Mark Urban tells the inside story of Britain's fight for Helmand, told with unique access to the generals and frontline troops who were there.
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This programme contains very strong language
We was massively stretched at the time.
Massively hard pushed.
We were meeting force for force, small arms, rockets.
He knew he was dying.
He's one of the bravest blokes I've ever had the pleasure of working with.
We'd hit them again and again and again.
We killed 24 guys that day.
The battle for Helmand has cost thousands of Afghan
and hundreds of British lives.
There are ghosts of them all over the place.
You never really forget them. You can't possibly forget them.
I don't think a day goes by when I don't think of them.
We've just had some incoming fire from that side...
'I've been reporting from Afghanistan for more than 20 years.
'In this film, I'm going to look behind the headlines
'of Britain's bloody five-year campaign in Helmand.'
But did it really have to be this tough?
Were the objectives set by the generals and politicians realistic?
The gap between policy-making and its subsequent implementation was far too wide.
We've muddled through.
This is the story of how Britain "muddled" from one plan to another.
Yes, it was a stretch, a risk.
But we're paratroopers, we're British soldiers, that's what we do.
The story of how the nation was not prepared to pay the price for success.
I asked on a daily, weekly, basis for more troops, more helicopters.
We could not cede pieces of ground to the insurgent the way we had done there.
The British force in Helmand was under-resourced.
But most of all, it's the story of those
who had to face the consequences of a war
that others had not thought through.
Roughly a hundred men holding a defensive position
in the most hostile town, in the most hostile country in the world.
We came in via Chinooks with some intense manoeuvring, which was quite good.
We de-bussed off the Chinook and it was then we came under contact.
Helmand - the summer of 2006.
16 Air Assault Brigade is in action.
The intensity of the fighting took us by surprise,
not least because the intelligence told us
there wouldn't be Taliban when we arrived.
We took a major weight of fire.
Being my first experience, I thought it was a lot of fire!
They were throwing grenades over the wall, which were landing within metres of us.
It was an absolute miracle not one of us even got hit.
Heavy firepower was often needed to support the troops.
-Fucking hell, boys!
We was in a compound with a small archway,
which was no more than three feet high,
and now there was fire coming through the archway.
We were sending fire back through.
At my command!
The commander said, "If you haven't got a wife or children, follow me."
Looking back, it's just a funny thing.
To move a step further would have been suicidal.
We literally dived on the floor and crawled back through the hole.
They usually found themselves overstretched and outnumbered.
We didn't want to retreat, so we just...we carried on fighting.
And in the end, a couple of Apaches came and an A10 Thunderbolt.
That pretty much obliterated what was left of the enemy
and now we were able, in the end, to withdraw
in absolute silence, under no enemy contact.
The primary mission was meant to be reconstruction.
So how did Britain end up at war?
Things looked very different when going to Afghanistan was first considered.
If you look at the situation at the end of 2004,
when the decision to deploy south-east was taken,
things were pretty good.
There was virtually no violence in Helmand.
By then, Britain had been at war in Iraq for more than 18 months.
The public didn't like it.
And when the government suggested sending even more troops to Iraq,
the generals pushed their own alternative.
What I can say,
remembering conversations with those people at the time,
is that they defined this mission in opposition to Iraq.
They saw this place, by contrast, as a chance to involve those forces
in a different, new and exciting mission.
The generals got their way.
The British Government announced a mission to develop Helmand,
saying it would only fight if it absolutely had to.
We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years' time
without firing one shot,
because our mission is to protect the reconstruction.
In one of the poorest parts of the world,
people could certainly use the help,
and it was hoped the Afghans would welcome it.
I think there was a naivety on a sort of corporate level
that people felt we were going to go into Afghanistan
and hand out bread and milk
and deliver development and reconstruction.
Brigadier Butler had already commanded the Special Air Service in Afghanistan
and would now lead the 1st Brigade into Helmand.
He points to intelligence failures.
I think in some ways there was simply insufficient information
to develop a long-term strategy for Afghanistan
based on the knowledge which we had in 2005.
23,000 square miles of mountains, desert and farmland.
It's half the size of England.
