A M I L L I O N B U L L E T S
by James Fergusson
The real story of the British Army in Afghanistan
Publication Date: 02/06/2008
Winner: British Army Military Book of the Year 2009
P R E S S
Download images here
Click image for larger images and right click to save picture to your document folder
Large File Size
Smaller File Size
S Y N O P S I S
This is the story of the neglected war in Afghanistan. It is told not by a journalist or politician on a quick trip but by the British soldiers and airmen who actually fought there in 2006 and 2007. The lessons drawn by James Fergusson are deeply uncomfortable; but his account cannot be ignored by anyone seriously interested in the future of the British armed forces.
In April 2006 a small British peace-keeping force was sent to Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. Within weeks they were cut off and besieged by some of the world’s toughest fighters: the infamous Taliban, who were determined to send the foreigners home again. Defence Secretary John Reid had hoped that Operation Herrick 4 could be accomplished without a shot being fired; instead, the Army was drawn into the fiercest fighting it had seen for fifty years. Millions of bullets and thousands of lives have been expended since then in an under-publicized but bitter conflict whose end is still not in sight. Some people consider it the fourth Anglo-Afghan War since Victorian times. How on earth did this happen? And what is it like for the troops on the front line of the ‘War on Terror’?
James Fergusson takes us to the dark heart of the battle zone. Here, in their own words and for the first time, are the young veterans of Herrick 4. Here, unmasked, are the civilian and military officials responsible for planning and executing the operation. Here, too, are the Taliban themselves, to whom Fergusson gained unique and extraordinary access. Controversial, fascinating and occasionally downright terrifying, A Million Bullets analyses the sorry slide into war in Helmand and asks this most troubling question: could Britain perhaps have avoided the violence altogether?
James Fergusson has written a riveting, blistering, deeply reported narrative of the recent British military interventions in Afghanistan. He raises important questions about the wisdom of those ventures and the fate of Afghanistan itself, and has simultaneously written a vivid and fair account of some of the most hazardous battles British soldiers have faced in decades.
Peter Bergen, author of Holy War, Inc.
and The Osama bin Laden I Know
L I N K S
Posted by Kate on November 5, 2009 at 9:53 pm
James Fergusson’s A Million Bullets - The real story of the British Army in Afghanistan, published by Bantam Press, has been named British Army Military Book of the Year 2009.
Six books were shortlisted for the award in May, with the winner being decided by a vote open to all Army personnel. A Million Bullets proved a popular choice, receiving over half of the total votes cast.
The British Army Military Book of the Year Award was launched in 2008 and is organised by the Army’s Library and Information Service. It was won last year by Patrick Bishop’s 3 Para.
A Million Bullets was described by Peter Bergen as ‘a riveting, blistering, deeply reported narrative of the recent British military interventions in Afghanistan’ and Antony Loyd advised that ‘if you read anything on Afghanistan this year, then read this strong, intelligent book of crafted anger and insight’.
James Fergusson was presented with his award at an event at Prince Consort’s Library in Aldershot on 4 November.
To find out what soldiers themselves are saying about A Million Bullets, click HERE
House of Commons Foreign Afffairs Select Committee
hearing 21 April 2009
A R T I C L E S
The best five books: May 2010
Andy McNab has picked A Million Bullets as one of his top five books on Fivebooks.com -
James Fergusson: Obama is haunted by Gorbachev's ghost
No invading army has ever 'won' in Afghanistan, and nothing unites the people more than infidel soldiers on their holy soil
Sunday, 15 November 2009
Ahmed Shah Massoud led the ousting of the Russians from Afghanistan in the 1980s. Occupying forces today meet similar resistance
It has become a pub bore's cliché to argue that we will never prevail in Afghanistan because no foreign power ever has: not even the Russians, whose nine-year occupation cost the lives of 14,000 of their soldiers and 35,500 wounded, and which ended in humiliating retreat in 1989. Those Cassandras irritate Western leaders, whose response is to insist that it is different this time. "We are not an occupying army," Gordon Brown told the BBC on Friday. "It's not like previous interventions.... We are actually creating the conditions by which the Afghans themselves, and not an occupying army, can run their own affairs."
Ture, history does not repeat itself in every detail. Nato, for instance, would never adopt the scorched earth tactics of the Soviet Union, which led to the deaths of more than a million civilians and the creation of 7 million refugees. In 1987 the Soviets carpet-bombed and bulldozed Kandahar, Afghanistan's second city, reducing its pre-war population from 200,000 to 25,000. The underlying motive of the Western mission, furthermore – the destruction of al-Qa'ida – has the justification of self-defence and is legitimised by the UN.
Nevertheless, the spectre of Soviet-style failure hangs over the coalition as never before. President Obama, as he dithers over a troop surge, is in the same shoes as Mikhail Gorbachev when he came to power in March 1985. He, too, inherited a counter-insurgency that had stagnated – and opted for a surge to force the result. Troop levels rose to 108,800: almost precisely the number that the US will have in the field if Obama agrees to General McChrystal's request for another 40,000. It did neither Gorbachev nor the Afghans any good: 1985 turned out to be the bloodiest year of the whole war. "The more troops you bring the more trouble you will have here," Russia's ambassador to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov said recently. "If this trend is the rule, if you bring here 200,000 soldiers, all of Afghanistan will be under the Taliban." Kabulov, who served in Kabul as a junior diplomat in the 1980s, understands better than most that nothing unites the fractious Afghans more effectively than the presence of infidel soldiers on their holy soil.
The experience of resistance has so shaped Afghan identity over the centuries that it has been blended into their religion. "We are against war," a Taliban commander called Abdullah told me in 2007. "It creates nothing but widows and destruction. But jihad is different. It is our moral obligation to resist you foreigners. We will never stop fighting. At judgement day, Allah will not ask, 'What did you do for your country?' He will ask, 'Did you fight for your religion?'"
I interviewed Abdullah in the mountainous Chak district of Wardak province, a scant 30 miles south-west of Kabul, and the scene of fierce fighting with US forces this year. The Talibs still control it. As elsewhere, they are helped enormously by the local topography. Afghanistan is not Mesopotamia: the steep-sided valley from which Abdullah continues to operate is a cul-de-sac with only one road in and out. As the many decaying wrecks of tanks prove, the Russians also failed to clear and hold Chak. Here, as in Helmand, the insurgents' tactics and ambush points are not just similar but in many cases identical to the ones used against the Soviets, and even the 19th-century British.
Advances in western military technology do not faze the Taliban. The Soviets' best weapon was the fearsome Hind helicopter gunship, which the mujahedin nicknamed Shaitan-Arba, or "Satan's Chariot." They were practically invincible until the US supplied the Afghans with shoulder-held Stinger missiles in 1987. The Soviets went on to lose over 300 helicopters; 2009 saw the first loss of a coalition Chinook to enemy fire.
The Soviets, of course, did not see themselves as an occupying army any more than we do. They arrived in 1979 at the specific and repeated request of the Kabul government. They too had a policy, and based their exit strategy on it, as we have done. By 1986, under Soviet guidance, the local armed forces had been built up to an official strength of over 300,000. But there were serious doubts about the reliability of these allies, just as we have found (and as the recent murder of five British soldiers by an Afghan policeman under their charge amply illustrates). In the 1980s, new recruits deserted the Afghan Army almost as fast as the Russians could train them: 32,000 of them per year, at one stage.
The difference between Nato and Soviet interventions is not always apparent to ordinary Afghans. For many years the shopkeepers along Chicken Street, the main tourist bazaar in Kabul, sold carpets patterned with Hind gunships and BTRs, the distinctive eight-wheeled armoured vehicles whose carcasses still litter the countryside, testimony to the mujahedin's Pyrrhic victory. These days such souvenirs are decorated with Chinooks and armoured personnel carriers that look dispiritingly like British Vikings. Another decade, another invasion: it's all the same to the carpet-sellers.
It's all the same to the Taliban, too. The oral tradition is strong in Afghanistan, and one of its effects is a strange telescoping of time; for them, it is almost as if the Soviet invasion was yesterday, and the British were here last week. "My grandfather died fighting you people," Abdullah told me. "Fighting the British feels like unfinished business for many of us."
