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The descent of Britain's Afghan campaign into a Vietnam-style madness

By CAPTAIN DOUG BEATTIE MC

September 27, 2009

The Afghan soldiers dragged our Taliban prisoner off the path. There was a burst of gunfire. "What the hell is going on?" 

"They've shot the prisoner. The Afghans. They've bloody shot him."

Their medic did it with his AK-47

Live's shocking first-hand report from Afghanistan's frontline

Captain Doug Beattie and British troops, in liaison with Afghan National Army forces

Captain Doug Beattie and British troops, in liaison with Afghan National Army forces, capture and handcuff a Taliban fighter. The ANA are told to deliver him safely to interrogators...

The beautiful little Afghan girl stared straight back at me, blankly. How could she be so expressionless? For she must have been in absolute agony. There were at least three penetration wounds to her young body, caused by a mortar shell exploding close to where she'd been playing.

The round that had done the damage had been ours - British - fired as we edged forward through part of a village in Helmand. There had been no immediate threat, none I could determine anyway, but someone else had thought otherwise.

An old man, her grandfather, approached me. Of course he couldn't have known I'd just become a grandfather too; couldn't have known the effect the suffering of a child would have on me. After the girl - Shabia - had been airlifted to hospital, I stayed with her family, desperate to show I had some humanity. I told them not to worry; she'd be OK for sure. Hollow words from a fool who knew no better.

I never saw Shabia again. And nor did her relatives. Because within hours she died. She was just seven years old. I heard later how the British authorities refused to pay her father the compensation he'd requested, based on the size of dowry Shabia would have received when she married. The excuse for not paying? Her death had been ' incidental'; she was a casualty of conflict.

It made me ashamed - of myself, of the Army, and of my country. Even if there were rules, did no one have a degree of compassion? An ounce of foresight? 

The ANA shoot a Taliban prisoner

...only to drag him into scrubland and shoot him dead moments later. An ANA medic deliveres the first shots; his fellow soldiers then shoot into the Taliban prisoner's corpse

How were we going to win the battle to bring the civilians onside if we killed one of their number and offered nothing to ease the pain in terms they understood? It was heartless. It was wrong. And it was no way to wage a campaign against an enemy ready to exploit any of our mistakes to turn the 26 million people of Afghanistan against us. Christ, as if things weren't tough enough.

I was 42 and just three weeks away from making a go of it in Civvie Street when my commanding officer asked me to postpone my retirement and go on one last mission to Afghanistan with 1st Battalion, The Royal Irish Regiment, to help train members of the Afghan National Army (ANA).

All my married life I had been a soldier. My wife Margaret knew the ways of the Army inside out. And she knew me. She understood I wouldn't refuse the request, though it didn't mean she was happy about it. 

'I served in Vietnam and witnessed the collapse of military discipline,' he said. 'And now as I walk about here, I see it again'

In all I'd done 14 operational tours, including Iraq, Northern Ireland, Bosnia and, in 2006, Afghanistan. But this last tour had been without the rest of the battalion. It had not been a rousing finale to a long career, which perhaps is why I volunteered to go back. I was after the last hurrah with my band of brothers.

I emerged from a Hercules into near darkness and to jeers from outgoing troops: 'Enjoy your stay at Club Helmand!' Yet for every two or three giving us lip there was another standing silent, a haunted, exhausted look on his face. He was the one who had actually been on the front line, battling the Taliban, fighting to survive.

By early 2008 there were 43,000 coalition troops from 38 nations in Afghanistan. Even Prince Harry had been doing his bit. Now it was my turn again. The first briefing upon arrival at Camp Bastion was from a sergeant-major. He stood before us and recounted the thoughts of a visiting U.S. general on the modern British soldier. 

Doug Beattie and a British mentoring team brief an ANA commander

Doug Beattie, far right, and a British mentoring team brief an ANA commander after Afghans stopped patrolling during Ramadan

'I served in Vietnam,' he'd said, 'and witnessed first the collapse of military discipline and then the collapse of our campaign. We looked a defeated army. And now as I walk about here, I see it once more: a defeated army.'

