Sunday, May 31, 2009

Getting Here... by Matt Barbet - Five News

The armed forces call it "theatre" but to you and me, it's where the fighting is in Afghanistan. Whatever it's called though, getting here is not easy. When a high-ranking officer warned us before we left that it could take up to 72 hours to get into the country, and the same again to travel anywhere inside it, I wasn't entirely sure if I should believe him. Now I know exactly what he was talking about.

Four of us from Five News arrived at RAF Brize Norton early on a miserable Thursday morning, to catch the plane to the international airfield at Kandahar, where we were meeting a connection to Camp Bastion. There were tell-tale signs on board of the Tristar's previous life as a PanAm airliner, and cabin crew in strange brown jumpsuits, as well as a mix of all sorts of millitary people flying.

We settled into the seven hour flight, but about halfway through, the captain told us we wouldn't be able to land at Kandahar. A pilot there had been forced to eject from his fighter jet, because it wouldn't land properly. It meant the runway was closed, and we had to divert to Muscat in Oman.

At first it sounded like an exotic stop-over, and we contemplated killing time in a hotel bar. Unfortunately, it turned out it was 45 degrees in the shade, and we spent the night in a massive emergency tent on camp beds. Even more unluckily, for cameraman Chris, it was also his 30th birthday. And there was no bar.

The next evening, thankfully, the RAF turned up again. This time, it was a big, noisy cargo plane with few windows. The short flight ended with us putting on our body armour, before we dived towards Camp Bastion in the dark, except for a few red lights dotted throughout the cabin. It was a weird but exhilarating landing, completing a bizarre 36 hours.

We were finally in Afghanistan, but from now on, helicopter would be the only way to fly...

Birmingham aid workers are shocked at life near the front line in Afghanistan

THREE Birmingham aid workers are facing up to the realities of life on the front line as they help to rebuild war-torn Afghanistan.

Mark Harvey, Emily Travis and Mairead Kelly are working to help improve the lives of millions while the sound of gunfire and shells rattles out just yards away.

All three are part of the Department for International Development’s (DFID) attempts to help the country stand on its own if and when British and American forces withdraw.

Their days are spent liaising with locals and military leaders and helping to coordinate development projects.Emily, aged 28, a former pupil of King Edward VI High School in Edgbaston, described a trip to the battlefields of Helmand, where dozens of soldiers have died, to try and set up a fledgling government.

“I stayed at the military patrol base in Nad Ali, a makeshift camp with no showers, no female accommodation and military ration packs for food,” she said.

“It felt very close to the front line.

“An American soldier on a stretcher was rushed past me one evening onto an emergency helicopter, having been injured during an attack on his patrol earlier that day.”

The harsh realities of war have become a part of life for the three, who will help to make sure that the DFID’s allocated 2008-9 aid money of £23.6 million is used in the most effective way during their year-long postings. The cash will be used to set up basic services, improvements in health and sanitation as well as kick-starting democracy.

Mairead Kelly, also 28 and a former King Edward VI High School pupil, said: “My first journey down to Helmand was an eye-opener as I’m sure it is for many.

“I thought that the Chinook I was travelling in was swerving about close to the ground purely for my amusement but it turns out fast, multi-directional and low flight is the best way to avoid enemy fire.”

Civil engineer Mark, aged 50, from Dorridge, is part of a team planning a 48-kilometre road in Helmand and recommissioning a hydro-electric power plant to help rural villages.

He said every aspect of life in the country had been affected by decades of conflict and Taliban rule.

“In the main hotel in the town near where I am based, we hold a lot of meetings with the provincial government,” he said.

“The main meeting room has colourful paintings on the wall of lush rural mountain scenes, with snow covered peaks in the background but they also have tanks and helicopters in the foreground.”

Saturday, May 30, 2009

SAS take on Taleban in Afghanistan after defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq - The Times

The British Army’s SAS Regiment, which played a vital role in defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq, is now arriving in Afghanistan in one of the biggest deployments of UK special forces since the Second World War.

Two squadrons from 22 SAS are being sent to Afghanistan now that Britain’s combat role in Iraq has been wound up, to carry out clandestine operations against the Taleban.

The deployment of the SAS, which will be joining the Special Boat Service (SBS) already serving in southern Afghanistan, represents a mini-surge of troops to add to the 700 regular British soldiers going out for a four-month period to provide extra security during the presidential election.

The switchover of the SAS from Iraq to Afghanistan has coincided with the replacement of General David McKiernan, the overall American commander of Nato’s International Security Assistance Force, by Lieutenant-General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of US Special Operations, who is expected to launch missions to starve the Taleban of fighters, funds and arms.

