Behind enemy lines in Afghanistan: Mirror reporter Chris Hughes on fighting the Taliban on their home turf
By Chris Hughes, Daily Mirror
Pictures by Andy Stenning, Daily Mirror
JUST 100ft above the Afghan desert in pitch darkness,four Chinooks scream towards a heavily defended group of Taliban villages.
Suddenly the choppers lurch and land, Afghan soldiers and a handful of British assault troops pouring out of the back and taking up positions.
In the moonlight an officer signals the pre-dawn attack and the Afghan National Army and the Brits ghost silently into a compound.
When the Taliban awake, the village is already taken and ANA soldiers are on the roof manning machine gun positions.
Taliban commanders were then heard ordering a counter-attack – and hours later the “clack, clack” of the AK47 broke the afternoon silence.
The ANA fought back, driving the Taliban out of the village of Haji Mullah Kalay with their machine guns.
We were the only British newspaper on the landmark ANA air assault into the Talib heartland of the Nahr-e-Saraj district of central Helmand – the first of its kind in nearly 10 years of fighting.
Never before has the ANA launched a heli-assault so deep into bandit country where no coalition troops have been.
After three gruelling days of battling enemy positions, six firefights and picking through deadly IED-belts, the joint force took three Taliban villages.
Crucially, they persuaded locals to stop supporting the insurgency.
The operation showed the ANA is developing so British forces can start pulling out by 2015.
In one of five shuras – meetings – British Lieutenant Rhydian Emlyn-Williams, 23, 1WG, told elders in a key Taliban village Haji Karim Nasir Kalay: “I know many of you may sympathise with the Taliban but if I ask one thing before we leave it is to give the ANA a chance to bring you security and a peaceful future.” The elders looked up from playing with their prayer beads.
His ANA counterpart Lieutenant Nazar Mohammed, a legendary Tajik 35-year-old who fought the Russians, said: “Brothers let’s come together. Afghanistan is our country – we must stop the foreign insurgents coming in and causing problems. We are all Muslims here. Coalition troops mean you no harm – they are here to help us bring peace to Afghanistan. I ask you not to harbour the Taliban – their commanders are not Afghans.”
The tension snapped and the locals broke into smiles, nodding their agreement, one saying: “We are sick of the fighting – we want a future.”
British commanders hope operations like this, codenamed Omid Shash, will encourage progress in Afghanistan.
Just 23 British soldiers, seven US Marines and the Mirror were the only non-Afghans to witness the incredible mission.
The attack was launched by 45 Afghan “warriors” from an ANA Heavy Weapons Tolay – the equivalent of a platoon.
They were joined by troops from the Irish Guards Advisory Group. When the Taliban first opened fire the ANA, led by Lt Nazar, beat back the assault.
His men grinned as he calmly fired his RPK machine-gun at the Taliban from a compound roof, smiling.
During a break in the fighting Irish Guards Sergeant Matthew Bull-Edwards, 32, from Cheshire and an adviser to the ANA, spoke to the Mirror.
Sgt Bull-Edwards – a married father of one who is coming to the end of his second Afghan tour – said: “I have been working closely with the ANA for five months and they have made great progress in just the time I have been here.