Men who’d fought the Taliban forced to slink away in cattle trucks

Men who’d fought the Taliban like the heroes of Rorke’s Drift were forced to slink away in cattle trucks… and ADAM JOWETT says that was just the start of the humiliations in Afghanistan

Pictured: Major Adam Jowett

In a nerve-shredding frontline testimony, a major who commanded British Army soldiers in Afghanistan has written his war memoir.

Yesterday, in the second part of our serialisation, he told how he was ordered to uphold a ceasefire with Taliban warlords. Here, in the final part, he tells how his brave men eventually left their beleaguered compound . . . only to feel humiliated when they returned home.

Once the fighting for the besieged Afghan town of Musa Qala was over, my men in Easy Company were keen to get out. They were still bitter about the ceasefire that had been arranged with the Taliban, angry that we were talking to the enemy.

I made it clear to them that what was happening was no reflection on them. We’d stood our ground but the truce had been ordered from much higher up the chain of command.

But they still believed, as one soldier put it, that we were ‘jacking it in’.

Such feelings were not softened by the fact that the rest of the British battle group in Helmand province was still heavily engaged with fighting the enemy.

It seemed as though we were the only company ordered into a ceasefire, and that gnawed at my men’s spirit — and mine.

But if our fight was finished here, I was keen for us to be redeployed elsewhere. There was not one man in Easy who wanted to ‘wait out the war’ and then go home. We were straining at the leash, desperate to join our brothers in Sangin, Now Zad, or Kajaki. But a month dragged by after the ceasefire began and 3 Para handed over to the Royal Marines before we got the order to pack our bags.

‘How are we extracting?’ I asked HQ in Camp Bastion. There was a pause at the end of the line. Then came the answer: ‘In cattle trucks.’

Cattle trucks. How humiliating. ‘For f***’s sake,’ I muttered to myself.

I had been pushing for us to go out like the fighting force we were, patrolling out on foot, heads high. The idea of being in trucks sickened me. But the decision had gone as high as the president of Afghanistan and Nato in Brussels and London.

There could be no argument. Cattle trucks it would be. The decision did not go down well with the men.

Sickening: The order to leave by cattle truck did not go down well with Major Jowett and his men

There was a lot of mumbling of discontent. How the hell had it come to this? Had they done something wrong? Were they being punished?

As their Company Commander, I tried to concentrate on the positives: we’re getting out of here, we’re going back to Bastion, and then we can be sent back out to fight. The promise of action, at least, did something to dampen the anger.

But it felt wrong. We had taken part in a heroic stand that you could argue stood comparison with other desperate fights, like the defence of Rorke’s Drift in the Zulu War. But we were as good as slinking away.

There was also the potential danger of the Taliban leading us into a trap and our vulnerable convoy being attacked in the open.

I told the local mayor and the Taliban commander we would need one of their elders and a Taliban fighter sitting in each vehicle as safeguards.

‘We have had peace in the town for a month,’ I warned them, ‘but if we are attacked when leaving, if even a single bullet is fired at my men, we will be going straight back inside the compound, and there will be no more ceasefire but renewed fighting, air strikes and artillery.’

Sadiq, the Taliban commander, replied: ‘You have my word you will not be attacked.’

But should I believe him? The Taliban were ruthless, as we had discovered in the weeks we had been fighting them. I was still desperately worried we might be heading into an ambush or be led into a minefield.

As for my men, when they saw the rattling cattle trucks bouncing into the compound, they were downhearted, to say the least. They had done all that had been asked of them, and more. Soldiers are proud men, and the thought of leaving on these decrepit vehicles was embarrassing at best, and dishonourable at worst.

‘How are you doing, boys?’ I would ask as I moved around the compound, trying to cheer them up. ‘Pretty s**t, to be honest, sir,’ was the common theme of the replies. ‘We didn’t ask for this.’

the usual banter between comrades was absent on the morning of our departure. Looking around the compound, with the procession of trucks lined up towards the gate, I felt a deep sense of sadness.