The province was well known only for opium poppies,
supplying 40% of the world's heroin.
There was a whole series of people who just simply did not want us there.
The warlords from the former regime,
the narco criminals who were making hundreds of millions of pounds
out of the opiate industry, and then the Taliban themselves.
So those three very powerful groups were always going to react to our presence.
So in April 2006 the initial elements of 16 Air Assault Brigade
began arriving here at Camp Tombstone,
which at the time was a rather lonely outpost of the US Special Forces
in the desert in Helmand Province.
For the first couple of months we were patrolling in soft hats
a fairly sort of unaggressive posture
and the real aim was just to get in to the local town and the surrounding areas,
speak to the locals and identify tasks that could be fulfilled by aid agencies, NGO's for reconstruction.
Of the nearly 3,800 personnel first sent,
the majority were engineers and support troops.
They were there to build the Camp Bastion base
and develop the main centres, Lashkar Gar and Gereshk.
Only about a quarter of the people who went out on that initial deployment
were the three Para Battle Group, the combat infantry
but very soon after they got here
they realised they were walking into a maelstrom.
The trouble started in the northern valleys,
volatile opium country
where armed groups of the drug lords, insurgents
and tribesmen went on the offensive.
These attacks in Now Zad, Mushakala and Sangin
were challenging our very authority and reason for being there.
The Paras started to fight back.
But that exposed the reality that Butler faced competing missions
fighting the insurgents versus bolstering the Afghan Government through good deeds.
By mid-June the crisis had focused at a place where opium trading,
insurgency, and hatred of outsiders
came together in their most violent form.
The northern district, Sangin.
Tribesmen killed dozens of the district governor's supporters and the police.
And so Helmand's Governor demanded the British do something.
Their mission was to maintain security in Helmand.
if they were not deploying their troops to those districts
to the north we may lost those districts.
Both he and President Karzai said if you're not prepared to fight
and if you're not prepared to protect our flag
and protect our people, why are you here?
The British now faced a critical decision.
keeping the Afghan government flag flying
meant defending Sangin with British troops.
Everyone was involved, from me to my brigade commander,
to especially the Afghan Governor at the time
and certainly the UK government.
Implementing the decision to act rested with Colonel Tootal.
Although we never really had the resources to do it in the way that I would have wanted to,
then the logic was sound and we'd been asked to do something.
After 20 minutes of deliberation, he agreed to do it.
Yes, it was a stretch, yes, it was a risk,
but, we're paratroopers, we're British soldiers, that's what we do,
and that's exactly what we did.
They were equipped only for a brief mission north.
Our kit was packed for exactly that - three to four days.
Really, really minimal stuff.
As soon as they arrived they tried to fortify the local government HQ or District Centre.
We were filling cardboard boxes with rubble and building up defences
just basically out of anything you could.
Filling up 24-hour ration boxes.
we just made do with what was there, which wasn't a lot.
-What do you want us firing into?
-Same place, mate!
It started off maybe
a couple of times a day and then it sort of increased to,
you know, seven, eight times a day into the night as well.
It was just constant contacts of three, four, five times a day
they were trying to hit us either by small arms, rockets or mortars.
We had a couple of times when we they had actually tried to storm the place.
They had the idea that they were going to try and take the camp,
which was never going to happen.
It was pretty much a shootout.
So they learnt a harsh lesson that night.
We were meeting force with force.
So if they come at us with small arms, rockets, whatever,
we'll meet them with that.
But we're better.
They fired a rocket, killing a couple of guys from the signals unit.
And an Afghan interpreter.
These were the first casualties. It sort of hit home to everyone
you know this isn't a joke, this is real.
They were cut off in the Sangin District Centre.
There's a building. A double door, red door.
To the left of that you've got an open doorway. In there.
The deal was that we would go there for 96 hours.
We actually spent a total of 95 days there fighting every day.
Being besieged in Sangin was bad enough.
but Colonel Tootal's remaining combat troops
were also sent to garrison other northern centres -
Now Zad and Musa Qala.
Having established what were soon called Platoon Houses
across a broad expanse of the province,
the British realised how hard it would be to defend them all.
