In the firing line

As the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq approaches, Scotland on Sunday writers report from the front line of Afghanistan and on a Scot's attempt to rebuild war-ravaged Fallujah

THE Commander of the British Army in Afghanistan is standing on a scrap of waste ground in the centre of a dusty town called Musa Qala. There is an awful stench in the air. It comes from a dead dog, half-buried under a tree, its rotting head exposed to the air. "Shall we take a look at the bazaar," asks Brigadier Andrew Mackay, in the tone of voice someone might use when suggesting an afternoon visit to Jenners tearoom.

The brigadier's companions try hard to hide their alarm. "I'm not sure your BG (bodyguard] would like that idea very much, sir," says a nearby officer. The 6ft 3in bodyguard, who is called Dave, is impassive behind designer shades. There is a pause, and all eyes are on the brigadier. "Let's just take a peek," says Mackay, and walks down a narrow alley, its high walls made from mud and poppy straw, towards a metal gate that leads to the town's main thoroughfare.

A moment later, Mackay, 51, is wandering 200 yards down the main street of a town that until recently was the Taliban's urban stronghold in Afghanistan, before it was recaptured by Afghan, British and American forces on December 11 in an operation that reportedly left about 300 Taliban fighters dead. The bazaar is busy with Afghan men bartering over clothes, food, electrical equipment and shiny new electricity generators. Some are working with wheelbarrows full of concrete, building a new road. White Toyota pick-up trucks, the Afghan transport of choice, dot the street. Everyone stops to look at the soldiers, who nod and smile and wave. The smiles and waves in return are few. Mostly there are cold, expressionless stares.

As well as his bodyguard, Mackay has brought with him two majors and a Territorial Army reservist whose day job is a lawyer. They are all in full body armour, as are the Scotland on Sunday reporter and photographer accompanying them.

Musa Qala province is a dangerous place for the British to go wandering. Attacks on British forces are an almost daily occurrence. Earlier that day, a British corporal was part of a unit patrolling a wadi just south of the town when he was shot in the back. The bullet evaded his body armour and, within 12 hours, he was back in the UK receiving medical attention. In the heavily fortified British compound there is a map on a wall with areas coloured red, orange and green to signify level of Taliban threat. There is far more red than green.

Mackay points out the stone monument where, during the Taliban's control of the town for 10 months of 2007, they hung those suspected of collaborating with the British before sticking their heads on poles as a warning to others. On a kerb 20 yards from Mackay, next to a shop selling rolls of brightly coloured cloth, a boy no older than 14 cradles a Kalashnikov in his lap, following the soldiers' movements with his eyes without turning his head.

Suddenly there is the noise of an engine revving. "Motorcycle," says one of the soldiers, a note of warning in his voice. Mackay suggests walking on to see the site of the new mosque the British are building, but he is persuaded to cut his stroll short. Back in the British compound, it is explained there had been intelligence reports early in the week of a suicide bomber with a device hidden in the fuel tank of a red motorcycle. "Every motorbike in Afghanistan seems to be red," says one of the majors. "It was like the f***ing Red Arrows out there today."

Spring is coming in Afghanistan. Soon the fields of poppy plants in the countryside around Musa Qala will be chest high, offering perfect cover for the anticipated Taliban attempt to retake the town, which has taken on an iconic significance in the tussle for control of Helmand province. It is here in the south-west of Afghanistan that fighting is at its fiercest between the British forces, aided by Afghan government troops, and the Taliban jihadists who regard the foreigners as infidel occupiers.

The desert around Musa Qala throws up biblical scenes: a herd of scrawny goats shepherded by a black-eyed boy wielding a stick; two camels, their bedouin riders swathed in folds of white cloth, making their way across an empty plain; a chaotic weekly market held on a dry riverbed, where old men struggle to separate the sheep from the goats. All of this looked over by a mountain so austere and dramatic it is known to the British soldiers here as Mount Doom. And everywhere is dust, a pale yellow dust so fine it is inescapable.

