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No worse enemy, p.1
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       No Worse Enemy, p.1

           Ben Anderson
No Worse Enemy

  “As well as being the best book from the front lines so far, it is the first which shows the real down and dirty story behind the headlines and upbeat assessments. A superbly written, considered piece of war reportage, it will stand comparison with the very best of the last half-century. Unlike any book before it, this one asks us to see the British and American soldiers through the eyes of the bewildered and all-too-often bereaved eyes of Afghans. No Worse Enemy will do for Afghanistan what Michael Herr’s Dispatches did for Vietnam.”

  Frank Ledwidge – author of Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan

  “Ben Anderson has written an account of his time in Helmand that is both extremely readable and useful, in that he presents lots of the detail that usually gets lost. No Worse Enemy has the benefit of the author having spent his time in the country on the ground, on patrol, taking risks and always patiently listening to what was going on around him. If you want to understand how the war in Helmand is really being fought, buy this book.”

  Alex Strick van Linschoten – author of An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban

  “Compelling and brilliant ... Ben Anderson presents the reader with an extraordinary account of the tragedies in the Afghanistan war. This is a first-hand look behind the headlines at the reality of the difficult challenges British and American infantry face in modern, bloody counterinsurgency warfare operations.”

  Regulo Zapata – Green Beret Special Forces (Ret) and author of Desperate Lands: The War on Terror Through the Eyes of a Special Forces Soldier

  “No Worse Enemy provides the very rare first-hand account of the realities of the war in Afghanistan, a gripping narrative derived not from just one or two trips to large forward operating bases, but from multiple embeds with a variety of different units in the most austere reaches of Afghanistan’s restive Helmand Province. The book provides a candid and honest insight into what is really happening on the ground, an invaluable perspective for both military practitioners, as well as those who have never set foot on a battlefield but who want to know the real story. A great addition to the books out there on Afghanistan.”

  Ed Darack – author of Victory Point: Operations Red Wings and Whalers

  A Oneworld Book

  Published by Oneworld Publications 2011

  This ebook edition published in 2012

  Copyright © Ben Anderson 2011

  The moral right of Ben Anderson to be identified as the Author of this work has been asserted by them in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

  All rights reserved

  Copyright under Berne Convention

  A CIP record for this title is available from the British Library

  ISBN 978–1–85168–852–4 (Hardback)

  ISBN 978–1–85168–857–9 (Paperback Travel Edition)

  ISBN 978–1–85168–863–0 (Ebook)

  Typeset by Jayvee, Trivandrum, India

  Cover design by

  Oneworld Publications

  185 Banbury Road

  Oxford OX2 7AR


  Learn more about Oneworld. Join our mailing list to find out about our latest titles and special offers at:

  For Nanny Butch, who endured more bombs than I ever will, and despite weighing less than a jockey, even helped the anti-aircraft guns shoot back. She was the toughest, but most humble, person I’ve ever known. I’ll remember her, and the example she quietly set, forever.

  Vi Anderson 1924–2011

  Acronyms and abbreviations




  A note on translations







  Recommended further reading




  Assault Breacher Vehicle


  Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight


  Afghan Local Police


  Afghan National Army


  Afghan National Civil Order Police


  Afghan National Police


  Anti-Personnel Obstacle Breaching System


  American Special Forces


  Civil Affairs Officer


  Combat Operation Centre


  Counter Insurgency


  District Centre


  Directional Fragment Charge


  Department For International Development


  Explosive Ordnance Disposal


  Forward Operating Base


  Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan


  General Purpose Machine Gun


  Improvised Explosive Device


  International Security Assistance Force


  Killed in Action


  Light Anti-tank Weapon


  Lines To Take


  Medical Evacuation


  Mine Clearing Line Charge


  Mine Resistant Ambush Protected


  Meals Ready To Eat


  The Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes


  North Atlantic Treaty Organisation


  Non-Commissioned Officer


  National Directorate of Security (Afghan Intelligence Service)


  (pronounced ‘omelette’) Operational Mentor and Liaison Team




  Patrol Base


  Positive Identification


  Provincial Reconstruction Team


  Psychological Operation


  Quick Reaction Force


  Regional Command


  Rehearsal of Concept


  Rules of Engagement


  Rocket-Propelled Grenade


  Rest and Recuperation


  Squad Automatic Weapon

  Semper Fi

  Semper Fidelis (‘Always faithful’ – the motto of the US Marines)


  Weapons Mount Installation Kit (mounted on a roofless Land Rover)

  Helmand Province

  Operation Mushtaraq (Marjah)

  The Sniper Hole (Marjah)

  Pharmacy Road (Sangin)

  You knew that this was going to happen one day. And now you’re going to die in the cold wet mud of a ditch in Afghanistan because you chose to join a bunch of American marines as they were dropped like kittens into the middle of a perfect ambush.