We were pretty much surrounded by the Taliban at the time
we was running low on food and water.
So we pretty much had to ration everything - including ammunition.
Each of these bases had just a few score Paras, Royal Irish Rangers or Ghurkhas.
As they fought off attacks day and night.
this struggle obliterated the bigger picture.
Leave it there, get the missile!
We didn't appreciate that they would focus around the district centres.
They were acting as breakwaters.
Reacting to a series of crises had become a strategy.
So what happened in many of these places was that
only a very small area could come under the influence of the troops
that were up here, while all around them, the insurgents moved.
The soldiers nicknamed their enemy Terry Taliban.
But they faced a mixture of gunmen hired by the drug lords,
hardcore jihadists and local farmers.
The regular Taliban were employing
what we termed as the ten dollar Taliban.
They pay them ten dollars, give them a weapon to come and hit us with
and I think a lot of them were on drugs as well
cos when they did get hit a lot of them didn't fall.
They just kept firing.
We poked the hornet's nest and they came out biting.
We didn't have enough people on the ground.
We was massively stretched at the time.
There was one battle group to pretty much cover the whole of Helmand.
I asked on a daily, weekly basis
for more troops, more capability, more helicopters.
I remember saying to the Chief of Defence Staff in 2006 on one of
his visits that we needed probably a division size -
10,000 troops to achieve what we'd set out to do.
We increased the size of our deployed forces in Afghanistan
as rapidly as we could given the fact that we were trying to balance
Afghanistan, Iraq and the overall pressure on the British military.
Some small scale reinforcements were sent,
but they were trying to hold an area half the size of England
with little over 1,000 combat soldiers.
Now you've got some 30,000 NATO troops
holding a roughly similar area,
but it shows the scarcity of resources
and the stretch that we faced, that we held that ground with about 1,200 men.
Horribly outnumbered, they could only hold on
by calling in air power and artillery.
The insurgents needled the British
into laying waste to areas they'd been sent to protect.
We acknowledged that there was more destruction than construction
going on in the places we were trying to help.
build and bring security in governance.
Some of his men even question what good it all did.
Ah, fucking zero.
We demonstrated to the insurgents that we weren't going to take
a beating. We certainly weren't going to withdraw from that area.
but in terms of bringing bringing reconstruction and development to the area,
clearly not a huge amount was achieved,
simply because of the efforts of the insurgents to thwart that.
The Kajaki Dam and power plant was one of the most important places in Helmand.
It was here that deep flaws in Britain's operation would be exposed.
Despite its value,
Colonel Tootal only had a few dozen men to secure the dam.
On the morning of September 6th they launched an operation.
The idea was to send out a sniper team to intercept
some insurgents who were manning an illegal check point
and they came down the slope and through the valley there down below.
I heard the explosion, I mean...
..so I knew, I knew straightaway that that was a mine.
Sgt Pearson's team had wandered into an old Russian minefield,
and he went to rescue them in the minefield.
Almost as soon as the incident had started,
the troops on the ground quite rightly identified
the need for a winch-equipped Black Hawk helicopter.
However we were then told that wasn't available.
The British didn't have any in the inventory.
Took my foot, slipped off, whatever, off a rock and
put it in the sand and stood straight on a mine.
and my left leg was gone straight away. I knew exactly what I'd done
and I got blown up a bit, spun round,
landed and lifted my leg to see what was gone,
and see that was gone at roughly boot height,
cos my top lace was still attached to my leg -
Well, the remainder of my leg.
A third mine detonated just beside myself
and Mark Wright caught a lot of that.
Mark would keep moral up - he'd be shouting at us
and then we'd be having a laugh and a joke, and one of the lads,
Dave Prosser, it turned out it was his birthday,
so we managed to sing Happy Birthday for him.
But while the search for a suitable helicopter went on,
men were bleeding to death.
Eventually we got the two Black Hawk helicopters.
Three, almost three-and-a-half hours after we'd asked for them.
And did exactly what we needed them to do,
they air lifted the casualties out by winching some very brave American paramedics into the minefield.
And then Mark shouted to me,
"If I die, tell Gillian, my uncle, my family that I love them."
