At 0335, one of the Warriors opens up with its cannon and machine-gun. Eight “pax” (people) have been seen to break out of the woods. The guns chatter for a few seconds, then cease. Another Warrior lets fly a little later, but that’s all the action before dawn and the end of any hope of sleep for me.
0422, we hear that the ‘Omelet’ team will go in first. This is not to prepare breakfast, for OMLT is an acronym standing for Operational Mentor and Liaison Team, which is a British unit that works to train the ANA to be effective and professional and to eventually work on their own. Another piece of intelligence is passed to us – three linked command-wire detonated surface mines have been spotted in the woods.
The starry sky has now been replaced by a dull overcast. The Kandaks have arrived, and their commanding officer, who wears a Lt Colonel’s three stars, is briefed beside the command vehicles. The approaches to the wood from different directions are discussed. The importance of the ANA giving reports of their position is stressed – everything north of their line will be considered unfriendly.
The trucks and Warriors load up with ANA and British troops for the short distance to the woods themselves. In our “Pinz”, Emily catches a few more winks of sleep.
A final brief at the edge of the woods – the ANA commander wants to assault from the south east of the woods. He will use Sound Commander – a man-portable loudspeaker system – to call for the enemy to surrender. Just in case they don’t, a Warrior will be there as back up. An Apache attack helicopter (AH) clatters slowly overhead. “We have AH on call.” Says the briefing officer, somewhat unnecessarily. “Any questions...? Ok, we move in two.” he finishes and the group breaks up.
We have joined a reserve squad of soldiers made up from 1st Battalion, the Rifles (1 Rifles) and the ANA, including an interpreter in a blue jacket. We form up in two lines and move out on either side of a forest path. The helmeted Rifles soldiers in their green camouflage and copious kit contrasting with the desert-camouflaged, baseball cap wearing ANA, who appear to have nothing but their guns.
On the edge of a treeline we wait as the first Sound Commander broadcast issues forth in harsh-sounding Pashtu. More walking and then we enter an area of tall green grass and plants, including nettles that I soon put a hand in and trap behind my knee as we crouch behind cover. I conclude that war is hard on the knees in general, and hope we can move on before they lock up and I fall over sideways.
The Apache clatters above, the Sound Commander repeats its call. The reply comes from surprisingly close “Allahu Akbar!” Hmm… it’s not looking good for the commander’s hope of avoiding bloodshed. The message is repeated in English, beginning with a good old cliché: “Resistance is useless. Come and join the government of Afghanistan”. The response, even as the message goes on, is a series of jeers and catcalls. We seem to have surrounded a football crowd. Four distant shots tap out like a woodpecker at work. The Sound Commander presses on regardless: “Any civilians in the woods should make their way to the left-hand side of the woods, in the direction of this noise. You will see white smoke. No harm will come of you”.
Suddenly a Warrior opens up with long bursts and the battle is on. Unseen guns and grenades fire around us. Our squad leader, a small NCO with a huge amount of equipment on his back, including a radio with a long aerial, relays messages to the ANA via the unarmed interpreter, who has to travel up and down our line and around a corner.
“Warrior is engaging. AH is engaging…Ok, there’s going to be quite a few casualties in this. They’re dug in and it’s not going to be easy to weed them out. Stand by.”
He darts about here and there, despite his bulky kit. He stops to speak in my ear “There’s the mother of IEDs in there and tripwires everywhere. Stay in the tracks of the man in front and be careful”. I ask how far away the shooting is and he says: “120 to 150 metres, but you would have to be pretty unlucky to be hit by a bullet in here” he reassures me, though not all that much.
At 0620 we are called in and run from our cover. I know the time because a few seconds earlier the alarm on my mobile phone rings cheerily. I am fumbling to switch it off when the patrol leader calls “Go! Go!” It was good thing that the shooting had started a couple of minutes before. Not good embed form to attract attention to the position of your hosts while creeping up on the enemy. Another one for the ‘next time’ list.
Across open ground, Emily speeds up to a run without looking around, following the troops in front. Despite my appalling level of fitness, I keep up and am right there when the column stops. At the edge of another piece of woodland, the troop spreads out, guns pointing into the trees to prevent anyone escaping. After a couple of minutes, the squad leader calls “alright, let’s move up!” and we follow him into the woods.
