At Wanat, an outnumbered American detachment fought tooth and nail to defend their beleaguered patrol base. In Helmand, British troops found their small platoon houses under attack during a major Taliban counter-offensive towards Kandahar. These handfuls of plucky troops held on to their flimsy defences and inflicted major defeats on the Taliban.

On 11 September 2001 the movement known as al-Qaeda made its most audacious and murderous attack against the West. Hijacking four airliners, they attempted to destroy symbols of American power: two of the planes were flown like airborne bombs into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, another hit the Pentagon and a fourth, probably destined for the White House in Washington, DC, crashed in Pennsylvania when the passengers fought back and stormed the cockpit. Nearly 3,000 died in the world’s worst terrorist attack and the United States – backed by a world-wide coalition – sought to hunt down al-Qaeda, to deny them training facilities, finances and freedom of movement. It was evident that the militant Islamist Taliban regime of Afghanistan had hosted al-Qaeda, and so this alliance was to be the first target of Western operations.

Operation Enduring Freedom consisted of a rapid air campaign in support of Afghanistan’s local anti-Taliban ground forces. In addition, teams of special forces, primarily from the United States and the United Kingdom, were inserted alongside the Afghan Northern Alliance forces, with independent units carrying out reconnaissance deep in the interior. The Taliban resisted heavy air bombardments and the onslaught of the Northern Alliance for three weeks, and then, decimated, they collapsed. Soon they were being pursued southwards and eastwards, many making for the sanctuary of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier province, where they could rely on fellow militants for support. Many Afghans chose to switch sides, and began to assist the Western special forces teams to track down the ‘Arab-Afghans’, as al-Qaeda were known locally.

On the eastern border of Afghanistan, the mountainous terrain made pursuit more difficult, and it was clear that al-Qaeda fighters and their allies were making use of extensive cave systems at Tora Bora to protect themselves from air attack. Special forces, guided by local tribesmen, began to flush out these nests and the remnants of al-Qaeda were driven across the Pakistan border. There, some were able to escape into the hills, but a number were rounded up and arrested by Pakistan’s security forces. Meanwhile, Afghanistan began to establish a democratically elected government, a process of security sector reform and the disarmament of hostile factions that would, it was hoped, bring to an end decades of civil war. Unfortunately, insufficient resources were made available for the Afghans to complete the process rapidly, and by 2005 there was evidence that the Taliban were resurgent, with bomb attacks and shootings around the country.

The United Nations was keen to see a comprehensive process of nation-building initiated, and it insisted that the occupying powers assist in extending the writ of the Afghan government in Kabul over the whole country. In the south, particularly in Helmand province, narcotics had long been the mainstay of the local economy. In 2007, Afghanistan was the world’s chief exporter of opium, with over 90 per cent of opiates (including heroin) originating in the country. Mafia-like bosses were using the drugs money to run gangs, pay off rivals, ensure patronage and murder their enemies. It was often unclear whether these bosses were genuine members of the Taliban, or simply used that title to gain credibility with the local population. In 2006, when the British Army was tasked with the support of a counter-narcotics programme and the extension of the Afghan government’s jurisdiction into Helmand (the centre of poppy cultivation) it put them on a collision course with a number of vested interests. In fact, although the British did not realize it at the time, drug money was also being used by the lower echelons of the government to buy positions and patronage. Local police forces were getting payouts from drug barons, or were so badly paid by the government that they simply robbed local citizens. When the British arrived to back the authority of the police, a number of local people assumed they were there to make life even worse for them, and joined a nascent resistance.

