I’D BEEN TO Clifton before for the opening ceremony of the largest single span bridge constructed by the Royal Engineers since World War Two. The bridge connects the northern bank of the Nahr‑E‑Buhgra canal with the Band‑E‑Barq road which handrails the canal’s southern bank and is an important route into the city of Gereshk, protected by the ANA in a series of sangars and checkpoints along its length.
Despite the ANA protection it’s still the most heavily IEDed stretch of tarmac in Helmand, known to ISAF troops as the towpath of terror. It’s a popular spot with IED emplacers because their devices do not need to breach the armour of our protected mobility vehicles. Even a relatively small explosion will be enough to shunt a vehicle into the Nahr-E-Buhgra where its occupants will most likely drown in the brown swirling waters before they are able to undo their three‑point safety harnesses and open the heavy emergency hatches.
The bridge was to be opened by the District Governor to demonstrate GIRoA capacity. It was a pathetic deception that fooled no one, least of all the local people who had watched the Angrezi engineers build it. As everyone knew, the District Administration was incapable of filling in a pothole, much less building a bridge.
When I explained to Sultaan, the DCA, that the bridge was a gift not from ISAF but from his own administration, he laughed to cover his confusion, or perhaps his embarrassment at my stupidity. He pointed out to me that the bridge had already been named ISAF Bridge by the local population. But this didn’t suit the DST’s narrative. We needed to demonstrate to the local community, and to the international media, that a better life lay ahead with GIRoA, not with ISAF who would be pulling out in two years time.
Incredibly we managed to deceive ourselves, our political masters, and sometimes even the media, that all was going swimmingly well. But the local population remained stubbornly sceptical.
Not surprisingly the opening ceremony was a bit of a flop as almost no one turned up. This may have had something to do with the fact that, for security reasons, we’d avoided telling anyone until the very last minute. Alternatively it may have been because the locals were unwilling to put themselves in harm’s way. An event with a high probability of gunplay was hardly a fun day out for all the family.
In all over 200 ISAF soldiers were involved in providing security for the event. They were joined by an RAF Reaper MQ‑9, silent and invisible, piloted from an office on a US military base more than 7,000 miles away near Las Vegas.
This was to be my first trip down the towpath of terror and I made sure I was sitting directly below the top gunner’s hatch. I reckoned it was the best exit point from the vehicle if we were to get whacked and end up in the canal. Trying to appear casual, I rested my left hand on the quick‑release buckle of my three‑point harness. This was also part of my survival plan. The night before I’d jerry‑rigged a quick release strap into my body armour. I didn’t want to survive the IED and escape the flooding vehicle only to drown in the filthy waters of the canal under the weight of ballistic plates.
I normally carried my Sig 9mm pistol on the front of my body armour but for this trip I wore a dropleg holster on my right thigh. The dropleg holster looks great on Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider franchise, but it’s not much good in the real world. It’s almost impossible to run with a chunk of metal flapping around on your mid‑thigh, plus anyone going on the ground soon learns that carrying your secondary shooter below waist level means immersing it in water several times a day as you climb in and out of irrigation ditches. Wearing a dropleg is a pretty good indicator that you don’t do either of these things on a regular basis and is the mark of a base rat poseur. However, for this trip my Sig was uncomfortably chafing against my vastus lateralis because, if we did go into the canal, there would be no way to recover my assault rifle from the rack beside me, and once I’d dumped my body armour, I’d have no firepower.
I didn’t want to survive the IED, escape the flooding vehicle and avoid drowning under the weight of my body armour, only to find myself defenceless in the face of a reception committee eager to dress me in an orange jumpsuit before sawing my head off with a rusty penknife. I recalled a different war in a different time and place in which two off‑duty soldiers were dragged from their vehicle and literally torn apart by an angry mob before being executed. Back then there’d been no social media, no internet on which to post the footage of this sickening incident, but I’d viewed it as part of my own training and conditioning for that particular conflict. It had convinced me then that I should seek to avoid this outcome, and 24 years later I hadn’t revised my opinion.
