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Behind enemy lines in Afghanistan: Mirror reporter Chris Hughes on fighting the Taliban on their home turf

February 22, 2011

By Chris Hughes, Daily Mirror

Pictures by Andy Stenning, Daily Mirror

Copters pick up soldiers

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.

Lt Emlyn-William addresses villagers

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.

PROGRESS

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.

“They are very brave soldiers. This was an operation planned and led by the ANA and it’s good to see them operate so well.

“When we go into these villages the ANA leave a footprint in them, having spoken to the elders. This is really important. What it does is show the Taliban that the ANA has the freedom to operate here and so does Isaf – the International Security Assistance Force. The coalition troops are here as force protection to the ANA.”

With snipers and sentries manning rooftops, the mud and straw-walled compound was our home for the night.

On day two the ANA moved out – again led by their counter-IED team, along with British counter IED search specialist Corporal Mark Foskett, 30.

The ANA assaulted the village of Washeran, driving back a Taliban  ambush with machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

An Apache attack helicopter was called in by a US Marine and unleashed a burst of 30mm cannon fire, silencing the Taliban bushwackers. Another night was spent in a village compound.

Soldiers hold a successful meeting with village elders after ejecting Taliban in Washeran

At first light orders came over the radio for troops to move to another objective Karim Nasir Kalay, where the main Taliban force was believed to be based.

The ANA was sent in first, painstakingly using metal detectors  to pick their way through the IED belt protecting the village from coalition troops.

It was the most nervous patrol so far as we walked slowly past a white mosque from where the Taliban had launched their ambush the previous day.

Shockingly, this Taliban stronghold is so remote from the rest of Helmand that Talib fighters were heard shouting to each other: “The Russians are here.”

They had never seen coalition troops in that area before.

We entered Karim Nasir Kalay safely as the Taliban regrouped.

The ANA had already occupied a compound and the two lieutenants held their ground-breaking shura.

HOPE

Locals – knowing the Taliban were close by – gathered as Lt Emlyn-Williams, 23, spoke to the nervy crowd. Then the ANA commander Lt Mohammed addressed them and won them over.

He told them: “For 14 years we fought the Russians and kicked them out.

“Now foreign Taliban are coming into our country and persuading men to join them. We are in trouble – and the coalition troops are here to help us. We have to help ourselves and join together.” Of course as we left, the Taliban would return and try to intimidate them and the locals may take time to accept what Lt Mohammed told them.

But what we witnessed was a small step in the right direction.

As we walked back to our helicopter pick-up point, harassed by sporadic AK47 fire from the insurgents, their local commander was heard ordering his men to attack in force.

But an hour later as darkness fell and the Taliban gathered forces, four Chinooks in perfect formation swept over the moonlit horizon for our extraction.

They landed yards from us and lifted us out of danger within two minutes before rushing us back to base.

No coalition troops were injured in the three day air-assault and Taliban casualties are unknown. But the insurgent commanders must have wondered what on earth had happened.

Read the report on the Mirror.co.uk website by clicking here

n 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.

PROGRESS

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.

Read more: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/top-stories/2011/02/22/fighting-the-taliban-on-their-home-turf-115875-22940345/#ixzz1Ehv6IKOO
Go Camping for 95p! Vouchers collectable in the Daily and Sunday Mirror until 11th August . Click here for more information

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.

PROGRESS

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.

Read more: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/top-stories/2011/02/22/fighting-the-taliban-on-their-home-turf-115875-22940345/#ixzz1Ehv6IKOO
Go Camping for 95p! Vouchers collectable in the Daily and Sunday Mirror until 11th August . Click here for more information

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