A daring foray into Taliban territory: Operation Eagle's Summit
Bullets thudded into the mud of the compound wall, adding to the pattern of holes which already decorated every inch as assault rifle and machine gun rounds cracked and thumped into the dirt road.
On the hand-held radio the Taliban could be heard barking commands at each other just 300 metres away across no man's land. In excited Pashtu, the order came to prepare the "big one" before nightfall as the flash would give their position away.
Within the shattered ruins of the deserted town in the Kajaki region of northern Helmand – an enemy stronghold until just a few hours earlier – the British soldiers waited. The scene was reminiscent of a spaghetti western as clouds of dust swirled down the deserted main street.
Suddenly the bone-shaking blast of a Chinese rocket exploded 300ft short of its target, creating yet another crater and a mushroom of choking smoke.
This was Operation Oqab Tsuka – Eagle's Summit, after the bird of prey featured in the 16 Air Assault Brigade insignia – or in layman's terms, the battle for Kajaki dam.
Yesterday, the British Army completed its largest route-clearance operation since the Second World War, to transport a giant turbine 115 miles by road from Kandahar airfield in southern Afghanistan to the massive Kajaki hydroelectric power station, which has remained stagnant for years, surrounded by Taliban territory.
It took six days and involved 4,000 troops and millions of pounds worth of explosives to clear the route to get the £3.4m turbine to Kajaki, a significant and symbolic project in the battle for Afghan hearts and minds. But before the convoy of equipment could pass, the Afghan National Army, along with their mentors from the 1st Battalion, the Royal Irish, spent the same number of days clearing through Taliban territory, witnessed by The Independent. Details of the operation were kept secret until its completion.
For three consecutive days, insurgents around Kajaki were pounded with mortars, artillery, bombs from fast jets and Hellfire missiles from Apache attack helicopters. The force of the guided multi-launch rocket system sent shock waves through the British and Afghan front line as each one pulverised Taliban positions long since deserted by a terrified local population, which had fled into the desert. Overhead, the roar of an American Spectre AC-130 gunship sounded like the growl of the gods.
At dusk a final deafening burst of rocket-propelled grenades signalled the end of the fighting and the troops stripped hot body armour from drenched shirts, lifted helmets from hair matted with dust and sweat and prepared to make camp. With little moonlight on offer, the Taliban laid down their weapons for the night and the exhausted soldiers slumbered out in the open among the scorpions and camel spiders, oblivious to the cacophony of American bombs dropping further to the south.
By early yesterday, the turbine was safely delivered to the Kajaki hydroelectric power station, with its 1.2 billion cubic metres of water in its dam, which is intended to provide electricity for 1.5 million people across southern Afghanistan, help to irrigate hundreds of square miles of agricultural land, as well as providing drinking water.
"The opposition said it would never happen but it did," said Lt-Col Rufus MacNeil. "If you want a mark in the sand for Afghan reconstruction, then this is it."
When the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) began reconstruction work on the dam in 2002, the two existing turbines at Kajaki had deteriorated to such an extent that their output was reduced to just 8MW. And for the past two years, a unit of 100 British soldiers and Royal Marines have been fighting hard to protect just a few miles of territory around the power station, with little hope that the vital equipment to boost electricity output could ever make it through enemy lines.
But that became a reality as the convoy of 100 vehicles carrying 210 tonnes of equipment rolled in with the third turbine, six days after it set off on its tortuously slow progress through the desert.
This last lethal stretch was Taliban territory until just a week ago. After the roar of bombs and bullets over the previous days, the convoy's progress proved strangely silent.
While it will be at least a year before USAID, with the help of Chinese engineers, will be able to get it working to its full potential of 51MW, it is seen as an important way to win over local support.
As the convoy made its way from Kandahar, bomb disposal teams cleared the ground and engineers levelled craters in the road. Ground troops provided protection, while attack helicopters and fast jets shadowed the convoy. The entire operation involved not just British but Afghan, American, Canadian, Australian and Danish soldiers.
Mortars and RPGs were fired at the convoy three times but – defying the odds – not one life was lost. At the end of the operation, there were two injured British soldiers – one crushed while trying to repair a lorry and another hit by the falling wall of a compound. Two Afghan soldiers were also wounded, the first by sniper fire, the second after firing off his weapon by mistake. The British Army estimated 100 Taliban dead and wounded.
But it was the last leg of the journey that was the most treacherous – a 4.5-mile stretch along Route 611 – known as the most dangerous road in the world by the soldiers there who found 11 roadside bombs in one small area the night before the convoy was due. The Taliban retain a vice-like grip on the local towns and Soviet-era mines still cover the area. The spectacular Kajaki mountains and their rolling peaks, azure waterways and emerald agricultural fields belie the treacherous nature of the terrain
The operation to clear that stretch began in the small British base here. From a maze of bunkers, trenches and compounds three miles away, as many as 200 Taliban fighters watched over the British camp. The mission was to take the enemy positions, known as Big Top and Sentry Compound, to allow the convoy through.
The 388 Afghan Army soldiers, accompanied by the British team of 42 men, snaked slowly down the uneven track as the sun rose, deviating around craters from old roadside bombs and red tape where new ones had been discovered. They gave every impression of marching towards Armageddon amid the shockwaves from the mortar, artillery and rocket assault on Taliban compounds ahead. Among the small team from the Royal Irish Regiment there was trepidation. They progressed slowly towards the enemy front line, taking shelter at night in the deserted homes of Kajaki town.
In one compound a small pink child's mirror and a brilliant strip of sequinned turquoise cloth lay in the dirt alongside mounds of dry poppies, spent bullets and shards of shrapnel. Childlike drawings of Chinook helicopters covered the walls.
On the third day, "H-hour" arrived: the troops moved forward to take Sentry Compound and Big Top, preparing for a ferocious fight, bayonets fixed. The Taliban melted from their outposts, offering little resistance, but the enemy had not gone far.
A few hundred metres back, Sgt-Major John "Strawman" Brennan's company came under attack as RPGs and bullets kicked up the dust around them from two nearby positions. He said later that a Hellfire missile from an Apache attack helicopter ended the battle. "It was the first time in 21 years that I have used every single asset available to me," including mortars, artillery and helicopters, he said.
After a break for negotiations with the local elders, in hopes of securing a ceasefire, the scream of a French Mirage jet just 250 feet above the rooftops signalled the resumption of battle. Troops from the 3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment, pushed through the last bits of resistance to secure the final section of the route. The convoy could finally pass through.
Yesterday afternoon – having dropped off its precious cargo – the convoy sped back through town and the steel ring of 1,000 troops pulled gratefully back to the relative security of camp. As the team of engineers began the long process of providing electricity across the south, the territory around them was once again ceded to the Taliban.