Thursday, December 31, 2009

Canadians killed in Afghanistan attack - BBC

Reporter Michelle Lang had recently arrived in Afghanistan

Four Canadian soldiers and a journalist have been killed in an attack in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar.

The journalist has been identified as Michelle Lang, 34, from the Calgary Herald, who had just arrived on her first assignment in the country.

The armoured vehicle in which the group was travelling was touring local reconstruction projects.

This has been the deadliest year for foreign troops since the 2001 invasion. Canada's toll stands at 32 for 2009.

It has lost 138 troops in total in the course of the war.

'Very saddened'

Ms Lang was the third journalist to die in Afghanistan this year, Reuters reports.

An award-winning health reporter, her colleagues at the newspaper were said to have been devastated by the news of her death.

She was recently engaged to be married and described as bright, quick-witted and kind.

"We are all very saddened to hear this tragic news," Alberta Health Minister Ron Liepert said in a statement.

"Michelle covered health issues with professionalism, accuracy and thoroughness."

The BBC's Lee Carter, in Toronto, says the deaths will add to the conviction felt by many Canadians that the country has carried a disproportionate number of casualties, especially in comparison to some European Nato allies.

Canada has a 2,800-strong force in Afghanistan, but the deployment has become increasingly unpopular at home and the troops are scheduled to be withdrawn at the end of 2011.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

PICTURE of the day: A shurah on OP Tor Shpah in the Nad e-Ali

A shurah takes place during OP Tor Shpah in the Nad e-Ali District, Helmand Province, hosted by the District Govenor Habbi Bullah, Local Afghan National Army Commander and Security provided by a mixture of Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police and the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards Battle Group, based in Shawqat, Helmand Province

Pictures: SSgt Mark Jones (RLC)

Better pay boosts morale in Afghan army

Amal is in the final weeks of his basic training and says he dreams of bringing peace and stability to his war-ravaged country as part of a professional Afghan National Army.

He is one of 7,000 recruits from across Afghanistan undergoing eight weeks of training at the Kabul Military Training Centre (KMTC), one of the focal points of the new strategy for defeating a virulent Taliban insurgency.

The 21-year-old comes from southern Kandahar province, one of the most violent, and says he joined the army to make a difference.

"I want to eliminate our enemies, I don't care who they are, Taliban or whatever," he told AFP during a break from ambush drill.

"I want to serve my country because when security is good, we can rebuild our country, the children can go to school, people can have normal lives."

Behind him, this patch of the 22,000 acres (8,900 hectares) occupied by the KMTC looks like many southern Afghan battlegrounds -- beige, barren and dusty -- as hundreds of recruits drop to their bellies to practise marksmanship.

Over the next hill, a few hundred more are being taught to search houses, set up checkpoints and road blocks, throw hand grenades and fire machine-guns.

Elsewhere on the campus -- formerly the Afghan Military Academy -- there are mass graves of victims of the communist regime of the seventies, and carcasses of destroyed Soviet tanks occupy their own graveyard.

Turnover at KMTC is 1,400 recruits every two weeks -- with 7,000 constantly in training -- as the Afghan government and its Western supporters attempt to extrude an army from the mostly illiterate and often drug-addicted pool of young men needing jobs.

US President Barack Obama, General Stanley McChrystal, who commands US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai say they are determined the country will take responsiblity for security within five years.

To make that wish come true, they plan to hit a benchmark of 400,000 security forces -- army and police -- within 18 months.

There are nearly 100,000 troops in the Afghan army, which is projected to grow to 136,000 next year. Karzai allies are calling for up to 240,000 soldiers.

These ambitious figures have sown concerns that recruits will be taken on to fit the quantity, not quality, requirements of a government in a hurry to finally prove that it is up to the job.

Experts warn the nation lacks literate young men, veterans with leadership skills, facilities for training, and money for weapons.

With almost 40,000 more troops due to arrive in Afghanistan from the US and its NATO allies during 2010, Western leaders are eager to show Afghan forces are making enough progress for them to start thinking about withdrawal.

Western public opinion has turned against continued commitment to Afghanistan, as voters grow weary of a rising death toll in a far away war.

General Egon Ramms, a German commander in the NATO-led force in Afghanistan, said last month that of 94,000 Afghan soldiers trained so far, 10,000 have defected, and an estimated 15 percent of the armed forces are drug addicts.