His beef was that the Brits were not immaculately turned out. They had sideburns, moustaches and beards; their hair was unkempt. I couldn't believe it. It was a contemptuous and arrogant thing for him to say. And now a British warrant officer was wasting time telling the story.

The general had plainly not grasped the realities of going to war. When it comes to putting his life on the line, a soldier wants to be treated as an adult and wear kit that is comfortable and practical. He wants to concentrate on guns, bullets and bombs, not razors, scissors and irons. And any commander worthy of the title will recognise this and cut his men some slack.

But then nothing was subtle about the Americans. You could tell that by the Stars and Stripes that flew sneeringly above their bases, in full sight of the local population. This wasn't the way to win friends and influence people, just as the death of Shabia had not been. It was bad enough that the natural and societal hardships robbed Afghan children of the innocence of youth. Yet there we were, compounding the misery. I desperately wanted to believe the greater good was being served by our presence in Afghanistan. But I wasn't convinced; not by a long shot. Yet I could not allow introspection to get in the way. There was too much to do.

The patrol base in Marjah, 30 kilometres west of the Helmand capital Lashkar Gah, was located in a disused school. Home to 69 British and Afghan soldiers, it was vulnerable and had no power, not even a generator. Batteries were being delivered by vehicle every three or four days. It wouldn't need a genius among the Taliban to clock our routine and plan an ambush.

Doug Beattie in Attal

Doug Beattie, map in hand, calls in support during fighting in Attal

On my first supply run there, I was jumpy. I had witnessed enough roadside bombs to know I had no desire to meet my maker the same way. After four arduous hours we arrived, to be greeted by Sergeant Jon Mathews, who was leading the team there.

Genuine, diligent, hard-working and kind, he held the respect of his men. We worked quickly to unload the supplies and get out before the Taliban could organise a surprise for our departure. But we were not quick enough.

We had got three kilometres from the base when a large bang echoed around us. A rocket had been fired from behind, so we needed to keep pressing forwards. But after another few hundred metres the convoy ground to a halt. An ANA pick-up had been shot up and stopped. Stuck behind them, we were sitting ducks.

The enemy was putting down sustained fire. One soldier was making futile attempts to get the TacSat, the satellite communications equipment, to work. He gave up and grabbed his rifle instead.

I pulled at an Afghan who was cowering by his vehicle. In my best Pashtu I screamed: 'Fire!'

Fighting the Taliban - Afghanistan map

Now there was another problem. Eighty metres away, sitting square across the track, was a car I'd seen careering across the desert towards us just minutes before the attack. Beyond it were the mud walls of the huts some of the Taliban were sheltering in.

'Any joy with the TacSat?' I asked.

'One call, that was it.'

The TacSat should have been our link to the outside world but to get a signal the aerial had to be pointed into the sky at an exact angle of 45 degrees. It was hopeless.

In any sort of ambush the key is to keep moving, blast through without stopping. What you don't want to do - what we had ended up doing - is to stop in a killing zone. But the ANA had been trained by the Americans. The U.S. way is to pile out of the vehicles and bring as much firepower as possible to bear on the threat.

We had to get going. And that meant ramming the blockade in front of us out of the way. With a wrenching of metal, the lead vehicle in our convoy hit the hijacked Toyota saloon and bulldozed it off the road. As we thundered through the Taliban positions I brought my machine gun to bear on a group of the enemy cowering behind a wall.

Except they weren't Taliban. They were a wedding party whose car we'd just annihilated. Yet more innocent Afghans caught up in the fighting. Carjacked by the Taliban and nearly shot dead by us - it wasn't their day.

Back at camp we received bad news; it was announced we would be going back to the school - the next day, by road. I demanded a helicopter but was told none was available. 

In 27 years of serving Queen and country, I never had better personal equipment than during my time in Helmand. But when it came to the big-ticket items - helicopters, vehicles, radios - there were real holes in our inventory.

