Five years ago this month, Corporal Sean Jones of C Company, the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment led a bayonet charge, along with three other men, onto a Taliban position in the village of Kakoran.
Corporal Jones’ action that day earned him a well deserved Military Cross for ‘extraordinary leadership in the face of extreme and tangible danger’.
He would later state that the way his patrol dealt with the Taliban also improved relations with the villagers they were trying to protect. ‘Before this, the locals were wary of us, but this showed they could trust us to protect them from the enemy and that we wouldn’t endanger them while doing it… We built good relationships, chatting to them on patrols, kicking balls around with the children. They knew the Taliban could no longer enforce curfews on them and things got much better with their way of life.’
Sadly, any improvements were short-lived. Five months later I would join the men of C Company on their last patrol into Kakoran:
‘Patrol Base Clifton sits atop high ground just outside the green zone overlooking a rural community which has not changed much in the last 500 years. Families live in walled compounds made of mud and straw, side by side with their livestock. They have none of the creature comforts we take for granted in the West. Despite these privations it has a certain rustic beauty. Fields are carefully tended, watered by a delicate and intricate irrigation system which provides an ever‑present, soothing soundtrack of flowing water. Whitewashed compounds are shaded by magnificent mulberry trees which stave off the relentless heat of the Afghan summer.
In stark contrast to the dashte in the north, the land is fertile. The favourable climate and an abundance of water enable three growing seasons each year. Farmers harvest poppy in April, wheat in June and maize in September. Poppy, however, is the main source of income and this illicit trade binds the community to an insurgent narco‑nexus which facilitates the movement of wet opium to markets in Gereshk, and as far afield as Pakistan and Iran.
Over the past six months C Company has made numerous attempts to gain access to Kakoran and its sister kalay of Narqiel a few clicks further south. All have resulted in ‘kinetic activity’ – the military euphemism for the use of lethal force. Further east in the kalay of Adinzai insurgents have been observed routinely gathering at a tea shop in the local bazaar, openly carrying their weapons without fear of reprisals. This group of young bandits is known to be especially wild and fond of violence and is informally labelled the ‘Crazy Gang’ by our J2 (Intelligence) cell.
Back in the UK Captain Alex Bayliss, our Intelligence Officer had described this area to me as the ‘Taliban Heart of Darkness’. It’s a place where brown underpants are a sensible precaution.
We continue to patrol down into the green zone where we go firm on the side of a dirt road beside an Afghan National Army (ANA) checkpoint which is surrounded on all sides by poppy fields. The ANA lads look bored, wandering around in flip‑flops and t‑shirts, pretending to ignore what we’re up to. Someone is preparing a meal while another man splits logs with a lump hammer and a metal stake. No one is manning the machine gun or carrying weapons.
A battered white Nissan pulls up and five or six lads get out. Although they’re in civvies they’re obviously part of the gang. There’s lots of hugging and fast talking. I’m curious to know how an ANA soldier can afford to own a motor vehicle but I keep that thought to myself. In the distance I see men labouring in the poppy fields in a slow, measured way that suggests they’re pacing themselves for a lifetime of hard manual labour. Nothing much has changed here for centuries it seems, so there’s no great rush to get anything done.
It’s obvious that everyone is watching us and waiting to see what our next move will be. After about 30 minutes we’re given the order to move and head out across the fields towards some compounds about 200 metres distant. We’re following a safe lane cleared by a Vallon operator and marked by his number two with blue spray paint. It’s a slow but essential process; Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) are the insurgents’ weapon of choice and the number one source of ‘Category A’ casualties amongst ISAF and ANA soldiers. A Cat A is defined as a life threatening injury which requires urgent medical attention within 90 minutes.
At first the going is pretty straightforward but as we move deeper into the green zone the ground becomes heavily waterlogged. Progress gets tougher and tougher as mud oozes over the tops of our boots, then up to our knees. It’s almost impossible to mark a safe lane in this sea of liquid mud but I take consolation from the fact that it would be equally near impossible to maintain the integrity of a battery pack, an essential component of any IED, in this volume of water.
By the time we reach the tree line I’m blowing hard and covered in filth – there’s a dodgy stench about me that may or may not be human excrement, which the locals routinely recycle onto their fields. I try not to think about it. Grateful for the camelback I was issued at the Reserve Training and Mobilisation Centre in Chilwell, Nottingham, I suck down some deliciously cool water through the drinking tube clipped to the front of my body armour.