- Hope for the best.
- Plan for the worst.
- Prepare to be surprised.
We made it to the bridge unscathed but one of the vehicles behind us was not so lucky. A Danish tracked armoured personnel carrier strayed off the narrow strip of tarmacadam and detonated an IED. It was hard to believe that the ANA were unaware of its existence, in clear line of sight with a checkpoint less than 100 metres away. This was yet another example of the collusion between GIRoA forces and the Taliban, as locally agreed ceasefire lines and informal agreements were worked out between them at the expense of ISAF troops.
We were infidels, and therefore expendable.
Thankfully no one was seriously injured or ended up in the canal, but the road was blocked until the disabled vehicle could be recovered, an operation that would take at least 24 hours.
We pressed on to the bridge where I met Major Simon Doyle, MBE the officer commanding the Tigers. The bridge is in his AO and is a couple of klicks due south of PB Clifton. As soon as I arrived Simon gave me a quick briefing to orient me to the ground and the direction of any threats.
I tried not to show my alarm when he informed me that the FLET was about 300 metres to our east. This was indeed worrying as it meant we were well inside the effective range of the AK47, the weapon of choice for most self‑respecting insurgents. Back in the UK I’d assured friends and family that I would be so far behind the lines that I would need to send my laundry forward. If the enemy were only 300 metres away it seemed I would be calling on Mullah Omar to take care of my dirty washing. I could only hope that he would be as irrepressibly cheerful and accommodating as Siyal.
But the opening ceremony passed off without further incident. Although there were almost no locals to witness this auspicious event the District Governor, looking even more hung over than usual, imaginatively named the bridge Azadi Pull, Freedom Bridge, and cut the ribbon Sultaan had strung across its southern entrance. He then walked across the span in the company of several local dignitaries, soldiers and policemen to shake hands with Colonel James who was standing on the northern bank. I was guilty of having choreographed this piece of pointless symbolism. Ironically, I’d struggled to get approval for the $200 I’d given Sultaan to decorate the bridge and source drinks and nibbles for the VIPs.
According to some estimates, the cost to the taxpayer of British military involvement in Afghanistan was running at £15 million a day. The operation to provide security for this little sham must have run into several hundreds of thousands of pounds. But my request for $200 was initially turned down as too extravagant. It required the intervention of Colonel James to be authorised.
The ceremony over, we were all eager to get home. With the Band‑e‑Barq road closed by the disabled Danish APC, this entailed a lengthy and uncomfortable detour through the dashte (desert) to circumvent Gereshk. This was treacherous landscape, extremely difficult terrain for our vehicles, an unforgiving mix of axle‑shattering bedrock, steep ravines, sand dunes and sinkholes. To add to the complex geography it was littered with Russian era UXO and more modern IEDs. No one fancied driving around the dashte in the dark so we said a hasty farewell to Simon and saddled up.
The return journey quickly descended into chaos as vehicle after vehicle became buried in soft sand. No sooner was one dragged free than another became stuck. At one desperate point all our vehicles were buried to their axles, wheels spinning, engines screaming as their drivers frantically tried to release them from the desert’s embrace. By now the sun had set. Ignoring the threats, we dismounted and began to dig ourselves out.
As the Sarn’t Major’s stress levels began to exceed safe limits he finally completed the transformation to Incredible Hulk. I did my best to stay out of his path as he raged around the stricken vehicles. Having survived the towpath of terror I had no desire to fall victim to an enormous, indestructible and very angry comic book character with stupendous strength he can barely control.
It was the early hours of the morning before we eventually extricated ourselves and continued our odyssey. Somewhere off to our left illumination rounds eerily lit the night sky, followed by the distant criss‑cross of red and green tracer as combatants exchanged fire. I was grateful that the insurgents had been busy elsewhere while we’d been trapped, exposed and vulnerable in the sand.
A gold‑throned dawn finally heralded our return to MOB Price and the rewards of a full English breakfast.
Sangar: A small protected structure used for observing or firing from
FLET: Forward Line of Enemy Troops
UXO: Unexploded ordnance