Dispatch: British troops and Taliban fighters in Mexican standoff

Across a flat, open expanse of ground 600 yards to our front we could see   three Taliban standing at the corner of a mudbrick compound.The insurgents also knew precisely where we were.

But they would only grab their weapons and open fire if the patrol from 2nd Bn   The Rifles and Afghan army dared to advance.

It was a stalemate. A Mexican stand off under the increasing heat of the   mid-morning sun.

We were on the Forward Line of Enemy Troops, the FLET. In fact we had gone   beyond the frontline and the Taliban did not like it.

The patrol was part of the grinding battle in a corner of Helmand over who   controls the water for the 17,000 people living in the stretch of the   Nar-e-Saraj desert . The local farmers are hostage to the ‘Mirabs’ the men who hold the keys to the   padlocks on the canals and sluice gates that feed precious water to their   fields.

The Mirabs are tied to the insurgents and control of the water means control   of the population. Furthermore, if they trickle it in, which they do, then   the subsistence farmers are forced to grow poppy as it needs less water than   the legitimate crops. More poppy means more money for the insurgents hiding   in their base of shadow government in Yakshal.

But as British and Afghan forces bring greater security to more populated   areas of Helmand the desert hinterland lies low on the list of priorities.

“Are going to have a contact today?” one rifleman asks another as we prepare   to venture into the area known as The Strip, a dozen compounds lining a   track in Torkman Kulay village. “Probably,” his comrade replies.

The Afghan soldiers, who have grown in competence, swiftly cross the parched   riverbed of the Nar-e-Saraj canal.

The locals tilling the fields just as quickly melt away. This is Taliban   territory and they know what comes next.

An intelligence report comes in. Taliban commanders have ordered “the   Mujahideen to mass in the east.”

The patrol takes over the compound and the stand-off begins.

Inside its half-acre walled garden is a 40ft well dug by the farmer who is   forced to use an old truck engine as a generator to pump water from the   ground. With rising fuel costs it is a barely profitable enterprise but he   has no choice.

The hours pass in tense stand-off before the Afghan soldiers decide to leave.

“As soon as we head back they will hit us,” said Captain Mark Cripps, leading   the 2 Rifles Recce Platoon.

More intelligence comes in that the locals have been told to leave their   compounds.

You can sense the tension among the troops. Commands are given abruptly, there   is a greater urgency in their steps.

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Categories: UK

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