In an effort to retain and attract recruits, the Afghan government recently announced a 33 percent pay rise for soldiers and police.

Officers at the KMTC said the pay rise, bringing average salaries up to around 200 dollars a month, is already making a difference.

"Morale has certainly had a boost since the pay rise," said Major Mahhoobullah, chief of staff and acting commander at KMTC.

"We are a volunteer army so the pay rise has made a difference to retention of recruits, they are much happier," he said, adding that applications from new recruits also leapt after the salary increase.

Problems of drug addiction were also being dealt with, he said, with screening and treatment.

The main problem for the infant Afghan National Army he said, was "the low quality of the boots, they only last a month".

Rifleman Aidan Howell of 3 RIFLES killed in Afghanistan

It is with great sadness that the Ministry of Defence must confirm the death in Afghanistan of Rifleman Aidan Howell of 3rd Battalion, The Rifles.

Rifleman Howell was killed as a result of an explosion that happened near Forward Operating Base Zeebrugge, in the Kajaki area of Helmand Province, during the afternoon of 28 D ecember 2009. He had been on patrol when an improvised explosive device detonated.

Rifleman Aidan Howell, 3 RIFLES Battle Group

Aidan Howell was born in Sidcup, Kent on 25 June 1990 and went to the Montsaye Community College in Rothwell before enlisting to join the Army in 2006. He was selected to attend the Army Foundation College in Harrogate before completing his training at the Infantry Training Centre in Catterick. In March 2008 he joined C Company, 3 RIFLES based in Edinburgh.

Known to friends as 'H', he completed his Pre- D eployment Training with C Company as part of the specialised Fire Support Group, a role normally reserved for more senior Rifleman. An extremely fit and active young man he was an avid Leeds United supporter, travelling far and wide to cheer them on whenever he could.

Rifleman Howell's family paid the following tribute:

"We can not begin to express the total and utter devastation we feel at the loss of our beautiful son Aidan. He may be recognised as a hero now, but to his family and everyone who was lucky enough to know him, he was already a hero.

"Aidan was a big Leeds United fan and even met the players, his heroes, before he left for Afghanistan. He was known as 'Sunshine Boy' to his family and he was a loving son, grandson, and a cheeky and cocky brother.

"He loved his mates both at home and in the Army and he was so proud to be a soldier as we were utterly proud of him."

Lieutenant Colonel Nick Kitson, Commanding Officer 3 RIFLES Battle Group, said:

"Rifleman Howell, at the age of 19, was already established as a man of promise. His infectious humour and engaging personality had quickly endeared him to his Company and his Platoon.

"Despite being a relatively new arrival to the battalion, he was already operating with the C Company Fire Support Group which demands the experience and ability of our older Riflemen. In this he found no difficulty and held his head high, belying his tender years.

"His loss is a tragedy and he goes to join a line of gallant Riflemen who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country and their mates out here in Afghanistan. Those who remain here will take strength from his courage and dedication and will honour his memory always.

"At this most difficult of times our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends. We know that they, like us, will find some comfort in the knowledge that he died doing the job he loved and whilst bringing peace and stability to this troubled region."

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

British Army bomb disposal squad is The Times’s Team of the Year

No one can doubt the individual courage required to walk down a road towards a bomb, but it is the collective courage of British bomb disposal teams in Afghanistan that The Times wishes to recognise this year in making 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Regiment our “Team of The Year”.

Through the summer months of 2009, ammunition technicians from 11 EOD, working with the specialist search teams of 33 Royal Engineers, disarmed and removed hundreds of Taleban roadside bombs across Helmand province. They took on a level of personal risk unimaginable in almost any other profession, and formed perhaps the Army’s most “mission critical” asset in Helmand. Each bomb disposal expert dealt with between 85 and 100 bombs during their six-month tour. Their job is exceptionally rare in frontline service. They risk their lives to save others.

In July I met the self-styled “Team Rainbow”, a bomb disposal unit that included Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid and Captain Dan Shepherd — both hugely respected technicians who would later be killed before the end of their tours. A slightly scruffy, modest demeanour and self-deprecating wit appeared to be the communal traits of the team. Their nom de guerre was an ironic homage to the hapless puppets Bungle, Zippy and George in the 1980s children’s television series Rainbow.

