Monday, March 30, 2009

Scots police chief fights to bring order to Helmand - Scotsman

THE former head of a Scottish police force has landed a key job helping to enforce law and order in one of the world's most dangerous regions.

Ian Oliver, who was chief constable of the Grampian force from 1990 to 1998, has been appointed head of rule of law, justice and security in the Helmand province of south-west Afghanistan.

He is working closely with the Afghan National Police and the British military, heading the rule of law unit within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office-led Provincial Reconstruction Team.One of his main jobs is to oversee the training of the local police, many of whom are widely seen as corrupt.The 69-year-old has been tasked with trying to reform the justice system in the war-torn region and has already come under heavy assault, narrowly escaping a suicide bomb attack.
Ten days ago, 13 people were killed in the incident which happened just 500 yards from the police headquarters where Mr Oliver is stationed.

Mr Oliver left his post in Grampian following the publication of a damning report into the force's handling of the Scott Simpson murder inquiry and revelations about his private life. The nine-year-old was murdered by a convicted paedophile near his Aberdeen home in 1997.

Since then, Mr Oliver has worked for the United Nations as a consultant on drugs and crime.While on duty in Helmand, he travels in armoured vehicles or by helicopter as many main roads are regularly booby-trapped by the Taleban.His accommodation is in "pods", described as converted shipping containers that have been reinforced to withstand bomb blasts. He also has to wear body armour most of the time.

Mr Oliver said part of his job involved trying to stem the flow of heroin into the UK. Afghanistan's opium farmers produce 90 per cent of the world's heroin – a problem made worse by the willingness of police to turn a blind eye to trafficking or in some cases even make it possible.Speaking from the city of Lashkar Gah, where he will be based for 12 months, he described Afghanistan as a "broken country".

"It has huge problems that cannot be solved in the short term," he said. "All people like me can hope to do is lay solid foundations for others to build on over the course of several decades.

"The most immediate and urgent problems that impact on the rest of the world are the insurgency and drug production, which is at record levels."This affects the rest of the world in terms of public health issues, organised crime and international terrorism.

"As well as having to deal with widespread corruption and drug trafficking, Mr Oliver is also confronted with the fact that the police are coming under frequent attack from the Taleban.Police often have fewer weapons and less training than Afghan and international troops, leaving them vulnerable to militant attacks.Last week insurgents have staged two attacks against police in southern Afghanistan, killing nine officers and wounding six others.

Mr Oliver's appointment emerged as a new US-led campaign against terrorist financing networks in Afghanistan emerged.Dozens of American drug enforcement agents are being sent in to help stem the country's massive opium trade.

A Foreign Office spokeswoman said: "Mr Oliver is managing British civil servants who are working with the local authorities to build the justice and police system, as well as British retired police officers in the EU police mission.

"He works closely with the British military to make sure we give the best help we can to the Afghan police and army to secure their own province."It is a tough job. Years of conflict destroyed Afghan institutions, which are now being rebuilt."

British two-ton ‘Dragon gun’ terrifies Taliban - Times

Michael Smith

BRITISH commandos have hauled a two-ton artillery gun up a 130ft cliff by hand to protect a vital strategic outpost in Afghanistan.

The weapon, which was installed under cover of night, has been so effective in guarding the town of Musa Qala in northern Helmand that the Taliban have nicknamed it “the Dragon” because of the flame that belches out of its barrel when fired.

The 105mm gun was dismantled and rebuilt at the summit of a rocky outcrop, known as the Roshan Tower, using techniques traditionally demonstrated at the Royal Tournament. Gunners from 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, normally based in Plymouth, faced a logistical challenge because the cliff face was riddled with deep cracks that threatened to crumble under the weight of the gun.

Major James Vigne, commander of 8 (Alma) Commando Battery, said: “The ammunition boxes, each weighing nearly 100lb and containing high explosive shells, also had to be manhandled up the 400-metre track which couldn’t take vehicles.

“The move was done at night to keep the gun secret from the enemy, with Gurkhas providing close protection on the hills and cliffs around. Once in place, the gun was camouflaged to prevent the enemy realising the new threat to them.”

The gun, which was installed in mid-January and is capable of firing 35lb shells, is so accurate that it can engage and hit a target 1.8 miles away within five seconds.

“The Dragon is the most feared weapon in our area by the Taliban - they are genuinely frightened by it,” added Vigne. “The Gurkhas operating from Musa Qala have been astonished by its speed, pinpoint accuracy and power.”

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Taliban commander killed by British troops - Mirror

By Rupert Hamer Defence Correspondent, 29/03/2009
British troops killed a Taliban commander by hitting him in the chest with a 35lb shell fired from two miles away.
The men from 29 Commando spotted the rebel chief from the Roshan Tower which overlooks Musa Qala in Afghanistan's Helmand province.

They managed to land the shell directly on top of the leader, killing two other Taliban who were beside him. Days earlier they had hauled the 105mm artillery piece up the hill by hand.
The Taliban have nicknamed the cannon "The Dragon" because of the flames that erupt from its barrel. These can be seen for miles around because the cannon is perched so high above the surrounding area.

Keeping an eye on the Taliban - Reuters

By Jonathon Burch

“Contact at Woqab. They’ve made contact,” says Devos calmly before running to the edge of the rooftop to have a better look into the distance with his binoculars.

“What do you mean they’ve made “contact”?” I ask, trying to see where his binoculars are pointed. “Small arms fire at Woqab,” he says pointing beyond a line of trees in the distance.

Suddenly I feel exposed, standing in the open, three storeys off the ground. The place is Musa Qala in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province and Devos is a 26-year-old soldier from Nepal serving in the British Army’s 2nd Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles. His job is to man the lookout on top of the British base inside the district centre, about a 30-minute helicopter flight across the desert from Camp Bastion, the main British base in Helmand.

Helmand lies in the heartland of the growing Taliban insurgency, which the United States has vowed to stamp out as part of a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Barack Obama brings that plan with him to Europe this week to win support from NATO allies.

Washington says the fight cannot be won by military means alone, but bringing insurgents in from the cold will be no easy task. But Musa Qala DC (District Centre), as the base is called, might as well be thousands of miles away from Bastion, consisting of little more than a few tents, a helicopter landing pad and tall, sand-filled blast barriers that line the perimeter. In the middle of the base, however, stands a decrepit two-storey concrete building — nicknamed “Taliban Hotel” after its former inhabitants who used to control the town — that now serves as the centre for British military operations in the area.

It is on top of this building that Devos and I are standing. Minutes earlier Devos let me use his binoculars to see a group of Afghan women he had spotted, gathered outside a compound, one kilometre or so from where the sound of gunshots now echoed. “I think something is up,” he said, “I think something is going to happen. Why do you think they’re gathered like that?” “They’re probably just coming from a wedding,” said Omar, our Afghan photographer, reassuringly. But Devos wasn’t so sure. And he was right.

The women, it turned out, had fled towards the town centre, knowing there would be an attack. Dotted around Musa Qala DC, are more than a dozen smaller patrol bases, manned by British and Afghan soldiers, keeping a lookout for insurgents and trying to extend their, and ultimately the Afghan government’s, sphere of control.

Woqab marks the most northern of these patrol bases in the Musa Qala district and, therefore, the “frontline” between British troops and the Taliban. It comes under frequent attack, normally around the same time every afternoon. Musa Qala itself is a small dusty town sitting on the edge of a shallow river that cuts through the dry desert, providing a strip of lush green on either side. It is a traditional opium-trading town and poppy fields in full bloom grow undisturbed only hundreds of metres from the British base.

After the Taliban were driven from power in 2001 following the Sept. 11 attacks, the extremely light presence of international troops in Musa Qala and Helmand, and the near-absence of the Afghan state, allowed the insurgents to regroup and turn the town into one of their major centres of power. British troops entered Musa Qala in mid-2006, only to pull out again in October the same year, after daily Taliban attacks that at times reached their perimeter defences. They left the collection of shabby concrete shops and houses under the control of tribal elders in a truce criticised by their U.S. allies. But the Taliban seized the town again in February 2007 and proceeded to set up a shadow administration and their own courts.

Ten months later, thousands of British and U.S. troops launched an offensive to capture Musa Qala from several hundred Taliban fighters, paving the way for the Afghan army to move in and seize the town. Since then, British and Afghan forces have been trying to extend their area of control to the north and south of Musa Qala DC. The strategy has so far been a success, the British army are keen to point out, saying roadside bombs and small arms attacks within the town centre have decreased over the last few months as the insurgents have been pushed further out. But success is always relative.