It sometimes feels like unfinished business for us as well. In 1929, the RAF's 39 Squadron was stationed at Risalpur in the border areas of Pakistan, from where it flew bombing missions over Waziristan against the elusive insurgent leader, the Fakir of Ipi. Today, 39 Squadron operates a dozen MQ-7 Reaper drones over the same area – albeit from computer screens on an airbase in Nevada – in a bid to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. Some analysts think that drones could turn the tide of this war, and even be part of the West's exit strategy by eventually allowing machines instead of men to police the border. But as the Russians and the British before them found to their cost, it is a mistake to put too much faith in weapons technology when fighting in a country like Afghanistan.
James Fergusson is the author of A Million Bullets – The Real Story of the British Army in Afghanistan
James Fergusson: A force divided by unreliable loyalties
Sunday, 28 March 2010
No one claimed it would be easy to train up a police force capable of keeping order in Afghanistan. The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, claimed recently that the force now numbers "almost 100,000" – an important milestone towards the target of a combined army and police force of 300,000 by 2012 – but that may be wishful thinking. Attrition through desertion and death in the line of duty, as well as the phenomenon of "ghost" recruits entered on to the books by corrupt commanders, meant that a year ago there were some 82,000 men on the payroll, but only an estimated 60,000 actually working, according to Nato. No one knows how many there really are.
The new ANP is supposed to enable the West to leave Afghanistan, yet on present form it may be delaying our departure. Earlier this month in Nangahar province, an argument over grazing rights erupted between two Pashtun tribes, the Ali Shir Khel and the Mahmand. Such disputes are traditionally resolved by a jirga of tribal elders, a dialogue process that can take many days but which always ends peacefully. In this case the dispute turned violent before the jirga could be convened. Gun battles left as many as two dozen dead. According to Jalaluddin Shinwari, an official dispatched from Kabul to oversee the jirga, some of the local ANP belonged to the Ali Shir Khel and had armed their tribal cousins; in self-defence, the Mahmand had allegedly obtained weapons from the Taliban. "The ANP is supposed to be loyal to Kabul," said Mr Shinwari. "In this instance, they were partisan."
Ironically, Mr Shinwari had been given a bodyguard of 40 policemen. They were a disconsolate bunch who complained about their guns – east European copies of AK-47s that they said were prone to jamming. Their training, they said, had lasted three months – a period that under current plans may be cut to as little as six weeks. They made it clear they were only in the job for the $200-a-month salary. One confided that if there was any trouble on this mission, he and three of his mates had already decided to "disappear".
James Fergusson is the author of 'A Million Bullets' (Bantam)
James Fergusson: Peace with the Taliban: It is possible
Afghanistan's elections have shown how futile our attempts to create stability at gunpoint have been. We have to change tack
Sunday, 30 August 2009
Democracy is a fragile seed: if you want it to take root, it is probably best not to plant it in a hurricane. That, however, is what the Western allies have just tried to do in Helmand. In Babaji district, we learned this week, four British soldiers died for the sake of 150 votes. Has any sacrifice seemed more futile?
Gordon Brown, in Afghanistan yesterday administering more tonic for the troops, can smile all he likes. Operation Panther's Claw, a bloody offensive specifically designed to drive the Taliban out of central Helmand ahead of the presidential election – a Nato-Isaf (International Security Assistance Force) version of the lauded US troop surge that helped turn the tide of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq – was a failure.
Nato did not "secure the elections", as promised. Instead, there has been ballot-stuffing and fraud on a massive scale, particularly in the south. Votes have been so cynically manipulated by the incumbent, Hamid Karzai – the former darling of the West, now definitively exposed as a man more interested in power than the principles of democracy – that the credibility of Isaf, never mind the final election result, is in jeopardy.
The prospect of Iran-style protests looms. Renewed ethnic tension in this overarmed country looks a certainty. On Tuesday, meanwhile, the Taliban staged a car-bomb spectacular in downtown Kandahar, insouciantly murdering 36 people. As long ago as 2007, the election was depicted as a crucial milestone along the road towards the West's exit from Afghanistan. Instead, our blind insistence on democracy may just have made matters worse for the people who live there.
General Stanley McChrystal, the US and Isaf commander, will soon deliver a major strategy review in Washington. Let's hope it contains a frank admission that our military-led campaign is not working. The Taliban are not the Sunni insurgents of Iraq, they are Pashtuns on a jihad, who will not give up. "We are against war," a Taliban commander once explained to me. "It creates nothing but widows and destruction. But jihad is different. It is our moral obligation to resist you foreigners. One year, a hundred years, a million years – it is not important. We will never stop fighting."
There is an alternative to this recipe for endless war, and that is a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. Karzai, with recently renewed encouragement from the West, has been chipping away at the insurgency by pursuing reconciliation with so-called "low-level" Taliban for years. That is sensible, but doesn't go nearly far enough.
Kai Eide, the UN Special Representative for Afghanistan, commented recently that if you want important results from negotiations, you have to negotiate with important people – in other words, with Mullah Omar and the leadership in Quetta – and he is surely right. The Taliban is as much an ideology as it is an army. It follows that we need to win arguments with them, not just battles – and you can't do that without talking to them.
The US Central Commander, General David Petraeus, calls the Taliban leadership the "irreconcilables", whom "we have to kill, capture or run off". But how does he know that Omar is "irreconcilable"? Irreconcilable to what, exactly? Has he ever asked him?
A parley with Omar would not entail the abandonment of our principal goal. "Let us not forget why we are in Afghanistan," Petraeus said this week. "It is to ensure that this country cannot become once again a sanctuary for al-Qa'ida." Forget, for the moment, democratisation, development, reform. They are all optional extras: desirable in themselves, perhaps, but nevertheless means to a greater end.
Omar wants the withdrawal of foreign troops and a return to political power. In return for a guarantee to keep al-Qa'ida out of Afghanistan, is it unthinkable now to grant him this wish? The Taliban are not our real enemy. Unlike al-Qa'ida, they have never posed a direct threat to Western security, nor ever will. They have no foreign policy; their agenda ends with the domestic establishment of their own version of utopia.
Our policymakers assume that Omar could never be trusted to keep al-Qa'ida out, but, again, have they ever asked him? The Taliban and al-Qa'ida are allies of convenience now in Pakistan, but historically there is little love lost between them. The Afghans were often unwilling hosts in the late 1990s, and fearful of the implications of al-Qa'ida's training camps. That was why Omar demanded that Bin Laden move his original headquarters from Jalalabad to Kandahar, where he could keep a closer eye on him.
The Talibs put up with the Arabs largely for reasons of Pashtunwali, the unique tribal honour code that prescribes sanctuary to any guest who asks for it. Adherence to this code ultimately cost them control of Afghanistan. As a mullah once bitterly complained to me: "You destroyed our government for just one man." Even if al-Qa'ida wanted sanctuary in Afghanistan again – and it is a big if – Omar is unlikely to repeat his mistake. Even if he did, we could enforce the deal with intelligence gathered by Special Forces, backed up by new-generation drones. Afghanistan is not the hiding place it once was.
Western troop withdrawal, phased and carefully timetabled, would not mean the abandonment of Afghanistan. On the contrary, it should be co-ordinated with a massive uplift in aid, paid for by savings from the military effort – the civilian-led development programme that we should perhaps have pursued in the first place.
Of course, such a deal carries risks. It also represents a betrayal of those Afghans who don't want the Taliban back and were brave enough to vote for a different kind of future. On the other hand, the war is killing them, too: 8,773 civilians directly killed since 2001, according to some sources. Which is the lesser of the two evils?
There was a time in the 1990s, often forgotten now, when the West did not consider the Taliban so bad. Texas oil firms discussed trans-Afghan pipelines with them. NGOs privately admitted they liked being able to travel without having their Land Cruisers hijacked. Lawlessness, corruption, poppies: the Taliban arguably dealt with all these better than we have over the past eight years.
We should learn to live with them again. Their worldview may be abhorrent, but the way to change that is through patient argument over cups of tea, not at gunpoint. Reconciliation is currently a kind of adjunct to Western strategy. It needs to be placed centre stage if we are ever to get out of Afghanistan.
James Fergusson is the author of A Million Bullets – The Real Story of the British Army in Afghanistan
A Million Bullets: The Real Story of the British Army in Afghanistan by James Fergusson
The Sunday Times review by Christina Lamb
Afghanistan was supposed to be the good war. Unlike Iraq, foreign troops had gone in under a United Nations mandate and the majority of people had welcomed them as harbingers of peace after decades of Afghan fighting Afghan. When the Royal Marines drove into Kabul in December 2001, as the first foreign peacekeeping forces following the ousting of the Taliban, locals came out into the streets to cheer.
