left to 16 Air Assault Brigade to form the backbone of the task force and they were to be deployed to Helmand province. Reid expressed optimism that 'we would be perfectly happy to leave in three years and without firing one shot'. But history, the terrain, the climate and the possibility of a Taliban resurgence meant that it was unlikely to be so straightforward. The British mission was to act as a stabilizing force and to assist with the reconstruction process, which had failed to make any real impact in the south.
The first troops to deploy to Helmand were Royal Engineers from 39 Engineer Regiment, with a security force provided by 42 Commando Royal Marines. Their task was to construct a camp for the incoming troops. Camp Bastion was built in the desert of central Helmand, the biggest military base built by Royal Engineers since the Second World War. In May, the troops of 16 Air Assault Brigade began to arrive.
If, on paper, a 3,300-strong force seemed substantial, the reality was that it was wholly inadequate to enforce any sort of law and order in Helmand. The British commanders had just 700 infantry soldiers to play with. Dispersing the force across the province, as the Afghans wanted, would have resulted in a precarious dilution of the brigade's combat power. But keeping the servicemen in the relative safety of Camp Bastion would achieve nothing. A middle way had to be found.
The scale of the task was truly daunting. Helmand province is some 275 miles long and 100 miles wide – a total of about 23,000 square miles. The majority of the country is flat desert but there are vast mountain ranges too. Then there is the Green Zone: a thin strip of irrigated land no more than five miles across at its widest point, which provided a perfect hiding place for the Taliban. The Green Zone stretches along each bank of the Helmand river, which snakes its way the entire length of the province. Helmand province shares a southern border with the unruly tribal region of north-west Pakistan.
The climate is not for the faint-hearted. At the height of summer, it is unbearably hot with temperatures soaring to 55°C. In the depths of winter, temperatures in the mountains plunge as low as –20°C and the area is prone to some of the loudest and most terrifying thunderstorms in the world. Previously dry wadis (riverbeds) become raging torrents in a matter of minutes.
The terrain and the climate had proved too much for many over the years. In 1842, General Elphinstone's 16,000 troops had been largely wiped out during the retreat from Kabul. More than a century on, after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the Red Army had failed to hold Helmand with an entire division of 25,000 troops – the sort of figure that British commanders could only dream of having in the region.
By June 2006, the task force had deployed troops to a number of Helmand's towns: Musa Qa'leh, Now Zad, Sangin, Kajaki and Gereshk. The provincial reconstruction team was located in Lashkar Gah, Helmand's capital. Often these remote positions were sited in old police stations in the town centre. The task force's engineers were kept busy making them defensible and providing basic sanitation. Before long the platoon houses were attracting Taliban activity and by midsummer many were under constant attack. The forces that occupied them were too small to dominate the surrounding ground so they were forced to sit tight and weather the storm of rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), small arms and Chinese 107 rockets. Maintaining the logistics supply line with the platoon houses was particularly difficult, with the terrain making resupply by road often impossible, and the limited landing sites making helicopter resupply fraught with danger. As the fighting intensified, troops ran precariously low on ammunition, and extracting casualties often meant Chinook helicopters having to risk landing in the midst of ongoing fire-fights.
By the end of August, the brigade had suffered twelve fatalities through enemy action. Perhaps even more concerning was that the towns to which it had intended to bring security and reassurance had become devastated war zones. Many local people had moved out. Day by day, the situation in Helmand became more difficult but the British were determined to pursue their objective despite the odds being stacked against them. One thing was certain: the challenges facing servicemen and women going to Afghanistan were formidable. But from early on all the signs were that they were determined to meet them.