Musa Qala has become iconic in the conflict for a range of reasons, first as a sign of western incompetence. Previously under British control, the troops pulled out under a deal done with local tribal leaders that they would keep the Taliban out. The Taliban returned nevertheless, turning the town into a symbol of their strength and a base for operations against the British across the whole of the south of the country. The Arab TV network Al Jazeera came to film this solitary urban stronghold, defying President Hamid Karzai and his allies in the United Kingdom, United States and United Nations.

On Karzai's order the town was retaken, the British working with US Task Force Fury and soldiers from the Afghan Army. Most of the fighting was done in the countryside around the town, sparing Musa Qala itself. Although two soldiers were killed in the run-up to the assault, none died in the battle itself. Mackay oversaw the operation from a foxhole on a small hill 700 yards form the frontline, and in the closing stages he walked into the town on foot, following the Afghan soldiers who were first in. En route, his bodyguard shot two Taliban.

Now the British hope Musa Qala will become iconic for a different reason – as a symbol of what might be if the west can use the right mixture of force and reconstruction to help the Afghans build a better country. Mackay, who was born in Elgin, has a close personal interest in all of this, as the architect of the British Army's new strategy in Afghanistan. His approach has seen a historic new role for Scotland's famous 52 Brigade, headquartered in Edinburgh Castle and which Mackay commands.

After his wander around the bazaar, Mackay has an appointment. We make our way to an imposing three-storey house in the British compound and into a room with a picture of Karzai gaffer-taped to the newly white-painted wall. Members of the shura, the local council of elders, file in to be greeted with warm handshakes and "salaam aleikum", before everyone sits down cross-legged on ornate carpets for a traditional Afghan lunch of goat stew, naan bread, tomatoes and onions, served with cans of Coca-Cola. The soldiers eye the tomatoes hungrily – it is the first fresh fruit some of them have seen for weeks. They have survived on boil-in-the-bag rations and endless brews of tea.

Mackay holds court. He has pale blue eyes and receding fair hair being overtaken by grey, but he still looks slightly younger than his 51 years. He talks in a quiet but throaty voice, with one of those accents common in the armed forces, a clipped public-school English with no obvious regional twang. His manner is quiet, informal, almost gentle, and he wears his rank lightly – he has the skill of making orders sound like requests.

The Afghans are polite and hospitable, but some of the younger men pick nervously at their beards. There are no women to be seen – in this Sunni Muslim community they are almost invisible. The oldest elder is a man with an impressive grey beard, laughter lines etched deep around his eyes, his mouth in a permanently serene smile. But there is no smile in his eyes, and he asks searching questions about why teachers at the new school have not been paid (problems with Kabul), the start date on the new mosque (May 12) and when the new health clinic will open (the end of the month).

They have something else on their mind, too – the expected Taliban assault on the town this summer. The elder asks through an interpreter what is being done to protect people in outlying areas. In January this year, a Musa Qala man who had been working on a UK-sponsored work programme was killed by the Taliban. Shortly afterwards, an Afghan policeman was shot and hung – a note left with the body was signed by Abdul Wasi, a local Taliban commander. Intimidation is rife. Elders in villages are routinely kidnapped and held for a week or more before being returned to their families, with warnings not to deal with the British. Mackay looks the man in the eye.

"There is no chance they will recapture Musa Qala," he says. "Between ourselves and the police and the Afghan Army, we won't let it happen." The elder accepts this, but points to the chaos that can be caused by a guerrilla campaign, and the prospect of capture and torture for those who work with the British. Mackay has more reassuring words, but the elder looks unconvinced.

From a western perspective, the situation in Afghanistan looks precarious. Some Nato countries are swithering over sending more troops. Some governments are being frugal with financial support. Karzai, who faces an election next year, is quarrelling with the UK over deals they have been doing with former Taliban leaders to get them to change sides. Recent think-tank reports warn of the possible collapse of the whole government, leaving a vacuum the Taliban would fill – again making Afghanistan a nexus of Islamist terror.

The international community has a bad case of dj vu: could this be Iraq all over again, when a western military intervention left a country wrecked by chaos and carnage? In the summer of 2004 Mackay shared this fear. But as the new commander of 52 Brigade, a unit that hadn't seen active service since the Second World War, what could he do about it? "When I took over it had been decided the brigade didn't have a future because the army was going through a big reorganisation at the time," he says sitting outside the ramshackle British accommodation block in Musa Qala at sunset. "I remember my predecessor saying: 'Enjoy, it's lovely, it's a fantastic command – but you'll probably have to switch the lights off when you leave.'