And I just shouted back, "Shut up Mark,
"this time next week we're going to be back in the pub!"
Cos you don't want to hear something like that.
When I eventually got winched up, it was after Mark,
and I looked beside me and Mark was there and I was like,
thank Christ that's over.
Mark Wright died of his wounds on the way to Bastion.
He's definitely one of the, if not THE bravest bloke I've ever had the pleasure of working with.
The one thing that was the most emotional thing in a very emotional tour,
that stood out for me was as we filed out of the make-shift chaplain tent,
Mark's best friend, Corporal Lee Parker, stopped and ruffled his hair.
We always rip each other. My best mate, Peter he came to visit me.
I'd just been moved out of intensive care,
he visited me, gave me a parrot and an eye-patch
and a copy of Runners Weekly which I thought was a touch.
Later that evening, attacks on Sangin and then Musa Qala led to even more casualties.
Their only hope of survival was evacuation by helicopter.
But every time they went in to pick up the wounded
they ran the very real risk of being shot down.
During that day the Para Battle Group lost three soldiers killed
and suffered 18 wounded.
But because of what they went through that day,
commanders increasingly asked themselves about whether
the risks of losing one of those helicopters, could still be run.
My biggest concern was losing
one of the very few Chinook troop carrying helicopters,
particularly if it had 50 or 60 soldiers as well as the crew
and they could have been lost in a heartbeat.
Losing a helicopter would put the whole Helmand operation at risk.
The Paras simply couldn't hold on everywhere.
and as is now revealed, London felt the risks in Musa Qala were too high.
So while in London you don't interfere with commanders on the ground,
in this particular case I certainly did intervene
and I certainly did say, you've got to get us out of Musa Qala.
The British made a face-saving deal.
they agreed to withdraw if the local leaders promised to keep the Taliban
out of Musa Qala.
The local commander was unhappy,
Karzai was unhappy, everybody was unhappy, save for the insurgents.
it was an unfortunate deal.
They withdrew in civilian trucks.
They weren't armoured.
Although we trusted the elders, we didn't trust the Taliban.
The guys found it quite stressful for them.
Some of the younger guys couldn't understand the situation.
We lost three people
and loads injured.
But it certainly didn't sit well with some of the guys.
The deal held for a few months but in February 2007
the Taliban had returned and set up a shadow Helmand government in Musa Qala.
We could not cede pieces of ground to the insurgent the way we had done there.
It was a bold move to stick those platoons out
but it was, in retrospect, not the smartest of tactics,
simply because you didn't have the force to back it up.
But sustaining a deployment that was not
in the long term operational interests of the mission,
just because you didn't want to get a bit of egg on your face would have been insane.
But a chorus of armchair criticisms started too
and we heard some of that.
Had they dealt out too much destruction?
Had they seriously alienated the very people that Britain was trying to win over?
Towards the end of 2006, The Royal Marines replaced the Paras.
That was where the fire was coming from.
The Government did send 700 additional infantry and a few more helicopters.
Adopting their own new tactic, the commandos formed mobile groups.
to seek out guerrilla bands before they could attack the district centres.
They went where they knew the enemy were waiting.
a tactic they called "advancing to ambush".
Halfway between the large tree!
Many of them loved it,
because the Afghans would give them a stand up fight.
The commandos' tour finished with fresh claims of hundreds of Taliban killed.
It was unclear if they'd regained the initiative.
and their successors certainly thought they had a better solution.
The British used six-month tours so twice every year
new commanders adopted new tactics for THEIR new mission in Helmand.
It meant that the policy meandered around,
so when three Commando Brigade arrived, leaving behind their dagger,
they wanted to get moving again. They felt the paratroopers were
too fixed in those platoon houses and district centres.
12 Brigade then arrived and they were moving all right, up and down the province,
but their own commander described the effects as being like mowing the grass.
They'd cut down the enemy and move on
so the insurgents would just return, as nobody stayed to stop them.
Then six months later, a new brigade arrived with its own ideas and aims.
General McNeill, commanduing all NATO forces in Afghanistan,
found the year long US Army tours more effective.