In this place we had stood against an enemy and fought in some of the most intense combat the Army had seen for half a century. And we still had to get away without something going wrong.

It was comforting to know we had some cover. There would be stacks of air support above us and Apache attack helicopters deployed to us, should we run into an ambush. And we were ready to defend ourselves.

I popped my head into the back of one of the cattle trucks. The sides were low and sand-bagged, and machine guns were at the ready.

If the Taliban broke the ceasefire, we’d give them one hell of a fight.

Dawn was breaking as I climbed into the lead truck and gave the order. ‘Mount up! Prepare to move!’

As our raggle-taggle convoy of vehicles bristling with weaponry began to move out through the gates, an Afghan elder at the wheel of each one, one of the lads summed it up. ‘We look like Mad Max, boss.’

It was an eerie feeling to be outside the compound and driving through Musa Qala. An experienced military eye could see too clearly that the narrow road was a potential killing zone, overlooked on all sides.

It was some comfort that thousands of feet above us, jets with high-powered cameras gave a top-down view of the space around us. Kabul and London were apparently watching.

Moving at not much more than jogging pace, it took the convoy 20 minutes to snake its way out of the town. They were the longest 20 minutes of my life, when any window could have hidden a gunman, any rooftop could have been the launch point for a rocket or a grenade.

As we drove, I scanned the buildings ahead and at the side of me, all the time wondering, what if the Taliban broke their word? And what about mines, with which Afghanistan was littered? At several points, the Afghan driver took a route that was far from being the most direct, and it was obvious we were avoiding minefields or booby-traps.

And then at last we were out in the desert, which only served to slow us down and make us more of a sitting-duck target.

It was impossible to travel at more than walking pace, and several vehicles became stuck in sand and had to be pushed free by their occupants.

A harrowing photo from Major Jowett’s book ‘No Way Out: The Searing True Story of Men Under Siege’

Taliban commanders sweating alongside 18-year-old Brit soldiers was just one more oddity in a mission that had become like no other.

Our destination was a rendezvous point where an armoured relief column was waiting, and when it came into sight, the two Apache gunships that had been covering us dropped from the sky to signal we had made it.

It was the moment when, with elation and relief, we dared to say to ourselves: ‘We’re really getting away with this! We’re going home!’

AND HOME was where we went, via Camp Bastion, Kabul and a much-needed ‘decompression’ period on a Cyprus beach. We got off the plane at Stansted and were reunited with family, wives, children.

At Colchester barracks, my wife and daughter came bounding towards me with enthusiasm, my son with some reluctance, wondering who this emaciated, tanned man in the doorway was.

I put my arms round them and kissed them. It was worth every hellish moment to experience the joy of holding my wife and children against my chest.

To do my job as the commander of a fighting company in close contact with the enemy, I had compartmentalised my family away with so many other things in my life. Now, that box sprung open. ‘I’ve missed you so much!’ I burst out.

But coming home from war is never easy. Our fight with the Taliban had created memories that were painful and unwanted. They would ambush you in the middle of the night and you would wake covered in sweat, perhaps even screaming.

You would be edgy. Angry. Withdrawn.

But in our case, there was something extra, something we had not foreseen when we were fighting for our lives from rooftops and alleyways. Because the cruel reality is that Musa Qala and the life-and-death drama that had gone on there was forgotten by everyone but us.

Worse still, our defence of it was put down as a defeat and we were treated as an embarrassment.

The first signs appeared quickly. Easy Company consisted of two platoons of Royal Irish Rangers, who were immediately split up and returned to their original companies, counter to all medical advice on how best to treat soldiers returning from war.

A military aircraft flies over Afghanistan – an image from Major Jowett’s book ‘No Way Out: The Searing True Story of Men Under Siege’

There they were treated as curiosities rather than heroes. They found they could not talk about their time in Musa Qala without being lambasted for it. One of them had been injured by mortar shrapnel but was chastised for making a scene as he struggled to step down from a bus.