More than six years on, that goodwill has well and truly evaporated. Despite a tenfold increase to 47,000 in peacekeeping forces (or international stabilisation assistance as it is known in UN jargon), the Taliban are on the rise and much of the country has become a more violent place. Last year was Afghanistan's bloodiest since 2001; 8,000 people were killed in fighting, among them 1,500 civilians, according to the United Nations. Not only have the Taliban been steadily creeping beyond their traditional areas of influence in the south and the east of the country, but 2008 has seen them launch audacious attacks in the Afghan capital.
Last week, the out-going Nato commander described the war as “under-resourced”. Yet far from inspiring nations who have troops there to send reinforcements, this is more likely to raise the Iraq-like question of whether they are achieving anything by their presence. It is a debate that has been raging in Canada - which has taken heavy casualties - and it would be surprising if it does not soon become an issue in Britain and America, the two nations that contribute the most troops and are engaged in the bulk of the fighting.
The past few years have seen a slew of books on what went wrong in Iraq - now it's Afghanistan's turn. James Fergusson's A Million Bullets focuses on the experience of the British troops sent to Helmand in southern Afghanistan in April 2006. What had been billed as a reconstruction mission, where it was famously hoped not a single shot would be fired, has ended up as the army's fiercest fighting for 50 years.
Fergusson has been slightly pre-empted by Patrick Bishop's excellent 3 Para, which tells in gripping detail the story of the first combat troops on the ground, in their own words. But where Bishop's book is written in Boy's Own fashion, with little analysis of the situation, A Million Bullets is more introspective. Fergusson's aim is to answer the important question of what Britain is doing in Afghanistan and what, if anything, is being achieved. He also desires to show the war from the other side, and bravely (or foolishly, had it gone wrong) sets up a meeting with a Taliban commander. The Taliban tell him they are baffled as to why, after three past wars of which the first two were disastrous, the British would again become involved in Afghanistan. “A clever man does not get bitten by a snake from the same hole twice,” says one. But we learn little that we don't already know from Fergusson's meeting. The people we don't hear from - as is too often the case - are the ordinary Afghans.
Instead, Fergusson keeps getting drawn back to the action in Helmand in 2006. In an attempt to cover ground untouched by Bishop, he focuses on the non-Paras (the Gurkhas, the Fusiliers, the Royal Irish, the Household Cavalry and the RAF), all of whom feel they are the unsung heroes. With the usual squaddie resentment towards the Paras (who, they point out bitterly, received most of the medals for the tour), they are only too eager to tell their stories. Fergusson is clearly a sensitive interviewer and he elicits some fascinating material. But he is hampered by the fact that he was not there. Bishop was not there, either, yet in 3 Para he still managed to convey the heat, the dust and the fear of spending months under siege in platoon houses in small towns. Where Fergusson does succeed brilliantly is in detailing the emotional impact on soldiers - mostly in their twenties, who had never fired on anybody - killing for the first time and seeing comrades killed.
The most vivid part of the book is the story of the Fusiliers who were sent to the small market town of Nawzad (spelt Now Zad here) for two days and ended up staying 107, enduring 149 contacts. Not only did they feel abandoned to their fate, but lack of coordination between the British and the Americans left them having to deal with the fallout from attacks on locals by American special forces. One captain, with a 22-year-career in the army, tells how, before being deployed to Helmand, he had fired precisely 11 shots in anger, all in Northern Ireland. In just one hour in Nawzad (his first) he fired far more. Dean Fisher of the Fire Support Group fired 40,000 rounds. He described their five months under siege as worse than jail. “I've been in prison and at least you get electricity. And nobody's shooting at you. There were times when you'd just be lying in your trench and thinking to yourself, ‘What am I doing here?'”
Afterwards all of them had problems in readjusting, unable to explain what they had endured to friends and relatives. Inevitably, this put a strain on marriages - in 2006, one battalion alone experienced six divorces and 10 separations. One can only begin to imagine the agony of Fusilier Matt Seal, under siege in Nawzad, rushing to the long-awaited postbag hoping for a letter from home. Instead he found an envelope containing divorce papers.
Yet in some senses he is one of the lucky ones; 97 British servicemen have not made it home alive. Seal, like many others, must be asking is it worth it.
A Million Bullets by James Fergusson
Bantam Press £16.99 pp358 Buy the book £15.29 plus free delivery
Deaths not halting success - PM
The Taliban: Who are they? Why are they fighting? And what will make them stop?
Thursday, August 13, 2009
If you take some time to consider the 22 Taliban that were killed by the US-led coalition in Afghanistan on 10 July according to an Associated Press report, chances are you are probably imagining a group of fanatical, irrational, medieval-minded men hell bent on destroying the very foundations of Western civilisation.
Or at least that is what Western propaganda would have you believe. But is this an accurate, or useful, description of those people violently resisting British forces on the ground in Afghanistan or merely a simplistic demonisation of the official state enemy? Indeed, it seems to me the very word ‘Taliban' has become a reductive, disparaging catch-all that successfully limits debate about exactly who the British Army are fighting - and killing - in Helmand province.
Thousands of miles away from the war zone, British politicians are keen on trotting out the line that 'our brave boys' are in Afghanistan to protect the population from the Taliban. However, as Jason Burke, arguably the British journalist with the most expertise in the area, notes, "the tougher truth is that the Taliban, almost exclusively composed of the Pashtun tribes who comprise at least 40% of the country's population, are an integral part of the Afghan people." This inconvenient fact was well illustrated by Fazel Muhammad, a member of a district council to the west of Kandahar, who told the New York Times in June that about 80 percent of insurgents were local people.
So what is motivating these people to attack British forces? Speaking to me last year, James Fergusson, a freelance journalist who has travelled to Afghanistan several times and met members of the Taliban in 2007, explained that those fighting British forces have "a large variety of reasons and motivations and it's a complex patchwork and it's always changing."
However, Fergusson's own discussion with a Taliban Lieutenant strongly hints at the main motivation of many of the insurgents. Deep in Wardak province, the articulate Afghan turned to the British reporter and pointedly asked, "Supposing thousands of Afghans had invaded your country, and bombed your villages and killed your wives and children, what would you do?" Strangely this analysis is broadly supported by none other than the former British Secretary of Defence Des Browne, who argued over three years ago that "the very act of deployment into the south has energised the Taliban".
Complementing Fergusson's and Browne's evidence is an illuminating poll of Taliban fighters in Kandahar, conducted by the Canadian Globe and Mail newspaper in 2007. Speaking to 42 insurgents, the survey found the typical Taliban foot soldier battling Canadian troops and their allies "is not a global Jihadist who dreams of some day waging war on Canadian soil" but a young man who knows someone "killed by a bomb dropped from the sky" and "fervently believes that expelling the foreigners will set things right in his troubled countries."
The Globe and Mail's findings jar uneasily with Gordon Brown's assertion that Britain has to fight in Afghanistan "to prevent terrorism coming to the streets of Britain." As Rory Stewart, the former-Coalition Deputy Governor of Maysan province in Iraq who is currently running an NGO in Kabul, argued in the Guardian this week, "The idea that we are there so we don't have to fight terrorists in Britain is absurd... the people the Americans and British are fighting in Afghanistan are mostly local tribesman resisting foreign forces."
Perhaps most surprising - at least for those who receive information about the war solely from the mainstream media - is the news the Taliban have been pushing for a negotiated settlement, a course of action supported by 64% of Afghans according to a BBC/ABC poll published earlier this year. The Taliban and other insurgent groups have been talking to intermediaries about a potential peace agreement, reported the New York Times recently, with their first demand the withdrawal of all foreign forces in Afghanistan over the next 18 months. This would be followed by the appointment of transitional government comprised of a range of Afghan leaders (including Taliban leaders), the introduction of a peace-keeping force drawn predominantly from Muslim nations and, when Western forces have left, nationwide elections.
With the extent of public support for the war currently a matter of intense public debate, seeing our ‘enemy' in Afghanistan as human beings with rational concerns and legitimate grievances can only damage the Government‘s increasingly unpopular case for the continuing occupation. Only when people begin to ignore the deluge of Government and military propaganda pouring out of their newspapers, televisions and radios will they clearly see that the escalation of the conflict ordered by President Obama can only lead to more civilian deaths and refugees, an increase in the terrorist threat to the West and, most disturbingly, act as a successful recruiter for the very people the US and UK are fighting to defeat.