I thought the six-months tour did not work in the favour
of the operational concepts and tactical concepts
that the British military had in Helmand. I stand by that.
The commandos were followed by 12 Brigade,
among them the Queen's Company, Grenadier Guards
Sergeant Major Glen Snazle was filmed in 2007
when they were deployed to knock the Afghan Army into shape.
He soon discovered some Afghan soldiers or ANA,
when given a gun, were more of a threat to their own side, than the enemy.
Going out on a morning patrol, one of the ANA soldiers
shot himself through the foot
which subsequently shot a dog
ricocheted off the wall and nearly shot some of our guys.
And that's what we were up to on a daily basis with the ANA.
The Grenadiers pushed the Afghan Army in the toughest classroom - combat.
And they adopted another new approach,
challenging the insurgents where most of them lived -
in the lush, irrigated, land, the so called "green zone".
When you go in the green zone there's a feeling of vulnerability.
There was a lot of vegetation a lot of cover from view.
It was just a myriad of irrigation ditches
and a lot of compounds were dotted around the area.
You almost feel like the enemy have got eyes on you but you haven't got eyes on them.
That's enemy fire above us.
We came under contact.
It was heavy contact and it it went on through the day.
Two more casualties! Two more!
If you've never been in a contact before the first time
you come under contact it really is exhilarating.
Just the fact that you're within inches at times
of losing your life...
ertainly puts it in perspective.
Get out of that back blast!
We've got enemy in the hedge line 100 metres forward there...
You don't see the Taliban. They're very clever, they box clever.
They're hard to locate. They were very cunning.
We'd been in contact for about 12 hours and one of the Afghan soldiers
stood completely in the open. A round struck the base of his magazine.
..just missing him and missing the rest of the guys in the area
and he just looked at us and laughed.
We haven't got enough ammunition to fire bursts like that.
The ANA in the field were very different.
Some were very good, some were very poor,
some were regular drug users, some weren't.
We need to start bringing in new supplies of water, food and especially ammunition.
Get them all up and tight in on this line.
OK, that's the contact.
Someone's fired an RPG about 200m to our front.
We're a bit pinned down for the moment.
We kept progressing trying to clear compounds.
We had to bring in mortars we had to bring in artillery
and we bought in attack helicopters.
We bought in fast air as well.
The busiest day I've had.
Probably the biggest day I've had in my career since I've been in it -
in terms of contacts.
They don't know how many they've killed,
but joke that the insurgents almost seem to embrace death.
They're the kind of people that believe when they die they're going to wake up with 27 virgins.
You know? So how can you fight against someone like that who doesn't give a shit?
It's like as soon as I die I'd be going back to Tottenham, I'd run at the bullets!
Casualties almost become part and parcel of the operation.
The memories never go away and the hardest thing about it, I think,
is seeing subsequent troops suffering the same casualties
and the same statistics and loss of limbs and deaths.
They was on a patrol and he got shot through the neck.
I was looking forward to coming back but I didn't want to come back to my friend's funeral.
Guardsman Daryl Hickey was killed at the age of 27.
Britain's death toll now reached 73.
I've been with Icky since I joined the Queen's Company,
4½ years ago but he always helped us...
He was a really nice person, got on well. It's not going to be nice going home without him.
Throughout 2007 attempts were made to get back on the front foot,
to take the war to the enemy.
but doing that spread the pain to more and more people.
Up near the Kajaki Dam, war had turned a thriving bazaar into a ghost town.
The people went and they've still not come back,
which is very hard to reconcile with the aim of waging a campaign
to benefit people here.
Official UN figures are almost certainly an underestimation
but even they indicate nearly 9,000 Afghan civilians have been killed nationwide since 2007,
the vast majority at the hands of insurgents.
But British forces have been responsible for some.
In May 2008 British mortars fired smoke to protect a patrol
that was about to be ambushed in the Kajaki hills.
A young girl called Shabia who was young,
seven, seven years of age, who was accidentally killed by...
by a mortar round which was fired, by a British mortar.
Um, you know it was absolutely tragic, it was not fired haphazardly
it was fired in defence of other British soldiers.
I'm still affected by it now because the last thing
I want anybody to think is that I'm going to come here to this country and,
and my legacy will be the destruction of the country or the people here.
