Friday, September 23, 2011

From the Pages - Into the Viper's Nest

Taking place over three harrowing days in December 2007, the Battle of Musa Qala proved to be one of the bloodiest and most pivotal battles of the Afghan War. The engagement between troops from the U.S., Great Britain and Afghanistan and those of the heavily entrenched Taliban would become one of the deadliest to date and would serve as an ominous sign of the type of combat coalition forces could expect in the years to follow.

In the following excerpt from Into the Viper's Nest, author Stephen Grey looks at the a lesser-known battle that took place a month prior between Royal Marines and the Taliban near Forward Operating Base Inkerman during the "Battle of 9/11."

North of Forward Operating Base Inkerman, 9 November

The Royal Marines patrol from Alpha Company had been out for nearly six hours now, pounding out from the FOB to explore the villages up north. The intelligence reports said up to thirty foreign fighters were lying in wait. But it was no good just sitting in the base and waiting for an attack.

Back at brigade headquarters, members of the staff were reporting a level of Taliban activity across Helmand that had not been seen since the Green Zone clearances of Operation Palk Wahel in September. New fighters were coming in from Pakistan, said intelligence, and others were slipping down from the north. All in all, the brigade staff thought, it was a clear attempt to divert NATO from its pressure against Musa Qala.

All day long the marines overheard the taunts over the Taliban’s radio network. Every other moment, they heard an order to attack and a reply saying, “I’m ready.” But no one had seen anything. Nothing had happened. So they started heading home.

Two close-combat troops provided the combat strength, with 2 Troop in the lead and 1 Troop in the rear. The company headquarters was in the middle. Everyone was on foot.

About a mile and a half from the FOB, some of the marines began to see some strange things, like some well-dressed farmers fiddling with a haystack, just seeming to be moving stalks for no particular reason. They passed a man whose mobile phone rang and he didn’t even move to answer it. Then three men were spotted running into the trees with weapons. Most of the patrol were in the open then, stretched along a mud track by the side of a drainage ditch. Everyone started jogging to reach some kind of cover.

“There was a small pause,” recalled Andy Brownrigg, the company sergeant-major. “It was almost like it was a gentleman’s agreement that we will wait for you to get into a hiding place and we will get into our hiding place.”

The opening shot of the ambush that became known as the “Battle of 9/11” was fired at 1606 hours.

As machine-gun fire began and RPGs came whooshing over, everyone dropped down. A few men were knocked to the ground by a blast from one grenade. Most of the headquarters ended up in the ditch, pinned down by the gunfire. But they knew they had to reach solid cover to start getting organized. So they dashed, one by one, for a nearby walled but isolated compound. It was a trap. The only entrance, and the roof of the small building inside, was easily raked by enemy fire.

Marine Gary Ogden, a twenty-six-year-old medic with trademark orange-tinted sunglasses, was lying behind another of those little mud banks, firing shots at a couple of Taliban he could see.

“I glanced back at the compound entrance, and I could see the rounds striking the wall and a figure screaming for a medic,” he recalled. The man in the entrance was Captain Paul Britton, the twenty-seven-year-old fire support team commander whose job was to call up guns, mortars, and aviation. “Rounds were hitting the doorway all around him, and I wondered why they weren’t hitting him,” said Ogden. With the air filled with the crack and thump of bullets, Ogden picked himself up and charged across the field.

Britton had only just reached the compound after dashing from a ditch. He arrived to see a smear of blood dripping down the walls and a machine-gunner, Corporal James Fletcher, being dragged down with his leg looking lifeless. Fletcher had been on the roof when an RPG blast showered him and his gun team with shrapnel. Marine Matthew Fenwick, an ammo bearer, caught shards of metal in his legs and ankles. Fenwick was a reservist whose job back home was a lifeguard at a sports center.

“As I put my head up on the roof,” recalled Fenwick, “I could hear the rounds coming over my head. I knew it was going to be pretty intense.”

Fenwick had spun around to pull another machine gun onto the roof when he heard a boom and felt a sharp kick from behind. “The next thing I know I am on the floor upside down thinking, ‘What the hell was that?’”

Things then got even worse. A section leader, Corporal Simon “Si” Greening, moved forward to the compound entrance to yell at his men in the ditches around. They saw him staggering backward shouting, “Fuck, I think I’ve been shot!”

