Join Date: Dec 2006
Location: New York, NY
Through Helmand Desert with the Dragoons
embed writes about C Squadron of the Light Dragoons in Helmand Province
In six months in Afghanistan the Light Dragoons have learned not to underestimate the Taliban.
"They draw us in brilliantly, 'til they are at their strongest and we are at our weakest," said Major Ben Warrack, 35. "They are fully ballsy. They don't mind taking on tanks when they have a good position."
"We own the desert," said Major Warrack, a veteran of Iraq and three tours of the Balkans. "But the Taliban own the green areas."
A strip of heavily irrigated farmland runs the length of Helmand along the banks of the Helmand River. The Taliban use it to run supplies, communications and fighters north from their bases beyond the Pakistan border.
While the Dragoons can appear without warning in the desert, the green areas negate many of their advantages. The vegetation provides cover for the Taliban while narrow tracks and concentrations of walled houses slow the Scimitars and funnel them into potential ambush sites.
On numerous occasions they have had to fight their way clear of such ambushes. Their first taste of combat in Afghanistan came last November when eight Scimitars were surrounded for two hours at close range by around 50 Taliban fighters armed with heavy machineguns and rocket propelled grenades.
"My engine was on fire, the fan belt had gone," said Lieutenant James Townsend-Rose, 25, who had to force a passage across a river to escape.
"There were a lot of high fives when we got clear."
"In Iraq people were constantly asking for more, but here they just want to be left alone," said Captain Jake Rugge-Price, 26. Local people tell the British that they have little liking for the Taliban, but their loyalties are hard to guage.
"80% of these people support the Taliban. None of them like Nato forces," claimed one of the Dragoon's local interpreters.
The issue of drugs remains a stumbling block. British commanders want nothing to do with the issue, fearing that association with counter-narcotics operations will make it impossible to win popular support.
But simultaneously Britain leads the international effort on counter-narcotics in Afghanistan.
"We are to help bring development to your area," the Dragoons told locals at checkpoints. "We are nothing to do with poppy eradication."
But many of the local security forces are involved in the drugs trade and other forms of criminality. Local militias have played a major role in recent operations in Helmand, but are loyal to anti-Taliban commanders who are notorious for their involvement in drugs, as are many of the provincial officials the British army must work alongside.
Most of the Dragoons believe that they will ultimately win the fight against the Taliban.
"I feel we have got the upper hand, though at this pace it will be long and drawn out" said WO2 McKenzie, "but we need more fighting troops. There are two support soldiers for every fighting soldier here. But it is entirely winnable."
With the arrival of the 12 Mechanised Brigade this month, an extra 2,000 British soldiers will become available ...