It was an awful day, truly awful day.
The reality of what is euphemistically called "collateral damage"
became more and more apparent at the highest levels.
In Autumn 2007, Brigadier Mackay, the new British commander, arrived.
He was highly dubious of his predecessors' focus on bombs, bullets and bodies.
Killing the enemy in large numbers as satisfying as it might be
is not necessarily gonna allow you to win through and succeed.
Any focus on body count is a sort of corrupt measure of effectiveness.
What it really meant was putting the prime emphasis
on winning people over and subordinating everything you did
to the aim of securing and influencing the population.
And meeting Brigadier Mackay here in this garden in early 2008,
he was quite evangelical about it.
We were pretty clear from the outset that
the population was gonna be the prize and everything that we did
was going to be in support of that population.
First impressions were that we as an army
hadn't evolved its thinking, either intellectually or conceptually.
So he approached General Petraeus, author of a new US counter insurgency manual,
an approach credited with pulling Iraq back from the brink.
It was coherent it was up to date, it was full of ideas.
I just thought it was a very, very good document for its time
and so we used that as the basis for our counter insurgency doctrine.
The new approach put winning the population at the centre of everything.
But the insurgents had to be defeated before civilian lives
could be improved, which meant going on the offensive.
It was summarised as - Clear, Hold, Build.
For too long, the British had done just the "clear" part of that.
I wasn't going to be drawn into clearing
unless I could definitely hold
and I wasn't gonna clear and hold unless I could definitely build.
These American ideas shaped Brigadier Mackay's planning for a big operation
to restore British pride and re-take Musa Qala.
I was pretty insistent that we wouldn't...
bomb any part of Musa Qala, we didn't put any artillery rounds into Musa Qala.
Because I wanted a town that was up and running as soon as we'd got into it.
Brigadier Mackay deployed overwhelming force -
thousands of British troops secured the town, an American Airborne battalion fought their way in,
before allowing Afghan troops the symbolic finale.
Those scenes we had where, em, an Afghan Soldier climbed the tower
in the middle of Musa Qala to remove the Taliban flag
and plant the Afghan flag were hugely important.
Mackay's population focused tactics had worked -
the locals voted with their feet and returned to a town that was largely intact.
But the insurgent tactics evolved as well as the British ones.
Their weapon of choice was the deadly IED or Improvised Explosive Device -
a homemade bomb, often packed with shrapnel.
They were a constant hazard to every patrol,
where any suspicious hole or rock in the road might hide explosives
forcing a dangerous process of investigation and disposal.
IEDs killed 80 British troops in 2009 -
three-quarters of the total fatalities.
Sangin was IED central, accounting for half the incidents in Helmand.
In the summer of 2009
part of the garrison was 9 Platoon, C Company 2 Rifles.
Corporal Jonathan Horne was the father of two children.
Rifleman Daniel Simpson had an eight-month old son.
They were joined by Riflemen James Backhouse and Joe Murphy.
On 10th July, they went on a dawn patrol in Sangin.
Once we'd headed down the alleyway I was in the back section...
..and I heard the dreaded sound of a large blast.
We're starting to see the bodies of riflemen.
Rifleman James Backhouse had been killed outright.
At this stage we also realised that we were coming under small arms fire from the enemy.
A secondary device went off, which was larger, and louder than the first one.
At this stage three more people died instantly -
Corporal Jonathan Horne,
Rifleman Daniel Simpson
and Rifleman Murphy.
We identified them through what they were wearing.
Rifleman William Aldridge died later of his wounds,
making him the fifth fatality.
Three other British soldiers perished within 24 hours,
a total of eight making it the worst day in the campaign.
Was Britain still trying to hold too much ground with too few soldiers?
And that really opened up the whole issue once more
about just how many troops was GB willing and able to commit to securing Helmand?
We had got to about the limit of our sustainable deployed force.
It wasn't sufficient even for Helmand let alone more widely across the south.
We may well have had to withdraw. We would certainly have had to take a different approach.
In four years of campaigning the British had more than doubled their force -
it was approaching ten thousand -
and spent billions.