At the moment the British were beginning their deployment to Helmand, the Taliban were readying their final offensive. They had been preparing for three years, and assumed that the Iraq War, which had tied down thousands of Western troops, would keep the coalition forces in a weakened state in Afghanistan. There had been months of booby-trap bombs, IEDs, assassinations and widespread intimidation. Local Afghans who refused to assist the Taliban were threatened, ‘disciplined’ and (should they refuse to cooperate) eventually shot. The Taliban were determined to ruin Western development projects and burnt down schools, threatened non-governmental organizations, and kidnapped family of wealthier families to exact a ransom. Targeting disgruntled communities, the Taliban offered to support them in return for loyalty to their cause. Now, the Taliban leaders felt that they could call on thousands of volunteers, including enthusiasts from Pakistani Madrassahs (religious seminaries, some of which teach a radical version of Islam), to launch an offensive that would overwhelm the poorly trained Afghan security forces, and persuade the West to abandon Kabul.

Part of the Taliban offensive in May 2006 was focused on the Arghandab Valley, north of Kandahar. Here the insurgents had established a base of operations and planned to strike against the city where their movement had first emerged in 1994. The Canadian troops in Kandahar were aware of the Taliban build-up, and faced a tough fight to avoid civilian losses while taking on increasing numbers of fighters.

At the same time, the British had arrived in brigade strength in Helmand and established a base at Camp Bastion near the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. Although the British 16 Air Assault Brigade planned to adopt a ‘light footprint’ approach and win over the local population with a low-key presence, they were asked by the Provincial Governor to establish small posts around the province that would signal that the government of Afghanistan was the only legitimate authority. In counter-insurgency doctrine, it is established that small areas need to be occupied and improvements made to security and economy before the ‘ink spot’ of secure and pacified space is extended to new areas. Establishing small posts around the province risked ‘penny-packeting’ the British force. If one or two posts came under attack, it would be far harder to protect or reinforce them. The brigade commander tried to dissuade the Afghan Governor, but, given that the mission was to let the host nation authorities lead, he had no choice but to comply.

The plan was therefore to establish areas of responsibility, and, given the lack of manpower available and the desire to maintain a low profile, each would be protected by relatively small groups of men in fortified posts known as platoon houses or patrol bases. These had the advantage of being close to areas of population, presenting the opportunity to meet with and perhaps win over the local community, as well as protect the local bazaar and its economic activity. There was also a better chance of being able to control the roads and tracks, in conjunction with the local police. It soon became apparent, however, that some of the local police were in league with the Taliban, and no sooner had the bases been established than they came under attack.

The British in northern Helmand were surprised by the ferocity of these initial assaults. Dozens of Afghans would rush forward, bringing fire to bear from multiple positions and advancing on several axes. Rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) would slam into the hastily built bunkers, and bullets from Kalashnikov assault rifles rained in. On other occasions, some Taliban would try to ambush a foot patrol, or fire on a base and then disappear; this ‘shoot and scoot’ tactic exhausted the British troops. At other times, there were more sustained attempts to overrun the platoon houses. Gun battles lasted hours, sometimes days, without relenting. As soon as the shooting died down, the British soldiers were expected to fill sandbags, repair their battered fortifications or get out on patrol. More and more frequently the patrols got ‘bumped’, that is, ambushed and attacked. As soon as the British fell back, the Taliban would swarm after them. To defend the posts, every available weapon was brought to bear – the rifle, the General Purpose Machine Gun, Browning .50 calibre heavy machine guns, sniper rifles and even Javelin missiles, which would normally be employed against armoured vehicles. The longer-range weapons proved invaluable in the destruction of buildings that provided the Taliban with cover or concealed their assembly areas. The Taliban, however, seemed undeterred by the casualties they were taking.

Attacks would often build quickly. A few RPG rounds would scream in, and the British soldiers would shout warnings to each other. Those manning the heavy weapons or on sentry duty would already be in action, while others (ostensibly resting but constantly on duty in case of an attack), would rush to a waist-high parapet or a sandbag wall. Rounds would pour in from multiple firing points, and the familiar sounds of battle – the ‘crack-ping’ of a near miss, or the ‘crack-thud’ of rounds whacking into sandbags – would be heard by all. There would also be an occasional cheer, as British troops confirmed a kill or saw the spectacular results of a close air support mission that they had called in. The firefights lasted on into the night, with individual Taliban fighters trying to work their way in to shoot at a closer range. Sometimes fire was exchanged within yards of the patrol base walls.

