In 2006 Christina Lamb and the photographer Justin Sutcliffe were ambushed while on a 'hearts and minds' mission with British troops. She asks the men who saved them if the war in Afghanistan was worth it.
"Do you realise it's 15 years since Zumbelay?" came the email from a former paratrooper. "I think about it every day. Do you?"
Do I? Encircled and ambushed by the Taliban in a field in Helmand province on June 27, 2006, as Kalashnikov rounds threw up mud like in a war film, with mortars thudding and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) whistling, it was without doubt the scariest afternoon of my life.
At the time the public was being told that Helmand was a development project in which it was hoped "not a single shot" would be fired, but as the first journalist embedded with British combat troops in the province, it was clear to me we were very much at war.
We found ourselves under heavy fire outside the village of Zumbelay with no air support. Only because of the skill and training of the soldiers — and some luck — did we escape without a casualty. The army now uses Zumbelay as a case study; medals were awarded, including a Distinguished Service Order for the company commander and mentions in dispatches for his sergeant major and others. My report in The Sunday Times prompted a debate in parliament over the lack of equipment and helicopters.
The Taliban regime had been toppled by US-led forces in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, following the 9/11 terror attacks. But the Taliban regrouped and by 2006 was growing in strength, particularly in the south, prompting Nato to send more troops. The UK took responsibility for Helmand, agreeing to send 3,000 soldiers on a short-term basis to provide security for reconstruction projects. Instead their presence provoked a violent insurgency. At the height of the fighting there were 9,500 British troops in the province.
The war in Afghanistan has cost the lives of 457 British servicemen and women, with thousands wounded or emotionally scarred and families left devastated. Camp Bastion, Britain's largest overseas headquarters since the Second World War and its first billion-pound base, is now wreckage, while Helmand, like much of the country, has been taken over by the Taliban, leaving many to wonder what it was all for.
The UN has warned that Afghanistan is on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe, with fighting and drought leaving 18 million Afghans in need of urgent assistance. Earlier this month, as the last British troops began to leave, I spoke to some of the men who were in Zumbelay with me, to see how they felt about the withdrawal — what General Sir David Richards, commander of Nato troops at that time, recently described as "a sorry moment for the West's grand strategy — we've lost the plot".
I also wanted to know what long-term impact Zumbelay had on them. For the soldiers of 3 Para and the Royal Irish who were there that day, many of them veterans of Iraq, Kosovo and Northern Ireland, it was the most intense fighting they had experienced. As one said: "When all this is over it will still be in our heads."
The commander at Zumbelay was Major Paul Blair. Bizarrely, years later I saw Blair — a wiry man from Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland — in an episode of Dragons' Den. He was trying to convince the dragons to invest in Safestix, a toy for dogs that he had developed. As he walked into the den his dog got tangled in its lead and dropped the rubber stick, covered in dog slobber, by the feet of Deborah Meaden. "It wasn't quite the entrance I envisaged," Blair says. The dragons laughed him off and told him to stop wasting his money.
The first time I met him, in Helmand in late June 2006, he was facing an even more sceptical audience. The photographer Justin Sutcliffe and I were to be embedded with his troops — C Company of 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment — and flew from Bastion to a school in Gereshk with the overall British commander, Colonel Charlie Knaggs, for a shura (consultation) with local elders to explain the British mission. With Knaggs were two women from the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development who began talking about gender rights, which did not go down well with the audience of turbaned men with long beards.
When they left, Blair was given a DVD to play of messages from British officials cut with segments from the BBC series Blue Planet. As whales and dolphins were projected on the wall to people in a landlocked country who had never seen the sea, the elders looked astonished. "Why are they showing monsters?" one asked me.
"I think that's enough of that," said an embarrassed Blair.
"It was a massive disconnect that I found bizarre," he told me afterwards. "It smacked of colonialism back in the day, of going somewhere exotic to teach natives to play bagpipes and go to Sunday school and 'we know best', and that's a hard sell."
It was an early indication of the lack of understanding of Afghan culture and a people who pride themselves in defeating superpowers — including the British twice since the mid-1800s — and never having been colonised.
A few days later we set off from the British camp in Gereshk on a "hearts and minds" mission to Zumbelay. There were about 50 of us in 15 vehicles, the men laughing and joking about what one dubbed "aggressive picnicking". For all the high spirits, Blair knew we were heading into the unknown. "We took our own FSG [fire support group]. But there was always the assumption we'd have air support," he says.
We left the armed vehicles and the FSG on a ridge outside Zumbelay, then walked along the canal towards the village. Something wasn't right. First, there were no children — in Afghanistan there were always children asking for sweets. Then, at the meeting we had arranged, there were too few elders. I asked why. "They're at the mosque praying," came the reply. Later we realised it had not been prayer time. There was a pile of cut opium poppy where we were sitting. Lastly, no one offered us tea. In 20 years of visiting Afghan villages I had never not been given tea.
"Looking back, there were a number of indicators," Blair says. "There were also a couple of guys in black giving us the evil eye, but we were very well trained and had a lot of guns and ammo with us, so I didn't think we'd be taken on."
