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The Pathfinder Platoon In Afghanistan, 2006

In March 2006, 16 Air Assault Brigade's elite Pathfinder Platoon deployed to Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Their primary role was to pave the way for the 3 PARA battle group's forthcoming deployment in the region.

From their operational base in Kandahar, the 25 Pathfinders were to put in long range patrols across the area, traveling in heavily-armed WMIK Land Rovers with Pinzgauer 4x4 trucks acting as support motherships. They started patrolling in the district of Garesk, gathering intelligence and getting the lay of the land. As 3 PARA battle group deployed and expanded their area of operations, the Pathfinders continued to patrol further out into Taliban-held country.

On April 6th, they patrolled to the village Now Zad of where they came under fire from what turned out be be 'friendly' ANP (Afghan National Police) forces. They had to destroy one of their WMIKs when it tipped over during a tactical withdrawal from the contact. A few days later they lost another Land Rover when it drove over a land mine, seriously injuring the occupants.

Now Zad, Afghanistan (google earth kmz file)

The Siege of Musa Qala

What was meant to be a six-day operation turned into a 6-week one, with most days spent in contact with the enemy. The platoon had on a previous occasion spent a 5-day stop-off at the town of Musa Qala, staying at a walled compound they shared with local police. In mid June they were tasked with returning in order to relieve US forces and hold the town until relieved by A Company of 3 PARA. The trouble was that A Company had been held up by heavy fighting around the town of Sangin to the North and the relief of the Pathfinders would take a lot longer than planned.

Musa Qaleh, Afghanistan (google earth kmz file)

The Pathfinders had not been in Musa Qala long before they started coming under enemy fire. On an almost daily basis, the Taliban would attack the Pathfinder's compound and surrounding outposts with small arms, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), mortars and a 105mm recoilless rifle. The Pathfinders traded fire with the Taliban with .50 HMGs mounted on tripods, placed in strategic positions within their compound, GPMGs, sniper rifles and SA80s. When manpower permitted, the Pathfinder Platoon would also put in pro-active 'hearts and minds' patrols out into the town and surrounding areas, hoping to win over the local population.

During their 6 week stay at Musa Qala, the Pathfinders relied on re supply from flights of RAF Chinooks. These large, lumbering and mostly unarmored helicopters made an appealing target for the Taliban. The Pathfinders were required to use their WMIKs to cordon off landing zones for the Chinook re supply flights - and operation that left their compound dangerously under-defended.

The Pathfinder Platoon were reinforced eventually by a platoon from 3 PARA which allowed them to put in more patrols outside the compound. In early July, attempts were made to bring in further reinforcements by road. The relief convoy was duly attacked by the Taliban and forced to withdraw. The Pathfinders would have to hold on a while longer.

Not content to sit and wait to be hit, the Pathfinders put in some ambushes of their own, engaging groups of Taliban fighters as they maneuvered around the area.

After 52 days, and further abortive attempts to reinforce the Musa Qala base, the beleaguered Pathfinders were eventually reinforced by a Danish force and later relieved by Royal Irish Rangers. Despite the fact that holding ground is not the Pathfinder's role - they are trained to stay mobile and hit and run - they had held out against sustained attacks by a fanatical enemy. And they had done so without losing any of their own.

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