After some weeks of continuous fighting, the British had to decide whether they were achieving their mission or simply incurring great risks for no strategic results. The danger that a helicopter might be lost seemed particularly acute when, at this early stage of the campaign, there were so few of them. There was an alarming rise in the number of ‘mine-strikes’ (number of mines detonated by vehicle patrols) and so helicopters were becoming the preferred mode of transport to get ammunition and food in, and the wounded out. The situation seemed even more desperate when a step change in the skills and abilities of the Taliban was noticed. The British suspected that the sudden improvement in the accuracy of mortar, RPG and sniper fire was the result of external support. Either the Taliban were getting assistance in the form of trained personnel, or perhaps they were receiving new weapons and equipment, such as sniper rifles and night vision gear – or perhaps both. Some evidence suggested that Pakistan was being used as a conduit for these specialist tools and operatives.

The result was a change of British tactics. Platoon houses were consolidated and reinforced. More troops were brought into the fight. When the Royal Marine Commandos were deployed, they took advantage of the traditional winter lull in activity to take the fight to the enemy, and, treating the open areas of dasht (desert) like the open sea, they established a more aggressive and fluid patrol pattern that gave them back their mobility. New doctrine was established too, and fresh efforts were made to win the support of local leaders and farmers, but violence in Helmand remained at a higher level than in any other province of the country. By 2009, American Marines had joined the British and they began to secure the north and west, allowing the British to concentrate their forces in the centre and more densely populated valleys. There was now the chance to carry out a traditional counter-insurgency strategy, namely to shape (influence the population), clear (drive out the insurgents), hold and build (making improvements to local infrastructure). When the Taliban kept up their violent disruption and intimidation, it was clear it was going to be a long fight.

Similar challenges faced American forces in Afghanistan. As dawn broke on 13 July 2008, the Taliban attacked an American Regional Command East outpost in Kunar province, close to the Pakistan border, and fought a short, sharp battle that left 9 Americans and more than 30 jihadist fighters dead. The US troops were drawn from 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, which was part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. This force of 45 men had begun building a patrol house in the Waygul Valley, close to the village of Wanat. Three US Marines had joined the outpost in order to continue the training of a dozen Afghan National Army soldiers. As the work progressed, successive days of bad weather prevented any air cover, which gave the Taliban the opportunity to approach the base undetected, concentrating from distant hideouts through small valleys and nearby gullies. As the Taliban reached their final assembly area at night, they opened an irrigation dam so the sound of rushing water would cover the noise of their footsteps and whispers. Some Taliban fighters managed to locate the Claymore mines on the approaches to the base, and turned them around. Others used previous reconnaissance intelligence to point out the positions of American heavy weapons.

When the battle commenced, the American base was still far from complete. There had not been time to build entrenched observation posts on high ground around the compound. There was a lack of construction materials, and, because of the high Afghan summer temperatures and intense work required, the garrison had almost run out of water. The dangerous situation had arisen during an American attempt to win the hearts and minds of local Afghans. The US forces had previously been talking to village elders for several weeks, trying to persuade them to allow the base to be built in Wanat. It seems that the Taliban got wind of the discussions, and used this negotiation time to prepare a major attack that struck the base before it was fully operational. This setback was typical, and shows how difficult the Americans had found conducting a classic counter-insurgency campaign: all too often they were engaged in firefights and battling for their survival, rather than ‘winning hearts and minds’. The shortage of troops and the nature of the fighting meant that base security had to be provided by the same troops engaged in construction. This meant round-the-clock labouring for tired men, and it also suggested that it would be difficult to mount enough patrols beyond the new base to dominate the ground and deter attacks. The Americans were eager to find and arm local tribesmen who would work with them in order to increase the allied forces available, but there simply weren’t enough US troops to cover every valley and protect every community from Taliban fighters who would slip across the Afghan-Pakistan border with relative ease.

