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“What do you mean they’ve made “contact”?” I ask, trying to see where his binoculars are pointed. “Small arms fire at Woqab,” he says pointing beyond a line of trees in the distance. Suddenly I feel exposed, standing in the open, three storeys off the ground.
The place is Musa Qala in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province and Devos is a 26-year-old soldier from Nepal serving in the British Army’s 2nd Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles. His job is to man the lookout on top of the British base inside the district centre, about a 30-minute helicopter flight across the desert from Camp Bastion, the main British base in Helmand.
Helmand lies in the heartland of the growing Taliban insurgency, which the United States has vowed to stamp out as part of a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Barack Obama brings that plan with him to Europe this week to win support from NATO allies. Washington says the fight cannot be won by military means alone, but bringing insurgents in from the cold will be no easy task.
But Musa Qala DC (District Centre), as the base is called, might as well be thousands of miles away from Bastion, consisting of little more than a few tents, a helicopter landing pad and tall, sand-filled blast barriers that line the perimeter.
In the middle of the base, however, stands a decrepit two-storey concrete building — nicknamed “Taliban Hotel” after its former inhabitants who used to control the town — that now serves as the centre for British military operations in the area. It is on top of this building that Devos and I are standing.
Minutes earlier Devos let me use his binoculars to see a group of Afghan women he had spotted, gathered outside a compound, one kilometre or so from where the sound of gunshots now echoed. “I think something is up,” he said, “I think something is going to happen. Why do you think they’re gathered like that?”
“They’re probably just coming from a wedding,” said Omar, our Afghan photographer, reassuringly. But Devos wasn’t so sure. And he was right. The women, it turned out, had fled towards the town centre, knowing there would be an attack.
Dotted around Musa Qala DC, are more than a dozen smaller patrol bases, manned by British and Afghan soldiers, keeping a lookout for insurgents and trying to extend their, and ultimately the Afghan government’s, sphere of control.
Woqab marks the most northern of these patrol bases in the Musa Qala district and, therefore, the “frontline” between British troops and the Taliban. It comes under frequent attack, normally around the same time every afternoon.
Musa Qala itself is a small dusty town sitting on the edge of a shallow river that cuts through the dry desert, providing a strip of lush green on either side. It is a traditional opium-trading town and poppy fields in full bloom grow undisturbed only hundreds of metres from the British base.
After the Taliban were driven from power in 2001 following the Sept. 11 attacks, the extremely light presence of international troops in Musa Qala and Helmand, and the near-absence of the Afghan state, allowed the insurgents to regroup and turn the town into one of their major centres of power.
British troops entered Musa Qala in mid-2006, only to pull out again in October the same year, after daily Taliban attacks that at times reached their perimeter defences. They left the collection of shabby concrete shops and houses under the control of tribal elders in a truce criticised by their U.S. allies.
But the Taliban seized the town again in February 2007 and proceeded to set up a shadow administration and their own courts. Ten months later, thousands of British and U.S. troops launched an offensive to capture Musa Qala from several hundred Taliban fighters, paving the way for the Afghan army to move in and seize the town.
Since then, British and Afghan forces have been trying to extend their area of control to the north and south of Musa Qala DC. The strategy has so far been a success, the British army are keen to point out, saying roadside bombs and small arms attacks within the town centre have decreased over the last few months as the insurgents have been pushed further out.
But success is always relative. While attacks in and around the town centre have indeed dropped — although there was a suicide bombing in the main bazaar in December last year which killed the deputy district police chief — the area the British and Afghan forces “control” measures no more than 10 km from north to south. An important and strategic area, no doubt, but a dot on the map in terms of scale.
“Do you see those trees over there? Beyond that is Taliban. And those over there? Taliban!” says Afghan army captain Sabir, standing on the rooftop of the base and pointing off into the not-too-far distance.
Meanwhile the QRF, or Quick Reaction Force made up of three British armoured Warrior vehicles, screams out of base towards Woqab. News of a casualty has come over the radio. After firing a few mortar rounds to push the insurgents back, the QRF returns to base. On board is an Afghan policeman with a gunshot wound to his chest. He is stabilised in Musa Qala DC, and then airlifted by Chinook to Bastion for surgery.
He will probably live, but the pot shots at the patrol bases and the roadside bombs will continue.
The Gurkha Regiment lost their first casualty in Afghanistan last November. The soldier was shot by insurgents during an operation to extend British control to the south of Musa Qala.
“Did you know him?” I ask. “He was my cousin,” says Devos, “I was there.”