Britton and Major Adrian Morley, the OC of Alpha Company who was just running in, caught Greening as he stumbled. They ripped off his body armor and clothes and tried to put on a field dressing as Ogden finally came running into the compound. Ogden started going over Greening front and back to look for the entry and exit wounds. He had been shot in the side, bypassing his armor.

“As I rolled Si back he passed out,” said Ogden. “I think the OC thought he was dead or on his last legs. But I checked his carotid [artery] and found he was fine. His heart was racing like a bastard, but he was still with us.”

Ogden started putting a needle line for an intravenous drip into Greening’s arm to give him some fluids to replace the blood loss.

Then Ogden was being called over to treat Corporal Fletcher. “The RPG took all the muscles off Fletcher’s legs, tore his legs to bits. There was lumps of flesh everywhere and so much blood coming out of him,” said Ogden. “It was fucking chaos. He came down totally out cold.”

Others had put tourniquets on both of Fletcher’s legs to block off the blood flow. Without them, he would have been dead in minutes. They followed up with field dressings. Ogden found his breathing was okay but was worried about the blood loss. He also checked Fenwick and decided he was stable

Then Ogden was called back to Greening, whose field dressings had come loose and who was pumping out blood again. Blood was also beginning to drain into his lung. Ogden could put a chest drain in, but that would massively lower his blood pressure, so he delayed that option. Greening then woke up and started chatting and “giving me a load of shit,” said Ogden.

It was 1609 when the watch keepers at FOB Inkerman got the radio message that Alpha Company had three men down—just three minutes after the contact had begun.

Inkerman got on the radio network to Carbon Zero, the operations center of 40 Commando’s Battle Group North. Their day had already been fraught with trouble. In the early hours, a vehicle leaving Sangin district center, 4 miles south of Inkerman, had rolled into a water-filled ditch, killing Lance-Corporal Jake Alderton of the Royal Engineers. Then a Chinook landing at Now Zad narrowly escaped being struck by mortars. And just as the battle outside Inkerman began, a firefight erupted in the main street of the Sangin bazaar. An Afghan soldier was seriously hurt. There were now two simultaneous requests for a rescue helicopter.

Meanwhile, just as it couldn’t get any worse, another firefight began erupting with a U.S. Special Forces unit operating across the river from Sangin. Three serious gun battles were going on at once.

And that was just in the north of Helmand. Down in the southern town of Garmsir, the Gurkhas were just pausing for breath after a four-and-half-hour battle that had led to serious injuries. It was the most sustained attack down south for the last two months.

Most of soldiers of Alpha Company were still in the ditches in a storm of bullets, facing Taliban that had ambushed them from multiple directions and were now on the move—threatening a deadly flank through head-high maize and deep ditches. It was hard to spot their firing points. Sometimes it was just the rustling of the corn that gave them away.

The noise was phenomenal. Paul Britton and his mortar controller, Duncan Maddocks, were calling in a barrage of mortar rounds from Inkerman and preparing to bring in artillery. Apache helicopters were also inbound.

Then there was a flash followed by a bang as another RPG arched down into a wall inside the compound. Shrapnel hit a signaller, Corporal Dave Watts, in the backside. It struck Britton in the arm and hand.

“I knew there was something wrong with my arm,” recalled Britton. “It hurt and then went numb. I looked across—I saw that my arm was still there, but I couldn’t really move it.

“People had jumped onto Corporal Watts because it was obvious he was quite badly injured.” No one noticed Britton had been hit. Britton went up to Maddocks, who was talking on the radio.

“My arm!”

Maddocks didn’t even look at him, just raised his hand to say he was busy. Britton repeated, “No, I want you to see my arm!”

Maddocks looked over. He saw the blood.

“Oh yeah! Your arm!”

He dropped the handset, ripped off Britton’s T-shirt, and put a dressing on. It felt a lot better and tighter now, but Britton still could not move it. He did not even spot the shrapnel that had gone into his hand. Maddocks offered Britton morphine, but he refused. He had to keep his mind straight.

Ogden had seen Watts drop, and he sped across, worried that shrapnel could have severed an artery, but Watts seemed more concerned about his manhood. Ogden checked it out and assured him everything was intact. He patched him up and gave him a cigarette.

By now, it was clear the injured needed a helicopter medevac. Urgently. With so much blood loss from Fletcher and Greening, it would take too long to get them back to the landing site at Inkerman.

Outside the compound, the 2 Troop machine-gunners were running out of ammo. Jim Wright, the troop sergeant, called men forward to resupply with belts of ammunition wrapped around their shoulders like Rambo.

