A Week with British Army Logistics in Helmand
Logistics, or ‘Logs’ as the acronym obsessed British Army refer to them, is one of most important aspects of the current Afghan campaign. This, as you may have gathered is no ordinary war. We don’t know who the enemy is, where he is, or even how many of the buggers there are. Nor do we even know what the aims of the AOG are. That’s Armed Opposition Groups for the uninitiated. This catch-all term covers the $10 a-day empty-head Talibs in Wardak to death-cult overlord Mullah Omar in Quetta, to the drug-running warlord in Helmand.
ISAF call the above ‘Asymmetric warfare’, which is roughly defined as, a war between belligerents whose relative military power differs significantly, or whose strategy or tactics differ significantly. I’d say judging by the rag tag ‘Dads Army’ we are fighting that they are bang on the money with that one (current spending by US Forces stands at $1000 a second). Recent NATO figures state there are around 160,000 troops, 500 helicopters, and around 500 ‘tanks’ in theatre. And believe you me this is ‘theatre’.
‘Theatre’, as in the omnipresent sometimes farcical nature of war. ‘Theatre’, as in that everything that is played out, or performed is done with a view to wider audience. ‘Theatre’, in that this is where the ‘great game’ is yet again being played out like some never-ending stage drama. Only this is not Macbeth or Hamlet, it’s no longer a battle for civilisations. It’s simply a war to defeat Al Qaeda and keep the streets safe in New York, Madrid and London. (Take note; impressionable Islamic Jihadi berks from Leeds). No nation building here. Please move along. We will be gone in 18 months. After the surge… Just like Iraq. Remember Iraq. We won! We haven’t? …Fuck shit bang! …Surge! …We won! Did we? We left… It disappeared off the TV screens. That one.
Meanwhile back in Southern Afghanistan, there’s a war going on, now longer than both World Wars. I have just returned from this area having been fortunate to enough to have been granted an ’embed’ with British forces twice in the last three months. It’s not a place to visit on your own. It’s doable, but not recommended. This is why we journalists have to do this. The ‘other side’ are not too keen on our presence here either. There is only, ‘us‘ and ‘them‘. (Apologies for the heavy use of italics and quotation marks, the language of war doesn’t sit too comfortably with me).
There is a lovely paved road out to these FOBs, the 611, but according to the British army it’s completely unusable due to threats from IEDs and rocket attacks. The media’s contentious take on this is that we don’t have enough helicopters (the British Army disagree). But every few weeks around 100 tooled-up vehicles including fuel trucks, ISO containers, top and tailed with MRAPs, Jackals, Vikings and Mastiffs head off through the desert for a 96-hour game of ‘Battleships’ with the Taliban.
We’d requested this specific embed and knew what we’d volunteered for, having bumped into a previous commander at a FOB in Sangin on our previous embed. He was half way through Lome III, AKA Operation Clusterfuck, leading a band of 150 vehicles that had taken four days to get sixty miles. When we bumped into Commander ‘Patch’ he hadn’t slept since Brooklyn. His CLP had grown by 50% (Afghans truckers like to play ‘all join on’ if they see a ‘secure’ convoy). He’d lost about fifteen vehicles to awkward terrain, RPGs and IEDs. Not surprisingly he came across as a highly strung-out Lawrence of Arabia meets Bez on a Crystal Meth bender whilst at the same time incredibly calm and collected and quintessentially British. His frothing narrative sounded incredibly alluring, ie: Fucked up & dangerous, a serious road trip that only Afghanistan could provide. Surprisingly the MOD said yes!
Bingo, bagpipes and morphine
We arrived in Bastion only two days before the LOME IV was due to leave. (LOME means desert) The Logistics compound was like a magnified version of a closing scene from an episode of the A-Team. The place was awash with busy engineers sporting welding goggles and overalls, strapping on armour to enormous vehicles and bolting heavy machine guns onto anything with wheels.
We were also shown a collection of previously destroyed vehicles (scary). Led through a first-aid course instructing us on how to tourniquet our own limbs after severance (nice), we were issued morphine (cool), we were taught how to strip down a 50 calibre machine gun (badly) and given driving lessons on a rough terrain course (we got stuck). All in all we were given the purposeful impression by the adjutant that the logistics patrols are not just supply monkeys. They are front line soldiers and then some.
The native Gurkhas, who make up the majority of the regiment, have over the years developed an incredibly powerful image both within the British army, the public and amongst its enemies. The Taliban call them the ‘tigers’ due to their fearsome reputation on the battlefield. Although our first impression was of wonderfully polite bunch of rather short, Hindu speaking, Nepalese blokes who like to play bingo and are rather handy with the bingo dabber pen.