While attacks in and around the town centre have indeed dropped — although there was a suicide bombing in the main bazaar in December last year which killed the deputy district police chief — the area the British and Afghan forces “control” measures no more than 10 km from north to south. An important and strategic area, no doubt, but a dot on the map in terms of scale. “Do you see those trees over there? Beyond that is Taliban. And those over there? Taliban!” says Afghan army captain Sabir, standing on the rooftop of the base and pointing off into the not-too-far distance. Meanwhile the QRF, or Quick Reaction Force made up of three British armoured Warrior vehicles, screams out of base towards Woqab. News of a casualty has come over the radio.

After firing a few mortar rounds to push the insurgents back, the QRF returns to base. On board is an Afghan policeman with a gunshot wound to his chest. He is stabilised in Musa Qala DC, and then airlifted by Chinook to Bastion for surgery. He will probably live, but the pot shots at the patrol bases and the roadside bombs will continue. The Gurkha Regiment lost their first casualty in Afghanistan last November. The soldier was shot by insurgents during an operation to extend British control to the south of Musa Qala. “Did you know him?” I ask. “He was my cousin,” says Devos, “I was there.”

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The new front: Britain's fight for hearts and minds

Will more soldiers and a fresh strategy be enough to win over the Afghan people against a resurgent Taliban?

Kim Sengupta reports from Nanyuki, Kenya.

The barren and unforgiving killing fields of Helmand are a world away from the green highlands of Africa. But it is here, on the foothills of Mount Kenya, that Britain's new military strategy in Afghanistan, the blueprint for a long war, is being put together. As President Barack Obama unveils his fundamental review of American policy in Afghanistan to combat an "increasingly perilous" situation, the UK, too, is seeking to define its role in a rapidly shifting political and military landscape.

The man carrying out the dry run is Brigadier James Cowan, who first came to prominence when leading his regiment, the Black Watch, in Iraq's "Triangle of Death" four years ago. In a few months' time, he will be involved in a new chapter in the "war on terror" as British commander in Helmand in what is expected to be a particularly turbulent time.

There is a resonance to this. Iraq was then the all-consuming focus of American and British foreign policy with Afghanistan filed away as a relatively easy victory. But as the allies moved on to dethrone Saddam Hussein, the Taliban returned to a security vacuum to launch the real war.

For the full article click here

Friday, March 27, 2009

Marines shatter 'illusion of enemy safe haven'

British, Danish and Afghan troops took the Taliban totally by surprise last week in a daring operation launched into the heart of the enemy stronghold of Marjah in central Helmand.

The 700-strong force arrived by RAF Chinook and Royal Navy Sea King helicopters, Viking armoured vehicles, Leopard tanks, and on foot, and achieved total surprise in the latest phase of Operation AABI TOORAH ('Blue Sword').

Lieutenant Colonel Al Lister Royal Marines, Chief of Operations for Task Force Helmand, summed up the success of this phase, saying:

"This was a very successful, deliberate joint operation that demonstrated clearly to the enemy that the Task Force continues to operate where and when it chooses. Marjah has previously been a safe haven for the enemy; we have shattered that illusion and more will follow. We will continue to erode the capability and influence of the enemy and enable the extension of legitimate governance throughout Helmand."

This latest phase of Op AABI TOORAH had three main objectives: firstly, through rapid manoeuvre and build up of combat power, to surprise the enemy and disrupt their movement and planning; secondly, to confuse their situational awareness by hitting their fighting forces across several of their key, central locations; and finally, to allow the spread of legitimate Afghan governance, further enhancing the stability of the neighbouring districts of Nawa and Nad e-Ali.

To read the full article click here

British Army chief ready to send 2,000 more troops to Afghanistan

Michael Evans, Defence Editor, and Sam Coates, Chief Political Correspondent

The head of the Army is ready to send up to 2,000 extra troops to Afghanistan amid fears that the US-led mission will struggle without significant reinforcements.

General Sir Richard Dannatt told The Times yesterday that elements of 12 Mechanised Brigade — which had been training for deployment to Iraq but were later stood down — had been “earmarked for Afghanistan”.

Downing Street is involved in discussions about a surge. An increase of about 2,000 would take Britain’s troop strength to 10,000. Any decision would require Cabinet approval.

President Obama will announce today an extra 17,000 US troops and a big rise in civilian officials as part of his new strategy in Afghanistan. He will also announce a plan to double the size of the Afghan National Army, with US units training more recruits, and increased aid to fight militants in neighbouring Pakistan.

American and British efforts to persuade other Nato countries to contribute have so far drawn a blank. John Hutton, the Defence Secretary, said yesterday that Europe must play a bigger role and that it was also in Britain’s interests “to do more”. Ministers and defence chiefs are ready for Mr Obama to make a formal request for more British troops, possibly before Nato’s 60th anniversary summit in Strasbourg next week. They are also prepared to make an announcement before such a request arrives.

General Dannatt, the Chief of the General Staff, said that there were no plans to send the whole brigade of about 4,000 troops, which would take the British presence to more than 12,000. He indicated that the increase, subject to political approval, could take the total to “somewhere in between” that figure and the present troop strength of 8,300. Defence sources said that a rise of 1,700 to 2,000 troops was viewed as “the uppermost ceiling”.

Senior Nato diplomatic sources told The Times that no meaningful offers were expected from any alliance member apart from Britain. Italy and Poland are planning to send small increases but only during the campaign for the Afghan presidential election, due to be held on August 20.

General Dannatt made it clear in his interview that although a number of military options were being considered to boost Britain’s presence in Afghanistan, sending an extra brigade would put too much strain on forces. “If we were to send another 4,000 . . . there would be a risk of replicating the pressures on the Army that we are trying to avoid.”

He said that he agreed with Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of the Defence Staff, who said recently that he could not support any move to engage in “a one-for-one” movement to Afghanistan under which the 4,000 troops being withdrawn from Iraq by July 31 would be transferred to Helmand province.

He added: “Improving security in Afghanistan will be dictated by having more boots on the ground. I don’t mind whether the boots will be American, British or Afghan.”

Afghanistan was going to be “a marathon campaign, not a sprint” and the members of the Armed Forces needed time off after serving in two campaigns simultaneously, General Dannatt said. “They and their families must have a bit of a life.”

Mr Hutton also gave a broad hint in a speech yesterday that Britain was considering sending more troops. “We remain, as we have been on many occasions in this past century, grateful to the United States for the leadership that she has shown time and again since 2001 in rooting out extremism and terrorism in Afghanistan,” he said. “But Europe must do more, and it is in our interest to do more.”

A Ministry of Defence source said any decision would be based on advice from the military. “If the clear advice . . . is that we need more people to keep our troops safe, we will make a judgment based on this.”

U.S. Defines Its Afghan Strategy

President Obama's new strategy for Afghanistan-Pakistan region means additional troops and civilian officials to counter narcotics trade in Southern Afghanistan and more financial aid for the economic development, says WSJ military correspondent Yochi Dreazen.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Marine saves unit after bullet in head

Serviceman is shot but stays in the front line and rescues ambushed comrades
By Kim Sengupta

It had been a morning of fierce close-quarter combat with incessant fire coming from insurgents in the heart of Taliban country. As the Royal Marines edged their way past the high walls of a compound the section commander, a corporal, fell to the ground with two shots to the groin.

The team had walked into an ambush and Marine Sam Alexander knew that the only chance they had was to fight their way through. He picked up a heavy machine-gun and "traded lead" with the insurgents just 15 metres away.

Running out of ammunition, he opened up with his 9mm pistol until that too was spent. The Taliban fighters were forced to withdraw and found themselves being hunted as they ran into other marine units coming in from the flanks.

By his bravery, 26-year-old Marine Alexander saved the life of the shot corporal and also earned vital minutes for the rest of the team from 42 Commando to gain cover. What made his actions even more remarkable was that just a few hours earlier he had been shot in the head, the bullet embedding itself in his helmet. Waving away offers to fall back, he had insisted on continuing with the others as they went through compounds clashing repeatedly with the insurgents.

Marine Alexander continued with Operation Abii Toorah, Pashtu for Blue Sword, one of a series of missions led by the marines in Helmand which also involved Afghan troops and a Danish contingent with Leopard tanks. The fighting went on with little let-up for the two remaining days, until the Taliban withdrew from the area.

About 600 British and Afghan troops had taken part in an airborne assault supported by B1 bombers and Apache and Cobra helicopter gunships attempting to drive out the Taliban from entrenched positions near Marjah to pave the way for the planned surge which will come with arrival of up to 30,000 extra American troops.

The marines say they came across some of the fiercest resistance they have faced from the insurgents, who were being aided, it is claimed, by Pakistani, Chechen and Arab fighters. According to British forces, "several dozens" of the enemy were killed and more than 100 injured. It was also the first time the Taliban had carried out repeated night attacks, with large bands of fighters attempting to break through the lines while reinforcements arrived from surrounding regions over the days.

