Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Helmand day one - the visit - BBC

In the first entry of his diary from Afghanistan's Helmand province, the BBC's Ian Pannell joins British troops at one base as it receives a visit from the chief of the defence staff.

In just a few hours, the urban, (relatively) cosmopolitan centre of Kabul, shrouded by snow-capped mountains and political intrigue, gives way to a very different country of mud compounds, tribal alliances and desert battles.

The Helmand desert in the south of the country is at the heart of a conflict that has already been running longer than World War II and shows no sign of easing. In fact there is every indication it is about to become far more intense.

There are "camps", which usually have the population and facilities of a small town.
Then there are the "FOBs", the Forward Operating Bases which oversee the military operations from the field and are often about the size of a small village.

Then there are the "PBs" - and that is where we have come, to "Patrol Base" Argyll in the southern province of Helmand.

It is small, dusty, dirty and very much on the frontline. It is home to just 60 soldiers, led by the Princess Of Wales's Royal Regiment but with the help of many others, including the Royal Navy, the First Battalion The Rifles, the Royal Engineers, and the Royal Marines, as well as the Gurkhas and army medical services.

This is increasingly the shape of military units operating in Afghanistan.

"Forward location" is how Lieutenant Colonel Doug Chalmers prefers to describe it.
The lack of a static frontline in this battle is just one of the many challenges the military face as the Taleban ebb and flow around the province, so Lt Col Chalmers' description is probably far more accurate.

The chief of the defence staff has come to see the campaign at close quarters.
He is the head of UK armed forces so the whole base was on orders to be up bright and early, to be on form and to make the place spic and span. No mean feat.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup arrived in the middle of a growing political storm about the military campaign here.

He spoke exclusively to the BBC, insisting there had been dramatic progress although he conceded that there was far more left to achieve.

Speaking at the weekend, former SAS commander Major Sebastian Morley described achievements here as "worthless" and accused UK forces of not holding ground.

A few weeks ago Foreign Secretary David Miliband said there was a "strategic stalemate" and last weekend US President Barack Obama said he didn't think US troops were winning the war.
The chief of defence staff says it is not just about "holding" ground but "dominating" it.

Every day patrols and operations leave this base to do just that, trying to convince an undecided local population that they are in control.

"It's about ensuring you can dominate the terrain. And at the same time we are patently holding and building throughout Helmand," he says.

Soon the troops in Helmand will be joined by more US forces, thousands of them. They arrive as questions grow about the resources and tactics Britain has used to defeat the Taleban.

Speaking at NATO headquarters in Brussels, US Vice-President Joe Biden said of Afghanistan: "We are not now winning the war but the war is far from lost."

Eyes roll and sighs escape at this news at the evening briefing at Patrol Base Argyll. It is not what the military here want to hear and not what they believe.

For the last seven years, thousands of British troops have been fighting here.

There has been progress but it has been tough, slow and limited. The question is whether there is the political will and enough public support to allow them to finish the job they started.

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