"I was just back from Iraq, where I was in charge of training the police, and I was seized by the incompetence of it all. We, in the British Army, should be creating organisations that could manage that post-conflict peace far more coherently and effectively. And there was no coherence. When you are at the heart of it all, and not viewing it from Whitehall or Washington, it really gets under your skin, because you've worked all these hours and taken all these risks, and you don't think you've made enough of a difference.

"We could do the fighting, but when the fighting stops and the enemy is defeated, then what next? My thought was that we had to be much, much better at filling that vacuum, and we needed a specialist brigade that could do all the pre-planning prior to getting into a country and then do the execution. That got a warm reaction."

Mackay's mantra for his Afghanistan strategy was that "the population is the prize". As well as coming down hard on the Taliban, the British effort should be centred on "gaining the consent" of the Afghan people. The word 'consent' was the key. They did not want foreigners in their country, but nor did a majority want the return of the Taliban's strict regime that banned music, kite-flying and any kind of independent life for women. So they might be persuaded to consent to a British presence to ensure that change of government did not happen.

The brigadier's CV seemed to make him the man for the job. After a public school education in Edinburgh, he joined the Hong Kong police and worked as an inspector controlling undercover drug squad operations, seeing up close what heroin addiction did to families. In Bosnia, he served as a staff officer working in the planning of the country's elections. In Kosovo he headed up the department of advisory unit for security and justice for the UN mission. Then came a role training police in Iraq. His experience of soldiering was different to many of his contemporaries, and the MoD recognised this.

In October 2006 he got the go-ahead, and started bringing other units under the 52 Brigade umbrella, including elements of the Royal Marines and Household Cavalry, Prince Harry's regiment. Mackay's staff of 10 in Edinburgh Castle was expanded to 70 and moved to the city's Redford Barracks. Specialists in construction, aid, infrastructure and agriculture were consulted. Senior officers did crash courses in the Pashtun languages. In September last year 52 Brigade was deployed to Helmand, a force of 8,000 British troops to complement the 17,000 Americans and 15,000 troops from other nations operating elsewhere in Afghanistan.

The challenge Mackay was setting British soldiers raised questions about the nature of soldiering itself. It was a tough ask: to win over a population and help build a new country, while at the same time fighting an uncompromising war against a part of that population. The questions it raised were like a course in moral philosophy. Some of them concerned drugs: do you allow the farmers to grow and sell their opium poppies, securing a stable income? Or do you lay waste to the crops to aid the war against heroin trafficking? Driving armoured vehicles over poppy fields is not going to endear the British to local farmers. But do they then keep to the tracks – a favoured location for insurgents to plant mines?

Away from the drugs issue the dilemmas of day-to-day soldiering are very real ones, says Lt-Col Edward Smyth-Osbourne, commanding officer of the Household Cavalry Regiment and the man in charge in Musa Qala. Tall, and with black hair in a severe parting, he is everything you expect of a hyphenated Household Cavalry officer, and is universally known, with affection and respect, as Colonel Ed. "There's an inherent friction here," he says. "On the one side you are being asked to be passive and do things that leave you at greater risk of being attacked. But within that it's probably the only method we've got of getting the population onside, and more importantly supporting the population and government of Afghanistan. On the other side you've got to be prepared to kill or capture the enemy. And one of the more difficult things for a soldier to come to terms with is the ability to switch between the two.

"You are asking for restraint. You are on the threshold of asking someone not to fire first in a game where often he who fires first has the first result. It's not that they're not trained for it – they are. It's not that they don't expect it – they do. But the actuality is often difficult."

I ask about his most famous junior officer, Prince Harry – Smyth-Osbourne is the prince's commanding officer – but he is maintaining his silence on the subject. Mackay is not quite as coy. "I think the Harry thing is interesting because of what it tells you about soldiers," he says. "There were quite a lot of commentators saying this was just propaganda – a set-up. One of the most delicious bits about it was Max Clifford claiming it was PR stunt. British soldiers in particular have got a world-class state- of-the-art bullshit detection system built in to them. That's why, when you saw those interviews with soldiers about Harry, they meant it. You can't get much past them."

