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Troops Wage Battle for Influence on the Ground in Marjah

February 19, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Vaughan Smith of The Frontline Club shares a dramatic look at life on the front lines for the British Grenadier Guard in Helmand province of southern Afghanistan, where coalition troops are trying to wrestle control back from the Taliban.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: a special look at allied soldiers in Afghanistan trying to carry out the new strategy against the Taliban.

Video journalist Vaughan Smith was embedded with a platoon from the British Grenadier Guards in the preliminary phases of Operation Moshtarak, now under way in Helmand Province.

The British unit was in the Nad-e-Ali district, their job, to clear and hold territory near their base, take control of the town of Kushal Kalay, and then turn it over to Afghan leadership.

Here is special correspondent Vaughan Smith’s report.

VAUGHAN SMITH: It’s 6:00 in the morning, and British troops are trying to take the war to the Taliban.

SOLDIER: It’s just the one bit I don’t like, when we — we have to like get them out of their own house, because you would hate it in return. So…

VAUGHAN SMITH: The reconnaissance platoon of the Grenadier Guards and a unit from the Afghan National Army are taking over a local family’s compound, paying 200 pounds to use the building, more for any damage caused. They are two miles behind enemy lines and are going to ambush insurgent fighters.

Captain Jim Young is commanding the operation, one of many designed to weaken, or, as the armies say, to shape the Taliban in preparation for Operation Moshtarak.

CAPT. JIM YOUNG, Grenadier Guards: So, we have done is we have pushed forward. And the whole idea is, basically, we’re harassing them, is to put the shoe on the other foot for once, because, at the moment, all they have to do is put an IED down, and they can focus this in one area.

SOLDIER: In the room over there, we have got runts digging away, getting a murder hold in, and good cover, using their own compound, using their own hole.

VAUGHAN SMITH: Murder hole, is that what — that’s to shoot through?

SOLDIER: Well, yes. It’s basically they use them against us, and we have found it is a good way for us to use them against them, too.

Twenty-four/seven at the moment, so, usually we have to get off, have a wash and shave, but they don’t wash and shave. Have the breakfast, and then it should be game on. Just wait and see.

VAUGHAN SMITH: And it doesn’t take long.

VAUGHAN SMITH: What direction is that coming in? Is that actually at us or somewhere else?

Captain Young decides not to respond immediately, waiting to draw the Taliban fighters in closer.

CAPT. JIM YOUNG: I reckon that is more probing. That’s a (INAUDIBLE) fire. They think that we’re over here. And we’re just waiting for a reaction.

VAUGHAN SMITH: That was close.

CAPT. JIM YOUNG: My guys sits there and watch out. That was definitely close, about 100 meters crack.

VAUGHAN SMITH: The section reveal their position to further entice the insurgents into the trap. Captain Young also has soldiers hidden in three nearby compounds providing support.

CAPT. JIM YOUNG: That’s small-arms fire that you just had. That is accurate 700 meters. That’s sharpshooter, bordering on sniper. Actually, he is actually probably about four or five inches below one of the packs on one of my far compounds.

Perfect, because you have got a couple snipers here and they’re going to do some countersniper fire. One is setting up to actually take the kill. The other is going to be the one to actually try and draw them out.

CAPT. JIM YOUNG: Make sure if are you fire, it is limited and it’s just in the compound to move them.

VAUGHAN SMITH: A sergeant fires his machine gun, although only into an empty field. He wants to create the impression of returning fire, but actually it’s just another tactic to encourage the Taliban to expose their positions. When they do, high-powered sniper rifles kill the targets.

These weapons are increasingly favored by NATO troops. Their accuracy significantly reduces the risk of civilian casualties. Fifteen hours later, the platoon leaves, using darkness as a cover.

CAPT. JIM YOUNG: So, good session, good act. We got two kills, including I would say a sharpshooter. It shows the local nationals that we have got freedom to move. And, more importantly, it shows the insurgents that they can’t ever take anything for granted.

VAUGHAN SMITH: The main base for the Grenadier Guards is locally called the British Fort, a relic from the military adventures of the 1880s.

And the men in charge here are Lieutenant Colonel Roland Walker and his sergeant major, Ian Farrell. They are the forefront of the British counterinsurgency effort to shape, clear, hold, and build within the Nad-e-Ali district.

LT. COL. ROLAND WALKER, Grenadier Guards: As we go about this operation, just remember it’s not all about the Taliban. If you look at the whole of Op Moshtarak, the whole point of Moshtarak is to restore governance to the Nad-e-Ali district.

