UK forces fight at bridgehead into Taliban
Garm Seer (Afghanistan), Dec 4: We clamber out of the back of the armoured vehicle just south of the bridge as red tracer fire skims across a wheat field to our left. The commander of reconnaissance forces for Britain's Royal Marines is grinning as he runs up a short muddy hill.
''Hey,'' he jokes. ''Didn't the holiday roadmap say there was supposed to be a good viewpoint from up here?'' At the top of the hill, British troops are firing heavy machine guns from behind sandbags at Taliban positions. Just below their feet, protected by the fortifications, Afghan police in traditional dress are squatting in a circle, drinking tea and laughing.
Bullets lash through the wheat field. Smoke rises in the ruins from the impact of grenades. One soldier shouts that he can see a Taliban fighter moving in a building and opens fire.
''Ah, it's good to be back home!'' shouts the reconnaissance chief.
Welcome to the ''DC'', the district centre of Garm Seer, a tiny strip of road and ruined buildings on the eastern side of the Helmand River.
''I've either been RPG'd, shot at or mortared every time I come here,'' says the Marine reconnaissance commander.
LIFE GOES ON This narrow strip is, essentially, the only part of the fertile crescent of the lower Helmand valley in southern Afghanistan that is controlled by British forces and their Afghan allies.
Just south of it is a no-man's-land, a free fire zone from which Taliban fighters attack with rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars.
And south of that is Taliban country, vast fertile fields fed by irrigation canals from the river, under the control of the strict Islamist militia that lost control of Kabul five years ago but was never pushed out of this area.
For British forces, who have come to Helmand this year to push the Taliban out of the province that produces a third of the world's opium, the valley in front of us may be the toughest task yet.
The reconnaissance chief, who asked not to be named for security reasons, is the man who understands the problem best. For two months he has been leading small teams of crack troops who hide out in the desert and make reconnaissance raids into the Taliban-held villages.
His job is to figure out which buildings are Taliban strongholds, so that the Marines can identify targets without turning the entire region into a battle scarred wasteland like the DC.
''When I first got there, nobody had been there before,'' he says. ''We found out where they (the Taliban) were because when we approached, they shot at us.'' ''Everything has to be focussed, targeted, to make sure the only thing you hit is Taliban. The temptation is to attack them with the biggest thing you've got. But that would only piss off everyone else.'' ''Out there life is going on. People are going about their business. There are bazaars and stuff. But they live under the conditions of the Taliban.'' In the last few weeks, Britain has built up a substantial attack force of Marines, light armour and artillery, all camping in the empty desert, known as the Desert of Death, on the river's far bank.
So far they have mainly tangled with Taliban only when they come upon them in reconnaissance raids. But they could be planning a strike at any time.
''We may adopt a more aggressive posture in the future,'' hints Lieutenant Colonel Rob McGowan, the new commander of the British forces in the area, who visited the DC for the first time yesterday.
Further along the short DC road, British troops are firing from positions in the rubble of the collapsed second storey of the Garm Seer police station while Aghan police boil a kettle in a room below as the sun goes down.
A marine from Zulu Company of 45 Commando has seen movement in the wheat field in no-man's-land below and is laying down tracer fire with his rifle so the gunner next to him can aim with the big machine gun.
''Anything from here south is Taliban!'' his commander shouts at him.
''That's the one good thing about this place,'' muses the reconnaissance chief out of earshot. ''Right here is the only place where at least you know, anyone you can see to the south is actually Taliban.''