There is certainly no bullshit in the relationship the brigadier has with his men. When he stops to talk to young squaddies barely out of their teens, they beam as if they have just met a famous footballer or musician. "Good God, you've got a tan," he says to one young soldier. "Are you trying to make yourself look good for some sad slapper back home, Simpson? You're still an ugly bastard." There is a touch of public school jollity about the banter – a battle with the Taliban will later be described as "fisticuffs".

It is 6pm and time for the evening briefing. The senior officers in the 150-strong British force gather in the room of a dilapidated building that used to be a hotel. The walls are decorated with painted murals showing the Afghan resistance against the Russians, complete with Kalashnikovs, gunships and Toyota pick-ups fitted with machine-guns. In dim light, the officers sit leaning forward, elbows on a rickety table and take turns with their reports.

Using techniques honed over 25 years in Northern Ireland, the soldiers run a sophisticated surveillance operation on the town, building up a picture of the movements of Taliban suspects. The latest intelligence is shared – reports on specific Taliban leaders, rumours of a new wave of suicide bombers – then the latest on operations in the wadi and elsewhere. A policeman has been kidnapped. A compound associated with a local Taliban leader has been raided, with troops discovering a "a torture chamber". A unit has come under fire from a rocket-propelled grenade.

The latest Taliban-inspired rumours doing the rounds in downtown Musa Qala are shared – that Afghan police took a man to the police station to sodomise him; that an Afghan army spy had been seen in the town disguised as a woman. But a large part of the briefing is taken up with logistical problems hampering the progress of reconstruction work in the town. This contract needs signed now; that contractor must get transport for his workers. The school is the source of great British pride – 800 boys are enrolled – and a priority is made of getting wages to the teachers. Unlike in Kabul, educating girls is still a subject too controversial to broach.

In the 52 Brigade's six months in Afghanistan there have been eight British fatalities, as well as five Danes and two Americans. The British injured number 150. No one counts the number of dead Taliban, or, it seems, innocent civilians killed in the course of operations. In the evening, the men off duty relax a little – although there is nothing to do, with only a few rooms of the base having electric light. There is no running water or proper toilets, just a box with a hole in the middle. But technology makes this a very different war for some of the soldiers – one boasts of having 300 movies stored on the hard disc of his laptop. Other camps in Helmand such as the 52 Brigade HQ Lashkar Gah have a Naafi, a widescreen TV showing the football, fresh food three times a day, a volleyball court and sunbathing female soldiers. With much envy the Musa Qala Brits call it 'Lash Vegas'.

The Brigadier's visit to Musa Qala is nearing its end. The next morning his last stop is at FOB Edinburgh, a forward operating base about 10km west of the town, reached by a bumpy convoy of armoured vehicles bristling with machine guns. High on a ridge, a scrap of bare dust surrounded by a high wall, FOB Edinburgh was given its name by Mackay and there are the obligatory nods to Scotland's capital – the tent that serves as a chapel has a sign saying "St Giles Cathedral". From FOB Edinburgh, 20 Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicles from 7th Armoured Brigade, the Desert Rats, have been hunting the Taliban units in some of the areas where they enjoy the strongest support, and where bombers are at their most active.

Armed with 30mm Rarden cannon and chain machine guns, each Warrior also houses up to seven infantry soldiers from the Highlanders in the back, ready to engage the enemy. As Mackay gets a report from a local commander, Colonel Ed examines a Warrior disabled in an IED (improvised explosive device) attack two days previously. A section of caterpillar track is missing, as is a road wheel, axle arm and a chunk of armour. Only one soldier was hurt – although concussed and blackened by the blast, he was not seriously injured.