But the governor of Helmand since 2008 feels positive results have been distinctly limited.
General Petraeus was the author of the counterinsurgency strategy
and had switched his attentions to Afghanistan.
Let's make no mistake about it - The Taliban had the momentum,
broadly speaking, in Afghanistan until probably sometime last fall.
The British force in Helmand was under-resourced, make no mistake
but I will leave that to the British leadership,
both military and civilian to decide how much it was under-resourced.
American generals decided a major reinforcement was needed in Helmand, putting the Brits in the back seat.
Some had been saying it for years.
It actually began with me.
I began to express to the leadership of the USA that this was an under resourced force
in manoeuvre forces, flying machines and intelligence.
That did not change until, I'd say...2010.
The American decision to surge was part of a broader strategy.
They wanted to turn back the insurgency, stand up a larger Afghan army and then leave.
In order to do that they were sending in many more troops,
20,000 in Helmand alone.
It would lead to a radical reorganisation on the ground.
What we wanted to do in Helmand was literally just clean up the battlefield geometry.
British forces up here, British forces here, marines over here...
I didn't get a sense of coherence.
We're going to clean it up in what I think is a much more coherent and sensible deployment of the forces.
For the British this meant a painful process -
handing over Garmsir
and the northern towns they had fought, bled and died to hold since 2006.
One place above all others symbolised that sacrifice -
Sangin, where 124 British troops have now given their lives.
No soldier likes to back away from a tough fight, no question about it.
There was a lot of blood and treasure invested in there
and I think that is why the UK forces wanted to see it through to the end.
But I made a decision to move UK forces from Sangin.
So on 22nd Sept 2010
the Royal Marines handed it over to the US Marines...
Who went on the offensive.
Yeah! Sucks for you, you motherfucker!
It was a decision we made to take the fight to the enemy.
And that's why we're pressing him and pressuring him everywhere that we can.
They followed the new counterinsurgency tactics.
Stage one was the clear - removing the insurgents
to allow the hold and then the build
but the clearance phase was often violent.
Jesus came down and punched the earth.
This is life in Afghanistan.
This is how the US Marines dealt with Sangin's Pharmacy Road
where IEDs killed five British riflemen in one day.
That was a mosque.
To protect themselves from the IED threat
the US Marines had levelled 100 yards on either side of the Pharmacy Road.
The destruction of civilian property has to weighed against the threat that you're facing.
They are trained properly to look at all options, to consider the ones that will protect the force,
while at the same time, doing the least amount of damage
and only if that damage is absolutely military necessary.
What we wanted to ensure our soldiers did was first protect the population.
That's our core mission here, is to take care of those civilians,
not to do harm to them but also to protect our own forces
and you have to find that right balance there.
The Sangin handover meant all the British troops were now concentrated in the populated centre.
Exactly what they were meant to do in 2006.
Three years on, the surge meant the returning Grenadier Guards
could now focus more than 1,000 troops on just one district, Nad-e Ali.
And they tried to push out facing all sorts of difficulties
in this close country and establish new bases, clear roads
and they did it in a series of operations or pulses.
But before the Guards could hold and build in Nad-e Ali...
..they had to clear the insurgents out.
And that meant a fight.
What the fuck was that?!
We arrived to, quite literally, a hail of rounds coming in
and a lot of rounds going back out from the vehicles.
And the base was just like something you'd seen in training.
Every guy stood tall on the walls firing off every weapon system they'd pretty much got.
And what's your sniper call sign?
What's his estimation on how far he'll be able to see in the next two hours with increased visibility?
Captain Young led the Grenadiers' recce platoon in one of the clearance operations.
We'd see them pick up their weapons and from there
we'd watch them go to the firing point.
When they got to a point where we wanted to hit them and we thought it was safe
and that the population weren't going to have any ricochet any hazards,
then we kill that individual.
We'll identify them picking up their weapons and using snipers we'd hit them.
We extracted 24 hours later.
Though numbers are always vulgar, we killed a large number of guys that day.
Two commanders and we killed 24 guys.
But it was never numbers - it never is in Afghanistan.
You could kill one you could kill 1000 - it doesn't mean anything.