The impact of the SAS in Baghdad in eliminating the threat from alQaeda and persuading Sunni insurgents to swap sides and become informants helped to bring the war to an end. In a recent interview with The Times, General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the Army, said that the coalition special forces, including the British units, had taken on al-Qaeda “and their mass-suicide tactics . . . full square” and had defeated them in Baghdad. “Al-Qaeda didn’t defeat itself in Baghdad. It was defeated, substantially defeated,” he said.

Working closely with a specially trained unit of 12 Iraqi commandos, the SAS in Baghdad and Anbar province crippled at least two car bomb networks, killed or captured hundreds of key targets and took part in multiple rescue missions to save hostages such as Norman Kember, the British peace activist. The SAS sprang into action hours after scores of gunmen in police uniforms kidnapped Peter Moore, a computer consultant, and his four security guards from a Finance Ministry compound in Baghdad on May 29, 2007. SAS troopers were deployed to Sadr City in the hunt for the five, raiding suspected properties night after night, but to no avail.

While the majority of Britain’s military effort was based in Basra, the SAS set up headquarters inside Baghdad’s fortified green zone, working closely with Delta Force, its US counterpart. Members of the squadron also rotated into Basra, where they teamed up with US Navy Seals to hunt Iranian-backed Shia militias.

Delta Force and the SAS learnt from each other. The Americans were impressed by the ability of the SAS to get up close to a target before striking — a technique known as “close-target recce”. Members of the team would apparently even dye their skin brown and hair black, don fake gold watches and wear Iraqi clothes to look like locals, and approach a target.

The SAS principally hunted car bomb networks in Baghdad, a task it pursued up until its final days, taking out two of the six cells in existence. The British efforts earned particular praise from General David Petraeus, the American commander, when he led the multinational force in Iraq. “Who dares wins,” he said, quoting the SAS motto. “They have exceptional initiative, exceptional skill, exceptional courage and, I think, exceptional savvy. I can’t say enough about how impressive they are in thinking on their feet.”

The unrivalled covert operational experience of the SAS in Iraq is now being added to the expertise of the SBS, which has been Britain’s main special forces component in Afghanistan since 2006, alongside the SAS’s Territorial Army units, 21 SAS and 23 SAS.

The arrival of the SAS from Iraq, accompanied by additional specialist troops from the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (former undercover surveillance teams from the counterterrorist campaign in Northern Ireland), and the Special Forces Support Group (formerly the 1st Battalion The Parachute Regiment), will make a substantial difference to Britain’s military campaign in Helmand province.

Lance Corporal Kieron Hill killed in Afghanistan

It is with deep sadness that the Ministry of Defence must confirm that Lance Corporal Kieron Hill from 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment (Worcesters and Foresters) was killed in Afghanistan on 28 May 2009.

Lance Corporal Hill died as a result of an explosion that happened whilst on a deliberate operation near Garmsir in Helmand province.

Lance Corporal Kieron Hill

Lance Corporal Kieron Hill, aged 20, was born in Nottingham where he grew up, attending Fairham College in Clifton. He was single with no children.

After completing infantry basic training at the Infantry Training Centre Catterick he joined C Company, 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment (Worcesters and Foresters), in 2006 at the age of 17.

He was true to his roots by being an ardent Nottingham Forest Football Club fan and true to his regiment with the pride he displayed in being a Mercian soldier.

He started his Army career in the Army Cadet Force where his larger than life character will be remembered by more than most; the story goes that the map and compass room was named after him!

On arrival in the battalion, LCpl Hill deployed to Belize for a jungle training exercise in preparation for the Operation HERRICK 6 deployment to Helmand province. That deployment was a true test for all members of the battalion and it was a tour in which LCpl Hill distinguished himself.

Shortly after the tour he attended and passed the Assault Pioneers Course followed by the Junior Non-Commissioned Officers' Cadre to achieve promotion to Lance Corporal. This was after an unusually short time which is testament to the ability of a relatively junior soldier.

He was a very keen footballer who was regularly chosen to be in the company and battalion teams.

Operation HERRICK 10 has seen the battalion deployed in the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team role, which seeks to build the capability of the Afghan National Army by living, working and fighting alongside the Afghan Army Warriors.

Soldiers are part of eight-man teams living in isolated locations in austere conditions. This requires a mental toughness which LCpl Hill had in spades; he was a true leader in the making. He always volunteered to deploy on operations and felt disappointed to be left in the patrol base.

Most of all 'Hilly's' sense of humour will be missed; true to the nature of a British Army soldier he would often play jokes on his mates.

LCpl Kieron Hill will be remembered by all as a brave and tough soldier who was a pleasure and inspiration to work with. He was an all-rounder who had everything required for a promising career in the true traditions of the British Army.