Our mission, the contentious ceasefire and our unorthodox extraction were regarded as something of an embarrassment, or even joke. Subsequent events in Afghanistan did not help. We were only a few months back from there when the Taliban broke their word and re-took Musa Qala, over-running with ease the Afghan militia garrison that had taken over the compound from us.

I do not know what happened to the mayor and the other elders whom I dealt with but, given the Taliban’s track record, I imagine they suffered horrible deaths. This was a deep blow to myself and every man of Easy Company who had fought and bled for the place. And from the hushed jokes to the pointed fingers, there was no doubt we were being blamed.

At first I thought that perhaps I was being over-sensitive, and that the snide remarks about us being driven away in cattle trucks were nothing more than the Army’s usual level of harsh banter.

But then, the honours list was disclosed for the tour, and I saw in those lists of medals and commendations a truth I could not ignore.

Whereas the British battle group received a good handful of hard-earned Military Crosses and Mentions in Dispatches, not a single one of the men I had written up for awards received official recognition for their heroism. Not one.

It seemed as though the official message was that it had been tough across all of Helmand that summer, especially in Sangin and Now Zad, just not in our town.

Then, at the end of 2007, an operation was launched to once again wrest Musa Qala from the hands of the Taliban. It was a success, and seen by many as ‘correcting’ the situation ‘the Paras’ had left when they ‘tactically retreated’.

No one seemed aware that my men had balked at the idea of talking with the Taliban, but, like all good soldiers, had bitten their tongues and obeyed their orders.

The wider Army was blissfully unaware, too.

In 2008, I was heading back to Afghanistan and attended a pre-deployment briefing at which a major, ignorant as to who I was, explained to a group of officers how we had had to beat a hasty retreat from Musa Qala after being unable to hold off the Taliban.

I waited until questions to correct him. Then I said calmly, concealing my anger at this slur: ‘I was the OC of Easy Company and we weren’t kicked out. There was no withdrawal. We fought them to a standstill.’

But it was mud, rather than the truth, that stuck. In time, a number of books would refer to the ‘withdrawal’ or ‘hasty retreat’ from the town, and through repetition these statements became accepted as truth — something that became increasingly hard to swallow.

Easy Company, against all odds, had fought the enemy to the point where they chose a ceasefire above more casualties. The local peace had been ordered from the highest levels, and we had obeyed despite personal desire to fight on.

To see my men — who had fought so bravely — be tainted by others’ decisions made my stomach turn.

Some of Easy Company left the Army as quickly as they could. Others felt like they had nothing left to prove, and followed suit.

I looked forward to a further 20 years’ service but in 2012, there was a cost-cutting review and I was seen as surplus to requirements.

I was forced into early retirement, got rid of like a knackered Land Rover.

I was so angry at being dismissed casually by a ‘bean counter’ that it was only thanks to my wife hiding my medals that I didn’t post them back to the faceless staffers in the Army Personnel Centre.

A reunion of Easy Company in 2016 helped me realise how much worse my predicament could have been. Many of the men who fought under me in Musa Qala were now struggling. One was homeless. Another was discharged from the Army due to his extreme Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Overall, though, the reunion was a happy affair, punctuated by moments of melancholy and loss. In the grand scheme of our lives, those long weeks in Musa Qala were but a sliver of time, and yet they still dominate my thoughts.

There is only one higher honour than standing shoulder to shoulder with brave men, and that is leading them. Together we defied the greatest odds to beat back an unrelentingly barbaric enemy. It was an important stand to make. What we did at Musa Qala really meant something.

The motto of the Parachute Regiment is Utrinque Paratus — ready for anything. And I’m proud to say we were.

ADAPTED from NO WAY OUT: THE SEARING TRUE STORY OF MEN UNDER SIEGE by Adam Jowett, published by Macmillan on May 15 at £18.99. © Adam Jowett 2018. To order a copy for £15.19 (offer valid to May 22, 2018; p&p free), visit or call 0844 571 0640.

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