The terrifying day I met the Taliban — and risked being beheaded: One minute his besieged men were fighting to the last bullet. The next, MAJOR ADAM JOWETT was given an order that made his blood run cold
Major Adam Jowett, who was sent on a terrifying mission which saw him come face-to-face with the Taliban in Afghanistan
The news was ominous.
One of our jets circling over Musa Qala — the besieged Afghanistan town I and my understrength Para company were desperately defending from the Taliban — had spotted a large gathering of men on the edge. Five hundred of them!
It sent a shock-wave through the ops room.
We knew the enemy were expecting reinforcements, but not that many.
‘Tomorrow could be a little tasty, sir,’ my sergeant-major remarked dryly.
‘Just a little,’ I agreed. ‘How are we on ammo?’
‘I’ve dished the last of it out,’ he replied. ‘If we do have to kill 500, we’ll be doing the last couple with bayonets.’
It was a sobering thought.
If a big push came from those forces gathering in the desert, it truly would be a battle to the last bullet.
It was a tense day. Nerves on edge, I almost leapt from my skin as two mortar rounds crashed into the compound.
In the early evening, we were told by those in spy planes monitoring the gathering at the edge of the town that it had finally broken up, but no positive identification had been made of who they were.
I expected that we’d find out in the morning.
I took a moment to consider what lay ahead. We were heavily outnumbered and running out of ammunition.
If it came to it, we would fight to the end. Surrender was not an option.
But the odds didn’t look good and, like every other man in the company, I marked out my last magazine.
When I was down to my last few rounds, I would make sure I died upright and fighting.
Better that than the alternative of falling into the hands of the Taliban, which was far worse than death.
What went through my mind was the poem Rudyard Kipling wrote about an earlier Afghan war, The Young British Soldier, and in particular, its final verse:
When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Not much had changed in Afghanistan in the past 150 years.
Not much had changed in war, either. Tomorrow, our enemy would come and try to kill us, and it was my job — my duty — to see they died instead.
That night — surrounded by the enemy, with my back to the wall and no way out — against all odds I slept soundly.
The next morning, men stirred earlier than usual, brewing up and lighting cigarettes.
A harrowing photo from Major Jowett’s book ‘No Way Out: The Searing True Story of Men Under Siege’
Despite knowing that the day promised a major clash against vastly superior numbers, they were at ease, just wanting to get the job done.
‘Let’s get into position,’ I ordered, and they pulled on their battered helmets and made their way to the walls and roof-tops of the compound to face the enemy.
But as the sun rose, there was not a flicker of movement in the town.
‘Where the f*** are they?’ a voice called out, but there was no sign of the black-robed Taliban fighters. Only silence.
I dared raise myself to one knee to look out, but no one fired at me. The men fidgeted behind rifles and guns.
They had pumped themselves up for the mother of all dawn contacts, and instead their crosshairs were empty.
What did it mean? Were they biding their time? Could it be a ruse? Apparently not. We waited hours before I stood the men down.
The rest of the day crawled by, and it was 6pm when I got a message to call HQ in Camp Bastion on the satphone.
A voice at the other end said: ‘I’m not really sure how to tell you this, Adam, but tomorrow you need to leave the compound and meet with the Taliban to co-ordinate a ceasefire.’
I burst into laughter, wondering which of my Army friends was impersonating the CO, Colonel Stuart Tootal. ‘Nice try, you w**ker,’ I said and hung up.
He was back on within minutes.
‘I can see why you would think it’s a wind-up, Adam,’ he said stoically, ‘but it’s not. Tomorrow, I need you to walk out of the main gate, alone, and meet them.’
A military aircraft flies over Afghanistan – an image from Major Jowett’s book ‘No Way Out: The Searing True Story of Men Under Siege’
In all of the what-ifs I had played out in my mind, talking to the Taliban had never been one.
As Tootal’s words sunk in, I couldn’t help thinking there was every chance I could be the next Westerner to feature in one of the Taliban’s infamous videos, my head hacked from my shoulders.
My death posted on social media.
I tried to push away such images and concentrate on what the order actually meant — but it felt very strange.
For the British Army to talk to the enemy was unheard of, not only here, but in any conflict I could think of. Why was it happening?
But apparently the people of Musa Qala had simply had enough.
Their town had been reduced to a shooting range that was a death sentence for civilians to enter, and so tribal leaders and elders had approached the British and the Taliban with one simple message — stop destroying our town, and let us live our lives.
The huge gathering of 500 finally made sense. It had been a shura between tribes, villages and the Taliban.