*An edited version of this article recently appeared in the Morning Star.
Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK. email@example.com.
(This article appeared in the Independent on Sunday today – 15 June 2008)
Journey inside the Taliban: Briton's dangerous secret meeting with the warlords who will never surrender
By JAMES FERGUSSON
Last updated at 6:26 PM on 18th July 2008
They slipped into the remote mountaintop farmhouse in ones and twos, climbing up the earthen staircase to a room at the top and dropping their Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades and light machine-guns in a heap by the door. Metal clanked on metal until there were a dozen men sitting around the edge of the little room and staring at me. I was face to face with the Taliban.
Their leader, introduced as 'Commander Abdullah,' a burly man of about 40 with a glossy black beard, looked me up and down with his head to one side, sizing me up like a bird from a branch. Silently, he ushered me to the cushions next to the stove, pride of place.
Militants who claim they are Talibans in Zabul province, Afghanistan 'So, the feringhee [foreigner] really came,' Mohammed, my guide, overheard one guerilla say to the man next to him. 'Why don't we just kidnap him?' 'Shh,' his friend replied, 'don't even joke about it. He's here on orders from High Command.' Instructed to meet me, a British journalist, they had come from miles around, some of them walking for hours across the rough Afghanistan terrain in winter temperatures of minus 10c. Just being there, they were taking a risk.
They hardly ever met together in one place for fear of a laser-guided bomb through the roof, wiping out the entire command. Even separately, they rarely slept in the same bed two nights running.
I had no doubt that these men were dangerous. They were all what the British Embassy in Kabul categorised as 'Tier 1 Taliban' - warriors driven by ideology, the fanatical ones who would probably never surrender.
They were differentiated from Tier 2 - embittered poppy farmers and opium dealers dispossessed by the Nato presence - and the adventurers, impoverished peasants and other hired guns who made up Tier 3.
In this cramped room, as hot as a sauna from the stove, I felt I had travelled back in time. A digital clock hung on the wall, stuck at 12.48. Given that the Taliban is accused of wanting to drag us all back to the Dark Ages, it seemed ridiculously symbolic.
It was obvious from the hugs and handshakes with which they greeted each other that they had known one another intimately for years. Many of them had fought together against the Russian invaders of their country over 20 years ago. Now they were fighting us.
But what kind of enemy were they? And what kind of threat did they pose? In the months before my secret meeting, some surprising answers had started to emerge.'I was in no doubt that these men were dangerous'
The British squaddies who arrived in Afghanistan in early 2006 would often deride the Taliban as 'flip-flops'. At Camp Bastion, the sprawling (and relatively safe) base for Coalition forces in Helmand province in the south of the country, you could hear much scoffing at the fighting capabilities of enemy foot soldiers.
They were said to be brave but foolhardy, a disorganised collection of amateurs and have-a-go heroes. In a setpiece fight, they were held to be no match for the professionals of the British Army.
British Paratroopers take cover as they wait for a Chinook helicopter to land. Six paratroopers were injured while on patrol in the Upper Gereshk Valley, Afghanistan
The defenders of the garrison house at Now Zad - one of a number of essentially 'Wild West' forts out in the desert that came under violent Taliban siege - soon came to know better.
From June to November 2006, in what was the longest defence of a static trench position in British Army history, a platoon of Gurkhas and then a company of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers were holed up in the police compound in the centre of the town and, on occasion, came perilously close to being overrun.
Major Dan Rex, the Gurkhas' commander, gave me a vivid account of just how tough and resourceful an enemy they were up against.
'They used cover well and they moved about very fast. They had sections of eight or 12 men, and a pyramid command structure just like ours. They don't wear badges of rank on their shoulders but that doesn't mean they aren't a proper army.'
In the weeks before the battle began, he remembered the garrison coming under small-arms fire at night and his men shooting back. 'With hindsight, it's obvious they were testing us out. They were examining our arcs of fire, our fire-times, how soon before air support would arrive. It was professionally done.'
He knew something was up when shops in the town began to close, and entire families were seen driving away, with all their household possessions on the car roof. Meanwhile, streams of other vehicles filled with men were arriving in the dead of night and inching towards the compound.
'Soon,' said Rex, 'they were all around us. It was clear they were preparing an attack.'
He had his platoon of 30 men deployed in sand-bagged sangars, defensive posts on the perimeter of the compound. Soon, rocket-propelled grenades were smashing against the walls, while missiles exploded in the air above the men's heads.
Outside, every doorway and window facing the compound seemed to be crackling with rifle fire. At one stage, the hail of bullets was so great that none of the defenders could run the gauntlet to man their most powerful machine-guns.
Gurkha Corporal Kailash Khebang spotted a gunman flit across a window in the second floor of a building. Bravely, he stood up out of cover and fired a light antiarmour bazooka.
His second shot dropped neatly through a window, but it wasn't enough. In a display of tenacity that astonished the crouching troops, fire continued to pour from the position.
Wave after wave of Taliban were now moving forward. Kailash, at 26 a veteran Gurkha, spotted six of them leopard- crawling across the ground towards the compound and shot three of them with a heavy machine-gun.
But the responding gunfire from the other side was so intense that the young riflemen under his command lay flat on the floor, certain they were finished. Kailash recalled: 'The boys told me: "We are all going to die!" I calmed them, giving them tasks to do.
'I also thought we would be killed, although I couldn't say that. But the shooting was just too much, and so close. We could barely defend ourselves.'
He reached for a weapon no Gurkha had used in anger for 40 years - a hand-held fragmentation grenade. He pulled the pins on two of them and lobbed them into the street.
Only then did the enemy retreat and the weight of incoming fire begin to subside. And just in time. The Gurkhas' ammunition was dangerously low.
'Taliban bravery astonished British defenders' Frontal assaults like this continued night after night, one incident blending nightmarishly into another. The Taliban proved clever, constantly varying the speed, direction and timing of their attacks so the defenders never got any respite.
Their hidden snipers pinned down the soldiers in the compound, but they never revealed themselves, no matter how carefully the Gurkhas watched for a tell-tale muzzle flash or a puff of dust or smoke. The marksmen were firing from the interiors of buildings, sometimes from two rooms back, through small, carefully excavated holes.
The enemy were just as adept with mortars, using a technique that could have come from the British Army's own training manuals (and some cynics among the soldiers said it probably had). The first mortar would land short. They'd adjust their aim, and the second would be long.
'You just knew that the third one was coming straight down the chimney,' said Captain Jackie Allen. 'Mortars are the scariest of weapons. With most ordnance, if you hear it, it's already gone past, but not these things. You hear them fire, then wait.
'The last four seconds before the drop of the third mortar shell were the worst. We had no overhead protection, and you'd curl up in a ball, with your head between your legs, just waiting for the bang.'
Another soldier recalled pulling his sleeping bag up over his head and praying. There was really nothing else he could do.
To get close to the compound without being spotted, the Taliban constructed tunnels - 'mouse holes' the Gurkhas called them. In lulls between gunfire on quieter nights, the sinister sound of digging could constantly be heard outside.
In the end, the Taliban were beaten back by air strikes. An Apache helicopter finally dealt with the building nearest the compound, the gunfire that had streamed constantly from its windows replaced by the sound of screaming. The Gurkhas reported the smell of burning flesh - the 'smell of war', as one of them put it later.
But bravery on the ground also played its part. In the course of just one month, July, Rex's platoon repulsed over two dozen attempts to overrun the compound, firing more than 30,000 rifle rounds and 17,000 machine-gun rounds. They killed an estimated 100 of their attackers, without losing a single man on their own side.
But all the defenders of Now Zad were astonished by the enemy's bravery. 'They've got bigger b*lls than I have,' said Dean Fisher of the Royal Fusiliers. 'The amount of firepower we put down, we completely blitzed on them, but they still kept coming.'
Others thought their courage was simply 'mad, stupid'. But even the most sceptical had to admit they had underestimated the Taliban's abilities as soldiers. 'I heard they'd be just cr*p, but they weren't at all,' said Fisher.
A Para recalled his patrol being ambushed by a single gunman, who popped up with an AK rifle at close quarters with no earthly possibility of survival. 'You do wonder what goes through their little minds sometimes, don't you?' he said.
