Troops in Sangin

John A Silkstone

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Courage and comradeship keys to survival for British Army in Sangin. by Peter Nicholls of The Times News paper UK

Janine di Giovanni at Forward Operating Base Jackson, in Sangin, Helmand.

Browny was a father of two, with a new baby arriving in the summer. He married his childhood sweetheart.

His friends say his loyalty was always to them, rather than himself. When a sentry position collapsed during a battle with insurgents, he rushed out without body armour under heavy enemy fire to rescue the men. When shrapnel hit Browny, he refused treatment until the other soldiers were tended to first. “He could have done the job standing on his head,” one of his friends said.

Luke Farmer was only 18. He was strong and swift, a sprinter. He had, his mates say, a “bright future” ahead of him. His father, Mark, said that he “felt 20 feet tall” the day Luke received an award for being the fittest soldier at his intake. His brother Scott said that he was the “bestest brother”.

The two, Corporal Lee Brownson, 30, and Rifleman Luke Farmer, were on foot during a night patrol near their base, Almas, in Sangin last week when the IED went off.

“You feel afraid before, you feel it in your stomach,” says Corporal Sarah Bushby, a medic who lost two men recently and who goes out on most patrols. The night he died, Luke was the Vallon man — carrying the metal detector. Browny was the leader. The bomb went off and they were killed. They were the 13th and 14th fatalities of the 3 Rifles Battlegroup since they arrived last October.

The Sunday after they died, we gathered in the tent that serves as the battlegroup’s cookhouse at Forward Operating Base Jackson. It’s a kind of rough oasis in the middle of largely Taleban-held Helmand. The threat is high. People are edgy. The enemy, the Taleban, is a couple of kilometres away. But they all came together for Brownie and Luke, crowding on wooden makeshift benches, some wiping their eyes, others looking angry or perplexed. Padre Alex lit two tea candles in front of a wooden cross, fixed with two blood-red paper poppies.

Captain Tom Payne read from the Bible — the Gospel according to John, about the meal at Canaan and Jesus turning water into wine. The soldiers quietly recited the Lord’s Prayer. “I chose that gospel because they are looking down on your having one hell of a piss-up,” Padre Alex told the men, of their fallen mates. “What else would a soldier want?”

In the early morning light, before the heat rises, making it even more uncomfortable in the body armour, we head to the Sangin bazaar. It is a success story for the battlegroup commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Kitson, 40, because although the locals stare at the soldiers with cold eyes, the bazaar is relatively secure: there are 600 operating stalls.

“A year before, you could not walk through it. Three months ago there was no business,” says Colonel Kitson, who comes from a long line of military, most notably, his uncle, General Sir Frank Kitson, who was the authority on counter-insurgency in the 1950s and 1960s. And counter-insurgency is what the soldiers are now using to try to turn Sangin from a remote district in one of the most inhospitable provinces of Afghanistan into a more habitable place. “By no means is counter-insurgency just a military activity,” Colonel Kitson says. “It’s the government of Sangin that has to win the people. We are just here to support them.”

Their role is changing, from defending themselves against the enemy to being “population-centric”. Which means opening schools — there are currently 41 open in the area, though no girls attend — and clinics. Building up the Government so that it is sustainable is also crucial. It’s not that the danger level here has changed — Luke and Browny’s death attest to that. Nor that Sangin is no less strategically placed. It is still the heartland of narcotics production and a key Taleban crossing point. “The insurgents don’t want us to have Sangin,” Colonel Kitson says. “That’s clear.” But it is becoming clearer that the mission has to lead Afghans to stand on their own feet. “The people are ready to reach out to whoever gives them the best deal,” says Mark Beautement, a Foreign and Commonwealth Office political officer based at FOB Jackson. “The question is whether it’s their own Government or Taleban.”

Crucial to this is a secure government, finding the right leaders, and training the Afghan National Army (ANA) so they can operate alone. But Sangin is so remote and backwards, and the reputation so harsh, that no Afghan wants to come here.

Illiteracy is rife; the district governor, Faisal Haq, cannot read or write. At a morning Shura, or meeting, he sits barefoot and obstinate, disputing endlessly with the mayor about missing sheep while munching raisins and sweets. Corruption, bribes, inefficiency and lack of education make the job seem, at times, insurmountable. There is a kind of medieval brutality. At a local school the teachers whipped the boys with leather straps to make them get into their classes.

In contrast, the Taleban command some respect. Their administrative wing is separate from its military, in nearby Sarevan-Qaleh. It is made up of elders from the area who stayed to work for their people after the Taleban took control. If someone has a land dispute, for example, justice is sometimes swifter than dealing with local administrators — and harsher.

“People have the choice. They can go to the Government — the prosecutor. At the moment they are going to the shadow system because it is more traditional, what they are used to.” said Phil Weatherill, stabilisation adviser for the foreign office in Sangin. “We have got to show the new system is a better rival.” The Afghan army also needs to be trained. But many soldiers are also illiterate, making map-reading or radio training complicated. Teaching them patrolling skills is also complex. On a mixed patrol with 3 Rifles and ANA to Nabi Patrol Base, through winding dusty lanes and fields where corn can rise to 12ft (4m) in summer, the difference between the British infantrymen and the ANA was vast — down to the sandals the Afghans wear with their uniforms, and the way they handle guns. Nabi is the frontline, the patrol that “basically stops insurgents from getting to the main road,” says Platoon Leader, Sergeant Lee Shields, 31. “Out there are the bad guys.”

The next day, on the road to Blenheim, another patrol base, we stop at a checkpoint and climb into the Sangar tower looking out over farmland and children walking through fields. There’s a loud firefight coming from Nabi. “It’s shoot and scoot,” a soldier says. “Most of it coming from ANA.”

Soldier killed

A British soldier has been killed in an explosion near Sangin in central Helmand Province. The death of the soldier from A Company 4 Rifles, serving as part of 3 Rifles Battle Group, takes the toll of British dead in Afghanistan to 250 since the start of the campaign.
 

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