Take the TacSat. What we needed to get it to work properly was an omnidirectional aerial but we were not given this kit, which meant the operator had to fiddle with the antenna until he finally managed to establish comms. Not easy when you are under fire as we had just found out. And whatever anyone at the Ministry of Defence might say, as I write this there are not enough helicopters. To my mind this costs lives.

With no helicopter available for our return to Marjah, it seemed clear to me that we should at least be sending in enough stores to last a month.

Eventually this was agreed. We set off along a different route but many of the tracks marked on the map petered out or ended in ditches. With increasing frustration, we tried to box round the obstacles. Word had got about and to the watching locals we must have looked a sorry sight: the cream of the British and Afghan armies blundering around like five-year-olds in a maze.

Then the inevitable happened. With the fury of a tornado, the enemy struck. Bullets started to rake the convoy. AK-47 rounds pummelled and punctured the skin of the vehicles.

As soon as the shooting started, the ANA soldiers once again bailed out of their pick-ups.

'Get back in and move forward,' I yelled at them.

They pointed at two flat tyres. I was getting annoyed.

'Get going before I start shooting you.' 

An Afghan soldier parades an AK-47

An Afghan soldier parades an AK-47 and a PMK taken from the same Taliban prisoner who is later shot by an ANA medic

Just ahead a pair of RPG rounds exploded close to a group of the ANA soldiers who were pressed into the dirt, praying for deliverance. If we stopped fighting, the Taliban would finish us off. The only way to respond was to give as good as we were getting.

I ran forward and screamed at the driver: 'Arocat! Move!'

He turned to the tyres then gave me one last imploring look.

'NOW!'

He scurried away.

Thanks to one of the radio operators, who was standing on top of the Land Rover, antenna in hand and arm outstretched, amazingly we had continuous comms. We were being sent an Apache to help us.

I tried to raise the pilot of the attack helicopter.

'Ugly 40, this is Amber 43. How copy?'

'Roger, Amber 43. Send grid references.'

To give him that I needed the code word for the day to translate the numbers into letters so our location could be transmitted securely even over the open frequency. Unfortunately no one knew it. Rather sheepishly I spoke again.

'Ugly 40, this is 43. Send code word. Over.'

'Boulevards.'

'Boulevards?'

What was this, University Challenge? I turned to my teammates.

'How do you spell boulevards?'

No one seemed sure. It was our fault we didn't have the code word but who had come up with boulevards? Hadn't they heard of KISS? Keep it simple, stupid!

We had an Apache desperate to assist, an enemy trying to destroy us yet it all looked set to fall apart for lack of a dictionary.

'B-o-l-e-v-a-r-d-s'? Not enough letters.

'B-o-o-lev-a-r-d-s'? Don't be stupid.

'B-o-u-l-e-v-a-r-d-s'? That looked better.

I turned to one of my men.

'Use B-O-U-L-E-V-ARD-S to translate this grid.'

Ducked down behind a wall, he did as I had asked. Thirty seconds later I spoke to the Apache pilot again and passed on the co-ordinates in code.

The reply was sobering.

'That grid puts you somewhere in Pakistan. If you want us to help, you had better get it sorted on the ground.'

Who was he to order me about?

'Ugly, I am a small unit, under fire. I have the ANA with me and trying to control them is like herding cats. Over.' 

Fighting the Taliban in Helmand

By early 2008 there were 43,000 coalition troops from 38 nations in Afghanistan

We had the code but had wrongly applied it. We were no where near Pakistan. Time was running out. I decided to broadcast our location without using code. It was too late to matter. By now just about the whole of Helmand must have known we were there given all the shooting.

Within seconds the Apache was overhead. A flurry of airburst cluster rockets exploded above the tree line, releasing a deadly storm of flechettes - small darts - designed to rip through flesh.

Up ahead, the first vehicle had reached the school. After three kilometres and two-and-a-half hours under fire, we were in sight of our goal.

Once again the enemy had shown real tenacity. Even when the Apache arrived they didn't just melt away. They regarded Marjah as theirs and it didn't bode well for us. 

