Picture Gallery: On patrol with the Vikings in Afghanistan
From savage fire-fights with insurgents to handing out sweets to local children... much has changed since the Royal Anglian Regiment was last deployed in Nad-e Ali’s canal zone. In the second part of a week-long series, CHRIS HILL goes on foot patrol in Helmand.
A single gun shot, ringing out through the sweltering air, was enough to break the tranquility as farmers toiled on the fields of Nad-e Ali’s fertile Canal Zone.
The reaction of the Royal Anglian soldiers, whose patrol I had joined, was instant and instinctive – to crouch for cover and assess the source of the sound.
But that response was followed by puzzlement – because no one had fired at troops in this area for several months.
It was quickly identified as no more than a warning shot from one of the Afghan soldiers leading the patrol, when a vehicle refused to slow at a checkpoint. Nevertheless, it was a reminder of how far this area had come since the last time it was occupied by the 1st Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment.
Two years ago, when the Vikings were deployed here, these fields were battlegrounds; the scene of gruelling gunfights with insurgents.
Since then, the Taliban has been flushed out of the villages and farms into the barren outlying desert of the Dashte, making the crackle of gunfire here a merciful rarity.
Nor had there been any IEDs (improvised explosive devices) recently – until the previous evening, when a muffled explosion was audible from our patrol base at nearby Kalang. News quickly reached us that two Afghan soldiers were injured when their vehicle was targeted.
And so the aim of today’s patrol, as well as another opportunity to tread the ground with the Afghan National Army (ANA) and build a mutual trust within the community, was to investigate the blast.
The Vikings stopped at a checkpoint to link up with a platoon of ANA warriors led by their well-respected officer, Capt Immanjan.
Here, we discovered his two casualties were not seriously wounded, although one needed to be airlifted to the Vikings’ HQ at Shawqat to be treated.
But the incident had underlined one of Capt Immanjan’s major concerns about what would happen after the proposed withdrawal of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), of which East Anglian troops are a key element.
Although his men have proven themselves determined, capable and willing to learn from their British mentors, they fear the availability of helicopters for casualty evacuations could not easily be replaced.
Over a surprising breakfast of roast chicken and chips, Capt Immanjan explained: “We have just 20pc of the equipment of ISAF right now, so we should be worried. We have lots of problems. We don’t have any helicopters and we don’t have any medics. But it is our country. Even if we just have hunting weapons we will fight, because we have to defend our country. Once, this place was very different. It was like a hell. We have done a lot of hard work to secure this area, and we won’t let them [the Taliban] take this area back from us.”
Despite the concerns, Sgt Scott Thomas, a Royal Anglian soldier from Peterborough working as a brigade advisor to the ANA, said he had absolute confidence in their abilities to keep Nad-e Ali secure.
“They are more than capable of doing their own patrol programmes and operations,” he said. Without the ANA, we don’t get anywhere. We give them that comfort blanket, but there will come a time when we won’t be there. They know that now. We will be waiting in the wings, but they will be doing it themselves. Five years ago, they definitely needed us, but over time it has been proven that they don’t really need the full support that they think.”
After the patrol moved away and onto the road where the previous night’s attack had happened, it was not difficult to spot the aftermath of the IED.
A sizeable hole had been blown in a roadside wall, but neither the ANA nor the Vikings could find any pieces of the device which could be used for evidence in later investigations.
As we progressed onwards, the Afghan soldiers took the lead.
We passed within about 1km of the Neb Canal which marks the frontier of the Dashte, the sweeping desert into which the insurgents have now been forced. That is the area where the war is now being fought. But in the protected Canal Zone, there is a genuine welcome from most inhabitants of this agricultural community.
Although desperately poor, brightly-dressed children greet soldiers with smiles and outstretched palms demanding “chocolate”. The Vikings oblige with handfuls of chewy sweets, often melted together.
Many of the soldiers have learned simple phrases in Pashto and Dari, to converse with local people, who hail them as their protectors. Time will tell if their Afghan counterparts can maintain the same level of protection, and invite the same level of goodwill.