Author: By Kim Sengupta in Camp Tombstone
But the soldier he went back to find was not a fellow member of the Mercian Regiment: he was one of three members of the Afghan National Army who had been killed earlier that day by insurgent forces in an intense firefight. The two armed forces were working side by side.
Yesterday, an Afghan commander, General Mohieddin Ghouri, spoke of the “nobility and sacrifice” of the 23-year-old member of 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment, who came from Worcester. “He gave his life for someone who had been fighting beside him. No man can ask more from a fellow warrior,” he told The Independent.
Private Williams was remembered glowingly by his fellow British soldiers, who praised his cheerfulness and his infectious determination. “Jason died adhering to the soldier’s oldest code: leave no man behind,” said Lt Col Banton, his commander. “We don’t leave British dead in enemy hands and he wasn’t going to let that happen to an Afghan brother-at-arms. It was an act of humanity. He will be remembered by the Afghans, and us, with honour.”
In spite of that kind of service, though, the task facing soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan remains daunting. The Afghan troops they serve alongside are also in dire need of better training. Meanwhile, 196 British troops have fallen in the conflict so far ? and Pte Williams was the fourth to die in the last three days. Inevitably, recriminations over resources have continued unabated.
General Mohieddin, the head of Afghan forces in Helmand, said that he was hugely impressed by the bravery and professionalism of the British troops such as Pte Williams. But, he wondered, “Why do they not get better protected vehicles? They need more helicopters, this is now urgent because the Taliban are using so many IEDs. Britain has a rich economy and they should get these things to the soldiers here as soon as possible.”
But it is not only the British army that is suffering. Pte Williams’ death came after those of three Afghan soldiers in the same battle at Zumbelay in the Upper Gereshk Valley. The Afghan army which is due to play a key role in the West’s exit strategy from a war haemorrhaging lives and being increasingly called into question by the West.
That scepticism is part of the reason for a definitive new report on the coalition’s strategy, led by US General Stanley A McChrystal. Set to be published this week, it will emphasise the necessity of ‘Afghanising’ the war with rapid training and arming of national forces.
At the moment, though, the sheer tempo of the action means that the training process has been curtailed in places experiencing the bulk of the fighting like Helmand. In those circumstances, Pte Williams’ death takes on an unfortunate symbolism: the British soldier determined to protect the body of his Afghan comrade, and suffering the same fate in the process.
In theory, the training is reasonably thorough. After an initial 12 week basic course in Kabul, recruits are supposed to receive an intense three week session before they deploy to the front. But the realities of combat mean that this has been reduced to three days before the troops are sent out to fight.
“What we try and do is teach them the most important elements the best we can in this pretty short space because of the operational tempo,” said Major Nick Clarke, of the Mercians. “This is not ideal, but that is what we have to do.”
The recruits themselves insist that they are patriotic Afghans. “We have Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras here,” said 20 year old Daidullah Khan from Lashkar Gar. “We have seen from the past that if we are divided then our enemies can take advantage of us. This has happened throughout history, so we must learn to be united.”
But those words mask fundamental problems that face the Afghan army. Most fundamental of all, perhaps, is pay: the soldiers say it is simply not coming through. Niaz, 22, from Kapisa, says that he has not been paid for three months; for Abdul Latif, from Charikar, it has been five. It is little wonder that when they are given the choice after three years in Helmand, many opt for easier commissions elsewhere.
For the British trainers the frustration lies in having to be translated not just to one but three ? Pashtu, Dari and Farsi ? languages. “You also get the feeling sometimes that they resent taking lessons from foreigners, after all they have beaten a few foreign armies in the past,” said Captain Ross Carter, of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. “When they focus you see just how good they are, how much they can improvise and you know this is a job worth doing.”
And, for all the problems both groups face, there is a sense of empathy between the Afghans and many of the British soldiers working alongside them, many of whom are only too aware of what is at stake. Pte Jason Williams was one such soldier, who had taken an interest in the wider Afghan picture, and the country’s culture. He also reflected on what it takes to serve in this ferocious war. Days before he died he had scrawled on the walls of his base: “A man is not finished when he is defeated. A man is finished when he quits.”
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