One of them, instead of using the bridge over the ditch, plowed into the river, which went up to his neck. Wright thought he had seen the last of him. But he came out the other side crawling toward them like a cat. It all seemed in slow motion. “This is fucking surreal,” thought Wright. Meanwhile, the sergeant-major, Brownrigg, had the task of securing a helicopter landing site. He and 1 Troop started flanking through the thick maize to get to the rear of the compound. The rounds came buzzing through. They couldn’t see the enemy. All they could do was use their ears to work out where to fire back.

The initial attack had been mainly from the east, but the Taliban had flanked now around to the west. And when 1 Troop came out of the maize into open ground again by the planned landing site, they found the Taliban were firing from the south too, from barely 100 yards away.

Two Apaches were now on station and blazed at the tree lines with cannons, rockets, and Hellfire missiles. At 1645, Alpha Company reported the landing site was secure.

It was time to quit the compound, avoiding the fire-raked entrance. A Gurkha engineer tried to crowbar through a wall but gave up. Instead he got out a stick of explosives and blew a “mousehole” through. Fenwick, the injured marine, was told to move. When he got to the wall, he found it was only a tiny hole. Oh my God I’m not going to get through, he thought. The marines bashed away some more of the mortar, and he managed to squeeze through.

The last to leave the compound was the air controller, Sergeant Michael Garth. With his headphones on he seemed oblivious and was walking, said one marine, “like nothing was going on, because obviously he was in the middle of telling lies to the AH [Apache helicopters].” Precise records of what exactly was said to the helicopters were not revealed. But legend has it that Garth, in something of an understatement, told the Apache the landing site was as “secure as it will be,” and the full meaning of that message never quite made it to the rescue Chinook.

Just before the Chinook came in, Brownrigg saw an Apache hovering over FOB Inkerman and just twirling around and pouring fire from its cannon. Brass shell casings rained down beneath. At the same time, mortars were whistling down, and shells from Inkerman’s battery of three 105mm artillery guns shrieked across and exploded with a whumph. Soldiers watching from the base thought it was like a scene from Apocalypse Now.

For the past half-hour, the Chinook had been circling in the desert nearby. At the controls was a Royal Navy pilot, Lieutenant Nichol Benzie, with RAF co-pilot Flight Lieutenant Al Sparks. The pilots had no direct contact with the marines. Sergeant Garth was speaking to the Apaches, and the Apaches spoke by secure radio to the crewmen in the back of the Chinook. Then the crewmen relayed the message by intercom to the pilots.

“When you’re getting stuff relayed like this, it’s a bit like Chinese whispers,” said Sparks. “It gets a little diluted.” He was on his first tour of Afghanistan. He was feeling pretty wide-eyed. Sometimes it was just as well the information was filtered.

When they got the call that the landing site was clear, the pilots still thought they were heading for FOB Inkerman. It was only when they got “in amongst the weeds,” flying “ultra-low,” said Benzie, that they noticed orange smoke rising in the Green Zone itself. They took a deep breath. There was almost no protection from gunfire there.

They were coming in fast and had to stop abruptly to get the helicopter down in a small field. As the pilots looked out, they could see guys on the ground tucked into the firing positions. If, like now, no one was looking at the chopper, that meant trouble. “The more we looked out,” remembered Benzie, “the more we realized we should lean back and benefit from the Kevlar protection that the aircraft has to offer.”

In the back, crewman Sergeant Scott Todd saw the first casualty—Fletcher—approaching. “He was losing a lot of blood. I thought it strange straightaway that the casualty was in a poncho, which is like an emergency battlefield stretcher. It means pretty much you’re close to the firefight.

“I was shouting with adrenalin as well, trying to get the guys in fast because the guys in the front were saying, ‘How long?’ I was just trying to call out an estimated time and shouting to the troops to hurry up, to double it.”

They lifted the casualty over the M60 belt-fed machine gun on the ramp, and when Todd went back, he found a solid blood trail over his gun. “So I knew he was losing blood fast.”

Kneeling in the field, Ogden, the medic, had been preparing the casualties. Looking up as the ramp dropped, he could see the crew had no idea what they had landed into.