Daily Life: An Afghan motor tools seller drinks his tea while he waits for customers in Kabul
I wondered, too. Did men this brave and this resourceful really conform to the Western stereotype of small-minded, mad-eyed extremists? They sounded far more formidable than that. That's why I went to Afghanistan in February last year, three months after the siege of Now Zad was lifted, with the specific intention of meeting them.
n London, a long- standing Pashtun friend put me in touch with Mohammed, the man who would be my guide. Discreet phone calls were made to the Taliban High Command and within a month I found myself in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second city.
I had been ordered not to discuss the forthcoming meeting with anydriverone, because 'spies are everywhere'. Amid much cloak-and-dagger stuff, I was to wait to be contacted.
At first, the plan was for me to be 'embedded' with Mullah Manan, a senior Taliban field commander in northern Helmand. But the Americans were on the offensive in the area, their jets and helicopters destroying every half- suspicious vehicle that moved. My safety could not be guaranteed. The Mullah thought it better I did not come.
Undaunted, I tried another approach. Instead of Helmand, what if I went to an area behind Taliban lines? Mohammed quickly fixed it. I was welcome to visit Wardak province, just south-west of Kabul, where Taliban fighters rested and regrouped.
The following morning, in a rented, beaten-up Toyota Corolla, I set out with Mohammed, bowling along the Kandahar-Kabul highway at an arrow-straight 70mph. In the small market towns we passed, I kept my head down in the back, my face wrapped in a borrowed shawl.
When we stopped for petrol, Mohammed told me how the Taliban had recently killed a pump attendant suspected of planting tracker devices on their vehicles for American intelligence. A few hours later, in a forbidding landscape of low, rocky hills, he signalled the to pull in.
A car was waiting, its driver lounging against the door. Mohammed hugged him three times. 'My cousin,' he announced, grinning.
'Is he Taliban?' I asked. 'No, but he knows them. And they know him. It's the way of things around here. It's the best kind of security.'
We switched cars and headed along a steep track towards the mountains. I presumed that the Taliban were watching us - a presumption that was confirmed when Mohammed's mobile rang.
'Is that you in that white vehicle? You're early. We told you not to come until after dark. What are you doing here now? Our people were about to shoot you.'
After nightfall, we were guided up a barely passable side-track until we came to the farmhouse - and my meeting with Commander Abdullah and his men.'Why are you here now? We were just about to shoot you' Surprisingly, I felt safe as I settled among the cushions in the Taliban's secret lair. As dinner was served that night - a communal heap of rice and a plate of oily, orange-coloured mutton - Abdullah passed around the circle with a basin and a jug of warm water.
A hand-washing ceremony like this was usually performed by the youngest son of the family. For the warlord himself to do it was a deliberate act of comradeship.
It meant that malmatsia, the Pashtuns' code of hospitality, was strong here and would protect me. Without it, as one of them told me plainly to my face, 'we would kill you'. Abdullah explained that the farmhouse where we were meeting was known to the Coalition.
Once, U.S. Special Forces had pursued him here, but he had got away. 'Don't worry,' he said to me. 'If they come again tonight, we will defend you with our lives.' Everyone nodded solemnly in agreement.
I smiled in gratitude - it seemed the appropriate response - though I was secretly bewildered by this pledge and the strangeness of my situation. Whose side, ultimately, did they suppose I was really on?
Abdullah put the Taliban case to me. They were fighting, he said, because it was their religious duty to resist the infidel invaders - just as they had fought the Russians, and as their fathers and grandfathers in earlier times had fought against the British.
He had 700 armed men under his command, he told me, all in a state of constant readiness to attack a police station or an American convoy, or take over the entire province if ordered. They slept during the day and did everything, including live-firing exercises, by night. 'Night-time is Taliban time here,' he said.
The bugbear of his life was American air power. 'If it wasn't for them we could take half the country in a single day,' he boasted. 'What we need are missiles to shoot them down. But, insha'allah [God willing], we will get these very soon.'
The talk turned to Helmand, where an increasingly bombastic Abdullah claimed the Taliban had 10,000 fighters and a further 2,000 suicide bombers standing by. They hoped to 'break the back' of the British.
I asked if any of them had themselves fought our soldiers last summer, and Abdullah nodded. He had been in Musa Qala, another desert town where, as in Now Zad, the British garrison had come under sustained Taliban attack.
British Paratroopers in Upper Gereshk Valley. 'Even the most sceptical had to admit they had underestimated the Taliban's abilities as soldiers'
The British, he said, were not bad soldiers. 'They are not cowards. They do not cry, or shout "Oh my God" in the front line as the Americans do. But still, they don't stand and fight like us.'
His supposed proof was a video of British soldiers 'surrendering' at Musa Qala. I protested at this travesty. A deal had been hammered out for both sides to withdraw, at the request of the town's elders.
I knew full well the Paras and Royal Irish had left in fighting order, their arms intact, but now the Taliban were touting this as their victory. The video was probably being sold in every souk from here to Morocco.
'The British were defeated at Musa Qala,' Abdullah continued to brag. 'Everyone knows this. We were going to slaughter them or capture them, but we let them go out of respect for the elders.'
In their eyes, what had happened in 2006 was merely history repeating itself. They had beaten us before, back in the 1840s. 'Fighting the British feels like unfinished business for many of us.'
Crazy as this seemed, it confirmed my view that sending the Army to win modern hearts and minds in an Afghanistan where the past was still so very alive was a bad mistake.
But it turned out they hated the Americans more than the British - and even more than the Russians who had brutalised their country 20 years earlier.
'The Russians fought man to man,' Abdullah said, 'but when one American soldier gets hit, a whole village gets razed by bombs in response. Their bombs are too big. It was easier to respect the Russians.'
The whole idea of the American military machine, with its long-range technology and air power, was anathema to these men. Their attitude to war was pre-industrial. They yearned for a mythical past when battles were won through courage and faith, not superior weaponry.
This war, to them, was a holy duty: the object was not necessarily to win, but to resist. 'We are against war as such,' Abdullah said. 'It creates nothing but widows and destruction. But jihad is different. It is our moral obligation to resist you foreigners.
'One year, a hundred years, a million years, 10 million years - it is not important. We will never stop fighting. At Judgment Day, Allah asks us: "Did you fight for your religion?"'
'What we can't understand,' said a voice from the back, 'is why you allow yourselves to be the puppets of America.''Bin Laden is a good Muslim, an honourable man' The man asking it was the group's mullah, a scholarly man with piercing eyes, to whom the others, Abdullah included, deferred. He was, I realised, the real spokesman for the group, their spiritual guide and mentor.
'You British are clever people,' he went on. 'It makes no sense. You were beaten here before, and you will lose this time, too. Why do you think it is any different now?'
'Maybe we believe in the superiority of our technology,' I said. 'We have bombs and planes with chain guns that can fire 65 rounds a second. You have only Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades.'
The men looked at one another. 'But we had even less than you the last time,' Abdullah said. 'Only swords and ancient rifles. But still we beat you.'
'A clever man does not get bitten by a snake from the same hole twice,' said the mullah, to nods all round.
'But we're not in the same hole,' I persisted. 'It is different this time. We are not here to occupy your country. We are here to help your government to secure economic development.'
'Then why do you come here with guns and bombs?'
'Are you saying that it would be different if we had come here unarmed?' 'But of course!' said the mullah. 'In that case you would have been our guests, just as you are our guest now.' 'But what about al- Qaeda?' I countered. 'Bin Laden attacked the West. Don't you think we had the right to hunt him here?' 'We knew Bin Laden as a jihadi in the time of the Russians,' said the Mullah. 'He is a good Muslim, an honourable man.' '9/11 was not honourable,' I said.
He replied: 'There's no evidence that 9/11 was planned in Afghanistan. Those martyrs didn't learn to fly here.' What about the Taliban's denial of education to women? 'That is not true. There are girls' schools set up under the Taliban.' But many girls' schools had been burned to the ground. 'Some have, it's true,' he said, 'but only those with Western curricula, where girls were being taught pornography.' His claim was absurd. And the fact was that more than 1,100 girls' schools had been attacked or burned down. That was the reality of life under the Taliban, not the spun version I was getting.
But, though I pressed as hard as I could, I found no way through the mullah's ideological armour.
I was also aware that, though these Taliban fighters presented themselves as defenders of the national interest, they were not quite the populist movement they claimed to be. Only a quarter of the Afghan public openly supported them, at best.