It was so far beyond my comprehension - murdering a prisoner. I let my head sink into my hands

Days later, I was walking into the cool shadow of the school building, unable to believe I was back in Marjah yet again, when there was a huge eruption of noise and a blast wave swept over me. It was a suicide bomb. There, amid the blood and the screaming and crying, the violence and its aftermath, my men couldn't have done more. Over in a makeshift medical room, the injured - including a nine-year-old with shrapnel wounds to his leg - were being tended to.

The ANA commander explained what had happened. His men had been manning their checkpoint and spotted a teenager wearing a suicide vest. He was told to keep his arms outstretched and back off. As the human crucifix walked away, he'd glanced repeatedly at a young boy nearby. Then he exploded.

'We think the bomber was detonated by the boy,' concluded the commander.

'Well, give a description of him to the police.'

'No need, it's the boy in the medical room with the leg injury.' 

Fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan

'I really wanted to believe the greater good was being served in Afghanistan. But I wasn't convinced; not by a long shot,' said Doug Beattie

The enemy had used small boys to attack us before. Women were used too. I wanted to have some sympathy for this wounded child but I couldn't find any. He was the enemy and he had tried to kill us.

That night, as I lay staring into the inky blackness, the horrors replayed themselves time and again in my mind. I kept coming back to the futility of it all. The waste of lives - on all sides. How had things got so bad that children were prepared to act and die in such a hideous manner?

Soon afterwards news came that Sergeant Jon Mathews had been killed in Marjah. He left behind a wife and young daughter. Then it was announced that the base was being closed. So what had been the point of ever setting it up? Of allowing ourselves to get bogged down in yet another enemy town with limited manpower and no easy way of being re-supplied? In my mind it had been a waste of time, a waste of resources and a waste of Jon's life.

But once again there would not be much time to dwell on what had happened. For me, the ever-shifting sands of operational requirements would lead to Patrol Base Attal, in the heart of bandit country on the western side of the Helmand River. We would be working alongside some American National Guards.

On a map of the region where red was used to signify enemy-held territory and green was for areas that we influenced, Attal was a pea bobbing about in an ocean of crimson. To compound matters, there were concerns about collusion between the ANA and the Taliban, which had resulted in everyone refusing to go out and patrol.

But what was the alternative? Wait to be attacked, like fish in a barrel?

So I insisted we push out into the lush fringes of vegetation and cultivation either side of the river. Because of the camouflaging foliage, this was where most of the enemy activity took place. We had to take the fight to them.

Somewhere ahead of me several shots rang out, accompanied by frenzied shouting from the ANA.

'What's happening?'

'The Afghans have taken a prisoner. He had a rifle and a radio.'

'Good. Make sure they search him, cuff him and take him back to the company commander.' 

An Afghan National Army soldier

The Afghan National Army had been trained by the Americans

I started to feel nervous again, the sick feeling returned. I hated these moments. It was all but inevitable someone was about to shoot at us. But who was in their sights? Me? The guy behind? Without warning, a rocket-propelled grenade snaked through the undergrowth past us, fired from a compound no more than 70 metres away. Everyone dived for cover.

Cautiously I raised my head to see exactly where the enemy positions were as I radioed for help. Fire continued to whip towards us. I didn't find it easy to identify where the enemy was firing from but somehow the ANA had a knack for doing so. Close by lay an Afghan officer. I shouted out to him. In return he gave a big smile and held up the arms of the bound prisoner next to him.

Slowly the ANA troops moved towards the compound. They used their grenades to clear it, with devastating results - at least for the six Taliban who were killed. We'd been successful. We'd killed a number of the enemy and recovered some of their equipment. Crucially, the ANA had - eventually - stepped up to the mark and done the job. We'd even taken a prisoner - though, as I looked round at him, I could see he was taking a bit of punishment from one of his captors.

'Oi! Don't be doing that,' I screamed. The soldier meting out the blows gave me a quizzical look and wandered off.

We started to pull out. The ANA soldiers were in front with Stevo, a Royal Irish colleague, and our prisoner. Suddenly a burst of gunfire stopped me in my tracks.

I grabbed my radio: 'Stevo, what the hell is going on?'