I could assume their involvement, for without their consent, there could be no talks, let alone a working ceasefire.
I called in the NCOs and platoon commanders, who were stunned by the news. ‘A ceasefire?’ Freddie growled, finding the words unpalatable.
‘That’s right,’ I said. ‘Tomorrow at 1000 hours, I’m to go out and meet with them.’
‘What the f***?’ he swore. ‘You can’t do that, boss. That’s b***ocks. What if they just want to grab you as a hostage?’
That was my thought exactly but I had my orders. I told them to arrange gun teams and snipers on the wall to cover me. I tried to appear confident.
‘I don’t want to talk to the Taliban any more than anyone else does,’ I said, ‘but let’s be positive. A ceasefire means no more of our boys being killed.’
I would need an Afghan interpreter with me, and from the three we had I chose Naz — in his 20s, intelligent and steady.
I briefed him and he agreed to do it. At his request I gave him a pistol, even though it was absolutely against the rules to arm a civilian.
I told him: ‘Once we’re out there, you’ll stand at my shoulder. I’ll look the person I’m speaking to in the eye, and make regular pauses for you to translate.
‘When you translate what they’re saying to me, give me as much extra information as you can. How are they saying it? Is there something in their manner that we need to be aware of?’
He, in turn, had advice for me on how to pay respect to Afghan elders. With tensions high, we could not risk an unintended slight.
‘Treat them like you would an uncle or a favourite cousin,’ Naz insisted. ‘Be friendly and open. They’ll like that. They probably have never talked to a man from England before.’
I gave him a final word of warning.
‘If it all goes bad, pull your pistol, put down any Taliban that are close enough to grab us, and then sprint to the main gate.’
He smiled, knowing as well as I did that if anything went wrong, we would never make it back.
For the rest of the night I had one soldier after another telling me I was crazy. They thought there was not a prayer I’d get out alive.
They also feared that a ceasefire was a cop-out, a dishonour, that we were jacking it in.
I tried to reassure them. We weren’t giving up.
Two snipers crouch down behind a wall in Afghanistan – an image from Major Jowett’s book ‘No Way Out: The Searing True Story of Men Under Siege’
On the contrary, we’d fought them to a standstill. Now was a chance to help the local people get their lives back.
I delivered the words with outward sincerity. But did I believe them? It didn’t matter.
We were soldiers, and our mission had been switched from killing the enemy, to talking to them.
‘I think it’s going to go well,’ I said cheerily. But when I was on my own, I allowed myself to accept the danger I was about to put myself in.
What kind of idiocy was it to walk into a gathering of men who for weeks had been trying to kill me and my soldiers — and some days, succeeding?
I remembered talk of a Canadian officer who had sat down to speak with Afghans at a peaceful shura, only to have an axe buried in his head.
Even if the Taliban did want to parley, it would only take one man to step out of line and kill me.
There was every chance my lifespan could be measured in hours. What would my family say?
I’d go down in history as the clown who thought he could saunter out and talk to the Taliban!
It was absolute madness, I told myself, and I felt my legs shaking with nerves. My God, I have a wife and two kids, and I’m never going to see them again.
I’m never going to see them because I’m the fool being sent on a fool’s errand.
A suicide mission.
But then a calm acceptance came over me. I had a job to do. I’d do it, and face the consequences.
The next morning, Naz and I walked to the main gate. I could see the wall of our compound was thick with my men, as I’d requested.
Heavy machine-guns were positioned to shoot down the road to where the meeting would be. Snipers were also there, rifles ready.
Outside, a crowd of 100 Afghans was building. They appeared unarmed. So far, so good.
My men pulled down the barricade of bed-frames and scrap that formed our gate.
Even now they were urging me not to go. They were certain it was a trick.
I checked my appearance — clean combats, pockets secured. ‘How do I look?’ I asked.
‘Good, sir,’ they mumbled, and I could see in their eyes that they were taking their final mental picture of me.
I had been a Guardsman before I joined the Paras, and I put that to use now, striding towards the gathering with perfect posture, confidence in my every step.
But I had never felt more scared. From the number of people outside, one thing was immediately clear — if I were grabbed, there would be no way to escape.
In such a situation, the men on the wall had their orders — to let rip with their rifles.
Do not let us be taken alive.
As I emerged into the open and looked at the throng waiting for me, there was no mistaking the Taliban in their dark garments, their faces young and arrogant.
The civilian tribal leaders were older and looked more friendly.
I took off my helmet to show I was unafraid, made a beeline for the eldest and shook his hand. He responded with a warm smile.