  You deserve to die for just floating along again. Not thinking, not making a decision, just stumbling slowly forwards until you couldn’t turn back.

  It was so bad I imagin
ed a tiny black-eyed dormouse, frozen with terror in the corner of a glass tank half-filled with a huge, languid, grey and black snake, its tongue and eyes gradually moving closer; so slow and arrogant it was repellent.

  I had other strange visions: nothing peaceful, no floating towards a white light, just a quick flash of me and the Marines, curled into foetal positions, pressing ourselves as far as we could into the cold, dark mud. Above, a huge cartoon Taliban face, hundreds of feet tall, turbaned, dirty, brown and sweaty with a wiry beard and a wart, grinning maniacally down at us, growling with joy.

  Even the fucking ditch was America’s fault. They had built it over fifty years ago to make the desert bloom, win hearts and minds and counter Russian influence. But being American, they had to build it in a perfectly straight line, in a land where nothing is straight. So as I dived into the ditch and slid towards the putrid water at the bottom, I was still an easy target for the Taliban fighters who did the same.

  I wanted to wrap my arms around something but there was only freezing mud and a few dehydrated reeds. I went limp, resigned to the fact that metal was about to enter my body. Cus D’Amato’s old saying about how no boxer ever got knocked out who didn’t want to get knocked out suddenly made sense. OK, I lose, there’s no way out, just put me to sleep so that this ordeal can end.

  A rocket whooshed over my shoulder and exploded against the wall behind me.

  ‘AW FUCK, I’M HIT, I’M HIT’, screamed the marine next to me. As he rolled on to his side I could see his right leg was covered in bright red blood that gushed from beneath his knee.

  ‘WHAT THA FUCK’, he moaned.

  ‘I’m hit too’, screamed the marine on my other side, holding the back of his left leg. ‘Am I bleeding?’ he asked, moving his hand away briefly.

  ‘No, you’re good’, I told him, sounding calm for a second. I rolled on to my back, expecting to feel pain, or a warm wet patch, somewhere. Please don’t let it be between my legs. Please let me keep my legs. But there was nothing, except knuckles bloodied from the scramble into the ditch. The bullets clattered above us in murderous clouds and the screams and the faces around me all said the same thing: we don’t know where it’s coming from and we’re all going to die.

  Everyone who has covered the wars in Afghanistan over the last thirty years has a few – possibly apocryphal – stories that perfectly sum up the struggles of foreign forces. One of my favourites came from a chance discussion with two American soldiers, whose home for twelve months – a dingy concrete arch – I was sleeping in.

  I was in the Arghandab Valley, just outside Kandahar City, in October 2010. There hadn’t been any fighting for a few weeks, so I was reading a book, written by a Russian journalist, about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The author described a foot patrol with a wily old Russian commander when suddenly they had found themselves surrounded by a passing flock of sheep, guarded by their shepherd. Why, the reporter asked, had the sheep not been sheared? It was the middle of summer, when temperatures often top fifty degrees. The commander told him to grab a sheep and feel its belly. He did – and found several rifles, strapped underneath the animal, totally hidden from view. The commander grabbed another and found more. I was so amused by this story that I read it out loud to the two American soldiers. ‘MOTHERFUCKER!’ one of them screamed. ‘We saw shitloads of sheep not too long ago and I remember thinking the exact same thing – why haven’t they been sheared?’ The likely answer to that question kept him angry for hours. We never seem to learn from history.

  I’ve been travelling to Afghanistan, and in particular Helmand – the country’s most violent province and the focus of first Britain’s, then America’s, military effort – for five years. When I was first there, what I saw raised continuous and obvious questions that I thought were too stupid to ask out loud. All those bombs are for five guys in sandals, with AKs? And they escaped? Those roofless old jeeps are all you have? Those junkies and thieves are the good guys? If the Taliban have been routed, why do all these IEDs keep popping up around us like mushrooms? If the people are so happy to have been liberated, why do they look so angry?

  With each trip, the war became less recognisable as the one being described from podiums in Kabul, Washington and London. A positive spin could be expected but there was often such a gulf between what we were told was happening and what I was seeing with my own eyes that I sometimes questioned my recollections. Only when I watched the hundreds of hours of footage I’d gathered did I realise the situation was even more calamitous and our ambitions more fantastic than I had at first thought. And my shock only increased when I got accurate translations of what the Afghans I’d filmed were actually saying.