It was the height of Operation Panther’s Claw, the British summer offensive to secure Nad Ali District. The thermometer was close to 50C in the shadeless, foul-smelling compound that made up “Yellow 14”, one of a string of British outposts being attacked every day. A week later Team Rainbow would clear 120 devices along a two-mile stretch of road to allow the Light Dragoons and Mercian Regiment to move forward amid fierce close-quarter fighting.

For the rest of the article click here for the Times Online

Better the devil you know in Helmand

Picture: Patrick Hennessey
Afghanistan Notebook: flights are cancelled and departures delayed but the Army gets me - and members of my old regiment - to Kabul

By Patrick Hennessey for the Times

The weather in London forces a last-minute change to my best-laid plans to get to Afghanistan as a “civvie” so I can revisit my old regiment out there. I’m grateful, though, that old habits die hard: my waterproofed bergen fares better than most of my fellow passengers’ luggage sitting out in the snow once our flight has been cancelled.

The advantage of being rescued by the RAF from my snowed-out plan to fly commercially into Kabul is the chance to return on an old Tri-Star with members of my former regiment, the Grenadier Guards, coming back from their R&R through Brize Norton. Compared with the increasingly angry chaos in London City airport, the announcement of a slight delay in our departure is met with resignation; maybe soldiers are more used to waiting around, more patient than the thwarted Eurostar customers. Then again, maybe they’re just not in such a rush to leave home. Those with faded and battered combats heading back out seem more relaxed than those in freshly pressed and bright new kit deploying for the first time. The unknown is always more intimidating than the familiar, even when the familiar is Helmand.

Croissant, anyone?

Kandahar airfield (KAF) has expanded since I was last here, a French patisserie and a German PX (kit shop) the most obvious additions to the “boardwalk” and testament to the increased Nato commitment to the region. What hasn’t changed, however, is a sense of coming and going. Although home to many dedicated staff and aircrew, KAF for most of the British is a staging post, a relaxed midway point between the comforts of home and the rigours of Helmand.

We stroll around the vast camp without the need to carry helmets, body armour or weapons, and shopping seems to be the main activity of troops in transit. I’m struck that it was slightly cheeky of recent reports to spin the Prime Minister’s stay here as being a night in a “war zone”. Neither the nice ladies in the coffee shop nor the pizza delivery boys can remember when the base was last attacked.

For the full report click here for the Times Online

Monday, December 28, 2009

PICTURE of the day: Operation Lions Leap

Soldiers from Number 1 Company of the 1st Battalion The Coldstream Guards on patrol around Kopak near Babaji. The troops were inserted by Chinook helicopter a few kilometres out from their patrol base to engage with local villagers and disrupt enemy activity in the area.

Photographs: Sgt Keith Cotton RLC

Sunday, December 27, 2009

My sister: The war lady in the all-female Tornado crew

Nikki Thomas, a fast jet-navigator serving in Afghanistan, on fighting the Taliban and 'helmet hair'

By Janine Thomas for the Times

I’m on the phone to Nikki, my little sister, and we’re gossiping away about the usual stuff, boys, shoes, bombs. Yes, bombs. Squadron Leader Nikki Thomas is a fast-jet navigator serving in Afghanistan. She and her pilot, Juliette “Jules” Fleming, are the RAF’s first all-female Tornado crew in the country. They have clocked up more than 35 missions in the war zone in the past three months.

We hear much about the husbands, fathers, sons and brothers out there; but what of the mothers, wives, sisters and daughters? Of the 30 Tornado GR4 air crew of the RAF’s 31 Squadron on active duty in Afghanistan, four are women — Nikki and Jules among them.

What drove them into what seems the most macho of work? We’ve all seen Top Gun: what does it take to be Top Girl? And, for that matter, what is it like to be Top Girl’s sister? Whenever my mobile rings with an unknown number, I think it’s Nikki and leap on it. I know I can’t call her back and may not be able to speak to her for another week. A week with no contact, when your sister is fighting a war on the other side of the world, can seem an eternity.

Nikki chats away about her mates, the food, the little things. She never tells of the danger she puts herself in saving lives on the ground. She will say: “Oh, we had an interesting moment today but it was all good.”