The FSG on the ridge was to provide outer protection, while inner protection was 9 Platoon of 1st Battalion, the Royal Irish Regiment, under Colour Sergeant Richard Spence, who says he was tasked with "trying to spot any asymmetric threats — most unsuccessfully as it turned out!"
Our meeting was short. We had barely walked away — less than 200 yards — and Blair was telling me he thought it had gone quite well, when the first shots rang out. Blair's radio crackled with a message from the FSG that they'd had a contact.
"I got brief battle orders to move as fast as we can to the high ground to give support," Spence recalls. Then we were under fire too. Like everyone else I started running and jumped into an irrigation ditch. I dropped my notebook and water bottle, but when I clawed up the bank to try and get it, an RPG whistled by so close I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise.
Firing was coming from all directions. "We were de facto surrounded," Spence says. We were in what he grimly calls "the killing area". "That time of year the cornfields were tall and were being used by the Taliban to close in on us. Because we couldn't see each other, we were engaging the enemy and ourselves."
Fearing his men were shooting at each other, Blair gave orders to lay down smoke — red phosphorous — so they could determine their positions, even though this would also reveal them to the Taliban. A call was put in for air support, but none was available. "[Captain] Alex Eida was on the radio to headquarters," says Blair, "and one of the most challenging moments of my life was when he said there's nothing coming, there's been a contact higher up the valley, which they deemed higher priority [ie, special forces]. So it was big swallow, deep breath, we're on our own, let's deal with it. Part of me was annoyed, cheeky f***ers, how dare they have a go at us. I wanted to make a point: you picked the wrong fight with the wrong guys on the wrong day."
He ordered 9 Platoon and the snipers to provide covering fire. For the next two hours we ran across the fields, diving in and out of ditches, bullets flying all around. It was terrifying particularly as, unlike the soldiers in khaki, I was in my blue flak jacket with "PRESS" in big white letters. We had been split up and I had no idea where Justin was. My heart was thudding and I was gasping as I had no water — summer in Helmand is punishing and it was 50C heat.
The soldiers had the weight of their packs and many of them fell. "I remember going headfirst into a ditch and it was such a steep drop, 10ft, and thinking I can't get out on my own. I was terrified I'd be left behind," says Corporal Leigh Carpenter, a military policeman attached to the unit.
He and I ended up in the same ditch, where he first apologised for ejector rounds falling on me when he started shooting, then shared his water with me. In my belt pouch I had the toys my son had given me for local kids, and during the briefest of breathers Carpenter and I talked about our children, his daughter and my son, the thought of whom kept us running. Later he told me that looking after me had helped him to keep going. "Early on we all thought we were goners. It got to the stage where I was so knackered, I thought if I get hit I can stop running."
What I didn't know but Spence told me later was his troops were close to running out of ammunition. "There was nowhere to hide, rounds were kicking up earth. It was also starting to get dark. I definitely thought someone's going to die here."
Things turned around when one of the FSG spotted a group of between 12 and 15 Taliban moving towards us, and fired a .50 calibre gun, turning them into what Captain Alex Mackenzie described as "pink mist". "We had a moment to decide, one chance to intervene," Mackenzie said, "and we had everyone firing, gunners, commanders, even drivers dismounting and firing."
The intense gunfire set the field ablaze, a scene captured by Justin, who somehow managed to take photographs as the bullets flew. "I remember every time I stood up waiting for the gunshot wound that, thankfully, never came," he tells me.
Eventually we were told to run across an open hillside, spaced apart, so the enemy couldn't fix a target. When I tried to stay near a soldier, Sergeant Major Mick Bolton yelled, "This isn't f***in' Club Med!"
We made it to the vehicles. "One of the worst moments for me was when the CO asked me to count heads," Bolton says. "I couldn't believe we were all there."
It wasn't over. There was only one road back to the base, which the Taliban knew we must take, so instead we made camp in the desert with the vehicles circled around us. Surviving such a close shave gives a real high and several of us couldn't stop talking. Eida and I discovered we had grown up in the same area and started comparing Surrey pubs until Bolton barked at us to "Shut up!"
In the early hours air support eventually came in the form of an American A-10 tankbuster, which dropped flares as we crossed a bridge on our way back. Justin and I were swiftly shipped home: there would be no more media embeds for some time.
Within five days of the ambush I was in a park in southwest London hosting my son's seventh birthday party. Still picking thorns out of my arms and legs, it felt surreal.
"If we'd taken one casualty and had to slow down we might all have got caught," Blair said when we met later. "If the Taliban had been better shots it could have been completely different."
He and his men in C Company did not have long to think about it. They were sent to the town of Sangin, where they found themselves under siege every day. A month later came the news that Captain Alex Eida had been killed, along with two other British soldiers, when their armoured vehicle was ambushed by the Taliban with RPGs and machineguns, then blown up by a roadside bomb. It was less than three weeks before his 30th birthday.