Yet I found it hard, in the end, not to sympathise with some of their grievances, or to disagree wholeheartedly with their central contention that the West had no business being in their country. Most of all, it was hard to imagine them ever being defeated. There was something genuinely moving about their fervour, however naive or wrong-headed it might be.
There are now almost 8,000 British troops in Afghanistan
We talked into the early hours, and then it was time to pray. The men lined up towards Mecca. I sat alone on the cushions and watched. The mullah's transcendent singing filled the air.
There was spirituality here, a sense of peace, purpose and closeness to death and God seldom experienced in the modern West.
I marvelled how they were able to plug instantly into such serenity. For a brief moment I envied them.
Yet, in the end, I was not seduced but saddened by the Taliban's belief, and the destructive, uncompromising way in which it displaced everything else. Faith came even before love of family, as I discovered when I asked Commander Abdullah if he had children.
'I have two sons, aged two and four,' he replied, but said he rarely saw them. 'I don't give them the father's love that I could because when I am killed it will be much harder for them.'
'But that's one of the saddest things I've ever heard!' I exclaimed. 'And, anyway, how do you know you will be killed?'
His expression didn't flicker. 'My father, grandfather and great-grandfather all died by the bullet. I will die in the same way, and no doubt my sons, too. It is not so sad. It is glorious to be martyred. To die in the service of jihad is the ambition of all of us here.'
The chasm between our cultures yawned. In the West, love of family is our most cherished value, the bedrock of our civilisation. Not for Commander Abdullah and his men. 'Allah gives us children, so it is our duty to give to Allah before we give to our family,' he said.
'Life has no taste without faith, no matter how much you eat of it. But dying in jihad is like having a full stomach without eating. It is peace and perfection.'
The meeting broke up around 3am and the Taliban left as they had arrived, shuffling into the cold night, their weapons across their shoulders.
Mohammed, my guide, caught my attention. 'James, there's something I must tell you. I've just heard that Mullah Manan was killed last night. A laser-guided bomb through his compound roof.'
I was shocked. Manan was the Taliban commander I was originally going to visit. I could easily have been with him when the bomb struck. His warning that he couldn't guarantee my safe passage across Helmand had saved my life.
'Does Abdullah know?' I asked. 'He knows. Manan was his friend from Soviet times. All of the people here knew him. We were praying earlier for Allah to accept his martyred soul into Paradise. He also told me not to tell you.'
It was extraordinary, the strangest paradox of my secret meeting with these Taliban guerillas, that they were able to separate the blame for the death of a friend from their guest of the evening, an emissary of a country whose air force might well have been responsible.
What next? There are now almost 8,000 British troops in Afghanistan, the biggest deployment there since 1880. Brave, proud and uniquely professional as our soldiers are - as well as scandalously under-resourced by their political masters and tragically under-appreciated at home - I fear we have bitten off more than we can chew in Helmand.
Musa Qala, where Commander Abdullah claimed his victory, is back in Coalition hands - but for how long? The Taliban did not defend the town but slipped away as usual, regrouping in the mountains in order to fight another day.
The Taliban, I learned, have a saying: 'You may have the watches, but we have the time.'
Adapted from A Million Bullets: The Real Story of the British Army in Afhganistan by James Fergusson, published by Bantam Press at £16.99. James Fergusson 2008.
To order a copy at £15.30 (p&p free), call 0845 155 0720.
R E V I E W S
James Fergusson's outstanding study dwarfs its rivals in both spectrum and detail... an exemplary book that should be required reading for policy-makers and commanders alike. If you read anything on Afghanistan this year then read this strong, intelligent book of crafted anger and insight.
Anthony Loyd, The Times
For the full review click here:
Fergusson is clearly a sensitive interviewer and he elicits some fascinating material... succeeds brilliantly in detailing the emotional impact on soldiers - mostly in their twenties, who have never fired on anybody - killing for the first time and seeing comrades killed.
Christina Lamb, Sunday Times
This is the first major account on the British operations in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan to be written by a journalist and by large it doesn’t disappoint; providing an excellent description of Operation Herrick 4 that took place in 2006 and the first half of 2007. The title of the book itself is a tongue in cheek jab at John Reid who was Defence Secretary in 2006’s by now infamous quote that he would prefer it if the British army didn’t have to “fire a single bullet” in southern Afghanistan. This unfortunately was not the case and Fergusson reveals that the British army in Helmand did fire over 1 million bullets between October 2006 and March 2007; this figure excludes artillery ordnance and bombs dropped by Coalition air forces or munitions expended by ground attacks carried out by air support. As Fergusson wryly reports, the MoD soon stopped releasing figures on the munitions expended as it didn’t fit well with the “hearts and minds” campaign that was being propounded as approach to defeat the Taliban (the actual figures on munitions expended was only made available by the MoD after Fergusson was able to request an former member of the Army and now an MP Adam Holloway who submitted a written request to the MoD and was given the figures).
The main focus of the book is the fighting that took place at the base of New Zad, which was held by the Gurkhas and the Royal Fusiliers and the capture and then withdrawal from Mus Qala by the Royal Irish. Fergusson has been able to interview officers and men from the regiments involved; as well as senior command figures based both in Kabul and London. He has also interviewed personnel and pilots from the helicopter wings of the RAF and the Army Air Corps who were responsible for piloting the essential Chinook and Apache helicopters during the operations. Also, rarely, Fergusson was able to utilise his Afghan contacts formed from an earlier book published years ago on Afghanistan to clandestinely travel and meet with district Taliban commanders and their men in Kandahar province. This interview gives a rare chance to observe the conflict from the Taliban’s perspective and those who fight with them. While one may be sceptical as to the real nature of who Fergusson exactly met; the account makes for some interesting reading and is one of the few direct versions that is able to access this side of the story since the start of the conflict. In fact, no other journalist working on a project this size has managed to succeed in obtaining such an interview and several attempts like those of Sean Langan, the documentary film-maker, have ended up with the journalists being taken hostage and only released after negotiations and payment of a ransom.
The book is well worth reading itself for the details of the fighting and the nature of the conflict at the ground level. Some facts do emerge though clearly: firstly the Taliban are quite well organised if a disparate insurgency with a committed ideological core (what NATO planners call ‘Tier 1’) and a looser grouping of opportunists, those seeking revenge/on vendettas and disgruntled groups/opium farmers jockeying for position at the provincial level. They are also well equipped, the Gurkhas undertook the single longest defence of a static defence for over 3 months at the compound at New Zad and engaged in nightly fire-fights and duels involving small arms fire, mortars and heavy machine-guns. That the Taliban were able to sustain this level of contact for this period indicates that they are as well supplied and provisioned as the Coalition forces and do have formidable logistical supply lines that can allow them to wage an intense insurgency for a considerable period of time. Short of heavy artillery and anti-aircraft weaponry; they possess almost everything else from recoilless rifles, heavy machine guns, rockets and RPGs – all the legacy of the Pakistani arms bazaar and the availability of cheap Soviet weaponry. They also possess a reasonable degree of training and skills; ‘bracketing’ with mortars was experienced, as were adaptations to evade the night-vision capabilities of the Coalition forces (some of this night-vision equipment was also captured and used by the Taliban themselves). Thirdly, Coalition intelligence is abysmally poor; it is difficult to tell who is the Taliban, who is neutral and who is supportive of the Karzai regime. This is related to the nature of the Coalition allies the Afghan National Police (ANP) and the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the provincial governors that are appointed to the provinces and who by way of having President Karzai’s ear are able to influence the actions of Coalition troops. Hence the suspicion by some officers that many operations are targeting local rivals and opium mafia; as opposed to actual Tier 1 Taliban insurgents – yet politically handicapped by the need to be seen to be supporting the Kabul government, such operations are frequently carried despite their dubious nature and impact on the insurgency.
The reliability of the ANP and the ANA deserves its own section; desertion is a chronic problem as is drug abuse and a reluctance to engage in aggressive operations. The ANP are regarded as little more than bandits; their checkpoints on the roads widely seen as opportunities to extort bribes from the populace – in one instance the ANP actually do subcontract out the manning of a check-post to some armed militia who do the extracting while the ANP relax in the cool air of their offices! There are also disturbing stories about sexual abuse and rape of both boys and girls by ANP officers and men, on at least one occasion it was apparent that an allegation of sexual abuse led to the removal of a district ANP commander who had upset the local elders and townsfolk by his open habit of seizing young boys and then forcing them to sleep with him. More worryingly, from a security point of view, there are at least several instances where the ANP are revealed to have Taliban sympathies and several are arrested at New Zad after they have been caught giving away firing positions and radioing information to the Taliban forces before an attack. The quality of the allies not only makes the operational conduct of the war much more hazardous but it means that the local population have little confidence in the Kabul govt or love for the face of the Coalition backed regime when it comes in the guise of ANP men who are keen to extort bribes and intimidate civilians but not keen to do much else. This raises serious questions about the viability of any nascent Afghan state apparatus.