Last week’s “interesting moment” made the news. I opened the paper to see a story about Nikki and Juliette chasing off a Taliban rocket team who were threatening Kandahar airbase. Usually her work is top secret, but I managed to wrench the details of this story from her.

“We were tasked to search for potential rocket teams and identified a group of men digging in a ditch quite close to base,” she told me. “Their actions looked suspicious and the idea that they might be setting up to fire on our base meant that we needed to do something fast.

“Jules took the aircraft out to about 15 miles from the ditch and we descended rapidly to fly over the men, at about 100ft and 500mph. An aircraft flying that fast and low is a pretty terrifying sight. The guys ran for their trucks and careered off. There were no rocket attacks that evening.”

Kandahar is home to 20,000 international troops. Although it is not the most austere base in theatre, it has been turned into a mud pit by recent rain. Taliban rocket attacks are a weekly occurrence. When the siren sounds, you have a few seconds to hit the ground — and fast.

For the full article click here for the Times Online

PICTURE of the day: Living at Patrol Base Talibjan

Sharing an evening meal in the make shift cook house. A great moral booster for the troops and a chance to unwind.
Personal kit and weapons are always close to hand and ready to go.
The facilities are basic but then this is no hotel.
One of the Afghan National Army warriors watching the world go by.
Shaving al fresco won't be so relaxed as the winter sets in.
A controlled explosion of an IED that the ANA found and disarmed. Their skills in spotting them are excellent.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Helmand Christmas: turkey, Santa hats and staying focused

Grenadier Guards Captain Patrick Hennessey’s best-selling book The Junior Officers’ Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars was an account of six months in Helmand. Yesterday, he was back with his old regiment to describe a strange Christmas far from home

By Patrick Hennessey for the Times

As a holiday treat at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shawqat, breakfast is served half an hour late and those not on duty can have a lie-in. The perhaps unintended result is that the first thing I hear when I wake is the muezzin calling from the neighbouring Afghan National Army camp. I’m not the only one woken by the lingering call and there’s suddenly some rival singing from the next-door tent as a Guardsman greets the morning by impersonating Slade — “It’s Christmas!”

For the past few weeks the Chinooks supplying the FOBs have been working even harder than usual, groaning with the extra weight of parcels and presents crammed among the food and ammunition that sustains troops across Helmand. The generosity of the British public has been great for morale, although if the number of sweets and chocolates sent out is anything to go by, perhaps not so great for the teeth of the men and women who find themselves so far from home this Christmas.

In Shawqat itself, Lieutenant Colonel Roly Walker, Commanding Officer 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, wishes all a merry Christmas at evening conference before reminding us that it is business as usual. At key times in the Muslim calendar, notably Ramadan and Eid, it is International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) policy to minimise patrolling so that festivals can be observed. The Taleban extend no such courtesy, and there are four or five shootings on Christmas Eve, although I’m later laconically informed by the adjutant, Captain James Fox, that this is significantly quieter than usual.

The day before I arrived, an improvised explosive device killed four civilians and injured nine others going to the increasingly busy market next door. Whether the attack was intended for security forces, or just a graphic and horrifying expression of Taleban frustration at the success the market represents, is moot. With such a potent threat on the doorstep, it is little surprise that the force at Shawqat remains focused whatever the day.

Still, Christmas manifests itself in small ways — cards tucked into the reinforced walls of the Ops Room, a small tree near the memorial to the 28 Isaf soldiers who have died since the Welsh Guards battlegroup moved into the area in April and, yesterday itself, a flurry of Santa hats.

Another Isaf policy during Ramadan and Eid is to issue troops with guidance cards for dealing with their Afghan counterparts — important for those working during Ramadan when the fast is observed even as fighting continues. As the Afghans peer at a platoon from Arnhem Company, 2nd Battalion, Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, carrying out pre-patrol vehicle checks in those Santa hats I wonder if anyone has given them cards for dealing with the British at Christmas.

The local governor and police chief join us for the tradition in which the officers and senior ranks serve the junior soldiers their Christmas lunch. A surprise gift of a live turkey is dealt with by the Gurkhas, and the chefs serve a full traditional menu. Too full, perhaps, as Brussels sprouts, the perfect missiles, begin to fly.

