Last night Channel Four's Dispatches lived up to its name with Bravo's Company's Deadly Mission - 90 minutes combat with 40 US Marines deployed to 'take' a Taliban 'stronghold' - in other words, a town, in Helmand province. There's much that could be said about the skill and bravery of those who made this programme, but my main point is that with lethal ordinariness, and understatement, they showed that the war on terror in Afghanistan is unwinnable if you assume that this war is a 'war' like other wars and that this place is a place like other places. Take those assumptions away and everything melts in your fingers - or maybe down your trousers.
This is the narrative. First they land, armed and ready. It's the middle of the night, but Bravo Company can't move because the area is has IEDs - or land mines. When dawn breaks they start to move, but gingerly, and out in the open. Everyone knows they're there.
Then they take a position just outside the town. They survey the flat plain. They cant atttack or move-in on anything because they are not allowed to be hostile unless someone someone is hostile to them. So they sit and wait to be fired at while the Taliban surround the area. The marines know this is happening but can do jack shit about it.
Then they come under fire: heavy fire in bursts which shocks your system, and sniper fire which zings past your ears at all times but usually when you are least expecting it. This, more or less, is the situation for the rest of the week. They move from isolated building to building, in open country, tryiing to get comfortable, trying to see Taliban, trying to avoid casualties, trying not to kill any civilians, trying not to kill each other, trying to persuade the Air Force to strike at blocks that they think might hold Taliban but might just hold an Afghan family instead. To a high tech fighter bomber from the air and a block on the horizon from the ground, what's the difference anyway? The Afgan units with them, by the way, are not keen. Every American is shouting most of the time but the ANA has to be shouted at to go forward, or back, or sideways through a door. Yet as far as the world media are concerned, Bravo Company's deadly mission is part of an Afghan National army led offensive.
So there they sit and there they tire. Very edgy. Very tired. Their Captain started the programme telling Dispatches that US Marines were your worst enemy - a nightmare of controlled violence. Well, that was then. Most of them just now would settle for a Starbucks in small town Missouri. So they decide to spread out into the town but then, all of a sudden, it's over. The Taliban have left them to it. At this point, they decare the town 'taken'. It's on Sky and CNN. It's a victory to the generals but not, it has to be said, to Bravo Company. Who know it's been hopeless. Finally the Captain spends $half a million on the town renovating the bazaar. Local labour builds them a park. They call it Victory Park. Locals just want them to go. They say they're not helping. They say the Americans think they're helping, but they're not helping. Why don't they just go?
Next month Bravo company do leave for home. They have taken 20% casualties - mainly from snipers. The empty buildings are empty again. This is a dispatch for that intelligent guy in The White House.