An offensive operation in a counterinsurgency is about taking that away from the insurgents that they can’t afford to lose, which is, simply put, is control of a population.

VAUGHAN SMITH: Colonel Walker has been commanding the Grenadier in Afghanistan for five months. It is a war that has been as dangerous for commanders as for their soldiers.

Is it fun hunting men?

LT. COL. ROLAND WALKER: It is exhilarating, truly exhilarating. It is a high price. If you get it wrong, and if you are caught up, and if turn into being the hunted, then it can be pretty frightening.

But if you can personalize it and you can lay the traps and you can draw them in, then, yes, it is very exhilarating.

VAUGHAN SMITH: Today, troops are clearing Kushal Kalay, a village two miles south of the base, with the help of the Afghan National Army.

LT. COL. ROLAND WALKER: Reports from Wizard 3-0 of a contact IED. Monitor these means. Did you pick that up from Wizard 3-0? Over.

VAUGHAN SMITH: What happened?

LT. COL. ROLAND WALKER: It’s just reports coming in of a contact IED in (INAUDIBLE) and another one. So, we will have to wait and see what happens, 8:00 in the morning.

VAUGHAN SMITH: Half-a-mile outside the village, Lieutenant Colonel Walker and his men are told there is an improvised explosive device that has been detonated. They wait for word of casualties.

SGT. MAJ. IAN FARRELL, Grenadier Guards: Just starting to patrol just to break into the village. And, unfortunately, there is an IED placed behind a wall, which — which went off.

VAUGHAN SMITH: Seventeen minutes later, American mercy helicopters arrive to evacuate to the injured to the nearest field hospital.

Three Afghan soldiers were killed by the roadside bomb and one British and two Afghan soldiers were likely wounded.

SGT. MAJ. IAN FARRELL: We’re just trying to get the engineer, so a hire a search team down to clear that junction, because we know he’s found IEDs before, clear that junction. And then we’re going to blow all the compound walls, the low compound walls, so they can’t put anything else behind.

VAUGHAN SMITH: The soldiers believe that the booby-trap that caused the Afghan National Army, or ANA, casualties was armed by the Taliban only the night before.

SOLDIER: Apparently, this is where the contact explosion was on the ANA vehicle. We probably think it was on a command pole, which, when they pulled the string for the — the device took off.

Is that a wire?


SOLDIER: Do you see a wire into the wall?

SOLDIER: We can’t see it, but I will just have a little dig around.


VAUGHAN SMITH: So, what’s your job?

JOHNNY HORNER, sapper, Royal Engineers: My job, as a searcher, would be (INAUDIBLE) isolations, just that kind of stuff. It’s quite fun in a way, but it is extremely dangerous. But you don’t think about the dangerous part of it. You just crack on with it.

SOLDIER: What you got?

JOHNNY HORNER: We got — found a wire hidden in the ground. We should find this could lead to another device, or it could be an R.C. — that’s another device — there. So we’re going to push back the same way we came and report it.

VAUGHAN SMITH: Radio controlled and so-called command wire lines are common now. But the Taliban are constantly adapting their bomb-making techniques to avoid detection.

These days, insurgents are using less and less metal in their IEDs, which means British troops have to use more sophisticated technology to find and destroy them.

SOLDIER: We can search. When we find IEDs, we can neutralize them, make it safe for our guys to come through. It is a risky business, but we have philosophies and principles and SOPs which reduce that risk as much as we can do.

SOPs are basically written in blood over years in Northern Ireland, people who have been killed, things you have learned from previous devices about terrorist tactics.

VAUGHAN SMITH: On the junction where the Afghan soldiers were killed, the bomb disposal unit found three other devices, each costing just a few pounds to make. The operation to remove them took eight men, three painstaking hours, using millions of pounds worth of equipment.

With the village cleared, the Grenadiers plan to hold it and build up a security presence. Within 36 hours, compounds are being constructed and locals are invited to a meeting, a shura, hosted by the district governor, Habi Bullah (ph).

MAN (through translator): I know there are Talibans sitting here among you, but you won’t say what you think. We will show you, within six months, what we can do for you. These people, the Taliban, they spend 18 months here. But I can’t see a single brick they have laid for you.

LT. COL. ROLAND WALKER: This is the beginning of governance being reasserted into this area. And that’s what this is about. As much as I would like to think it’s a straightforward military operation, it’s about the governor getting to his people.

VAUGHAN SMITH: For showing up to that shura, the villagers are given blankets, radios, and Wellington boots.

Within a week, most of the soldiers will have left, to be replaced by the Afghan police. The success of Operation Moshtarak in Kushal Kalay will be measured in years, not days.