The bangs and shouts continue from somewhere deeper in the woods. Following the translator and Emily, I take a position alongside a path. About a dozen captured ‘AOF’ are herded out. Men of different shapes and sizes and a variety of headwear file out with hands raised. One in a blue robe is very fat and carries a bottle of water. A British soldier tries to take charge of them, but his officer shouts “Let the ANA deal with it! We can’t wipe their arses all day”. Warriors draw up to take them away, their engines grinding and tracks squealing.
Just when it seems the fighting is over, gunfire erupts again. I find myself fallen on my bum at the mouth of the forest path as soldiers run by, back into the fighting. I scramble back to Emily. The next thing to emerge from the trees is a pair of wounded civilians. Both are dragged backwards by two soldiers. One has a brown kameez and green trousers, soaked with blood. His left leg is missing below the knee. Medics work on the two men and stretcher them into the back hatches of the Warriors. The shooting has stopped and the final act in the parade that passes before me is a group of four unwounded civilians, two men and two women. Last in line is a large woman in a maroon burkha and white tennis shoes. Actually, it might be John Simpson for all I can tell, but whoever they are they are led to another Warrior.
After that it is all quiet, if you can call the chugging engines of the Warriors that pull up beside us quiet, and you can’t. The Apache makes a pass low overhead as a show of force. The rotors of a Chinook bringing medical help for the wounded beat the air. Despite the relative lack of exertion and mild temperatures, sweat is running down from my helmet and stinging my eyes. No-one else seems to be perspiring at all. Emily looks like she just put on make up and hasn’t spent the last two weeks in a rather Spartan army camp at all.
It’s now I tell her that I can’t find my phone. When I say where I last saw it she’s pretty sure it’s an ex-phone, somewhere in the tread marks of a Warrior. This particular phone has survived worse than being dropped on a battlefield, however, notably spending four days in a rubbish bin in Yuma, Arizona, and I am less surprised than Emily is when the first ANA soldier I ask produces it from a pocket.
Most of the troops, including us are sent away from the wood while the EOD team defuses the giant linked IED they found. We sit in a clearing off a forest path with a small group officers and men of 1 Rifles. I dig out my civvie map of the area and we try and locate where we are and where we were last night. Their estimate of the latter is miles away from where we must have been, given we were in sight of the woods. Well, at least we raided the right one. I guess.
A daddy-long-legs spider marches purposefully over us, looking like a tiny potato on stilts. Someone remarks they are the most venomous creatures to be found in these parts, but their teeth are too small to pierce the skin. I move this one with my notebook onto a nearby plant already occupied by some of its chums. A soldier produces a thermos of coffee brewed on a portable cooker. It is way too hot and easily the most dangerous thing I have encountered so far this morning. My deadline is approaching, but the operation is expected to last another “figures one-twenty” or two more hours. I can’t really wait that long if I want to get any material in before the deadline. Then there is a radio call that the colonel wants the arms cache photographed with the ANA. I am not too sure my role as a journalist is to produce propaganda for the coalition, but I am the only one with a working camera, and doing it might get me out of here quicker.
I take group shots of the ANA with their haul – a half-dozen rifles and machine-guns, a military radio, a laptop computer and a mortar shell case, all wrapped in clear plastic bags for evidence purposes. It seems a fairly small “cache” – the Met Police would probably find more if they randomly raided a row of lock-ups in south London, and according to the ANA commander, 15 enemy died for it. With my recovered phone, I relay these statistics to the radio studio, plus our lack of casualties and a quote from the colonel.
We get a chance to take the last seats in a Chinook going back to Musa Q’Aleh. With little warning, the big twin-rotor chopper zooms over a ridgeline and plops down next to a green smoke grenade. Fifty soldiers and one tired journalist are aboard in a minute and up and away en route to base. We unload even faster and the Chinook disappears off into the distance leaving nothing but a diminishing trail of dull thuds behind it. The last event of this adventure is a short hike to the camp behind the four-man Gurkha recce team, who spent the last 10 days in a hide, silently and secretly watching the enemy come and go from the woods. They are loaded down with backpacks almost as big as they are, carrying piles of equipment including tents, shovels, a machine-gun and ammunition. “And if I know them, probably a bag of shit as well” adds Emily.