  Each time I returned, there were new policies, new forces, new ambassadors, generals, planes, drones and even tanks. And there was a surge, because a surge, we were told, had turned things around in Iraq. On each visit, I was told that the Taliban were on their last legs, the Afghans were almost ready to provide security for themselves and the government was almost ready to govern. Mistakes were made in the past but now we’re doing it right. Even the increasingly audacious attacks by the Taliban were seen as proof of their desperation. The tipping point was close.

  I was deeply sceptical. I had to keep going back to see if I was wrong. Billions of dollars were being spent. Brilliant minds were dedicated to the project. The credibility of a superpower and NATO hung in the balance. Such an effort, with such high stakes, couldn’t result in so little.

  This is a simple book, written chronologically, about what I’ve seen: an honest account of what the war looks like on the ground. As it drags on and public interest evaporates, I don’t think I have anything more important to offer than that. Apart from a tiny handful of quotes taken from my notebooks, every word spoken here was transcribed directly from my many video tapes.

  In the months following the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration thought they had bombed their way to a swift and brilliant victory in Afghanistan. Some even thought they’d invented a new way of fighting wars, from twenty thousand feet, where none of their blood need be shed.

  The Taliban, we now know, hadn’t been defeated. They had merely stepped off the stage, to watch what happened next. Many had been willing to play a part in the new reality, which would have been entirely consistent with the history of conflict resolution in Afghanistan. But they were snubbed. What happened next, after vital resources had been diverted to Iraq, was simply a return to predatory power politics and the rule of the warlords. To a place where the corrupt and vicious thrived and the most able and honest were sidelined. The state of affairs that had allowed the Taliban to sweep to power in the first place. The 2005 elections, which might have led to a truly representative government, were a sham, with some observers claiming that fraudulent votes outnumbered the genuine.

  So the Taliban gradually returned, slipping back over the border from Pakistan as easily as they had left. As fighters, they were surprised to discover that beyond Kabul, there was no one around to stop them. Soon they were operating in every province of Afghanistan. In the countryside, where most Afghans live, they began to provide better security, justice and employment (often through participation in, or the protection of, the opium trade) than the government itself. Sadly, this wasn’t difficult.

  This eventually led to the deployment of NATO forces beyond Kabul. In the summer of 2006, just over three thousand British troops (of which only six hundred or so would actually be out on patrol and in contact with Afghans) were sent to Helmand province. Helmand, together with neighbouring Kandahar, was the Taliban’s historical power base. At first, the Brits didn’t wear helmets, handed out toys to children and were only tasked with ‘facilitating reconstruction and development’. The defence secretary even hoped they could complete their mission without firing a single bullet. Our good intentions, it was thought, would mean that we would be welcomed. Soon afterwards, the war in Afghanistan really began. The Brits found themselves fighting off waves of attac
ks against their tiny and isolated patrol bases.

  Figure 1 Helmand Province (© David Berger)

  I first started travelling to southern Afghanistan in the summer of 2007, when the hopelessly under-manned British forces were struggling to hang on to what little ground they had. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time with British, Afghan, and American troops, often during key operations, as they tried to carry out the latest policies. I stayed with them for weeks on end as they fought their way into towns and villages with the aim of establishing a permanent presence. I spent as little time as possible on the main bases, where not much ever happens. Staying with the infantry also meant I got to talk to Afghans far more than is thought possible when you’re on embeds and to see how the war has affected their lives. The stories and exchanges recorded here are not anomalous. I’ve made an effort to exclude any that are. They show what happened many times. Some of the people represented here might feel cheated. They might argue that things eventually improved after I left. While this may be true, the overall picture continues to worsen considerably.

  I have travelled elsewhere in Afghanistan but I have chosen to focus on Helmand province, where the war has always been fiercest. Helmand also offers the benefit of seeing how the two largest contributing forces – British and American – coped in such unforgiving terrain. The Brits eventually had eight thousand troops there but it was nowhere near enough. The Americans ended up sending thirty-three thousand and even then, their small gains were described as ‘fragile and reversible’. I was able to directly compare the two in Sangin, where a third of British casualties occurred, which was taken over by the US Marines in 2010. It was no coincidence that I came closer to being killed with almost every visit. Apart from a few square kilometres of land – and it was never more than that – being cleared and secured here and there, the only thing I ever saw happen was an increase in troop numbers and a corresponding increase in casualties, military and civilian. This, I was told, was further evidence of the Taliban’s desperation and proof that the insurgency was in its last throes.

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