British soldiers worry that victories are temporary in Afghanistan
HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan — The soldiers stood in full gear in the staggering midday heat, surveying the deadly puzzle pieces lying amid the garbage and the dust at their feet.
The streets of the bazaar in the community of Lakari were otherwise empty, though the sporadic crack of gunfire engaging their sister platoon a few hundred yards away bore stark reminder that this was not friendly territory.
Not that these British soldiers needed much reminding.
At their feet lay the spoils of war pulled from the stalls: five mortars and other explosives; reels of copper wire; several pressure plates used to trigger an explosion; fertilizer containing high levels of ammonium nitrate; and another acid-based chemical. Nearby, they found bags and bags of hashish. In short, the troops were looking at all the materials to build a bomb, and the drugs used to finance the operation.
After a long day of searching, the soldiers of the 7th Platoon were buoyed by the find. But they also knew that just two months ago, U.S. Marines made a similar bust in the very same bazaar, a reminder of just how cyclical and unending this war can seem eight years on.
“[It’s] roughly the same places that they found some stuff last time, only this time we found more, which is disappointing,” said Lt. Col. Stephen Cartwright, commander of the Black Watch, the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, a force of the British Army known as the 3 Scots. “The Taliban don’t seem to be afraid. Despite the fact that ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] has been here before, the Taliban have a sense of security that is either brazen or they feel comfortable packing stuff in places that we know they do it.”
“To be realistic,” he added, “there’s plenty more.”
The late September mission to the southern part of Helmand province punctuated one of the most violent fighting seasons to date in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
The spike, which followed the Marine deployment to the region ahead of the August national elections, laid bare the vulnerabilities of the two lead armies in this multinational NATO force, Great Britain and the United States. In both countries, as the casualties of an intensified fight mounted this summer – 54 British soldiers died and 60 U.S. forces in the southern provinces, according to icasualties.org — the public back at home has grown increasingly apprehensive about sustaining what appears to be an expanding war.
It also sparked doubt among some troops about whether they are fighting and dying to attain temporary goals that they will have to fight for again in a few months.
Lance Cpl. Stuart Edgar said he thought it possible the fight in Afghanistan was keeping it far from home. Still, he wasn’t sure what could be achieved.
“Sometimes you wonder if it’s worth it … if it has made any changes at all,” said Edgar, 19, of Perth, Scotland, who is second in command of a section in the 5th Platoon. “I don’t think we should be here, but we’ve been here so long, I think we should stay and finish it.”
Many others do see explicit value in their successes.
“People back in the U.K. don’t really see all the difference we are making here,” said Cpl. Alex Wells, 25, from Inverness, Scotland. “All the missions we go on, counternarcotics or getting the Taliban from certain areas — all of them are successful. They don’t see that.”
When the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., arrived in Lakari in mid-July, they got into a heavy firefight with insurgents who used rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire. In return, the U.S. forces pounded the insurgents with mortars, heavy machine guns and small arms both from the ground and from helicopters, said Lance Cpl. Rick McAdon, 22, from Lake County, Calif., who, along with his bomb-sniffing dog Jag, was on both missions.
The insurgents took a beating, but as soon as the forces left, they set up shop again.
As a battle support team, the 3 Scots have a difficult time assessing long-term results. They don’t own any battle space and go out on operations in support of whatever brigade is asking for their help.
Often, they land, fight their way through their mission, and leave again, left to wonder whether the work they did had any impact.
This mission in Lakari was in support of U.S. Marines who were busy constructing a new base north of the bazaar, believing that a regular presence might force the Taliban out — once and for all.
Inside the Lakari compound, resident Zai Hazir told the Scots that the Taliban come in and take over their shops, and if shopkeepers object that their presence will draw the ire of NATO forces, the Taliban sees them as complicit with coalition or government forces.
“We don’t know where they come from, they come at night,” he said. “Whenever the coalition comes, the Taliban attack us.”
But 3 Scots intelligence officer Lt. Mike Goodall, 24, of London, didn’t buy in.
“I want to believe them. But we found so many weapons in the bazaar yesterday. The Taliban are here. They don’t only come when we are there,” he said.
On the third day, two Americans who work with explosive ordnances piled the bombs in the desert, laced them with their own explosives, and blew the enemy’s weapons to smoke.