It's all about the psychological aspect, that sowing the seed
of doubt or fear so that they will spread stories about you.
Following these deadly clearance operations,
the Guards now had so many troops in Nad-e Ali that they could set out to hold and then build effectively.
Throughout 2010, a series of operations swamped the district,
pushing the insurgents further out but never removing them completely.
Get down! Get down!
We've stopped our call sign firing. It seems the engagement has ceased.
I think this will be looked on in hindsight
as one of the defining moves in the campaign.
It released a lot of the pressure
on Nad-e Ali because we were able to displace the insurgents.
Now a year later, we went to see if the forces have been able to hold the district.
British troops still say they're making good progress
in the area of central Helmand which they now control.
And to all intents and purposes, they are smothering the insurgency here.
But have they been able to build
and bring any real benefit to the ordinary Afghans?
It seems peaceful enough in the bazaar but is this normality just superficial?
Quite a few of the people I've greeted with as-salamu alaykum
have not replied to me and generally I take that as a bad sign.
Either they don't wish to be seen interacting with westerners
or they may actually be actively hostile.
But there are changes.
Two years ago, this was an army base
but now it's gone back to being a school.
While Afghan women now have a clinic to visit -
something unheard of under the Taliban.
Last year, the British government announced that its combat operations would end by 2015.
When the British troops leave, the areas they hold will be taken over by the Afghans.
We've joined this joint operation between the Royal Irish Rangers and Afghan security forces
as their mission continues to clear more areas.
Their objective - to push in to one of the last Taliban-influenced sections of Nad-e Ali.
This is the biggest air assault operation this battle group has conducted so far.
People are keen for it. They're really, really up for it.
We're going to start from south to north and try and clear out as much Taliban as we can from that area.
We're going out on an operation with hundreds of Afghan and British troops
to try and grow the area under their control even further.
British and American helicopters are used to carry the assault in.
Twice as many for this one operation as the British had for the whole province in 2006.
Flooding the area led to no resistance or casualties.
And if casualties are the criterion of success, this brigade returned home in April this year
with around half the losses of the one in Helmand the year before.
We're going to have a shifty round the compounds around us.
Can one of you please tie the dog up? And put all the women into one room?
Britain came here in 2006 to develop Helmand.
But for every pound spent on reconstruction, UK PLC has spent 12 pounds on the war.
Nine billion in all.
Having set out to tame a province half the size of England,
Britain's footprint has now been reduced to an area the size of Kent.
And for all the killing, solutions will require non-military answers to Afghan's insurgency.
Anybody who believes we can kill them all,
that's simply not going to happen.
What we have to do is push and kill enough of them, do enough reconstruction
that it ignites developmental fires within the Afghans,
create enough space that the Afghan army and police can develop.
Afghan forces will take over from the British in 2015.
One of the hardest things for those who've sacrificed so much in Helmand
is the knowledge that the judgement about whether it was all worth it, will now hinge upon the Afghans.
It really requires the Afghans to deliver a much better performance,
whether that's in policing or the way they govern these districts,
than they've shown at any time up to now.
Otherwise these gains could easily be squandered.
So what do those who've fought during the five years of combat,
when hundreds of British lives have been lost,
now think about the battle for Helmand?
I don't really see that us being out there is keeping terrorism off the streets of Britain, to be honest.
I think if anything it's stirring up a hornets' nest
and it'll actually bring terrorism to the streets of Britain.
The tour has had such a profound impact on me, my personality
because you lose close friends and a lot of guys got injured, physically and mentally.
A couple of times I've forgotten that I've actually lost my leg
but there's other days where I can't get the leg on.
I was just wheelchair bound.
So each day's different.
If you look at the situation on the ground today
compared to what it was in 2006 when I was there,
it's just a staggering improvement.
It looks to me as if we can be cautiously optimistic.
I do think it's worth us being there.
Equally, I think it's worth doing it better than we do.
The gap between policy-making and its subsequent implementation was far too wide.
We've muddled through.
Next week, Lyse Doucet takes a journey away from the battlefield
to show a more surprising side of Afghanistan - the country she's grown to love.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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