According to Afghan and Western officials, while the Americans build up their forces in Helmand and Kandahar, the Taliban are also building up their strength with hundreds of reinforcements arriving from across the Pakistani border.

Several more operations will be undertaken by Afghan and British forces in the next few weeks, with the aim of intercepting the flow of men and weaponry coming through southern Helmand while the Americans are due to carry out missions further east.

100 - Number of enemy fighters injured in Operation Abii Toorah, with dozens killed.

RAF Police mentor Afghan counterparts

For the last six months, eight members of the RAF Police have been deployed to Afghanistan with the mission to train, mentor, shape and influence the Afghan National Police in order to create a secure environment.

The job involved numerous contacts with the enemy and, for Sergeant John Muir, this would prove to be the most challenging operational experience of his Service career.

He deployed to Afghanistan in October 2008 with Corporals Barnaby, Proctor, Kirk, Sibley, Wells, Rush and O'Boyle. Along with members of the Royal Military Police they joined 2nd Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles (2 RGR) and formed police mentoring teams at various forward operating bases and patrol bases in southern Helmand.

Cpl O'Boyle and Sgt Muir deployed to Patrol Base Jaker which Sgt Muir described as a two-storey, roofless, partially-built building located on the outskirts of Nawa District Centre.

He said:
"Conditions were harsh with no running water, no electricity, no toilet facilities etc. Meals were produced using the contents of 24-hour ration packs and resupply of essential rations and equipment via helicopter drops only. Attacks by enemy forces on ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] were frequent, with the patrol base and our patrols regularly being subject to 107mm rocket, RPG [rocket-propelled grenade], PKM and SAF [both machine guns]."

To read te full article click here

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Afghan Star - Pop Idol Afghan style

After 30 years of war and Taliban rule, Afghan pop Idol is taking the nation by storm... but this is more than just a TV show. In Afghanistan you risk your life to sing.


HUNDREDS of British troops including Gurkhas have routed the Taliban in a no-go area in south Afghanistan.

The force of 250 troops fought alongside Afghan National Army troops to drive the Taliban from the "Snake's Belly" area of southern Helmand province.

They braved a "maelstrom" of Taliban fire to kill dozens of the enemy in an intelligence gathering mission along several bends in the Helmand River.Operation Kapcha Baz, led by the Queen’s Dragoon Guards, followed a similar operation further south earlier this month by the 42 Commando Group.

The latest operation - which comes near the end of the soldiers' six month tour of duty - targeted Taliban strongholds which have been used as stopping off points for insurgents moving up from Pakistan to attack British bases in central and northern Helmand.

The main assault force was A Squadron 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards in heavily armed Jackal vehicles and Riflemen from 2nd Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles. In one clash they caught the enemy unawares as it was preparing an ambush.Major Jody Davies of 2RGR said:

“After assessing that the enemy were no doubt lying in wait for us, we moved forward in a slow and deliberate way, fully expecting the enemy to open fire on us.

"However, we spotted the enemy first, positively identified carrying weapons and preparing an ambush.

"We were able to engage their firing points at first with our own small-arms whilst our Fire Support Team called in fire from the Guided Multi-Launch Rocket System, which proved deadly.

Rifles work praised as Afghan tour ends

THE heroes of the 1st Battalion The Rifles, many of them from Devon, return home from a six-month tour of Afghanistan's deadly Helmand province next Wednesday.

The soldiers, who have been battling the Taliban, will be greeted by families and friends at their home base in Beachley Barracks near Chepstow.

More than 550 soldiers from 1 Rifles, many of whom are drawn from the former Devonshire and Dorset Regiment, including several from Exeter, deployed to Helmand province last September, led by Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Joe Cavanagh, as part of 3 Commando Brigade.
Lt Col Cavanagh paid tribute to the soldiers' families and public for their support.

He said: "We remain indebted to you all, we could not have hoped for better support. The battle group has achieved amazing things during this tour — with the Afghan National Army and among ourselves. The Riflemen have been making a difference and know it."

The battle group was responsible for working alongside the Afghan National Army soldiers and officers as their personal mentors, and as liaison officers between the British HQ and the Afghan Brigade.

Working in eight-man teams from remote bases, they lived among the Afghan people, rather than in British bases, for six months of patrols in the local towns and villages and on operations to hunt insurgents.

During the tour, they were involved in what was described as a "stunning success" in the pivotal operation to clear enemy forces from the area around the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, and assisted the ANA to bolster the security around Helmand's second city of Gereshk.

They also provided security across Helmand during voter registration for a forthcoming national elections.

Detachments of Riflemen from two platoons and a Rifles company were employed on a variety of other tasks, such as providing security in the capital Kabul, protecting the southern town of Garmsir, and maintaining the security of the main UK base and airfield, Camp Bastion.

Tragically, eight soldiers from the Rifles Battle Group were killed during the tour, including Serjeant Chris Reed, 25, known as Reedy. He was serving with Exeter-based 6 Battalion The Rifles when he was killed in an explosion while on patrol on January 1.

Sjt Reed had become engaged to Heather Crosby, of Plymouth, on the day he was posted to Afghanistan.

Next month, hundreds of people are expected to line the streets of Exeter for the homecoming march of 6th Battalion The Rifles on April 4.

It will be the first time the battalion, based at Wyvern Barracks in Topsham Road, has been honoured in its own right with an official march through the city.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Taliban have achieved stalemate in Afghanistan, warns David Miliband

The Taliban has achieved a "strategic stalemate" in Afghanistan, David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, has admitted.

His statement came as he refused to say whether he wanted to reduce the number of British forces in the country.
A new American report has been assessing the future of its operation in Afghanistan to rid the country of the Taliban.

Mr Miliband told the BBC: "In parts of the country there is a strategic stalemate. It is not true that the Taliban are overrunning our forces because in any conventional encounter they lose.
"But they are a terrorist, counter-insurgency force which is able to do grave and grievous damage to our own troops and others."

Mr Miliband welcomed the American report which he said acknowledged that the issue of Afghanistan was linked closely with Pakistan. He said it was now understood that there could not be a solution in the region brought about by military means alone.

He added that the aim of a "civilian and military strategy" which recognises this is a Pakistan and Afghanistan problem was is to "break that stalemate".

One hundred and fifty two British troops have died in Afghanistan and both America and Britain want other Nato countries to share the burden in the fight against the Taliban. But Mr Miliband has so far received little positive response from those allies that have been unwilling to commit more service personnel to the more dangerous areas of the country.

He said: "Some countries are doing significant amounts but other countries have got serious caveats."

He added: "Yes, we do want a better sharing of the burden."

Mr Miliband said that by 2012 the Afghan national army will have doubled in size and that will give American and Britain the opportunity to look again at its commitments in terms of troop strength. However, he failed to say that it would mean a reduction of British forces.

Monday, March 23, 2009

UK to send specialist troops to Afghanistan to counter bomb threat

Britain is to deploy 200 specialist troops to Afghanistan to counter the growing threat from improvised explosive devices, according to government officials.

The devices, notably roadside bombs, are accounting for about 80% of the deaths of British soldiers in the country. They are becoming increasingly powerful, as the deaths of two soldiers of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers earlier this month appeared to show. The soldiers were travelling in a new, and relatively tough, Jackal armoured vehicle.

Commanders hope the increasing use of small unmanned aerial vehicles with powerful cameras will help to identify insurgents planting the devices.

Whitehall officials say British military commanders are also drawing up plans to deploy between 1,000 and 1,500 troops as part of what they call an "election surge". They could join the 8,000 British troops based in Helmand province for a limited period covering the presidential elections due to be held on 20 August, officials say.

However, the army is so stretched that the extra troops are unlikely to stay for long. Instead, the British garrison in Helmand will be bolstered by some of the 17,000 extra US troops who will be deployed throughout southern Afghanistan over the next nine months. The Americans will bring with them 120 helicopters, badly needed by British soldiers.

Camp Bastion, the British base in Helmand, is being expanded to three times its present size to accommodate the US troops. By May, C17 transport aircraft will make 675 monthly flights bringing equipment and supplies. By late summer the number will total 860 a month, the MoD said. "That is about the same amount of freight that Gatwick airport has to cope with," according to Air Commodore Les O'Dea, commanding officer of UK Joint Force Support.

British troops are expecting what military observers call a "tough summer", with the Taliban and other insurgents scenting growing anxiety among governments with soldiers in Afghanistan over what British ministers and officials call "strategic stalemate".

British officials also stress the need for "Afghanisation" - giving more responsibility to the Afghans. The US wants to double the size of the Afghan army and police force to more than 400,000.

The US, which has given up trying to persuade its Nato allies to send more troops to southern Afghanistan, hopes that they will at least contribute more money. Pledges for more aid are expected at the Nato summit in Strasbourg in early April.