Outside afterwards three cheers are offered for the chefs. The hats and novelty antlers are as incongruous against the dusty yellow walls of an old fort as the sunshine of a Christmas Day spent in a desert on the edge of nowhere. It would have been the perfect moment for a post-Christmas dinner nap but weapons and vehicles have to be readied and the commanding officer sets off to one of the outer bases.

At the evening briefing, it has been another very quiet day — just two shootings. Someone wonders if the Taleban are learning the Christmas spirit but this brings only wry smiles. Intelligence suggests that they were using the lull to prepare fresh attacks.

Grenadier Guards Captain Patrick Hennessey is the author of the best-selling The Junior Officers’ Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars, an account of six months spent with his regiment in Helmand

Farmers marvel at skills of Captain Miles Malone, the ‘Herriot of Helmand’ - Times

The moors of North Yorkshire are a world away from the dust and heat of Afghanistan but a British army officer dubbed “The Herriot of Helmand” has become a minor sensation in the province after starting an informal veterinary service for local farmers.

Captain Miles Malone 28, is a member of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps 102 Theatre Military Working Dogs Support Unit, based in Sennelager, Germany. His principal job is caring for the dogs that sniff for roadside bombs. However, in the three months that he has been in Helmand he has begun a monthly clinic for the remote farming communities around the main British base. Camp Bastion. It has proved wildly popular, treating 1,312 animals in two days this month.

In stark contrast to the gentle bucolic adventures of James Herriot, Captain Malone’s work is undertaken with the protection of well-armed Afghan soldiers and the threat of roadside bombs. Earlier this month he could seen in a remote desert community grappling with huge flocks of goats under the appreciative gaze of local farmers.

There is almost no understanding among the local population of veterinary care or basic animal husbandry.

“There is near total ignorance about causes and spread of disease, breeding cycles and how milk is produced,” Captain Malone said. “If a goat stops milking, it is said to be ‘Allah’s will’ rather than the fact that it has not bred for 18 months and therefore has no anatomical reason to produce milk.”

He added that the concept of a vet was virtually unknown and that he was having to describe himself to wary locals as a “doctor for animals”.

For many farmers in Helmand livestock assume an importance higher than the family’s daughters, according to Sergeant Major Greg Reeve, 39, who works with Captain Malone. “The economy of Helmand is 70 per cent agricultural, 20 per cent livestock and 10 per cent other. If an Afghan man owns an animal, it will be more prized to him than any other possession, apart from his sons.”

With average earnings in the world’s fifth poorest country hovering around $1 a day, the $70 (£44) cost of a goat makes it a significant asset.

Captain Malone said that the sheep and goats were responding extremely well to his deworming and delousing campaign. He has also encountered high levels of animal diseases such as brucellosis, which have been all but eradicated from British herds.

“These herds are fascinating because the goats and sheep are extremely ancient breeds,” he said. “Because they have not been exposed to drugs and have built up no resistance, they respond extremely well and quickly to the products I give them.”

Jabbing a needle into the last of a large flock, Captain Malone said: “If we reduce the diseased state of the animals, the knock-on effect will be improved meat and milk production. This not only increases the value of the animals at market, but it increases the amount of protein in the locals’ diet. If the meat does not contain worms or diseases which can be transmitted to humans, so the health of the local population also improves.”

PICTURE of the day: .50 cal sunrise on Boxing day

Boxing day sunrise at Patrol Base Talibjan

VIDEO: UK troops celebrate Christmas on the frontline - ITN News

British troops on the frontline in Afghanistan have marked Christmas with a carol service and a roast turkey meal.

Christmas truce? No chance ... but even the Taliban can't stop us having our turkey dinner

Frontline: Sergeant Robinson with fellow troops near Musa Qala

By Sergeant Steven Robinson 2nd Battalion, Yorkshire Regiment
Last updated at 11:08 PM on 25th December 2009

WHEN I was growing up, I remember hearing stories about Christmas Day in the First World War trenches.

I was told that the guns magically fell silent, the British and German soldiers sang carols to each other and then both sides climbed out and had a game of football in No Man's Land.

Christmas Day in Helmand Province isn't quite like that.

Festive treat: troops from Sergeant Robinson's Yorkshire Regiment company tuck into their Christmas dinner near Musa Qala

The Taliban don't take time off, so neither can we. Which meant that yesterday was very much business as usual from the moment we poked our noses out of our winter sleeping bags in yet another freezing Afghan dawn.

