Keeping us in picture on Afghan conflict

AS the helicopter blades started their slow beat of descent, the mortar shells began to land. Touching down just 700 metres from the frontline, on a hilly no-man's land, a small band of troops alighted and were forced to dive for cover.

One soldier managed to shoulder a machine gun and spray some retaliatory bullets. He killed two men and the shelling stopped.

Such was Brigadier Andrew Mackay's arrival, when, unusually for a senior officer, he insisted on being near the action as Nato troops – including the soldiers of the Edinburgh-based 52nd Infantry Brigade – launched their pivotal attack on the Taliban stronghold of Musa Qala in Afghanistan's Helmand province.

From his "hole in the ground" on Roshan Hill, a high point above the town, he spent five days watching as his battleplan unfolded and the town was finally captured.

It was an action later described as the "best operation to come out of Afghanistan in years" by the Pentagon. For the Brigadier, Operation Mar (Pashtun for snake) to retake the Taliban stronghold – which fell to British, Danish, Estonian, US and Afghan troops in December 2007 – was the culmination of months of planning.

And there had been no doubt in his mind that he needed to be as close to the frontline as possible – though he adds laughing: "My driver shot two Taliban. If you have a Brigadier firing, then you are really in trouble."

He says: "The intent was to begin wearing the Taliban down, dislocate them, punch them hard when they ventured out, lower their morale and begin to separate out the tier one – the key leaders and more ideologically driven – and the tier two – the guns for hire who were not in it for the long haul."

Recalling speaking to his troops the night before the attack was launched, he says: "I think I told them the best people are always good at plan B because plan A never survives in the army. But this time plan A did survive.

"Musa Qala had become iconic for all the wrong reasons. The town was held by the Taliban where they were practising Sharia law and a pretty brutal regime. There were also between 100 and 150 drug processing plants in and around it. But since then the town continues to be held by us and the Afghan army and police, and is now becoming iconic for the right reasons."

The 51-year-old, who now lives in Newington with his wife Caroline and four children – and who later this year will become the General Officer Commanding of the Army in Scotland – only spent another two months in Afghanistan after the Musa Qala victory, but the memories of his six months there are indelibly imprinted on his mind.

To make them even more real are the images of world-renowned photographer Robert Wilson who worked alongside the troops for a fortnight, capturing the privations and desperation of war through his lens; photos which are now about to go on display at the National War Museum at Edinburgh Castle.

The Brigadier – who has spent the last seven months working in England on counter-insurgency studies for the Army – is delighted with the result.

"I wanted someone who would be outside their comfort zone, who would approach the task with no preconceptions," he says of Wilson. "The very essence of being a soldier in Afghanistan is not about the crash, bang, wallop stuff – it's the tiredness, the cuts, the bruises, the stubble, the grains of dirt, the tired eyes and the matted hair. That's what Robert Wilson's close-up photographs capture.

"For a soldier in the bases life is very austere and they will be in contact with the Taliban on a regular basis. The living conditions are harsh and it's a hard life for the soldiers. They have rationed food, they don't have air conditioning, the sanitation is very basic and there may not be hot running water."

The Brigadier says his men were constantly under threat from the Taliban – with Christmas day being no exception. "There are battles going on all the time, that's just part of life in Helmand. Sometimes when we were visiting the soldiers at the operating bases, the operating base would come under contact. But these are just things that you live with."

Inevitably reclaiming Musa Qala came with a price, with 26 soldiers killed. "We lost some men and there were a number of casualties ... the death of a soldier is very difficult for everyone. But however difficult someone like me finds it, you know that the family and immediate relatives are finding it much, much more difficult."

He adds: "You have to satisfy yourself that you were doing the right thing and that the operations you are conducting are the right thing, because the death of a soldier it not to be taken lightly."

While war is always controversial, the Brigadier found himself caught up in a different kind of media storm as he was in charge when Prince Harry was involved in operations.

"He, along with many thousands of other soldiers, acquitted himself extremely well in Afghanistan," he says. "Once it had been fed into the public domain that he was in Afghanistan, there was no option but to return him back to the UK. The decision to send him home was taken at a much higher level."

Once the fighting was over, the stabilisation process began. The troops removed scores of drug factories (Helmand province was reported to be responsible for more than 40 per cent of the world's opium) and rebuilt the town's school so that by the end of January 2008, around 800 children were being educated on a daily basis.

He adds: "We built a road, there's a health clinic up and running, there's a work programme that employs 400 people a day on various projects ... we're trying to show the people they have a better chance this way than with the Taliban."

The soldiers also rebuilt the mosque which had been destroyed in previous fighting. The Brigadier – who was last year awarded the CBE for his role in Afghanistan – adds: "We do genuinely think that we improved things. By the time we left all of the major urban areas were being held by us and the Afghan forces."

While the 52nd Brigade could return to Afghanistan next year, it won't be under the command of Elgin-born Mackay as he will have taken up his new role.

But he adds: "They (the Taliban] will come back. They understand the ground very well, travel light and move fast. They're astute and brave. They are never to be under-estimated. The hard part is the stabilisation phase – the reconstruction and development phase – getting that right is how success in Afghanistan should be judged."

A TRIBUTE TO THE ORDINARY SOLDIER

WHEN the acclaimed advertising photographer Robert Wilson was invited to commemorate the 52nd Infantry Brigade's six-month tour of duty in Helmand, he was given unprecedented access to troops and operations.

The Brigade wanted a lasting record of its experience in the troubled southern Afghan province, and the result is Helmand, a collection of powerful images that creates an intimate record of life on the frontline.

Wilson said: "I felt it was important to depict the war through the men who are fighting it."

The exhibition will launch in the war museum on February 27 and is free with admission to Edinburgh Castle.

Helmand, Afghanistan, 30, published by Jonathan Cape, will be available in the Musuem shop.