British officials say that they take some comfort from stronger local government and economic initiatives by the governor of Helmand, Gulab Mangal, appointed by Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, last year.

Wheat seeds have been handed out to 32,000 Afghan farmers in Helmand to try to encourage them to abandon growing opium poppies. Heroin manufacturers and traders, meanwhile, are being pursued by British intelligence officers and special forces.

Obama ponders Afghan 'exit plan'

President Barack Obama has said that the US must have an "exit strategy" in Afghanistan, even as Washington sends more troops to fight Taleban militants.

He was speaking in a CBS interview, as the White House prepares to unveil a comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan.

Mr Obama said preventing attacks against the US remained its "central mission" in Afghan operations.

Earlier, the US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan said US policy would no longer treat the two separately.
Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, told the BBC: "In the past, the United States government stove-piped it, they had an Afghan policy and a Pakistan policy. We have to integrate the two and I hope the rest of the world will join us in that effort."
Mr Holbrooke said Taleban sanctuaries in Pakistan's tribal areas along the Afghan border were the primary problem for Kabul.

He also said that the era of "neglect" of the region was over, promising more troops and resources.

'Effective strategy'

"What we're looking for is a comprehensive strategy [for Afghanistan]," President Obama told the CBS programme 60 Minutes on Sunday.
"Threre's got to be an exit strategy. There's got to be a sense that this is not a perpetual drift."
Mr Obama - who last month ordered the deployment of additional 17,000 US troops to Afghanistan - acknowledged that military force alone would not be enough to achieve Washington's objectives, which included the defeat of Taleban and al-Qaeda militants.

He said an effective strategy could include building up economic capacity in Afghanistan and improving diplomatic ties with Pakistan and other regional players.

But Mr Obama stressed that Washington "can't lose sight of what our central mission is".
"Making sure that al-Qaeda cannot attack the US homeland and US interests and our allies. That's our number one priority."

He said the central task was the same as when US troops went into Afghanistan after the 11 September 2001 attacks.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Hunting down the Taliban in Nevada

As the RAF wages a long-range hi-tech war in the Middle East using unmanned drones, Christopher Goodwin gets a look at its hardware.

Every morning in Las Vegas, Steve Smith kisses his wife and young daughters goodbye, gets in his car, drives 50 minutes down the freeway, past shopping malls and casinos, and goes to war in Afghanistan.

After his eight-hour shift, during which he may have launched missiles against Taliban insurgents in Helmand province or carried out reconnaissance for British troops, Smith gets back in his car, turns the radio to the station Mix 941 so he can relax and drives back to the comfort and safety of his family.

Squadron Leader Steve Smith is one of a new generation of British warriors who commute to combat. They are engaging the enemy not from Kabul nor from Kandahar, but via joysticks and computer screens more than 8,000 miles away, at Creech air force base, deep in the Nevada desert. Smith’s job is to pilot what British and American commanders are calling “the most effective weapon against Al-Qaeda” — the MQ-9 Reaper unmanned drone.

The growing strategic importance of drones was highlighted last week when the CIA recommended that the military increase its use of them in Pakistan to combat the mounting insurgency threat. With a 66ft wingspan, the remote-controlled Reaper can stay airborne for 22 hours unseen and unheard at an altitude of 21,000ft — the only thing limiting its air time is fuel.
For the most part, the “hunter-killer” Reaper is used to survey an area, relaying video images back to mission command to help ground troops understand their surroundings. As its name suggests, though, this drone can also engage the enemy. The Reaper can carry an awesome payload: up to four Hellfire missiles and two 500lb Paveway II bombs, all laser-guided. When the order comes from a troop commander on the ground — “Cleared hot” — the pilots in Nevada pull the trigger.

Smith is a boyish, red-haired 40-year-old from Cumbria and a key member of 39 Squadron, the first RAF unit to fly UAVs — unmanned aerial vehicles. The squadron, which now has about 90 people in Nevada, flew its first Reaper mission over Afghanistan in October 2007, and has since flown almost 400 missions during its 3,800 operational hours. The squadron now flies Reapers 365 days a year, for 10-12 hours a day, weather — in Afghanistan — permitting. Used extensively by the Americans, the Reapers cost about $15m (£10m) each. The RAF has two of them in operation but hopes to have six by the end of the year, allowing it to fly drones 24 hours a day.

The Reaper, built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the American defence contractor, is an improvement on its predecessor — a large UAV called the Predator. It can carry a bigger payload of weapons and equipment, and has proved more reliable (that is, less likely to crash) in operations.

Last week The Sunday Times was given a rare tour of the facility at Creech and watched as a 39 Squadron pilot flew a Reaper combat mission over Helmand province, in southwest Afghanistan, where Taliban insurgents have been gaining strength in recent months.
Each Reaper is operated from a small, dark, air-conditioned “cockpit” in a ground control station — GCS — by a two-man crew comprising a pilot and a sensor operator. In front of them they each have computer keyboards and a bank of screens that gives them an immense array of geographical, logistical and tactical information.

Real-time images — including infrared night-time shots — beamed back from cameras on the prow of the planes can show them details as small but significant as whether individual human figures are carrying weapons. The pilots and sensor operators also both have joysticks and throttles — and triggers — similar to those used in normal aircraft and in some video games. Because the concentration and focus needed is so intense, Reaper crews work in short shifts of between three and four hours.

The computer screens have five open chat rooms that the crews use to communicate with troops on the ground, commanders in remote locations and other coalition forces. They also communicate via radio and even use secure internet voice communications.

“It allows us to talk to the ‘customer’, who gets our video feed,” Smith explains. The “customer” is usually a JTAC — joint tactical air controller — a trained combat officer on the ground in Afghanistan, who is watching the video images being beamed from the Reaper on a small field computer terminal in a kit called a Rover — remotely operated video-enhanced receiver — that he carries in a rucksack. It is the JTAC on the ground who usually requests the Reaper reconnaissance and will call it in to strike a target if needed.

Sitting behind the pilot and the sensor operator, looking at the same pictures, are two image analysts. They have usually had experience on the ground in Afghanistan and can help pilots and others looking at the video feedback evaluate what they are seeing, in particular to avoid endangering “friendlies” — Afghan civilians and coalition troops.
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Officers attack 'MoD muddle'

SENIOR British Army commanders have denounced the government's strategy in Afghanistan as a "constant muddling through" that has resulted in a "failing" approach to defeating the Taliban after three years of bloody confrontation.

In a series of outspoken interviews, several high-ranking officers who commanded British troops in Helmand province express anger and frustration at what one brigadier described as "making it up as we go along".

Brigadier Andrew Mackay, who commanded Helmand's Nato forces for six months last winter, claimed a British failure to deliver economic development or reconstruction for ordinary Afghans meant that "one of the central tenets of counter-insurgency doctrine is failing".

Major Nick Haston, who was Mackay's deputy chief of staff, revealed he had resigned from the army in protest at bureaucratic incompetence. He said troops had been so short of vital equipment that his staff bought spares on the internet. "I would say that some of the people that procure (equipment) in our Ministry of Defence haven't a clue," said Haston.

The criticisms are contained in a new book, Operation Snakebite, by Stephen Grey, a Sunday Times journalist. Based on more than 200 interviews with British and US military personnel, the book uncovers profound flaws in Britain's preparation for the controversial Helmand deployment.

A senior Foreign Office official acknowledged to Grey that there had been an "absence of serious planning" before the deployment in 2006.

Eighteen months after British troops arrived in southern Afghanistan, a secret memo to Whitehall from Mackay described a "grave crisis" over equipment. Scimitar tanks could not go into reverse unless their engines were restarted and Vector armoured vehicles were out of action because "the wheels just kept falling off, literally".

According to General Sir David Richards, the overall Nato commander in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007, the British expedition was plagued by "over-optimism, over-confidence and a misunderstanding of the intelligence picture".

The British criticisms will make alarming reading for military and foreign policy advisers to President Barack Obama, who is expected to announce the results of a major strategic review of the US presence in Afghanistan later this week.

Obama has already announced a sharp increase in the numbers of US troops and his review is expected to conclude than an Iraq-style "surge" of both military and civilian forces represents the best hope of ending a conflict that will become America's longest ground war next year.
Obama was reported last week to be considering increasing US forces to about 65,000 from 30,000, bringing the total Nato presence to around 100,000 troops.

He is being urged to launch a simultaneous civilian surge of aid and reconstruction experts whose main aim will be to strengthen the authority of village elders and other local leaders in the hope of isolating Taliban militants. The number of police in Afghanistan will also be sharply increased.
Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, acknowledged last week that "trying to come up with new approaches…that enhance our prospects for success is hard work, frankly".

