Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan produces 80% of the world’s opium. For a while, after the Taliban were presumed defeated, opium production fell as the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) composed of coalition armies took control of Helmand, one of 34 provinces in Afghanistan.
I can only assume that as the Taliban are on the rise as quickly as the Afghan National Army is on the run, opium production will soon reach unprecedented levels.
Helmand was the home of the British Army’s operations in Afghanistan, and at its height, Camp Bastion, the UK military HQ had a population of 30,000 (equivalent to the town of Aldershot), and the busiest UK operated airport.
The British Army suffered the vast majority of its casualties in Helmand, in battles to retake towns such as Sangin and Musa Qala – towns which are ostensibly now back in the control of the Taliban, just two years after the British left. Therein lies the circle of a tragedy that will never be squared.
I spent three weeks there in 2011, based out of Bastion, shuttling in helicopters to patrol bases and check points. I stayed with British troops, and those from Estonia. The pictures presented here were taken then – at a moment when it was clear despite propoganda and denial, that Helmand would again fall once the coalition had departed.
At Camp Bastion, the Memorial Wall had the names of all who perished inscribed on brass plates - and an inscription that read:
“When you go home tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today”.
An Estonian soldier at Check Point Brekna. The Estonians sent a contingent to Afghanistan as part of their commitment to Nato - in the hope that Nato would support them if Russia invaded; which statistically they have every 50 years. The Estonian army in Afghanistan suffered more casualties as a % of their overall deployment than any coalition country.
A Helmand sunset at Camp Bastion as troops return to their accommodation after a day of training on the range. The billions of airborne particles of Helmand dust are illuminated by the flash.
A Royal Engineer's Mastiff 2 PPV arrives at CP (check point) Brekna in support of an Estonian patrol.
Estonian soldiers lie in long grass (cleared for IED's) as they watch two Taliban compounds. The patrol was supported by US Apache helicopters and a platoon from the Royal Engineers.
Deep in Taliban country, the task of identifying a possible insurgent was already complex - but it was made even more so, when under pressure from President Karzai, ISAF was forced to change its policy on engaging with the Taliban. Even if ISAF forces suspected that they were going to come under attack, they could not initiate 'kinetic' until the enemy had engaged first. It meant that when this man and his children drove through a patrol, they had to be searched by hand, before being allowed to continue. This may seem like a logical approach to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties, but it put all soldiers at considerable additional risk during deployment.
An Estonian soldier prepares for his last ever patrol in Helmand, before returning home. The previous week, a member of his unit was shot by a sniper and killed, whilst another detonated an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) suffering a double amputation and nearly dying from his injuries. Two hours after this photograph was taken, the soldier returned to his CP in the knowledge that his tour was done.
They say an army marches on its stomach. But in Helmand, where summer temperatures would breach 50°, it marched on water. Such was the demand, the British built its own bottling factory in Helmand to supply its troops. This lorry contains a restock for a check point which housed just twenty soldiers.
A squad from The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, patrols from Foward Operating Base (FOB) Shawqat. In total 405 British service men and women died during operations in Afghanistan, many from the Black Watch.
An RAF Chinook lands at CP Brekna, bringing resupplies and taking soldiers back to Camp Bastion before redeployment. Helicopters were the life blood of Operations in Afghanistan, operating 24 hours a day from Bastion airfield, moving and supplying, and MEDIVAC'ing casualties from theatre.
The view from the back of an RAF Chinook as it contours across the Helmand desert. Helicopters always flew in a team of two, one flying 'over watch' at 10,000 feet, ready to provide support if the landing helicopter came under fire. The rear gunner scans the land below for possible insurgent activity.
A Captain from the Royal Engineers keeps watch as his colleagues undertake culvert repairs. The British Military was just as involved in building relationships with local communities as it was with conflict.
A platoon from The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, rests at a former Taliban compound, now the home of the local tribal leader. It was an opportunity for them to discuss the security situation with local Afghans. A week before, the tribal leader's brother had been murdered by the Taliban because of just this kind of interaction.
Soldiers patrol in Nad Ali District, Helmand, watched over by local Sunni Afghans. Nad Ali is now back under control of the Taliban.
Squaddies decorate their home's just as you would expect them to.
Sunset at Camp Bastion. If you sold Iso Containers, Afghanistan was the place to be. Most of everything that arrived, and left with the coalition forces came in the back of one of them. This was more complicated than one might first imagine. Afghanistan is landlocked, bordered all around by countries with vested interests, proxy or otherwise. There was a time when it seemed unlikely that Camp Bastion could be dismantled, with Pakistan, the only neighbour with a coastline, denying ISAF access during the drawdown. In time of course, it was resolved, and Bastion is all but gone, apart from a small under-fire contingent of ANA (Afghan National Army), and military advisors from the UK.
Hangars, radar and communication masts are silhouetted against the Helmand sky.
The airfield at Camp Bastion. At it's peak, in 2011, it was the busiest UK operated airport, when fixed wing and helicopter activity are combined.
An Estonian soldier smokes an early morning cigarette before he undertakes his final patrol, before finishing his tour.
Transiting from Camp Bastion to Wahid FOB in an RAF Chinook.
A British soldier stares out of the back of an armoured vehicle as he transits between operating bases.
Helmand was a desert, but not of sand. It seemed to consist of mud coloured talcum powder, so fine that everything became coated in a veneer of damaging dust. Bastion frequently endured vicious dust storms which closed the airfield, and put all military activity on hold. Photographed from the Bastion airfield Control Tower, the sky darkens as another storm approaches.
Soldiers return from patrol to Wahid Forward Operating Base.
As the UK Government announced plans to drawdown troops from Afghanistan, attention turned to training and supporting the ANA as a handover of security loomed. In Shawqat FOB, a separate compound, accessed by a simple open door in a mud wall, housed the ANA contingent. Just a few weeks after this photograph was taken, a rogue Afghan soldier entered the British Army compound and opened fire, killing two personnel. 'Green on Blues', as they became known, were in fact the greatest threat to ISAF as Afghans turned on the coalition forces.
Whilst coalition forces had control of Helmand and Kandahar, the two Taliban heartland provinces, opium production declined dramatically. Here, a poppy field is left to seed before it can be harvested for its rich crop.
The Memorial Wall at Camp Bastion, in memory of those who died in combat during the campaign. It reads “When you go home tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today”.
As dusk arrives, a dust storm sweeps across Camp Bastion.
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