My translator, Naz, told me this man was the mayor of Musa Qala. I was introduced to more elders.
Each explained which village he came from, and I surprised myself by feeling my trepidation begin to slip away.
I had survived the first 20 seconds, which I had always foreseen would be the most dangerous, and I could not smell or see an ounce of agitation in the men around me.
They had come to do business. They were not about to explode into violence.
There were some 30 Taliban, their leaders hard-looking bastards to a man, gaunt and sun-baked, with thick black beards beneath faces of stone.
To see them so close and unarmed was more bizarre than frightening. A reminder that I was in uncharted waters.
The mayor introduced them, too, finishing with the man who, as was clear from his bearing, was the enemy commander, Mullah Ghulam Sadiq.
His handshake was firm, his eyes penetrating, but he displayed no outward hostility. I expect he was as curious as I was to see who he had been trying to kill, and who had been killing him and his men.
I did not greet them with the same warmth I had displayed to the village elders. I wanted them to know from my manner that they could do business with me, but as a solider, I would rather be fighting. I imagined Sadiq felt the same.
Then the talks began.
‘We can stop the fighting here, and allow the people of this town to come back,’ I said, and everyone nodded vigorously.
The mayor made a speech in which he berated both sides for all the destruction they had rained down on Musa Qala.
The crowd had closed in to better hear him speak, and I realised I would now be lost to the eyes of my men — particularly the sharpshooters — on the wall.
But my gut feeling was that I did not have to worry. So far, this was going well, and I had faith that it was going to work.
Lance Corporal Paul Muirhead who died from wounds sustained during a Taliban attack on his base in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in 2006
When the mayor had finished, I looked at the Taliban commander and said firmly: ‘We won’t come for you. Not because I don’t want to, but because I’ve been ordered not to.
‘You won’t come for us either. If you don’t come for us, then there’s no need for us to fight.’
Sadiq thought over the words, then growled out a few of his own. ‘He doesn’t want to stop either,’ Naz translated, ‘but he has been ordered, too.’
‘We don’t need to be happy about this,’ I told Sadiq. ‘But we need to make it work for them.’ I gestured to the elders.
‘I promise that we can stop shooting. There will be no artillery. No bombing. As long as you will not come for us. Agreed?’
He pulled on his beard for a few moments and then gave a begrudging nod. I put out my hand, and he shook it.
The ceasefire had begun.
More handshakes and farewells were needed before we could leave without causing offence.
The walk back seemed a lot shorter than the one out. Coming in through the gate, I wanted to lie down and just thank God I was alive.
Then I called HQ with my report. ‘Well done on not buggering it up or dying,’ I was told in typical Army fashion.
And what was my gut feeling, I was asked. Would the ceasefire really hold?
I answered optimistically: ‘I really think it will, sir.’
But there was still a sense of confusion and frustration among the men of Easy Company.
They asked: ‘Why are we talking with them, boss? They killed our mates. Have we done all of this for nothing?’
I did my best to convince them otherwise, but soldiers are full of pride — we have been raised that way by the Army for good reason.
And ‘ceasefire’ smacked of ‘surrender’.
‘That’s not what it is,’ I insisted. ‘We’ve fought them to a standstill. We’ve done our job. Now, we can see that Musa Qala gets back to normal.’
Soon, shops were re-opening and the market was coming back to life.
We even provided Sadiq with a mobile phone — which he was reluctant to take because the Taliban ruled that owning one was punishable by death.
But I told him it was important he and I could talk at once if some unforeseen incident was misinterpreted as hostile action.
He agreed, and the hotline was soon used when some civilians engaged in celebratory fire.
He and I even talked about our experiences.
‘We hate your planes,’ he admitted, mimicking the sound of an A10 support aircraft on a strafing run. Good, I thought.
As we chatted, I almost forgot for a moment that these were the enemy who had not only killed and injured my men, but also were prone to drowning Afghans in buckets should they have been caught talking to, or supporting, us.
I was in the company of killers, and I needed not to forget it.
It was a bizarre period. I was free to wander the marketplace to order stores and food that would make the company’s life more palatable.
On these shopping trips, my interpreter and I would bump into Taliban fighters there to purchase their own provisions.
Of all the situations I had foreseen happening on this tour in Afghanistan, being alongside the Taliban as we bartered for goats was not among them.
But we would exchange ‘salaams’ and both go on our way.
Meanwhile, in the rest of Helmand province, the war was going on as normal. The two sides killing and maiming. While we stood on the sidelines. It didn’t seem right.
And there was still another big question. When and how were we actually going to get out of here?
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 mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640.
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