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Back in Bastion
We have hit the ground running. No sooner were we
comfortable in Kabul then we were whisked off in the back of a
Hercules cargo plane to Camp Bastion, the tented camp for
British troops in southern Afghanistans poetically-named Desert
of Death of Helmand province. The camp, as a British sergeant
once reminded me, is not far from where an entire British
brigade was wiped out in the Afghan wars of the 19th century.
The Baluchi and Pashtun tribesmen who first called it the Desert
of Death named it well: it is about as forbidding a landscape as
Ive seen anywhere. Flat and dry as the moon, covered in pebbles
and grey dust like talcum powder. Blisteringly hot in the summer
and (as I learned last December) freezing cold in winter.
Camp Bastion was set up just a little over a year ago and
has grown rapidly. The British are in the process of nearly
doubling its size. It is still quite Spartan when compared to
the luxurious digs on the big American airbase in nearby
Kandahar. Parts of it still smell a bit of sewage. But its a
whole lot nicer than it was a year ago. They have added a very
nice bar, with lots of TVs (But no booze. Unlike the American
military, British forces allow drinking, but not at frontline
posts like Bastion.) They have at last brought in a railway
box-car containing what promises to be Helmand Provinces first
Pizza Hut, but its not open yet.
Which meant that when we arrived after dark we were stuck on
British Army rations. I had the infamous biscuits, brown with
chilli beef paste, every bit as yummy as it sounds.
In the morning we were whisked off by Chinook helicopter to
Sangin, a town on the Helmand River where British forces last
year faced some of their heaviest fighting since the Korean War
50 years ago, leaving much of the area in ruins. We were there
to attend a Shura, or meeting, between British and American
officials and the village elders, following an offensive in the
valley last week.
I filed a story describing the meeting, which started quite friendly but turned suddenly acrimonious after an American Special Forces commander rose and denounced the local elders for shielding the Taliban.
The British commanders were surprised by the aggressive tone
of the Americans remarks, although his speech did seem to be
effective in capturing the elders attention.
It was a striking example in miniature of how the allies
often appear to disagree on the proper mix of carrots and
sticks: so many times, the British seem to play the good cop
and the Americans the bad cop. Its a subject Ive written
about in the past on the level of top commanders and their strategies.
But I was startled to see it play out so openly in the field.