Map of Helmand ProvinceBy the time the Royal Anglians arrived, Helmand had become one of the main centres of the Taliban insurgency and a symbol of resistance to the Karzai government in Kabul. After the fall of Kandahar in 2001, the Taliban were still in control of most of Helmand. Mullah Omar took refuge here after fleeing Kandahar, and the world’s most wanted man, Osama Bin Laden, spent some time in the Helmand border area in 2003.

Helmand, in the south-west of Afghanistan and roughly 500 hazardous kilometres from the capital, Kabul, shares a southern border with the unruly tribal region of north-west Pakistan. The province consists largely of furnace-like flatlands, bisected by the Helmand River, which is flanked either side by lush vegetation known as the ‘Green Zone’. The Green Zone is an area of densely irrigated land, supporting almost 90 per cent of the local population. Depending on the season, crops of poppy, marijuana and maize reduce visibility to 10 metres and sometimes less.

The fertility of the Green Zone makes Helmand Afghanistan’s largest producer of opium. The Green Zone, with its maze of interconnecting irrigation ditches, treelines and open fields, gives the advantage of covered movement and unlimited ambush positions.

Family compounds, surrounded by almost impenetrable mud walls, delineate ancestral properties and provide considerable protection for the inhabitants and defenders. Together, the compounds form hamlets and villages, the names of which often bear no resemblance to anything on the map.

For the infantryman, the Green Zone represents one of the most complex operating environments imaginable. It presents difficulties comparable to those faced by soldiers in the primary jungles of Malaya and Vietnam, but also compounded by the density of civilian dwellings. The usual advantages of modern weapons and sensors become neutralized in the Green Zone, where the ground and vegetation forces engagements at brutally short range. It is unbearably hot (55°C) in the summer and bone-chillingly cold (-20°C) in the winter, when the mountain-fringed flatlands can conjure up the most dramatic electrical thunderstorms to be heard anywhere in the world.

It is a beautiful and terrifying place, where human behaviour echoes that of the landscape. Throughout history, Helmand’s inhabitants have called the place the Desert of Death.