I've been in the Army 15 years. This is my second tour of Afghanistan and my second Christmas away out of the last three. And if I've learned one thing, it is that while it may be tough for us out here, it's a whole lot harder for those we've left behind.

Our wives and children are all too aware of the empty seat at the dinner table. But for us, it's pretty much just another day at the office. And while I never quite forget what's going on at home, I try to push it to the back of my mind.

I'd have given anything to have been with my four children this Christmas time, particularly my youngest son, Cavan, who is only seven months old. His first Christmas and I missed it.

Based near Musa Qala in the north of Helmand, we're only about two kilometres from what we call the FLET or Forward Line Enemy Troops. It's somewhere you need to be vigilant at all times.

So while you were snug in your beds, we were leaving our small, dirt-walled, canvas-roofed compound and setting out on patrol.

We had a successful day clearing compounds - including one being used to manufacture IEDs, the improvised explosive devices that have claimed the lives of far too many British soldiers. As we destroyed the bomb-making equipment, it felt good to know that it would never be used.

But on our way back to base, one of the vehicles was hit by an IED. Thankfully, nobody was hurt but it was still a nasty moment - all your instincts tell you to rush to help your mates but you've first got to establish that you're not walking into an ambush or trap. Fortunately, we all made it back safely.

When the day's serious work was done I really started thinking about home - wondering what my wife, Leanne, was up to and how the kids - Ashley, who's 13, the twins, Sam and Declan, who are nine, and little Cavan - are behaving. I miss them all every day. But I especially missed them yesterday.

Part of the problem is that we're only a very small group of British troops here - eight of us from the 2nd Battalion, Yorkshire Regiment and a couple of guys attached from the Royal Horse Artillery - so our distractions are pretty limited.

We've got an X-box, a few DVDs and a 2ft Christmas tree in the Ops room. There are Christmas cards and Advent calendars dotted about the place, along with a few red British soldier and his turkey dinner. And while it wasn't the best I've ever had, it wasn't the worst either, largely thanks to the fact that one of the boys is a really good cook. I have to say it made a welcome change from the boil-in-the-bag curries we live off most of the time!

I read somewhere that British soldiers in the First World War had beer, wine and even rum with their Christmas dinner but no such luck here - it's an alcohol-free zone.

I was especially pleased when it was my turn to use the sat-phone to call home. Normally, we get 30 minutes phone time a week but during the Christmas period, we get an extra hour.

Chatting to Leanne and the kids served as a poignant reminder of everything I was missing. Still, I've always maintained that a sobbing mess at the end of a crackling phone line is no use to anyone, let alone the people I love - so that's not what they get.

As part of the Operational Mentor and Liaison Team, our job is to help turn the Afghan National Army into good enough troops to take on their country's protection and future security themselves, which will enable us Brits - and all the other members of the International Security Assistance Force - to go home.

The good news is that the approach is working and the ANA troops are infinitely better soldiers than they were when I was last out here two years ago. Less encouraging is the fact that there's still a way to go. Which is why I'm still here.

I think I speak for everyone when I say that we're hoping next Christmas will be a very different story. I hope to be tucking up safe and warm after a day at home with the whole family - instead of pulling on umpteen layers of thermals before wriggling into my army-issue sleeping bag ...

Pictures: Major Paul Smyth

Friday, December 25, 2009

VIDEO: British Troops Tuck Into Xmas Lunch in PB Talibjan

While the rest of the UK has been tucked up in bed dreaming of what Santa will bring, for the soldiers in Afghanistan it's business as usual. Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment have had some time to sit down and tuck into xmas lunch.

Images: Major Paul Smyth

PICTURE of the day: Christmas dinner in PB Talibjan

The insurgents don’t take Christmas off, so nor can the troops.

Soldiers like those of Patrol Base Talibjan are here making what they can of Christmas day in between patrols and compound clearances.

For an hour today they gathered to celebrate Christmas and relax.

They carry out their duty so that people back at home can enjoy a peaceful Christmas.