On the day of our operation we attended the Gurkha temple where we witnessed a rousing display from the ‘pundit’ (a Nepalese priest) who gave what can only be described as a tour de force, hour-long, performance, which combined sacrificial offerings (dollar bills & spices), burning incense, prayer, and a rousing ‘kill ’em all’ speech combined with a comedy routine finale. Everyone from Colonels down to the bemused journalists departed the temple hut sporting a red bindhi and yoghurt hair conditioner.
As dusk fell we were served with an intoxicating mix of Gurkha curry, a Richard III speech from the CO and, as we moved off, we were seranaded by a bagpipe duet. Who said the army has lost all its traditions?
No van left behind
As the signal to roll came I excitedly boarded our Mastiff, armed with camera gear, a sleeping bag, a giant complimentary bag of Yorkie Bars (I kid ye not) and my morphine nestled warmly in my right hand pocket. The occupants of our armoured vehicle consisted of three Gurkhas, a female nurse, a military policeman, a dog handler and Sonny the bomb-sniffing dog who also does a bit of Ecstasy on the side. It seemed we had all eventualities covered.
ETA – 17 hours. Departure time is the only precise element of this military operation. The last convoy took four days. As dawn approached we had a call that one of the lead vehicles, a Viking, had hit an IED. The clearance team were in a minefield and the convoy was already changing course. The game of ‘Battleships’ had begun. We, on the other hand, were sent there to help recover the vehicle. Did I mention it was in a minefield? Having Sonny the bomb-sniffing dog asleep at my feet gave me little consolation as we headed for the stricken vehicle. By the time we arrived the driver had already been medi-vac’d by chopper. ‘Lucky bastard… he‘s only got a broken leg,’ grunted the British Army’s version of an AA rescue patrolman. ‘He‘ll already be spending the compensation‘ he grunted with a faint smile.
Hitting supply convoys has been a tactic of Afghan insurgents since the 1980s. The Soviet armoured divisions took a hell of a beating and the heavy armour of the modern vehicles is still no deterrent to the Taliban who can still easily disable one of the convoy’s trucks, although damage is usually limited to the axles. The Brits’ policy is to leave nothing behind. The whole of Afghanistan countryside is littered with skeletal Russian tank hulls, a silent witness to that conflict. Whatever the outcome of this war there will be no visible evidence left behind. The ‘No litter’ policy also runs to taking a shit out in the desert. Thinking that this might be the only time I would have the opportunity for a private dump I borrowed a minesweeper and ‘barma’ed’ my way to a respectable distance away from the tow vehicles, dug a hole and buried all the evidence of my visit to Helmand.
As the orange glow of the sun rose over the horizon, the massive procession of trucks, silhouetted in the distance, came into view. The sheer scale of the operation resembled an ancient camel train in the Sahara desert. For a brief moment it almost looked romantic. The CLP (Combat Logistics Patrol) mainly drives at night, although it can hardly be called a covert operation. The footprint is around six km long. A deaf, dumb and blind catatonic mole could feel it coming from three weeks away. You can probably see it from space and the dust storm generated looks like an approaching apocalypse.
…and we were only 24 hours to Sangin
The route through the desert is planned in advance but the pathfinders up front have to make snap decisions on whether or not the 100 vehicles following can navigate the wadis, ravines and the dunes they encounter. It’s a stop start operation and most of the time you’re oblivious to what’s going on ahead or behind. It’s like a bad contra-flow on the M6 without the Little Chef service stations. In a word, fucking boring. The novelty of travelling in a sooped-up Mad Max convoy on steroids wears off after about five hours. It’s uncomfortable and cold and the only thing that goes to sleep is your arse… oh and the dog. I tried a game of I-spy but after S – is for Sand, D – is for desert and T – is for truck it sort of fizzled out. In-car entertainment consists of an infrared split CCTV screen showing six different viewpoints from your own vehicle. Which makes I-spy look interesting. I would have gladly watched paint dry that night. Whose idea was this? Oh that would be me.
Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?
I-comm-chatter is the highlight. Only this is like being locked outside a football stadium at a local derby listening to the crowd roar, with no idea really what’s going on. Someone could get hit with a spectacular meteor up front and all you would hear would be, “This is Whisky2… meteor destroyed MUD1 call sign, wait over’. CLPs are not for the low attention span brigade.
