Move and Counter…
The vehicle thundered past. I turned my back instinctively and pulled the sweat rag from around my neck up to cover my mouth against the huge cloud of dust that the wheels of the Huskey threw up. The guy on top cover, with the machine gun, gave me a wave and the truck disappeared into the thrown up cloud. We’d only been out for about an hour.
Our task was simple. In the past few days the Insurgents have stepped up their campaign against us by targeting our vehicle convoys as they drive down the dusty tracks that the locals call roads, but we call…well, dusty tracks. The enemy will pick a place were a track crosses an irrigation ditch – a culvert – made invariably from a concrete pipe so the water flows through it, filled in over the top with mud and dust and a layer of gravel, and then will stick an explosive charge in the pipe.
A ‘command wire’ will be trailed along the ditch to a firing point a few hundred meters away – somewhere in cover where the ‘ever so brave’ enemy will be able to explode the charge when a patrol or vehicle goes over it, and then be able to run away and disappear quickly. As a vehicle convoy was coming into our Check Point, our task was to speed up their journey by checking the culverts along the approach to the gate. A patrol of us was scratched together and off we went. Checking each culvert and vulnerable point as we walked down the road.
About 2 miles away we could see the Huskeys waiting for our confirmation to be complete. We would patrol in the normal way between each culvert, the so called ‘Afghan Snake’ one after each other in a long line, and then break into pairs to check the approach as well as some others to check under the culvert.
This is when the Valon-men came to the front. Modern day versions of World War 2 mine detectors, Valons – so called because of the company that makes them – would be used to sweep the track to ensure that there were no buried bombs under the gravel. Looking for ground-sign and sweeping the head of the detector, the pace was slow, but thorough.
Walking along behind the valon-man, providing cover, I could feel my heart pounding and my ears rang to the beat of each pump. The risk very real. The danger very close. I looked down and tried to plant my footsteps in the clear traces of the man in front. I kept taking a sip from my drinking tube. Not because I was particularly thirsty, but because my mouth was so dry.
The enemy are clever and vary their IEDs. Knowing that we would check the culverts they might change their tactics and target the people checking for IEDs rather than the vehicles themselves. Pressure-plate IEDs with a smaller charge would be used against people walking along the road.
Then the ‘beeep-beeep-beeep’ of the alarm of the Valon. Instantly both the Valon-man and myself stopped. I took a knee, bending down to the ground. He swung the head of the detector again, getting the same noise. But then I stood up and looked around. This was a different type of culvert. Some were built with blocks of reinforced concrete. I could see the side of the construction. It was a flat plate of grey concrete.
I called forward, ‘Do a swing along the width of the road. I think the culvert has got steel wires in it.’
The valon was swung around to check as I had asked. The beeep of the alarm went off for the whole of the width of the road, and then as he went up over the concrete it made the same noise.
”Yep,’ he said. ‘It’s metal rods.’ We moved forward again, slowly, my mouth completely dry as I stepped on the track across the stream, my feet aiming for exactly where the lad – only 22 – in front of me had stepped. Sighing with a tiny bit of relief when we cleared the danger area.
The sun was starting to go down. The light took on a milky quality. We were thankfully on the roads and so stayed out of the hideous corn fields that are everywhere out here. In fact the corn was all to our left, vast fields of it in a swathe off down to the Helmand River. On our right was open scrub land; a huge open area that stretched for about a mile in width up to the morn fertile fields of the north near the Narh-e-Bugra Canal. Here was where the flow of the irrigation from both water sources had run out. The land was sparser. The soil dustier. The conditions for growing harsher and the farmers here were poorer and scratched a living from the dirt in anyway they could.
The locals realised this and there were fewer farms and compounds. The ones that were there were in poorer condition than the ones in the villages to the south or to the north. Realising the land was good for little growing the locals have used the land to the best of its ability. All through the area the locals bring their dead for burial in grave-yards and cemeteries.
The route we were taking was leading us down to one of the largest in the area, with each grave marked by a cairn of stones. No headstones and certainly no crosses, but instead to mark the area the Afghans put up flags and streamers over the graves. Brightly coloured cloth flapped in the breeze, a real contrast against the dusty brown of the rest of the landscape. We approached and the radio crackled – the Huskeys were getting ready to move.
Just one culvert left to do. And this one is where a vehicle had been destroyed in the past. The vehicle had been right over the blast, that was just 900m away from our check point; a blast that had shaken the check point and sent some people running for their body armour thinking it was an attack on us. The investigation had shown that the explosive charge had been 30kg of home-made explosive and it had detonated right under the Huskey.
But here’s a testament to the Huskey against the old Land-Rovers. If it’d have been a ‘Rover, the truck would have probably been totally destroyed. Everyone inside killed. But a Huskey? It was 16 tonnes of truck designed to take a exactly that sort of blast. No injuries. Nothing. The vehicle took the blast, dissipated it and saved the 5 people inside from any harm. A real investment. A real result. A top bit of kit.
The valon men went to work with the metal detectors and the leader of the patrol said to me to follow him to have a look into the pipe under the road and to check out the irrigation ditch leading away from the scene.
The ditch was filthy and worse, as we rounded a small bend in the water, it was suddenly filled with frog-spawn. I hoped to God that we weren’t going to have to get in the water to do further checks. The Sergeant Major looked at it. He looked at me.
‘If anyone has been in there that spawn would be all mussed up and you’d be able to see a track through it. This is clear here.’ More relief. He swung up his rifle to use the magnification of the sight to look down the culvert pipe. I scanned the horizon. We were probably being watched. But that was kind of the point. We were out there to show the insurgents that we were going to keep checking the culverts and that they wouldn’t reduce our freedom of movement.
This is the war we are fighting out here, like a game of chess; in turns attack and defend, move and counter. You change what you do, we change what we do, you change what you do and so on…a fight against an insurgency isn’t a conventional battle. It doesn’t have a front-line, it’s a 360 degree battle.
You are fighting not just with weapons, but also with your wits and tactics. You try and neutralise the enemy threat. They come up with a new threat. You attack, they melt away and hide….
The Sergeant Major called for the Huskeys to pass and their engines revved. They leapt forward down the road and quickly passed up throwing up the dust. Following them was a small boy on a donkey carrying a load of branches cut from some trees nearby. We plodded slowly down the road as the sun disappeared and the lights of the check point shimmered in the distance to welcome us back…the boy and his donkey trotted on down the road…