'They've shot the prisoner. The Afghans - they've bloody shot him.' 

Afghan National Army soldiers

For five months Doug Beattie with 1st battalion, The Royal Irish Regiment, trained, mentored and advised the Afghan National Army

I waded through the field to where he was lying, dead. Stevo described what had happened: the ANA soldiers had dragged the prisoner off the path and one had stepped forward to execute him. No hesitation, no discussion, no qualms. And who'd pulled the trigger?

Their medic, using his AK-47. Several others had then opened fire to finish him off, as if that was necessary.

In 27 years of soldiering I had never experienced anything remotely like it. It was so far beyond my comprehension... murdering a prisoner. I let my head sink into my hands, trying to rub the frustration and anger out of my eyes. How had it come to this?

For five months we had trained and mentored and advised the ANA, trying to equip them with the skills and standards necessary to provide security for their country and its population. At that moment, the prospect of such a thing happening was about a million light years away. These people were never going to preside over a just system.

Look at what they were capable of. What a waste of time! I glanced up and saw the blokes around me were thinking the same. We were ordered to return to base, leaving behind the ANA and the body, but only after we had taken pictures as evidence.

Through all the blood and bullets, the dead and the wounded, and the sickening sights, I wanted to believe I had done some good and changed things for the better. Now I seriously wondered whether I could ever make any difference, whether anyone could. What was the point of being here?

What was the point of risking my life, of risking anything, for a country that at that moment didn't seem worth saving - perhaps couldn't be saved? But I'd signed on the dotted line, agreed to remain in the Army and complete my tour. And so I carried on.

We went out on patrol the next day, and then every day after that, tackling the Taliban head-on, giving as good as we got. Judging from the enemy radio traffic we intercepted after one skirmish, we had killed or wounded more than 30 of them. Corroboration of our success came in the form of a delegation of elders who said that so badly had the Taliban been bloodied that they'd retreated north. Through the villagers, the local Taliban even offered us an unofficial truce.

Going out got harder and harder. As the end of my tour approached all I wanted to do was keep my head down and get home safely. In six months I had racked up 50 major contacts. I was exhausted. But at last it was time to leave Attal, salvation arriving in the form of a Chinook swinging in low from the south-west, the rhythmic clatter of rotor blades quickly growing louder. We rushed on board.

Lifting off, I twisted round to look down at the camp. Even when we were in it, it had seemed small and vulnerable; from the air it looked pathetic. To me it symbolised the war in Afghanistan. 

Doug Beattie, centre, calling from the patrol base of Marjah

Doug Beattie, centre, calling from the patrol base of Marjah, around 30km west of Helmand, just moments after a suicide bomber had struck the compound. A nine-year-old was also injured in the blast

Here we were in the 21st century, yet the scene laid out below me could have been straight out of the Beau Geste era: an outpost made of mud, situated in a harsh environment, manned by a tiny contingent of coalition soldiers, surrounded by adversaries who hated us and locals who didn't understand us. I wasn't sorry to be leaving.

Back in Britain, on October 17 2008, three days after my 43rd birthday, those soldiers of the Royal Irish Regiment who had served in Afghanistan received their campaign medals. As the presentation finished, we marched off the square to the strains of Killaloe, played by the regimental band.

I was mindful of the ones who weren't taking part - not because they didn't want to but because they couldn't. One was Ranger Andy Allen. Just 19 years old, he was missing both his legs and - at that time - some of his eyesight. But if I was inclined to feel any pity for him, he immediately put me straight.

'Things aren't so bad,' he said, peering up at me and holding my gaze.

'At least I've still got my arms to hold my child.'

If I was an ordinary soldier, then truly he was an extraordinary one.

There is an old saying: 'I am no hero but I served alongside heroes.'

Alone, I walked off to my car, got in it and went home. As a civilian. 


'Task Force Helmand' by Doug Beattie, is published by Simon & Schuster on October 1 at £17.99.

To order at the special price of £13.99 with free p&p, call the Live Bookstore on 0845 155 0730



:: Article nr. 58338 sent on 27-sep-2009 11:44 ECT

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