General Sir Richard Dannatt, the current British chief of general staff, admitted to Grey that British troops were sent to Helmand in insufficient numbers with insubstantial equipment. Dannatt blamed a political calculation by Tony Blair, the then-prime minister, that "we'd be substantially out of Iraq by the time of the Helmand deployment".

Dannatt added: "We would never have knowingly engaged on two major operations to run simultaneously with an army organised to do one". There had also been too much wishful thinking that the local population would welcome Nato. Instead the reaction was "rather similar to prodding the lion who was otherwise kipping in the corner, minding his own business" and troops had ended up fighting local tribes as well as extremists.

"In the early days we probably wound up — maybe still are — killing lots of farmers," he said.
The general said he believed the British public had never fully understood the difficulties faced by its soldiers in Afghanistan. "I think the army is at war; the nation is not at war."

The book argues that a winning strategy is still possible provided the army's political masters commit to a coherent strategy. Before reaching Afghanistan, Mackay was briefed by a UK general who said British policy was condemned to "constant muddling through."

When he arrived he was told by a senior western diplomat that Nato troops were defending a government led by Hamid Karzai, who was "not the president we want nor need". Karzai was said to be isolated, erratic and surrounded by corrupt and venal ministers.

Lieutenant General Sir Nick Houghton, a former commander of joint operations who is due to be promoted to vice chief of the defence staff in May, complained of a political ambivalence that "infects national, international and Nato thinking" and makes it hard for commanders to justify casualties in Helmand.

"That is why I say for Christ's sake, give us political conviction, moral conviction about what we're doing in Afghanistan," Houghton said.

Britain to join 'civilian surge' in Afghanistan

Britain is to join a "civilian surge" in Afghanistan that will result in more diplomats and aid experts joining the fight against the Taliban alongside combat troops.

British officials have played a central role in helping President Obama's National Security Council devise the plan, designed to win the allegiance of local Afghan leaders by showing that Nato countries are committed to rebuilding the country.

But in an admission that Britain's reputation as a world leader in counter-insurgency warfare has suffered a setback in Iraq and Helmand province, UK military chiefs will also take lessons from the Americans in how best to conduct "hybrid" operations that blend military and civilian power.

The details of the civilian surge were agreed last week by David Miliband, the foreign secretary, and John Hutton, the defence secretary, who travelled to Washington to meet their opposite numbers, Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates.

Under plans agreed as part of a White House review, Nato teams will try to peel away reconcilable Taliban supporters, many of whom are fighting Nato for money.

Local village elders will receive financial support for small scale local reconstruction projects and training for local security forces to convince militants to lay down their weapons. The move is designed to lessen Western reliance on the central government of President Hamid Karzai, which is widely regarded as irredeemably corrupt.

Britain has been asked by the Americans to use its experience in Afghanistan to convince other Nato nations to send their own civilian reinforcements to the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) which will lead the reconstruction work.

A British diplomat said: "We are already practising some of what we are preaching. Our PRT in Helmand province has 80 civilians in it at the moment. Other comparable sized PRTs have just three or four civilians. That's out of about 200 people.

"There are discussions about rebalancing those and seeing how we can improve the civilian component. It's good to get development, security, economic policy and infrastructure under the umbrella of one coordinating body."

The Foreign Office is also working on how to bolster its own contribution alongside 300 new US civilians.

President Obama is expected to sign off on the strategy review, being drawn up by former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, this week before he travels to Britain for the G20 and Nato summits. The review will also detail plans for driving al-Qaeda and Taliban forces from the tribal areas of Pakistan, with controversial proposals for more intensive drone missile strikes across a broader area of the border region.

Both Britain and America have abandoned hope for securing any significant increase in combat power from the rest of Nato and are focusing instead on shaming other Nato nations into joining the soft power offensive.

But Britain also hopes to learn from the Americans. In a frank briefing after his meeting with Mr Gates, Mr Hutton admitted that the British armed forces have had to concede they have lesssons to learn from the US in conducting counterinsurgency operations, in which UK was once regarded as a world leader.

Mr Hutton insisted that he had heard nothing but praise for the contribution of British troops from Mr Gates, the US defence secretary, and senior US officers, but admitted that there had been background grumbling from middle ranking US officers who believed that British commanders abandoned Basra to Islamic militias and lost ground in Afghanistan.

Mr Hutton rejected as "unfair" claims that Britain's contribution to Iraq and Afghanistan has not been worthwhile.

He said: "It's not a criticism that's ever been put to me but I've heard it swirling around. I'm aware of it but I think it's at a lower level. It is unfair.

"The Afghan mission would be in a lot more trouble if we were not there. If I had a meeting with Gates and he said: 'Look you guys are just crap, you've done nothing and you're no use to us at all, it would be a different story.'"

But the defence secretary said that the British military had "always been very ready to learn."
Part of his discussions with Mr Gates involved finalising plans for the US to work with the British military to develop new capabilities to be able to conduct "hybrid" operations in the future.

Mr Hutton said: "The campaign in Afghanistan is a good example of it, trying to do the civil effect alongside the military effect, stabilisation. The Americans have done a lot of work on this. We want to learn as much from them as possible."

The agreement will see senior British officers work alongside Americans to develop some "new thinking, new strategy, possibly some new equipment, new tactics for enabling the British Army to conduct these kind of operations more successfully in the future."

Ministers are still deciding whether to increase the number of British combat troops. President Obama has not requested a further battalion but Army chiefs have indicated that between 1,000 and 2,000 extra soldiers could be forthcoming.

Mr Hutton added: "We share a very similar analysis of the problem and what we need to solve it. We need more security on the ground. We need greater civil effect, that's where I think Europe needs to do more.

"The Taliban and al-Qaeda have been hit extremely hard in the last two or three years. They're hurting. There's no doubt at all that there are parts of that network that are ready to talk. It is possible to peel away from the Taliban insurgency the people we can do business with."

US looks for large increase in Afghan police force

The United States wants to focus efforts in Afghanistan on boosting the police force, with more recruitment and training to help officers stabilize the country and rid it of extremist insurgents, the Obama administration's envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan said Saturday.

Richard Holbrooke was discussing the new U.S. administration's policy in Afghanistan during a Brussels Forum conference debate on the Afghan war, though the full strategy is expected to be revealed next week.

President Barack Obama has committed an additional 17,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan to break a stalemate against the Taliban and other insurgents. But military advisers to Obama say the U.S. is not winning the fight, and recommend a boost in the number of civilian experts as well as military deployments to combat the insurgency.

Holbrooke said current plans to increase the Afghan police force from 78,000 to 82,000 over four years were "not sufficient." He also said the force was "riddled with corruption."

"We need to devise programs which improve the Afghan government's capability to defend itself, and that means considerably strengthening the Afghan national army and the Afghan national police," Holbrooke said.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Sappers' bridge opens in Garmsir

A new bridge built by British engineers at an important crossing point over the main canal in Garmsir, southern Helmand province, has been opened by Lieutenant General Peter Wall, Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Operations).

Crossing the canal, which feeds water into the irrigation system around Garmsir, the bridge replaces an older bridge built by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in 2007. This bridge was never intended to be permanent as it was for military, not civilian, use and, not being suitable for civilian traffic, required regular maintenance.
The new bridge is a huge 37-metre-long construction, weighing in at nearly 70 tonnes, and is more than capable of carrying loads in excess of 60 tonnes. It will better suit civilian vehicles, will last for years, and require a minimum of maintenance.

Located at the eastern end of Darvishan, it provides access for the large civilian population of the area (around 35,000) to the thriving bazaar, district hospital and school, and will improve their freedom of movement throughout the area.

Building the bridge was a huge logistical undertaking; around 30 soldiers from 26 Armoured Engineer Squadron, based in Hohne in Germany, were responsible for both the design and build of the bridge.
Read the full article here

Engineers return from Afghanistan

Click here for the video report

Soldiers from 24 Commando Engineer Regiment have returned to Devon after a six-month deployment in Afghanistan.

Friends and family were waiting at RMB Chivenor when the service personnel arrived back in the early hours.

The troops from 24 Commando have been supporting 3 Commando Brigade in Helmand Province.

During the regiment's first deployment to Afghanistan, the engineers dealt with roadside bombs, built bases and helped with local reconstruction tasks.

Troop commander, Lt Tom Vincent, praised the engineers and said they had made a difference in difficult cirumstances.
"We had a job to do and the lads performed magnificently throughout," he said.

Helmand base to treble in size

Barack Obama has said US troops will surge in Afghanistan. That will have a profound impact on British operations in Helmand – not least at Camp Bastion. Report by Ian Carr.