At 0420 hours, in the grey first light of dawn, volleys of RPGs began to strike the half-constructed base. This was the preliminary bombardment to an assault by between one and two hundred Taliban, significantly outnumbering the American garrison. The first salvos concentrated on the American’s heavy weapons (namely a 120 mm mortar, a guided anti-tank missile system and a .50 calibre machine gun). One soldier described the barrage as feeling like ‘a thousand RPGs at once’. With the heavy weapons knocked out, the Taliban rushed forward to fight at close quarters in order to make it impossible for the Americans to call in airstrikes. The attack had been planned in great detail. The Taliban threw rocks into the American trenches, hoping they would mistake them for grenades and jump out, whereupon they could be killed. Then the Taliban closed in from several directions, bringing as much fire to bear as possible. The Americans were simply unable to move because of the weight of fire smashing down onto their positions.

One soldier described the intensity of the battle: ‘I continued to lay suppressive fire with the 240 [machine gun] but it was difficult because I was unable to stand due to wounds in both legs and my left arm.’ When this soldier ran out of ammunition he realized he was the only one still alive in his corner of the patrol base. The Taliban were so close he could hear them talking.

Each American soldier was dependent on the battle skills practised back in the United States and honed by weeks of small-scale firefights in Afghanistan’s hills. Men operated in pairs, each laying suppressive fire to cover the movement of the other. As the Taliban tried to move into the base, they were forced to leave their cover, or were silhouetted against the sky, presenting a clear target. It required considerable courage to take the aimed shots required to pick off the skirmishing fighters, but the Americans cut down the Taliban as they tried to swarm across the perimeter. Fortunately, the .50 calibre machine gun had survived the initial barrage, and its reassuring repetitive low thuds could be heard in action above the din of battle. Hundreds of rounds were expended. The Taliban knew it would take at least thirty minutes for American air support to become available, and this made them even more determined to overrun the position before there were retaliatory airstrikes. The fighters knew they were running out of time, but the battle continued for an hour before the jihadists had had enough and began to move away. The exhausted defenders were too preoccupied with identifying who was still alive and tending the wounded to pursue them.

Some 9 Americans were killed and another 27 were injured (representing 75 per cent of the initial strength of the post), but the Taliban also took heavy losses: it was estimated that between 21 and 52 insurgents were killed by the determined defenders. The final death toll could not be verified as the Taliban tried to extract many of their dead and wounded, leaving only trails of blood. Despite the desperate and close-quarter nature of the fighting, the Americans had held their new base. The Taliban had failed to complete their mission. They had no propaganda victory to crow about to their adherents, and they had lost a number of dedicated comrades. Often the Taliban complained about the strength of American firepower, and expressed a desire to fight on equal terms, but here, battling man for man, they had been held in check. Even with the element of surprise, greater numbers and all the intelligence they needed, and therefore the best odds of victory, they had been unable to overrun the Americans.

In both the British and American cases, relatively small numbers of well-armed and well-equipped Western forces had been able to hold off larger numbers of Taliban fighters, even though the fighters had the advantage in terms of the ground, initiative and sometimes in the abundance of weaponry. Although isolated and forced to rely on their own resources, the British and the Americans had defended themselves and denied their enemies any physical or ideological victory. The Afghan people may tire of the repeated jihadist promises of liberation, of their strict and brutal precepts, and of the threats that follow when the Taliban fail to deliver. Alternatively, they may side with the fighters on the basis that the West may one day simply abandon the Afghan government. The Taliban are, after all, their countrymen. That chapter has not yet been written, but already the individual courage and collective endurance of the Western forces against the odds has etched the Afghan campaign of the early twenty-first century into that country’s history.