Perhaps the most important part of the book is contained in pages 152-164; which deal with the strategy of Operation Herrick 4. Initially meant to follow the ‘inkspot’ strategy that was used in the Malayan campaign; where by secured areas are opened up to development projects and governance to win the trust of the local population thereby undermining popular support for the insurgency; Operation Herrick quickly careers out of control. The reasons for this are complex and Fergusson does an admirable job of representing the main arguments –ranging from interference from the Afghan President’s office, to contrary efforts by American forces on the ground, to the paucity of troops, the inability to establish enough secure areas quickly enough and the nature of the personnel and units selected who were more interested in ‘kinetic’ (read fighting) operations rather than COIN warfare. There is enough blame to go around and Fergusson does a succinct job in distributing it fairly as possible.
The blunt fact is that few secure areas were established, British forces were spread too thinly across too many fixed position which then became besieged by Taliban forces and which had to then be tenaciously held without reinforcement and supplied precariously by air. The interviews with Chinook and Apache pilots are especially interesting to offer an airman’s view on the war. With a small resource base, the RAF and AA effectively were able to meet the demands placed on them only be violating regulations on the amount of airtime that could be safely clocked up and by cannibalising their surplus stock of spares. This resource clearly was also stretched to breaking point. There also was another loss; in terms of the number of pilots leaving the service once their period of enlistment was over and in some cases resigning before then; the personal strains were also apparent in the high rates of divorces and separations by spouses following extended deployment in Afghanistan, frequently in violation of the Air Force’s own rules of procedure. This is a significant loss given that some pilots such as the Apache flyers cost nearly £1 million to train and prepare for combat.
The problem of morale exists for the other soldiers as well; as though there is a strong desire to help the Afghan population and genuine concern shown to make an improvement in the lives of the locals; there is no clear idea as to what the British mission is exactly and why they are there. This compounded with the sense of detachment the rest of British society has viewed much of the conflict and the opposition to it; leads many to question the real reasons why they are risking their lives in the country. As one officer put it the “army is war but the nation is not”. The lack of progress made on the developmental front and the nature of the ANP and ANA allies further serves to cause more alienation from the stated aims of the mission. While professionalism and the esprit de corps ensures that there will be no breakdown in discipline; this is not a war that is very popular amongst the troops and this sentiment will only increase with time and with greater causalities.
The retreat from Mus Qala done initially because supplies of essential munitions were running low and the brigade force already stretched to breaking point was finding it difficult to hold all the towns under attack is an important example of what kind of problems exist at the ground level. A truce offered and then accepted by the town’s elders; to protect the town from further destructive fighting persuaded both the British and the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire whereby the British would withdraw from the town and a police force made of the sons of the town elders would maintains security with the Taliban agreeing to halt operations in the area as well. Almost with relief the offer is accepted by the British as they are unsure as to whether they could hold on any longer; and the Taliban too accept – yet the actual act of withdrawal is hard to portray in any other light except as a tactical setback; despite Fergusson’s best efforts to put a spin on it. Especially when the truce is broken as the Taliban reoccupy the town – leading to a subsequent operation months down the line when it has to be recaptured by Coalition forces. The causes of the breakdown are not made clear; though it is surmised that the Americans unhappy at what they saw as British unwillingness to fight the Taliban engineering a breakdown by bombing and killing the local Taliban commander. This indicates the tensions of operating in a Coalition and the different agendas of the Americans and the British as much as anything else. Indeed, complaints about the heavy-handedness of American SF operations, which are outside formal Coalition command and which frequently lead to significant civilian causalities – the fallout of which fall on the local Coalition forces to deal with, is a running complaint throughout the book by British officers and soldiers. This led to a subsequent operation by coalition forces to recapture the town in December 2007 – the subject of another excellent book “Operation Snakebite” by Stephen Grey.
The last chapter where Fergusson travels and meets a group of Taliban commanders, is worth reading directly; while they are committed Tier 1 fighters; it is clear that they view the struggle as much as a nationalist one as a religious duty. Fergusson had considerable difficulty in arranging the meeting, which he was able to do through his relationship with Mir, an Afghan refugee on whose life story he had written an earlier book ‘Kandahar Cockney’ who puts him in touch with a chain of fixers leading to a sojourn in Quetta; where after numerous delays due to the difficulty in vetting whether he can be trusted or not and the pressures being put on the insurgency by Operation Achilles; he is eventually granted the opportunity to travel to Wardak province to meet with the commander of Taliban forces in the province and his main lieutenants. The encounter makes fascinating reading, though Fergusson can perhaps be accused with some justification of dramatising aspects of it for greater impact; however the episode does show the determination and their own peculiar code of honour and malmastia – which ensures that Fergusson not only is guaranteed safe conduct as a guest but will be defended to the death from any attackers including the Americans – shows to Fergusson the depth of belief and the unwillingness to yield amongst the core of the resistance. Defeating such a group, if they have adequate numbers and all indications is that they do, will be extremely hard if not near impossible. It is worth recounting part of this remarkable interview:
“Tell me,” said one of the lieutenants, leaning forward and shyly clearing his throat. ‘Please don’t take this as an insult or anything, but…..supposing thousands of Afghans had invaded your country, and bombed your villages, and killed your wives and children, what would you do?”
“I’d fight,” I found myself saying. “Of course I’d fight.”
The throat-clearer paused, considering this. “And tell me, in such a situation, do you think it would be possible for an Afghan journalist to come as you have come to us now, to meet and talk and eat with fighters from the British resistance?”
His question had an edge to it. It was, of course, inconceivable that this surreal meeting could have ever happened the other way around.
“Probably not,” I said.
“So why aren’t you scared now?”
“Because I understand that you are good Pashtuns. I have faith in your respect for Pashtun Wali, for malmastia.”
“Yes,” he nodded equitably.”Without malmastia;, we would certainly kill you.”
It was hard to imagine these people ever being defeated. I recall reading an interview with a Para whose patrol had been ambushed by a single gunman, who popped up with an AK at close quarters with no earthly possibility of survival. “You do wonder what goes through their little minds sometimes, don’t you?” the Para told the reporter.
The only absence was that of more detailed data on troop deployments and dates of the operations concerned; providing maps, especially of the towns where the bulk of the fighting occurred would also have been useful. These minor quibbles I think this is an extremely important book for anybody who wants to understand the nature and problems of the initial British deployment in southern Afghanistan and the kind of challenges that face current British strategy in the region. Needless to say Fergusson is quite pessimistic of both British intentions and the appropriateness of the strategy and the chances of success that it brings.
Description of A Million Bullets: The Real Story of the War in Afghanistan
In April 2006, a small British peace-keeping force was sent to Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. Within weeks they were cut off and besieged by some of the world's toughest fighters: the infamous Taliban, who were determined to send the foreigners home again. Defence Secretary John Reid had hoped that Operation Herrick 4 could be accomplished without a shot being fired; instead, the Army was drawn into the fiercest fighting it had seen for fifty years. Millions of bullets and thousands of lives have been expended since then in an under-publicized but bitter conflict whose end is still not in sight.Some people consider it the fourth Anglo-Afghan War since Victorian times. How on earth did this happen? And what is it like for the troops on the front line of the 'War on Terror'? James Fergusson takes us to the dark heart of the battle zone. Here, in their own words and for the first time, are the young veterans of Herrick 4. Here, unmasked, are the civilian and military officials responsible for planning and executing the operation. Here, too, are the Taliban themselves, to whom Fergusson gained unique and extraordinary access. Controversial, fascinating and occasionally downright terrifying, "A Million Bullets" analyses the sorry slide into war in Helmand and asks this most troubling question: could Britain perhaps have avoided the violence altogether?
The New Not So Great Game, 15 Feb 2010
This review is from: A Million Bullets: The Real Story of the British Army in Afghanistan (Paperback)
A Million Bullets is an excellently researched and written account of the British Armys deployment in Afganistan following the events of September 11.