On September 6 came more tragedy. Lance Corporal Luke McCulloch, one of the snipers who had laid down covering fire for us, had come off sentry duty in Sangin and was being briefed by Spence when heavy mortaring and gunfire opened up.
"I jumped in the bunker then someone said, 'Man down'," Spence says. "I saw it was Luke. He had taken a severe fragmentation wound in his head. Under fire we managed to get him on a stretcher and to the aid post, where medics started working on him."
Only later did someone point out to Spence that he too was bleeding. He had shrapnel in his back and was now struggling to breathe, so was evacuated by helicopter to Camp Bastion with McCulloch. After a couple of days Spence was back in Sangin. McCulloch did not survive. He was just 21.
Blair was devastated. "I took that very personally and felt a lot of responsibility. I felt I could have done something different. People were having to sleep outside because the only hard cover was the mosque and I thought that was culturally sensitive. As soon as Luke died I was 'f*** it, let's take the mosque'. If I'd commandeered the mosque earlier, maybe he'd be here today."
Blair was awarded a Distinguished Service Order for the way he led us out of danger at Zumbelay. But he did not go back to Afghanistan after that tour. He went on to command the British Army parachute display team, the Red Devils, got married — Justin and I attended his wedding party, where his best man included part of my report in his speech — and in 2012 left the army to pursue his dog toy business.
"Anyone I know who went to Afghanistan and says they weren't affected I don't believe," he says. "The stats for male suicide for those deployed are pretty shocking. In 2008 I went for a dinner with lots of guys who'd been on that tour and it took lots of drinks before someone said, 'Is anyone feeling a bit shit about what happened in 2006?' To a man, 12 guys round the table put their hands up. It doesn't go away, but 15 years on it's a lot easier to talk about."
It took about ten years to hit him fully. A friend who had also been in Afghanistan took his own life, Blair's marriage collapsed and he couldn't stop thinking about what had happened to McCulloch. He had counselling, which he found helpful.
Now he is remarried. He has sold four million of the Safestix that the dragons laughed at, turning over £30 million ($60 million), and is launching a new business with a fellow veteran producing smart rings that control the functions on your phone.
Blair looks back at Helmand and all the good intentions — the washing machines for a hospital left in plastic as they weren't allowed to install them, the locals demanding money not to mortar them — and draws comparisons with the Vietnam War. "It very quickly went south, as you saw at Zumbelay, and we had to adapt tactically. But it's filtered through layers of command and penny-pinching politicians who underestimate it until it's out of control. It ends up being a protracted resource-sucking conflict in which lots of people get killed and injured, and at some point comes down to negotiated peace."
Leigh Carpenter, now 46, recently retired from the army and joined the Devon and Cornwall police. His daughter, like my son, is now at university. He was promoted after Zumbelay to sergeant and given a commendation, but a few years ago became plagued by nightmares. "They were always the same — I was being chased outdoors and trying to hide and not able to get away. I'd wake up literally drenched." He was diagnosed with PTSD and had counselling.
He has mixed feelings about Afghanistan. "I'm glad I went, I proved something to myself, but looking back the whole thing was a waste of time — it was one of those wars you'll never win. I feel awful that I lost mates and it was all for nothing."
In a farmhouse in Cambridgeshire, with nine rottweilers and three horses, Elaine McCulloch-Brandt, 58, sits surrounded by photos of a young man with a cheeky smile that I remember. On the mantelpiece is a vase holding the ashes of her son Luke.
"He always had that cheeky grin," she says. "He was a good boy. He got up to shit, but I am proud of him. I keep the photos everywhere like he just walked out and is going to walk back in sometime."
The last time she saw him was in August 2006, on leave after Zumbelay, for which he was mentioned in dispatches. Before he returned to Afghanistan she gave him a hug and started crying. "I'm invincible, Mum," he reassured her.
Elaine had just arrived back from a trip and collapsed screaming when her husband picked her up at Heathrow and told her the news in the car. She lay with her son for six days before he was cremated. She rarely leaves the house these days. "If I see a young man from behind who could be Luke then tears just fall."
"Luke used to say, 'Mum, we're keeping the bad guys away from where you are.' But what were they actually fighting for?" she asks. "Has our being there made things worse? I wonder what was the point if you're just going to pack up and let the Taliban take over. Were the deaths worth it?"
For my part I was proud that my report led to parliamentary debates and more air support for the troops. But increasingly I wonder if we should have learnt different lessons from that early experience — should British troops have been in Helmand at all? Or at least should more time have been spent understanding the cultural situation?
Richard Spence is now 51, living in south Wales with his wife. He left the army two years ago to work as an adviser on stability in West Africa. "Withdrawal was always on the cards," he says. "I'm surprised it's taken so long. I regret the guys we lost, the friends I lost, the effort we put in to achieve something. But we should have seen the writing on the wall and how the failure to understand the human environment can have dire consequences. We weren't the only ones having experiences like Zumbelay. Given where we are and where we ended up, I regret we got involved in the first place."
Written by: Christina Lamb
© The Times of London