We‘ve stopped… can I get out please? We‘ve stopped… can I have a cigarette please? We‘ve stopped… can I have a piss please? This whining, I may add, only applies to passengers who have no role to play. I think I have shot about 800 frames of the truck behind, so I generously offer to drive. The Gurkhas think I am joking. I am not. There are key personnel on the CLP; gunners, drivers, commanders, radio operators who all need to be alert and not surprisingly stay awake. This requires the intake of gargantuan amounts of stimulants. Everyone who has actually something to do is mashed off their minds on Monster Juice or some other mix of taurine, niacin caffeine that promises you 30 times your daily amphetamine requirement. Whilst it tastes like the devils urine it does contribute to interesting listening. In between essential radio communications about enemy activity etc the lead elements babble on relentlessly, teaching pulling techniques to the Gurkhas, wonderings about donkey fancying Talibs and discussing the paupacity of Starbucks in Helmand. For any of you who think this sounds like fun…beware the ‘niacin rash’ – the symptoms of an overdose can lead to a hyper-replication of the female menopause. Nasty.
Eighteen hours later we arrive. Not so much a cup of tea waiting for us. Mission half-accomplished… The British get stuck into the ration packs. Mmmm! ‘Tangy Salmon Pasta’ in a silver sachet. ‘Eat by date – 2050′, it should last till the end of this current campaign then. Meanwhile the Gurkhas do what they do best and cook up a storm of tasty noodles and Masala tea. There are no animals to slaughter but it’s amazing what they can whip up with a few spices. In a recent unconfirmed incident, now known as ‘Operation Gurkha’, the tigers found themselves in a minefield surrounded by IEDs. A quick plan was hatched to clear the area using lume-flares to scare some loitering goats into the danger zone. It worked! Food provisions and route clearance in one fell swoop.
The workers, (i.e. not the co-opted Sunday Times correspondent or me), clean and strip weapons and make ready, loading and unloading their supplies. They have proper jobs. The place is buzzing. We just wander round looking like spare pricks at a brothel… and then, its time to roll out and supply another besieged FOB with lots of stuff.
This is real bandit-country and the Glo-stick lit pre-op briefing predicts, there will, more than likely, be some sort of attack. The last CLP lost four vehicles in this area. As we roll through the ghostly main street the only light comes from our oncoming headlights, occasionally catching the shadowy figures of slouching Afghan Army recruits from the north (can’t trust the locals) who are trying to eliminate potential sneaky RPG attacks from the high walled alleyways lining the route. Ridley Scott couldn’t have created a more cinematic atmosphere. Spooky isn’t the right word. Neither is eerie, spine-chilling, creepy, daunting, forbidding or menacing. But it’s the best my Thesaurus could come up with at short notice to describe the bloodcurdling atmosphere in Sangin at night.
Then, without a sound, the lead vehicle lurches off the narrow road. It looks from the CCTV night vision as if it’s going to roll. Miraculously it just hangs there suspended. We all freeze. If it goes the whole convoy will be stalled for hours in the middle of the night in one of the most hostile environs in Afghanistan. After the initial paralyzing moment we all pile out of our truck. Curious locals look on bemused / amused, you can’t really tell from the light of the single 60 watt light bulbs hanging from one or two shop doorways that are still open. We quickly engage a tow-truck with the tricky task of extracting the stricken vehicle. It could go either way. With a huff and a puff and gritted teeth we get the Mastiff back upright. The only casualty, a low-slung wall that is completely demolished. Compensation forms are handed out and then, quickly and not so quietly, we get the fuck out of there.
FOB Inkerman is only three miles away but the trip takes seven hours. We have a personal link to ten satellites, I-star (whoever she is), a B1 bomber, Apache Helicopters, and a hotlink to the Pentagon with all their assets to boot. The only thing we are short of is a burning bush, but we still can’t manage find a way through this brutal terrain. I am in the second vehicle playing the imaginary role of grumpy wife to my husband (Lt Andy Thackway) who’s in front blankly refusing to admit he’s lost! It’s a nightmare. Whatever route we take we keep hitting an obstacle. Power cables, crevasses, ditches. I just keep thinking we should have gone on the highway. ‘Stay on the road. Keep clear of the moors. Beware the moon, lads‘. We have 50 vehicles behind us. This is a treasure hunt, not a cluster-fuck. This is a treasure hunt, not a cluster-fuck. Repeat ad nauseam.
War breaks out and nobody turns up
The Catch 22 of being a photojournalist is that you want something to happen. Some kinetic activity, a bit of a kick-off, just a little contact… please. Just so you can capture that epoch defining shot of the Afghan campaign. (Has there even been one yet?) I heard a story last month, about a Spanish journalist, who minutes prior to moaning that ‘he was on the most boring embed ever’, had his foot blown off in an IED incident. You really have to be careful what you wish for out here. But trying telling your boss that, “Yeah! Really interesting Ed… We went out on this convoy and delivered the goods safely and then came back again.’ Not really the Bang-Bang Club is it?