“When the Chinook came in, as the back door dropped down, the ‘doc’ [a medic] ran off, all springy and bouncy. As he came out to us a load of bullet rounds came past us. He just seized up. I think it was his first time being shot at. Obviously he tried turning back around towards the helicopter! So I dragged him back and held him. He was listening but not registering.” Ogden handed him a piece of paper where all the conditions of the casualties were written down. “Eventually he just ran on the back again.” The Chinook pulled away in a choke of boiling dust.

Alpha Company still had to get back home. They moved back in a rolling barrage of white smoke from mortars and high explosives from artillery. Even so, at 1750, their rear was attacked as they neared the base.

Finally, a Dutch F-16 dropped a 500-pound bomb, and after that it went quiet. There had not been a break in the fight for two hours. The Apaches were still circling and watching to see if anyone was following them.

By the time the patrol walked into Inkerman at 1820, the sun had set more than an hour before, and it was almost pitch dark. They heard a round of applause from those back at camp.

For Ogden and the other medics, there was still another three hours of work—patching up Captain Britton and pulling out the bits of shrapnel from the others. They discovered that many of the marines had caught bits without realizing it. The evening ended with a naked parade as Ogden and the others went down the line, inspecting everyone to check they were unscarred.

Brigade Headquarters, Evening of 9 November
The chief of staff, Major Mark Gidlow-Jackson, picked up the ringing phone on his desk. It was Major General Jonathan “Jacko” Page, Brigadier Mackay’s immediate superior in the NATO command, and he had called with orders from General McNeill.

“I’ve just spoken to COMISAF,” said the general, referring to McNeill’s title. “At this stage there is more political work to be done on Musa Qala.” There was a question mark about Karzai’s attitude. But it was now clear an operation to retake the town was in the cards. “The government will take a kinetic solution if it’s required,” he said, using the military’s term for a fight.

Already NATO was earmarking forces for a possible assault. The Afghan Army’s most elite unit, the Commando Kandak, trained and mentored by U.S. Special Forces, was being put on notice to move. So was McNeill’s own reserve force, the Theater Task Force, Task Force 1 Fury, led by Lieutenant Colonel Brian Mennes. It would not be available for three weeks, but certainly no later than 10 December.

It was time for some serious planning. “I want thoughts on the whole Musa Qala piece to me by next Wednesday,” concluded the general.

That night was what Brigadier Mackay would recall as the loneliest moment in his command. As he sat in the office in Lashkar Gah and paced around in the darkness of the base, he had to consider his next move. His forces were now clearly stretched. The pressure on Musa Qala applied by the presence of Chris Bell’s Warrior company and its daily skirmishes was having an effect. But the Taliban’s own counterattack was getting stronger by the day. Now there were strong hints from President Karzai not only that Mullah Salaam should be protected but that an attack should be prepared on Musa Qala itself.

But was it right to risk all on the Musa Qala prize? His hope when he arrived had been to get some development going in Helmand, to move beyond the fighting. The priority had been war-ravaged Sangin, which had been held for the last six months but had seen almost no progress. If the cost of supporting Mullah Salaam and hitting the Taliban in Musa Qala was that Sangin simply dissolved back into violence, the whole venture could be seriously counterproductive. Not to mention the cost in blood for his own soldiers.

Mackay flew to Camp Bastion the next morning to visit the injured from the battle at Inkerman and elsewhere. Lying in bed was Corporal Greening, a man he had met on a visit to Inkerman only five days back. Greening had asked, “When are we going to get stuck into the enemy?” They had a joke about it now. “Didn’t I say to be careful what you wish for?” he said. Greening said that when he was shot he had thought at first he was winded. “Then I noticed the blood,” he said.

As he sat in a helicopter heading back to his headquarters, Mackay made his decision. Rather than draw back his forces from the battle, he would do the reverse and ratchet up the psychological pressure on Musa Qala one more notch. “I had a sense we were actually succeeding,” he recalled.

While the Warriors and their support group were probing the eastern flanks of Musa Qala around Salaam’s compound, for now the desert to the west of Musa Qala remained unexplored. It was time, decided Mackay, to deploy his own reserve asset—the Brigade Reconnaissance Force (BRF) led by Major Tony Phillips. It would mean taking the BRF out of the Green Zone—where the Taliban were now gathering strength—and opening a new front deeper into enemy territory.

As he laid out his orders to the staff, there was a sense of the stakes being raised in a game of poker. One adviser told him later his thoughts then were: “If this goes wrong, Mackay is absolutely fucked. That is a big big call to make.”

Into the Viper's Nest Copyright 2009, 2010 by Stephen Grey

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