Currently, Camp Bastion holds around 4,000, mainly British, personnel. By late summer this figure will be swelling significantly as US troops arrive, placing extra demand on the military infrastructure. To accommodate them, the base will grow to nearly three times its current size.

Air Commodore Les O'Dea, Commanding Officer of UK Joint Force Support, said:

"The US operation is already huge. To make sure that everything will be ready and waiting, cargoes of freight are already arriving on a US scale."

In January, nearly 30 C17 cargo planes full of supplies and equipment were flown in. By May that will rise to 675 flights a month, and by late summer to a remarkable 860 a month:

"That is about the same amount of freight that Gatwick airport has to cope with," said Air Commodore O'Dea.

The forthcoming handover from 3 Commando Brigade to 19 Light Brigade will take place while the pace of the US expansion is accelerating, squeezing the number of air transport slots available for roulement.

Bastion's increasing size will mean that the area to be protected will also grow.

On the other hand, force protection for those making the 10-minute journey from Bastion to Camp Tombstone, where the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team are based alongside members of the Afghan National Army, will no longer be necessary. When Bastion expands, Tombstone will find itself well within the wire.

As well as extra accommodation, cafes and gyms, there are plans to upgrade the UK-led role three hospital, making it a larger, joint US/UK facility. A problem of growing waste disposal will have to be addressed:

"The burn pit at Bastion needs sorting out anyway," said Air Cdre O'Dea. "And plans to do that are already underway."

At the moment the pit burns about 30 tonnes of rubbish a week. That will soon become 90 tonnes.

Fortunately, Bastion enjoys plentiful water supplies. Below the base is a massive aquifer from which the camp bottles its own water. Tests have shown that the aquifer will be able to quench thousands of extra thirsts. If the rate of C17s landing at the base is maintained, those extra troops can expect to be comfortably accommodated and fed as well.

Friday, March 20, 2009

NATO commander sees Afghan security gains in 2010

By David Morgan

The arrival of 12,000 extra U.S. combat troops in southern Afghanistan this summer is not likely to bring major security gains to the volatile region until 2010, a top NATO commander said on Friday.

Dutch Major General Mart de Kruif, who commands NATO's 22,300-strong International Security Assistance Force in southern Afghanistan, expects "a significant spike" in violence as fresh U.S. and NATO forces enter the region ahead of Afghan elections due in August.

"I think that what we are doing now is actually planting the seeds and that we'll view a significant increase in the security situation across southern Afghanistan next year," Kruif told Pentagon reporters in a video conference.

Southern Afghanistan, a six-province area where NATO forces operate under a command called Regional Command-South, is the country's most violent region. It is also the centre of a global opium network believed to generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue for the Taliban insurgency.

The region is also expected to be a main subject of President Barack Obama's strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is expected to be unveiled next week.

Top NATO and U.S. commander for Afghanistan, U.S. Army General David McKiernan, had said the West is currently facing a stalemate in the country's south.

Experts say a lack of combat troops has allowed the Taliban to extend its influence in villages across heavily populated areas where Kruif estimates that NATO now controls only about 60 percent of the terrain.

Obama has ordered 12,000 Marines and Army soldiers to be in place by July 1 in the south. U.S. defence officials say that will more than double the number of combat troops in a regional NATO force that consists mainly of non-combatant personnel.

The U.S. deployment is part of a larger build-up that defence officials say could lead to a total U.S. force of more than 60,000 troops in Afghanistan by year's end. There are currently 38,000 American troops in the country.

Kruif said he also expects additional forces for the south from other countries including Canada, the Netherlands, Romania and possibly Britain. "There are more coalition forces coming in," he said without elaborating.

Within the past two years, southern insurgents led by a militant council based across the border in the Pakistani city of Quetta have switched from targeting NATO forces to attacking the local civilian population, mainly with crudely built roadside munitions known as improvised explosive devices or IEDs.

As the region prepares for the arrival of new troops, Kruif said NATO forces are aggressively enhancing their ability to locate IEDs and increasing the use of special forces to track and disrupt insurgent bomb-making networks.

Commandos make an emotional return to Chivenor

Emotional scenes filled a draughty aircraft hanger at RMB Chivenor early this morning, as loved-ones anxiously waited for the first local troops to arrive back from Afghanistan.

At 2am the first soldiers from 24 Commando Engineer Regiment finally stepped into the hanger, to be met by an array of smiling pyjama-clad children, and excitable partners.

The troops had originally been due to arrive back at 4pm on Thursday — but flight delays meant both the soldiers and families at home had endured a long day of waiting.

Sam Hailstone, and her two children Jess, 11, one-year-old Ella were waiting for dad and husband Staff Sergeant Paddy Hailstone to arrive.

Sam said: "It's been a long time away from home. I'm excited and nervous, and I'm trying not to get emotional but I might."

Jess, who is a pupil at Orchard Vale School in Barnstaple said: "I'm really excited."
Annabel Weeden, was waiting for her husband CO of 24 Cdo Engrs, Lt Col Jim Weeden to arrive, with the couple's two girls Molly and Hannah— who had both got up in their pyjamas to meet their dad.

Annabel said: "I'm really excited and just relieved he is home now. The girls were so excited, although Molly has to be up early to do her school assembly."

Lt Col Weeden said: "It's been a long time away and we've been hugely lucky to all be coming back. But I still have one group out there and I won't breathe a sigh of relief until they're all back."

He added: "It's wonderful to see my family again, and I can't believe how much the girls have grown."

Coalition and Taliban forces battle throughout Afghanistan

Scores of Taliban fighters and several Afghan officials were killed in fighting throughout Afghanistan. The violence marks the opening of the spring fighting season in Afghanistan as the Coalition and the Taliban surge forces for what is expected to be the toughest year of fighting since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

The largest battle took place in the Gereshk district in the southern province of Helmand on March 19. Afghan soldiers and their Coalition advisers conducting "combat reconnaissance in an area of known militant presence" took fire from Taliban fighters and engaged, the US military said in a press release.

The Afghan forces returned fire and routed the Taliban force. Thirty Taliban fighters were killed and one Afghan soldier was wounded in the firefight.

The same day, the Taliban killed a member of parliament, the highway police chief, and three bodyguards in an IED attack on a convoy in Helmand province. MP Dad Mohammad Khan "was known for his long opposition to the Taliban, which dated back to the hardliners' time in government between 1996 and 2001," The Associated Press reported. He served as the province's intelligence chief before being elected to parliament in 2005.

Helmand has been active the past several days. On March 18, a US airstrike killed two senior Taliban leaders in the Now Zad district.

Helmand province is one of the most violent in Afghanistan as the Taliban have taken advantage of local support and the opium drug industry to maintain a foothold in the province. The US Marines killed more than 500 Taliban fighters in Helmand province after surging into the region in 2008.

In the northern province of Jozjan, the Taliban killed several senior district leaders during an ambush, according to a report in Pajhwok News. The Kustapa district leader, the police and intelligence chiefs, and the criminal branch chief along with six policemen were killed in the attack. Jozjan has been one of the most secure provinces in Afghanistan, and the attack indicates that the Taliban insurgency, which has begun to intensify in neighboring Badghis and Faryab, may be spreading north.

In the southwestern province of Farah, the Taliban briefly overran the district of Pushtrud before being beaten back by police forces. Nine policemen and six Taliban fighters, including a commander, were killed in the fighting, Pajhwok News reported.

The violence in Farah province spiked during the summer of 2008. More than 270 Taliban fighters and nine Coalition troops were killed during fighting in Farah province in 2008, according to numbers compiled by The Long War Journal. The Taliban overran the Gulistan district center in late 2007 and took control of the Bakwa district in May 2008.

In Logar province just south of Kabul, Coalition and Afghan forces killed three members of a Taliban bomb-making cell. More than 3,000 US soldiers have deployed to Logar and neighboring Wardak province to dislodge the Taliban from the region.

Pakistani Taliban leader threatens suicide campaign against US forces
Across the border in Pakistan, one of the three senior leaders of a new Taliban alliance said his group has prepared a suicide campaign that is specifically designed to hit US troops in Afghanistan.

Mullah Nazir, one of the two main Taliban leaders in South Waziristan, told ABC News that US soldiers in Afghanistan "absolutely" were the target of his suicide bombers.

"We have readied suicide bombers for them, they cannot escape us," Nazir told ABC News.
Nazir and North Waziristan Taliban leader Hafiz Gul Bahadar put aside tribal feuds and strategic differences with South Waziristan and Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud at the end of February and created the Council of United Mujahideen. Previously, Nazir and Bahadar had feuded with Baitullah due to tribal disputes as well as Baitullah’s rising power as the senior leader of the Pakistani Taliban.