So far, so Jade Goody, we had only a few minor IED incidents and no indirect fire or contact (Why’s it called ‘indirect Fire’? No matter how shit the Talibs are, they are still aiming at you?) The Taliban communicate with UHF radio. The Brits intercept them. The Taliban know they do. So the whole trip is a game of bluff and double bluff. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld; There are knowns, there are unknowns and there are known unknowns. Therein lies the rub. Most of the JTAC (forward air controllers) find it amusing. It’s as close to friends as they are ever going to get with their opposite numbers. Sometimes they talk in code, sometimes they blatantly fuck with the intelligence teams. False flag, Black ops, mind games, call it what you will, its never actually clear what they are up to. When they threaten to intercept the patrol at the next wadi with 107mm Chinese rockets, what are you meant to do? Put your seat belt on When there’s a threat of (DBIED) Donkey Bourne Improvised Explosive Device what do you do? Torch the next scabby mule that passes by.
The Taliban seem to be listening in on my cerebral musings and as a direct result we get ambushed in the ‘green zone’ – a dry river valley near the base with small arms fire, rockets and mortars from within civilian compounds. The British are ‘Never Outnumbered, Never Outgunned’, but instead of torching the fuckers, the whole convoy goes into a zigzag routine which seem vaguely futile as these trucks are about as flexible as a bendy bus in Oxford Street. Are you listening Taliban? Not really cricket is it?
Is it scary? Well not really… even though we are under what ‘some journalists’ would describe as a ‘hail of bullets‘ or a ‘wall of fire‘ and I can hear the ‘crackle’ of AK 47s in the distance and some fairly close ‘thumps’ of mortar rounds exploding around us. I am actually more concerned about my camera dying of a sand overdose and the excruciating pain in my lower back. As we enter the– village — shit hole (tick as politically correctable) they call Sangin, the gunfire decreases. This is moment when you realise why they hate you. It’s like catching yourself in the mirror after a really big night out. Look at us. We are driving through their town like Hitler’s 12th Panzer division invading Poland and we wonder why they are not waving. Its beards, black turbans and Paddington Bear hard-stares all the way through. Even seven-year-old kids look like mortal enemies.
You’re going home in a fucking ambulanc
By this stage my back has gone from achy to breaky. I might have a L5 S1 disc prolapse but from the medics to the CO, sympathy on the ground is a mixture of light to non-existent. Not surprising when you consider that this lot are used to dealing with massive trauma and triple amputee cases. ‘Lightweight journo who can’t hack it’, is the thinly disguised message behind their words of kindness. So it’s Option 1 – Stay in Camp Nolay and wait for a chopper. Option 2 – Get in the meat-wagon (a converted Mastiff with a stretcher) and ‘man up’ or lie down to be more accurate.
It’s an ‘Apocalypse Now’ moment – ‘Never get out of the boat… Absolutely goddamn right! Unless you were goin’ all the way…‘ Kurtz got off the boat. He split from the whole fuckin’ program …and look what happened to him! Also they have drugs – codeine & nitrous oxide to be precise. It’s a no-brainer. So I am strapped in the van, flat-out like a corpse. The only view is the roof. Kirsty the medic sticks the N2O tube in my mouth and I whack the i-pod onto shuffle …a 19 minute mix of ‘Cerrone’s Supernature’, a 70s psychedelic disco classic, fills my head, it seems to last about four hours. ‘Go easy, your not giving birth to triplets’, advises Kirsty, the 21-year-old medic, after realising I’d ingested a third of the cylinder in less than twenty blissed-out minutes.
28 days later, (time-goes-by-so-slowly-on-opiates) we arrive back in Bastion. Dust encrusted, battered and bruised, yet victorious. No real casualties (excluding me). Mission accomplished. We delivered one billion gallons of fuel, 1 million guns, 500 million rounds of ammo 2 million tea bags etc. and some lovely knitted tea cosy hats. Should keep ’em going till January. (figures maybe incorrect).
All that’s left to do is evacuate this desert playground and get back to ‘normal life’ in Kabul. Slightly concerned about my back taking any more grief I pop into Bastion’s super hi-tech hospital where apparently you have more chance of surviving a massive trauma than in any hospital in the western hemisphere. They have blood plasma making machines and many other wondrous, life resuscitating Frankensteinian gadgets not available on the NHS. None of which my ailments require. One Nurse kindly gives me a rectal probe and some acupuncture along with a letter requesting a front facing (comfy) seat on the Hercules back to Kabul which the RAF interpret as ‘stretcher required’. I am not aware of this until I board the plane and laid out before me is a full reclining bed with a fluffy white pillow. Procedure is followed to the measure as another nurse dutifully takes my blood pressure, heart rate and temperature. Afghan ANA soldiers, returning from duty in the South, all strapped into the cheap seats look on amused. I am not. But for the first time in a week I sleep like a baby.