We go firm in the tree line and scan our arcs. There are plenty of local nationals who have come out to watch the show. For us it’s a good sign because it suggests that the insurgents haven’t warned them to stay away, but we’re not letting down our guard. A number of shifty looking blokes of fighting age are having a bit of a chin wag about 300 metres away. One of them is clearly talking into a mobile phone. A couple of motorbikes are also whizzing up and down a track on our left and appear to be keeping tabs on our movements.
In order to get a clearer picture of what’s going on we decide to push forward across another field, but first we have to cross an irrigation ditch. It’s full of waist deep murky brown water with steep banks on either side. There’s no way to jump across with all the kit we’re carrying. In any case it’s a vulnerable point which will have to be cleared by the Vallon.
The insurgents are experts at identifying likely crossing points such as this and placing IEDs in the banks to catch unwary soldiers as they climb in or out. As we clear the ditch the guy behind me struggles to find a foothold on the slippery bank. I lend him a hand and he nearly pulls my arm from its socket as he hauls himself out. Unbalanced, I take a step backwards and stumble before falling headlong down the other side of the bank. I try desperately to stay in the safe lane but to no avail. We’ve been told that 90% of IED casualties are caused by straying out of lane. This time my luck holds but my underpants are going to require an intensive wash cycle.
In the short time it’s taken us to clear the ditch the atmospherics have changed. Women and children can be seen fleeing from the two compounds immediately to our front, herding their livestock in front of them. The likely lads we saw earlier have now split into two groups. One of our blokes sees what he thinks is a long‑barrelled weapon being taken into one of the compounds. These are all sure fire indicators that we’re about to be taken on and we now assess these two compounds to be the most likely direction of any threat.
In a procedure the C Company men call ‘advance to ambush’ we continue to move towards the compounds, expecting to come under fire at any moment. I repeatedly check the safety catch on my assault rifle with the index finger of my right hand but resist the temptation to slip it to ‘off’. Unless I’m unlucky enough to be hit by the initial burst of fire, in which case it’ll make no difference anyway, there’ll be plenty of time to depress the safety as I sight the weapon.
In these moments my focus on the compound is absolute. I no longer register the smell of human excrement encrusted on my combat trousers or the pain of blisters forming inside my waterlogged boots. I am unaware of the weight of my backpack compressing the blood supply to my left arm or the constant chafing of ballistic plates over my salt‑rimed skin.
My existence has narrowed to a set of binary choices: Live or die; hunt or be hunted; kill or be killed. These moments are the culmination of hundreds, if not thousands of hours of training which have consumed almost every waking hour of my life for the past 18 months. It is for these few precious minutes that I’ve turned my back on a lucrative career, abandoned my comfortable suburban existence, my beautiful wife, my trophy house, my exotic bi‑annual holidays.
I‘m not disappointed. The simplicity is exhilarating.
I’m taking a long hard look at the compound wall, trying to identify any likely firing points or murder holes, when there is a huge explosion. My first thought is that one of us has initiated an IED but then I see smoke billowing from the compound. Perhaps it’s an IED own goal.
But less than 30 seconds later I hear the distinctive sound of rotor blades and turn to see an Apache attack helicopter approach from behind us at about 500 feet. It has fired a Hellfire missile right through the open window of the compound’s main building. Now it follows up with a long burst of 30mm cannon. I take a knee and watch as the building appears to disintegrate into a cloud of dust in front of us.
After the intensity of the preceding moments I feel strangely impassive but, given that we are between the Apache and its target, it crosses my mind that now would not be a good time for the pilot to sneeze.
We learn later that, undetected by us or by the likely lads, the Apache pilot had come on station a few minutes earlier. From his vantage point, unseen and unheard five klicks behind and above us, the pilot had been able to see what we could not see from less than 150 metres away on the ground. He had positively identified two shooters about to open fire and under ISAF rules of engagement he had permission to make a pre‑emptive strike on the basis of imminent threat to life. In this case our lives.’
It was to be the first of many patrols I would make into Kakoran and the surrounding area. Over the course of the next few months four Guardsmen would be killed and many others wounded in action there, often in bitter close quarter combat.
History shows that the locals were right to be wary of ISAF soldiers. We proved unable to protect them and even before the British departure from Helmand Province in 2014, Kakoran returned to Taliban shadow governance. GIRoA has no presence or authority there.
SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.
A JOURNEY OF LOVE, SERVICE AND ADVENTURE. EXCELLENT!
A MODERN WARFARE LITERARY CLASSIC! OUTSTANDING READ.
ENTERTAINING, THOUGHT-PROVOKING AND COMPULSORY TO READ.