The council was formed at the behest of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. The three leaders had pamphlets distributed throughout North and South Waziristan to announce the formation of the Council of United Mujahideen. The Taliban leaders have “united according to the wishes of Mujahideen leaders like Mullah Muhammad Omar and Sheikh Osama bin Laden,” The Nation reported.

The Taliban alliance said it “supported Mullah Muhammad Omar and Osama bin Laden’s struggle” against the administrations of US President Barack Obama, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The new alliance further stated it was waging war “in an organized manner’” to “stop the infidels from carrying out acts of barbarism against innocent people” just as Omar and bin Laden were waging war against Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the US.

Nazir was often described by the media and the Pakistani government as a "pro-government Taliban" because he did not advocate fighting Pakistani security forces. This is a perception the Pakistani government has been willing to promote. The government signed a peace agreement with Nazir in mid-October 2008, and the military refuses to conduct operations against Nazir and Bahadar, despite the fact that their forces attack Afghan and Coalition forces inside Afghanistan.

But Nazir openly supports al Qaeda and its leadership. He admitted he would provide shelter to senior al Qaeda leaders. "How can I say no to any request from Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar under tribal traditions, if they approach me to get shelter?" Nazir asked the Pakistani press in the spring of 2007.

Al Qaeda runs terror camps inside Nazir's tribal areas and helps to finance his operations. The US routinely targets Nazir's tribal areas. In July 2008, Abu Khabab al Masri, the chief of al Qaeda's weapons of mass destruction program, and his staff were killed in an airstrike in Nazir's tribal areas South Waziristan. Last fall, one of Nazir's senior deputies threatened to attack Pakistani military forces if the government did not stop US airstrikes in the tribal areas.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

We should sing a louder song for our heroes

Great deeds of courage are being performed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But we are reluctant to celebrate acts of violence

One of the more extraordinary aspects of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is the almost total absence of great names and great heroes to have emerged from the conflicts.

These wars have produced no swashbuckling, death-defying hero of the sort celebrated through centuries of British military history: no warrior of comparable renown to Lawrence of Arabia or Douglas Bader. We have no modern Achilles, no Lord Lovat, who led his commandos ashore on D-Day to the sound of bagpipes, and whom Churchill described as “the handsomest man who ever cut a throat”.

The battlefields have not produced a Colonel “H” Jones, the Parachute Regiment commander killed in the Falklands conflict. We have no modern equivalent of “Chinese” Gordon, cut down defending Khartoum, nor a Captain W.P.Neville, kicking a football into no man's land to start the Battle of the Somme, only to be killed before reaching the German wire.

The age of the military celebrity is dead and buried. This may reflect a gentler society, but it also represents a dramatic cultural shift that says much about modern attitudes to the military and our profound ambivalence about the real nature of war.

This dearth of publicly celebrated heroes is not for lack of courage. On the contrary, soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated astonishing bravery, time and again. We just do not commemorate them as we once would have. The names and actions of modern warriors do not linger in the public consciousness. At most their deeds last a single news cycle. Most return home to complete anonymity.

Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry was awarded the Victoria Cross in 2004 after he twice saved members of his unit from ambushes, and sustained serious head injuries. He is the most highly decorated British soldier of recent times, yet his is hardly a household name.

In June 1944, Stanley Hollis, VC, repeatedly charged the German machinegun posts on the Normandy beaches, armed only with a sten gun and hand grenades. His exploits were immediately celebrated, and are remembered still. I cannot think of a single individual who has been celebrated in a similar way in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The word “hero” is often overused in relation to the continuing wars, but usually it refers to individuals who have rescued others, survived horrific injuries or died. Those who fight and kill at extreme risk to themselves - which is what soldiers are primarily intended to do - are not remembered in quite the same way.

In classical mythology, the hero was a magical, god-like warrior capable of extraordinary feats of arms, impelled by a lust for glory. “Do you not see what a man I am, how huge, how splendid?” Achilles declared, according to Homer.

British hero worship reached almost ludicrous levels in Victorian times, with martial heroes and their (often exaggerated) achievements celebrated in poem, song, painting and statuary. Much of this was jingoistic propaganda. Even stunning military defeats such as the Charge of the Light Brigade were painted in heroic colours. The more enemies who were slaughtered and the worse the odds - consider the celebrated carnage at Rorke's Drift - the greater the victory in Victorian eyes.

Today our attitudes to battlefield valour are far more complex. Britain's military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has been long, divisive and expensive. Popular acclaim for men and women fighting an unpopular war is understandably muted. More widely, as society has grown more pacific, we have become uncomfortable with the idea of elevating people to heroic status for acts of violence in distant lands. Celebrating battlefield heroics draws attention to the gory and horrifying nature of war, a side that the public would prefer not to see.

In modern military philosophy there is also a tendency to avoid citing brave individuals, when credit may be owed to a group. Britain is not alone in its reluctance to celebrate and advertise personal feats of arms. In the US too the hero tends to be a victim more often than a fighter. Pat Tillman, who sacrificed a lucrative American football contract to join up, was hailed as a hero when he was killed in 2004 (by friendly fire, it later transpired). His actions in combat were hardly mentioned.

Private Jessica Lynch was injured and captured by the Iraqis, released by special forces, decorated, fêted and then made the subject of a television drama, all without firing a shot. Another woman soldier, Leigh Ann Hester, led a team of military police in a ferocious and unequal gun battle in 2005 that left 25 Iraqi insurgents dead. Sergeant Hester is almost unknown.

Society's reluctance to address the bloody reality of battlefield combat may reflect an admirable shrinking from violence, yet it contains a profound contradiction. We expect soldiers to fight and kill on our behalf, but offer scant public appreciation when they do so efficiently.

Britain should never return to the age of military hero worship, of glorified bloodshed, yet our squeamishness over recognising acts of aggressive military bravery is hypocritical - poor recompense for a grim job well done.

I am no supporter of either war, but surely the least debt we owe to our soldiers is to acknowledge the reality of what they have to do. Since 1991, the Pentagon has banned photographs of flag-draped coffins returning from war zones, as if death in combat was something to be hidden away, and not spoken of. Barack Obama is now preparing to overturn that ban, a long-overdue recognition that dying - like killing - is part of what soldiers are trained to do.

Some talk of the heroes of Basra and Helmand. But not enough.

Fame, £5,000 - and death threats

It is the show that's rocking Afghanistan. But contestants on the country's answer to Pop Idol are risking not just humiliation, but their lives. Simon Broughton reports

I went to Afghanistan in January 2002, just a few months after the Taliban fled Kabul, to make a documentary for the BBC about the return of music to the capital. Despite the chaos, the hunger for music - prohibited under Taliban rule - was incredible. Cassette and video players were brought out of hiding and buffed up, while tapes and DVDs were hurriedly bussed in from the exiled Afghan community in Pakistan.

Three years later, Afghan Star, the country's equivalent of Pop Idol, was launched by Tolo TV, Afghanistan's leading independent television company. By the time the third series came around last year, the show had become a national phenomenon, despite - or perhaps because of - the fact that some entrants were risking their lives by taking part. Women contestants, in particular, have been the object of much anger among religious conservatives. But the prize is considerable: as well as fame, the winner receives £5,000, which is 10 times the average salary.

The Taliban outlawed music for five years. Now hopes are high that this hit show can unite Afghanistan's diverse ethnic groups and help bring an end to conflict. Daoud Sediqi, who presented the first three series, once said that the show's aim was "to take people's hands from weapons to music". Sediqi - who rebelled against Taliban rule by secretly repairing people's video recorders - wasn't exaggerating Afghan Star's huge influence. The final was watched by 11 million people, a third of the Afghan population, all voting for their favourite singer by mobile phone; for many, it was their first taste of democracy.

The progress of last year's tumultuous series was followed by a British film crew. "We were incredibly lucky," says director Havana Marking, whose vivid documentary focuses on four contestants. "This was when the series became really big, and everything fell into place. In the final 10, selected by the judges, there were two women. And all the ethnic groups were represented." In January, Marking's documentary (also called Afghan Star) took two prizes in the Sundance film festival's world cinema category: best documentary director, and the audience award for a documentary.

The film, funded by More4 and the BritDoc Foundation, receives its British premiere in London this Friday. On the same day, the fourth series will reach its climax - but with one important difference: Omaid Nizami, an air steward, is now presenting it in his spare time. Sediqi travelled to Sundance to promote the documentary, and never came back.

In Afghanistan, Marking worked with a very small crew: cameraman Phil Stebbing (who also did the sound), a driver, and a bodyguard (who was an Afghan wrestling champion). "Mumtaz, our driver, had been in prison for a week under the Taliban because he was found with a music cassette. He was a great music fan, and my guide to Afghan music," she says. The security situation meant that, for fear of kidnap, Marking couldn't set anything up in advance. "So we'd just follow the action, turn up, drink tea, wait for the moment to shoot and leave. It brings an energy and spontaneity to the film."