Merry Christmas everyone.
Making the most of the winter sun at PB Talibjan
The turkey
Cpl Graham Dransfield preparing the vegetables.
Cpl Graham Dransfield using an Afghan inspired oven to cook the turkey for Christmas day.
Private Liam Lawlor with Socks the patrol base puppy.

Images: Major Paul Smyth

VIDEO: New Footage Shows Afghan Challenge in PB Talibjan

New footage has emerged showing the challenge that British troops fighting in Afghanistan face. A small unit from the Yorkshire Regiment fighting near Musa Qala to clear a Taliban compound. Sky's David Bowden reports.

Images: Major Paul Smyth

PICTURE of the day: Christmas day in Patrol Base Taliban

The insurgents don’t take Christmas off, so nor can the troops.

This small team of British soldiers at Patrol Base Talibjan based near Musa Qala, in the north of Helmand are just 2 kilometres from what is called the FLET or Forward Line Enemy Troops and out here soldiers definitely need to keep their mind fully on the job.

But today in and around all the usual work they are squeezing in Christams day. While the rest of the UK has been tucked up in bed dreaming of what Santa will bring, for the soldiers here it is business as usual.

Not as much snow as in the UK. I don't think this counts as a white Christmas.

Corporal Graham Dransfield cooking the turkey in an ammo box oven

Giggling sounds of children playing

Every time a soldier loses his life we gather at our headquarters to remember them, to honour and respect them and to pray for their family and friends. Last week, at the end of one such service, our brigade commander came off the parade and said to me 'listen to that Padre'. I wondered what he was talking about. I listened. I could hear the sound of traffic from the town that surrounds our base, but then I became aware of the laughing and shouting and squealing and the giggling sounds of children playing. The brigadier commented that we wouldn't have heard that three months ago.

I went to the garden outside our church and reflected on the sounds of those children. I allowed my mind to travel home to my children. Another Christmas apart. They are adults now but I miss them as, all of our soldiers miss their families. One of my daughters will give birth to my first grandchild in February. I will miss that too. I reflect on the many, many, conversations I have had with soldiers about the pain of being separated from loved ones. I think of the times I have been privileged to listen as soldiers record bedtime stories for their children.

My thoughts turned to the children I have met in the various places I have served with the army.

The orphanage in Bosnia that soldiers volunteered to repair.

The ragged slip of a girl that I met in Iraq in 2003. With all of the children of her village, she surrounded the vehicle I was on, to grab one of the sweets I was offering. When all the sweets had gone and the crowd has dispersed, she remained, sitting shyly on a sand hill looking at me. I made faces at her. She laughed. She slowly made her way towards me and held out both her hands. In each was one of the sweets she had fought so hard to win. She tried to give one back to me. I wept at the generosity of one who had nothing.

I think of the children here. The fact that they would prefer pen and paper to sweets. That they laugh and play as our children do back home when they have the security to do so. They exude hope. They are the future.

Hope. Not just a whimsical wish, but the belief and desire that things will turn out better than they are now.

This evening we celebrate the birth of the Christ child. God's message of hope for us all. A child born in poverty of a single mother becomes our salvation. It is in the birth of this child that our hope rests.

“And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men”

May god bless you this Christmas and give you peace and hope.

Padre Mark Christian
Senior Chaplain
Task Force Helmand

Thursday, December 24, 2009

PICTURE of the day: Christmas Eve reassurance patrol from Patrol Base Talibjan

Setting off on a Christmas Eve reassurance patrol with the sun high in the sky. This is very unusual weather for this time of year.
Taking a break while the OMLT boss talks with the local Afghan National Police commander. A local boy looks after a flock of sheep.
Afghan National Army warriors relaxing during a break in the patrol.
Locals extending their compound walls.
The kids come out to say hello as we pass through their village.
A father and son off to meet up with family in the next village.
Weaving our way through the compounds.
Boys irrigating the fields ready for the wheat planting.
Heading home with the ANA, the patrol complete.

Pictures: Major Paul Smyth

Lance Corporal Tommy Brown killed in Afghanistan

It is with sadness that the Ministry of Defence must confirm that Lance Corporal Tommy Brown from The Parachute Regiment was killed in Afghanistan on Tuesday 22 December 2009.

Lance Corporal Brown died as a result of a suspected Improvised Explosive Device while on a foot patrol about 1km south of Sangin, central Helmand Province, Tuesday afternoon.