The book centres on the events of operation Herrick 4 in southern Afganistan in 2006, but the highly detailed accounts of small unit actions during this operation also serves as an effective springboard for the authors analysis of earlier and later events as well as taking a much broader look at the reasons and politics behind the conflict.
This superb analysis picks up the stories of individuals involved in the fiercest fighting, and there are some quite incredible stories, and it is astonishing that the British Army did not suffer much higher numbers of causualties at this time.
The Author puts the new Afghan war in perspective against those of the past as well as the counter insurgency tactics borrowed from the Malayan war.
A book full of respect for the military on the ground and the air doing their utmost to perform their role professionally, but asking some serious questions of those in the military and government running the war.
An excellent, well balanced and highly readable modern military history.
An absolute 'MUST READ'!, 13 Jan 2010
This review is from: A Million Bullets: The Real Story of the British Army in Afghanistan (Paperback)
I bought this book on recommendation from a friend of mine (we are both ex forces). All I can say is if you want an insight to the problems being faced in Afghanistan (Political, Military and Cultural), then this book is an absolute must read.
It gives you a feel for the problems we have and are facing in Afghanistan. Most of these problems are of our own making, through poor understanding of the cultural and tribal systems it has to be said, and are confirmed by this book, in conjunction with what I have been told by serving friends.
I found the battle descriptions 100% authentic, you find yourself wanting to take cover, and the expletives flow. The interviews are informal and you get a real sense of guys, 'telling it as it is'.
This book should be compulsory reading for politicians and senior commanders.
Whether you have a forces background or not I am sure the majority of people will enjoy reading this book for so many reasons, also money from the book goes to the charity 'Combat Stress'. So it's worth the purchase price just for that.
This book also ends up making you feel that one day Afghanistan will be a changed and much better place if we can learn the lessons and be flexible enough to make rapid changes to both politcal and military strategy.
Muddling through, 4 Jan 2010
This review is from: A Million Bullets: The Real Story of the British Army in Afghanistan (Paperback)
James Fergusson has set out to cover a number of tangential matters than combine to point out the lack of a coherence and reality to NATO policy in Afghanistan, especially as this is applied by the British Army.
He tends to travel in the backwaters. Instead of the much rated 3 Para he visits the Gurkhas and Royal Fusiliers from the 3 Para Battlegroup shut away in some unsupported location getting shot at by the Taliban and unable to perform their mission of reconstruction.
He examines the practical difficulties of a small force of military professionals trying to bring peace to an area by bringing war. The difficulties of persuading the locals that the corrupt and brutal police and Afghan Army are to be supported are laid out; as is the difficulty of making the police and army anything but corrupt when they are underpaid and undertrained. It's a real muddle.
By comparing the units supporting two helicopter types (Chinooks and Apaches) Fergusson can make valuable points about the under-funding of the effort and (perhaps more important) the underinvestment in keeping skilled personnel. Just having the best kit is no answer when service
personnel are condemned to long tours and divorces. But looking at the armour kit used by the cavalry one can see that in some cases it is not only old but designed for different operational conditions (mostly the North German Plain).
Fergusson travels to meet and talk to the Taliban, he clearly respects them and feels they need to be part of the solution. This has been the view of a number of British officials but is apparently not acceptable in the eyes of the more manichean Americans.
Although at times Fergusson seems rather innocent it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he is on to something. There is only one thing worse than fighting a war with allies; and that is fighting one without any.
afghanistan, 29 Dec 2009
This review is from: A Million Bullets: The Real Story of the British Army in Afghanistan (Paperback)
this was a xmas present for my son in law who is a serving soldier and has served in afghanistan. he was pleased with the book and what he has read so far
Excellent book - the best of its genre, 17 Nov 2009
This review is from: A Million Bullets: The Real Story of the British Army in Afghanistan (Paperback)
A lot of books have come out describing the experiences of the troops in Afghanistan, particularly since 2006. This book also tells what happens in that summer, and is rather more even handed than the Para experiences. For example, the Gurkhas had a similarly tough time, but were totally ignored when it came to medals being awarded. Whilst incredibly supportive of the troops and what they had to put up with, Fergusson gently points out all the shortcomings of what they were asked to do, and they were equipped. This is emphasised by the utterances from the out of touch senior officers in either Bastion or Kabul, who clearly didn't have a clue what the troops in the FOBs were having to go through. His two chapters on the different helicopters are the best I have read, drawing attention to the fantastic work the ground crews - as well as the air crews -do in maintaining and flying them. All of the equipment shortage issues are addressed, showing what the impact is on the troops in the front line, which tragically have still not been solved.
The other book - less analytical, more visceral - is Patrick Hennessey's The Young Officers' Reading Club which gives the best perspective from a front line soldier. These two together would be the two books I'd recommend anyone reads to understand how awful things are in Afghanistan - and they aren't improving.
One reads that Fergusson has the ear of David Cameron. If so, that is a real positive because he talks more sense about Afghanistan than anyone either in the Government or the Opposition.
plenty of room for a sequel, 9 Jun 2009
This review is from: A Million Bullets: The Real Story of the British Army in Afghanistan (Paperback)
Unusual review of the war in Afghanistan at the stage of Op Herrick 4: unusual in that this is no blood-and-guts battlefield memoir. Its core is based on numerous interviews with all ranks of the regiments that served there. Typically after they have been able to de-compress back in the UK. This helicopter-like view enables him to place the battles in the skein of the UK Government's misguided strategy of the time, and show how under-resourced was its execution. In the final chapters the tone becomes a lot more personal and immediate. Fergusson manages, with a lot of patience and a fair amount of danger, to meet with several Taliban warlords. Disarmed by their hospitality, he is chilled by their patience, motivation and conviction. Sadly there will be plenty of scope for the sequel: Ten Million Bullets.
Highly readable and eye-opening account of British in Afghanistan, 7 May 2009
This review is from: A Million Bullets: The Real Story of the British Army in Afghanistan (Paperback)
Just finished reading this book, and I take my hat off to the author, who has written an extremely well-researched account mostly of the events of 2006 in Helmand Province but which has been updated fairly recently (the author's note dated January 2009).
I doubt if A Million Bullets was conceived as a polemic, but it does read like one: the UK is up the neck in a military operation it can ill afford (both in terms of the cost in terms of young human life and limb and the colossal monetary cost of the equipment and munitions expended).
As the book shows, "mission creep" set in almost as soon as the UK forces deployed in the country in 2006, to shore up the multinational US-led mission and the fragile democratic government. Troops were deployed in the far north of Helmand in so-called platoon houses which became mini-Alamos and the focus of determined attacks by the Taliban, locals and have-a-go jihadis. Or as a general puts it, "tethered goats".
This is so much more than a McNab-style account of guts and glory, but because Fergusson interviewed large numbers of soldiers of all ranks, it's often a gripping squad-level depiction of the action. Much of it, as Fergusson notes, was barely reported in a war that Ministry of Defence has adeptly spoon-fed through embedded correspondents but which can also be followed - after a fashion - on the first-hand footage posted by soldiers on YouTube.
Fergusson has also spoken to senior officers and development officials and even - at great risk to himself - a group of Taliban leaders who treat him hospitably and make the rationale behind the invasion seem decidedly weak. The idea was to facilitate the reconstruction of a country racked by years of war - but, just as in Iraq, the west seems to have made the security situation even worse, not better.
Clearly the soldiers are doing an incredible job despite muddled strategy, often unsuitable equipment (vehicles with no air conditioning, lightly-armoured Land Rovers), and not enough soldiers (the war they are fighting requires boots on the ground - without enough ground troops the Coalition is over dependent on air power which makes the risk of civilian casualties higher).
This is certainly not a defeatist book - the Taliban can hardly be said to have the upper hand - but it sounds alarm bells about where the operation is going. Even the head of the army says that if the British Army is forced to continue the same tempo of operations for many years to come, there soon won't be an army. Fergusson notes that numbers are diminishing and recruitment is slow.
Serious though these issues are, this is much more that a book about the military - if you have any interest in modern politics, you should read it. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Click image for close-up
- Author James Fergusson
- Publisher Transworld Publishers Ltd (United Kingdom)
- Year 2008
- ISBN 9780593059029
- Format Hardback - 352 Pages
Click image for close-up
B U Y H E R E