With 52 Brigade's tour coming to an end next month, it is a time to swap stories. The past four months in Musa Qala have seen their lighter moments. On Christmas Day, some troops took it upon themselves to give Santa hats to some goat herders. Later the herders were seen heading back to them looking worried. The soldiers were concerned – had they inadvertently left these men open to Taliban intimidation by giving out symbols of a Christian festival? Not quite. The herders were looking for new batteries, because the hats had stopped playing 'Jingle Bells'.

Visit over, I ask Mackay to sum up where Afghanistan stands. "The Taliban in a difficult spot," he says, "with the command and control leadership largely dislocated and fractured. A lot have been killed, including many of their leaders. They can still fight us. They can still make life difficult for us. But tactically, on the battlefield, they are in serious trouble."

Mackay says the pressure has forced them to turn to guerrilla tactics and suicide bombings – the latter used to devastating effect with hundreds killed in the big southern cities, one in Kandahar last month claiming 150 lives at a dogfight.

The brigadier sees this tactical shift as a sign of the Taliban's weakness. But isn't this new campaign just as potent as conventional warfare, and harder to counter? He concedes it brings its own difficulties, but has this summary of what 52 Brigade will leave here in the south of Afghanistan: "We have managed to get the four major urban settlements of Helmand – including Musa Qala – with a majority of the population to the point where they can start to enjoy a degree of stability. These places are undoubtedly better than how they were two years ago. Elsewhere there's a tough fight going on there.

"We are buying the space, and buying the time, to give good governance a chance to establish itself. If Nato fails here then it has significant consequences not just for the alliance but for how we might approach these things in future. It would be deemed to be a disaster if Nato failed here."

One thing is for sure – the fact that public opinion is more behind the British forces in Afghanistan compared with Iraq is a major boost for morale. "It certainly matters to soldiers that public opinion and therefore public support is apparent. Iraq had all the debate about dodgy dossiers, weapons of mass destruction that don't exist, and whether it was legal or not. Afghanistan is viewed differently and we are conscious that we have support. Don't get me wrong, I can go to a dinner party in Edinburgh and say I've been commanding here and no one is interested, and there's no reason they should be. So I'm not kidding myself."

I ask Mackay about the future for Scotland's 52 Brigade. It seems they are due to return to Afghanistan in 2010. The Brigadier smiles, plainly delighted at the prospect of Edinburgh Castle. Recalling what his predecessor said when he took over the command, Mackay says with some pride: "Instead of turning all the lights out, what we did was turn all the lights on – at full megawatt beam."

'The only thing you feel sorry for is civilians getting caught up in the middle of it'

Lance Corporal Andy Reid, 22, from Buckie, joined the Highlanders when he was 16. He is fighting with 52 Brigade, based at FOB Edinburgh, near Musa Qala.

"Before you come under your first contact you are nervous, you are anticipating it, you are wondering what it's going to be like. But once the first one's out, the training kicks in and everything's okay after that. You just batter on.

"The Taliban surprised us because when they take you on they draw you in and they're quite smart, so they'll take you on the flank from another area. Initial contact is usually just to get your attention, and you'll come under heavier firepower from another side. It's a 'shoot and scoot' method – they'll fire an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) or a few rounds and you'll be concentrated on that area, but they'll not be there any more. Now we take a more 360 degree approach.

"In Iraq it felt there was no reason for us to be there – we were meant to be training the Iraqi police and halfway through the tour they wouldn't work with us. With this tour we definitely get the feeling there's more support back home – especially the anti-terrorism side of it. You feel you might be accomplishing something.

"The only thing you feel sorry for is civilians getting caught up in the middle of it. If we go into compounds a lot of property gets destroyed. We're kicking people's doors down and coming in – I wouldn't like a stranger coming into my house. But we have to do it.

"Yes, sometimes there are civilian casualties. But definitely the British are very wary – we will always check first before dropping bombs or whatever. Maybe some other nations aren't so careful, but it's inevitable civilians will get caught up.

"You deal with all that by concentrating on the job – we're more thinking about the guy next to us and what we're about to do.

"It's not until maybe you get a bit of free time and start thinking back at things that happened or could have happened. But you just have to keep yourself busy and try not to worry about it.

"As for the Taliban, for me personally, they're the enemy, but they're human beings. But if we're sent in there and they're firing at us then you don't really think too much about them. They're just a target."