Lance Corporal Tommy Brown was a dynamic, optimistic and talented soldier and sportsman for whom no challenge was too great.

He relished responsibility, and was never found wanting. In all that he did, he displayed the easy confidence of a natural leader.

He was enthused by soldiering and proved time and again able to inspire those he commanded to emulate his own rigorous professional standards.

His cheeky grin and easy wit were never far from the surface, especially when things were tough. He died as he lived, leading from the front; the only place that someone like Tommy knew.

A spokesman for the regiment said:

“He gave his life for his comrades and the Parachute Regiment, both of which meant so much to him. His passing is a sad day for us, but every member of the Unit is privileged to have known such a likeable, grounded and utterly professional man. We are deeply honoured to have served alongside him.

"Our thoughts and prayers now turn to his family and friends at this most difficult time. We hope that in the midst of their profound loss, they can draw strength from the fond memories that we all share of this fine man.”

Lance Corporal Christopher Roney killed in Afghanistan

It is with regret that the Ministry of Defence must confirm that Lance Corporal Christopher Roney of A Company, 3rd Battalion The Rifles, was killed in Afghanistan on Monday 21 December 2009.

Lance Corporal Roney died of his wounds following an engagement in Sangin, Northern Helmand, Afghanistan.

At the time, his platoon was working out of Patrol Base Almas, providing security, reassurance and freedom of movement for the local population in support of the Government of Afghanistan.

Lance Corporal Christopher Roney

Lance Corporal Roney was born in Sunderland, Tyne and Wear, on 3 February 1986. He worked as a Drayman before joining the Army and, following initial training at the Infantry Training Centre, Catterick, he joined 3 RIFLES in Edinburgh in May 2006.

He qualified as a Class One Infantry soldier in October 2007 and was promoted to Lance Corporal in March 2009, following successful completion of the Junior Non Commissioned Officers' Cadre.

He deployed to Afghanistan with the 3 RIFLES Battle Group in October 2009 and has since played a key role as a junior commander during the numerous patrols and operations that are bringing increased security and prosperity to the population of Sangin.

LCpl Roney's wife, Lorna Roney, and family have issued the following statement:

"Born a legend, died a hero. Loved always and sadly missed by his son William (5 months), wife Lorna and family. We're all so proud of you."

Lieutenant Colonel Nick Kitson, CO 3 RIFLES Battle Group said:

"Lance Corporal Roney was an utterly professional Rifleman who was held in the highest regard by all around him, his seniors, peers and subordinates alike. A strong, robust, tried and tested soldier, his mission was to serve the regiment, the battalion and his mates.

"New to command and responsibility, he was not one to shy away from the unpopular decisions and was respected all the more as a result. Such was his quality, compassion and depth that he was loved as much as he was respected.

"A fighting soldier who would fight to be at the front, he died doing exactly that. Despite having recently stepped onto the first rung of the promotion ladder, his men unhesitatingly looked up to him.

"His confidence, knowledge and sense of humour inspired them to do their very best. His loss is a tragedy. His talent, commitment and contribution live on in his men and their unstinting determination to carry on from where he left off.

"The Battle Group has lost a brave warrior for the current fight and a talented prospect for the future. He would undoubtedly have gone onto bigger and better things all too quickly.

"Here in Helmand he was doing what he enjoyed most: soldiering as part of a team, a team that he commanded expertly. His memory will be revered and celebrated by us all in the battle group and in this proud regiment. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife Lorna, his son William, his family and his friends."

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

PICTURE of the day: Reassurance patrol from PB Talibjan

Setting off
One of the local villages
Local villagers gather to talk to the troops.
Section Two scanning the ground for signs of insurgents

Back in the PB, the mornings patrol done.

Pictures: Major Paul Smyth

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

PICTURE of the day: On ops with the OMLT from Patrol Base Talibjan

Moving into the starting positions
Heading to the Forward Line of Enemy Troops (FLET)
Mastiff call signs provide fire support during a compound clearance
Afghan National Army signaller passing out orders during a firefight
Fire support from the Household Cavalry Regiment (HCR)

Heading back to Patrol Base Talibjan after a successful operation. The insurgent compounds were cleared, a number of IED's found and they were left in no doubt as to who had the upper hand.

Pictures: Major Paul Smyth