Music has been caught in the crossfire in Afghanistan for the last 30 years. During the 1970s, Kabul had miniskirts, rock concerts and Ahmad Zahir, the Afghan Elvis - still universally popular in the country today, despite dying in a mysterious car accident in 1979. That same year, the Soviets invaded to prop up the communist government. Although music was still permitted on radio and TV, musicians were required to support the regime.

When the Soviets withdrew in 1989, after years of brutal resistance from the Mujahideen, civil war broke out between opposing factions. Mostly Islamist in outlook, the Mujahideen placed restrictions on music and outlawed women singers. When the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, they restored order but put a total ban on music and TV.

The Taliban fled Kabul in November 2001, when America and her allies invaded. Throughout this time, Afghans' love of music has never wavered. "If there was no music," a boy too young to remember the Taliban says at the beginning of Marking's film, "humans would be sad. There would be nothing."

There were just three women among the 2,000 people who auditioned for Afghan Star. The fact that two made the final 10 suggests a little positive discrimination was employed (judges whittle the numbers down to 10; text-messaging then decides the winner). The documentary follows these two women and two men. "I want to be famous so I can sing for my people," says Rafi Nabzaada, a 19-year-old Tajik. The most cocksure of the contestants, he is filmed going to the shrine of Hazrat Ali in his home city of Mazar-e-Sharif, where an imam prays for his victory.

Hameed Sakhizada, 20, is the most musical of the four. He is Hazara, from the centre of the country, where the Bamiyan Buddhas were blown up by the Taliban, and has an interest in traditional music. "But an artist has to follow the people," he says. "If the people want pop, I have to give them pop." Lema Sahar, 25, is a Pashtun singer from Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold. As a woman, she is taking a risk even entering the show. "Music is banned by religion," she says. "But why should I hide it? Singing is in my tradition." As the competition nears its climax, she claims even the Taliban are voting for her - because she is Pashtun. Finally, there is Setara Hussainzada, 22, from Herat, a conservative city in the west. "I believe there is no difference between a woman and a man," she declares. "I am open-minded. I have no fear. I just want to be a famous singer."

Sadly, most Afghans are not so open-minded. Setara, a single woman who lives alone (something that is almost unheard of), has much to fear. Although there is nothing in the Koran prohibiting music, many Islamists disapprove of music and dance as incitements to licentious behaviour.

Already the show has received a warning from the Islamic Council, for "misleading the people".
The performers in Afghan Star, both men and women, hardly move on stage. But in Marking's documentary, you can hear a gasp of horror when Setara starts to dance. It is one of the most disturbing scenes in the film: we see her headscarf slip as she moves - modestly - to the music.

It's so slight, and yet it causes a storm of protest, even among her fellow contestants. "Dancing may be liked overseas, but Afghans don't approve," says Rafi. Others go much further. "She brought shame to the Herati people," says a young man on the streets of her home town. "She deserves to be killed." Fearing for her life, Setara goes into hiding.

I have personal experience of such strong sentiment. In December 2002, just over a year after the fall of the Taliban, I produced a concert in Kabul - mostly traditional music - for the 70th anniversary of the BBC World Service. It was the first big concert for more than a decade and was broadcast live around the world. We wanted a woman singer, but the interior ministry advised us it would be too dangerous. When I returned in 2004 for another concert, a Pashtun singer had just become the first woman, post-Taliban, to sing on Afghan TV.

This time we got our female singer; we even went one step further, with a man and woman duetting.

Although Afghan Star is about pop, the music is very Afghan in character. Most of the songs are indistinguishable from commercial central Asian pop, but the lyrics have a poetic quality, particularly the love songs: "Her eyebrows are like a bow shooting an arrow at me." National unity is another common topic - and there is no Simon Cowell-style humiliation. "They tried it," Marking says, "but the audience hated it."

What's remarkable about Marking's film is not just the stories of these four contestants but the way it captures everyday life in Afghanistan - its street kids, the show's fans, people talking at street stalls. "Afghan Star is better than politics," says one guy in a teahouse. "Politics bring misery".

Afghan Star premieres at the Ritzy, London SW2 (0871 704 2065), on Friday. Details of other showings: The film will be screened on More4 on 7 April.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Afghan civilians given awareness training in explosive ordnance

After having received instruction from a Royal Engineer Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Team, members of the Afghan Security Forces recently delivered explosive hazard awareness training to over 500 local Afghans in Nad e-Ali.

Operation ROSHANA SERAK, Pashtu for 'cleared and shiny path', is a rolling programme in which ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) forces, including British Royal Engineers, train the Afghan National Security Forces across Helmand province so that they in turn can provide training to local Afghan people.

With the Taliban's use of indiscriminate improvised explosive devices as their main form of attack across Helmand, and the years of conflict in Afghanistan also having left thousands of unexploded and unsafe munitions littered across the land, the awareness training for ordinary people is incredibly useful.

It is the Afghan civilian population after all who are the main victims of these deadly devices - in 2008 nearly 40 per cent of those killed and over 30 per cent injured in Helmand by explosive hazards were local civilians.
Click here to read more on the MOD website

Corporal Dean Thomas John and Corporal Graeme Stiff killed in Afghanistan

It is with great sadness that the Ministry of Defence must confirm the deaths of Corporal Graeme Stiff and Corporal Dean John of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers in Helmand province on Sunday 15 March 2009.

Both soldiers were members of the Light Aid Detachment of 1st The Queen's Dragoon Guards (QDG).

The men had been conducting a vehicle move to the west of Garmsir in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan. Corporals John and Stiff had been travelling in a Jackal patrol vehicle when, at about 1630 hours local time, it was struck by an explosive device and they were both killed.

Corporal Dean Thomas John

Corporal Dean John, aged 25, was born and bred in Neath, South Wales. His hometown is Port Talbot in Wales. He joined the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) in August 2000 and after passing out of basic training was posted to 12th Regiment Royal Artillery in Germany. His subsequent postings were also to Germany based units: 1st Battalion Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and 1st The Queen's Dragoon Guards.

He had served in Northern Ireland, Iraq and was on his second tour of Afghanistan as a Vehicle Mechanic in the Fitter Section of A Squadron, QDG. He was married to Wendy and father to three sons - Ethan, Harvey, and Dylan.

Corporal John was the epitome of a REME soldier: enthusiastic, determined, selfless, hardworking and loyal. He was a happy and loveable rogue who could always be found up to his elbows in the engine compartment of any vehicle that even looked like it needed some work.

He had an enormous appetite for hard work and a tenacity that drove him to extraordinary lengths to fix problems. His inquisitive and active mind would analyse why some component had failed and seek a solution to avoid a reoccurrence. His consummate professionalism and wonderfully fun character made him a universally popular and respected member of the Fitter Section, Squadron and Regiment. He had a very bright future, having won an award for being the joint best Non-Commissioned Officer in the Light Aid Detachment of the Queen's Dragoon Guards and receiving a recommendation for Artificer training.

He was an avid motocross fan and had an addiction to anything mechanical. He loved his job and his mates and was never one to miss a party, but he was also a devoted husband and father. In the quieter moments of the tour he would speak lovingly of Wendy and with immense pride of his three boys. He leaves behind a gap in the Regiment, Squadron and Fitter Section that is irreplaceable and an even greater hole in a young family.

Corporal Graeme Stiff

Corporal Graeme Stiff, aged 24, was born in Münster, Germany and came from a military background. Having accompanied his father across the world on various military postings, he enlisted into the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers in 2004. After passing out of training, he was posted to 1st The Queen's Dragoon Guards, where he served as an Electronics Technician in A Squadron's Fitter Section. He was on his first operational tour when his life was so tragically cut short.

Graeme 'Stiffy' Stiff excelled in his field. He greatly looked forward to deploying to Afghanistan and quickly proved to be a most reliable driver and craftsman in the demanding environment of southern Helmand. He was a hardworking and happy individual who loved his job and the friendships and camaraderie of his team. He revelled in his Corps' motto of 'Arte et Marte' ('By Skill and by Fighting') and was always found tinkering with his Jackal and ensuring that it was ready for action.

He was a shining example of a REME craftsman, working hard and playing hard, and adding every minute to the morale and happiness of the Squadron. He was exceptionally adaptable and in great demand for his expertise, often volunteering to go out on patrol even when exhausted; yet he was still able to improve the morale of those around him.

'Stiffy' was a keen sportsman and a particularly skilful footballer who represented both the REME and QDG at Football. He also enjoyed his time in the gym – either training by himself or 'spotting' for his friends.

He leaves behind his girlfriend Lauren, with whom he was looking forward to spending more time, a loving family, and a host of friends.