Lance Corporal Robert Martin Richards RM dies of wounds sustained in Helmand

It is with deep regret that the MOD must confirm that Lance Corporal Robert Martin Richards from Armoured Support Group Royal Marines died in Selly Oak Hospital on Wednesday 27 May 2009, from wounds sustained in Helmand five days previously.

Royal Marine Lance Corporal Rob Richards (his family know him as Martin but his friends call him Rob) was serving as Second-in-Command of a Viking All-Terrain Vehicle Section in 3rd Armoured Support Troop of the Armoured Support Group Royal Marines (ASGRM) when he was mortally wounded in the Nad e-Ali district of central Helmand, Afghanistan, on 22 May 2009.

Lance Corporal Richards was evacuated to the UK but despite the best efforts of medical staff and his own extraordinary fight he died of his wounds on 27 May 2009.

LCpl Richards died while supporting the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards when his vehicle struck an improvised explosive device. He was given immediate first aid at the scene and evacuated to medical facilities in Kandahar before being flown back to the UK.

Many would not have survived the flight home but, testament to his character, LCpl Richards battled against his injuries for five days.

A second operator driving the vehicle was also injured and is still receiving medical treatment.

Lance Corporal Robert Martin Richards, Armoured Support Group Royal Marines

LCpl Richards, aged 24, lived in Betws-y-Coed, North Wales. He was unmarried with no children.

He joined the Royal Marines in April 2002. Following successful completion of Royal Marine Recruit Training and the Commando Course he joined 45 Commando Royal Marines based in Arbroath, where he served as a Rifleman and then Section Second-in-Command and completed an operational tour of Northern Ireland.

He then underwent the Armoured Support Operators Course qualifying him to operate the Viking All-Terrain Vehicle in May 2006. Following this he deployed for what was to be the first of three tours to Afghanistan.

LCpl Richards was a highly regarded and experienced Viking operator. He loved football and golf and participated in all unit social activities. His knowledge of the Viking vehicle and of Afghanistan was extensive and he was the source of much advice to those around him.

His courage under fire had been proven on numerous occasions during which he displayed great composure and skill. He led by example and was unafraid to place himself in danger in order to see the troop through a mission.

His dry sense of humour and dedication to his friends made him a driving force in the group. He left a lasting impression on everyone who came in contact with him. He will be sadly missed by the Armoured Support Group and the wider Royal Marine Corps.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Seeking hearts and minds with the 'Viceroy of Helmandshire' - Telegraph

As thousands of US troops start arriving in southern Afghanistan this summer to try to dislodge the Taleban from their strongholds, a host of British civil servants are on hand to fill the political vaccuum.

Amid the rose bushes and machinegun towers of the British military base in Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s provincial capital, are the British mandarins who talk of their work as a giant experiment in governance and security.

Leading them is Hugh Powell, a Foreign Office official whose father served as Margaret Thatcher’s foreign policy adviser and whose uncle was Tony Blair’s chief of staff. Mr Powell has been tipped as a future aide to David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader and a fellow Old Etonian.

“What we’re doing here is cutting-edge experimental,” Mr Powell told The Times. “I don’t think it’s been done on this scale anywhere else before.” The aim is to provide “good enough governance structures” protected by “good enough security apparatus”, he said.

At Mr Powell’s disposal are about 135 military and civilian personnel and 28 locals, living among a small army of mercenaries, interpreters, soldiers and contractors. The team is the largest of 26 provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) across Afghanistan.

First set up by the Americans after the 2001 invasion, PRTs were designed to gather intelligence outside Kabul and handle development projects to win hearts and minds. Water towers and wells were typical examples. The idea was that building things for people would make them like you more than they feared your enemies.

But there has been no shortage of critics of PRTs in general and the Helmand PRT in particular. Sceptics have dubbed Mr Powell “the Viceroy of Helmandshire” because of his fiefdom’s cosy British conviviality and dislocation from the dilapidated provincial capital in which it sits.

Staff can relax on rugs and cushions on newly laid decking as they watch a Friday night film under the stars. Fragrant flowerbeds hem a wooden pavilion nicknamed “the bus stop”. There is even a beach hut.

On the other side of the perimeter’s blast blocks and concertina wire, men till the fields for a few dollars a day and live in fear of the Taleban, local warlords and criminal gangs.

An internal assessment by the Department for International Development, which sponsors Helmand PRT’s current experiment, found that a previous attempt to foster good governance ended in 2007 with “little evidence of tangible benefit” despite costing taxpayers millions of pounds.

The department said that “significant progress and developments” had been made since then.

Aid agencies claim that PRTs are blurring the distinction between the military and civilians in a country whose population is already suspicious of foreign soldiers.

Mr Powell said that without armed vehicles and bodyguards, “we would be targets” for the insurgents. As it is, his staff venture forth dozens of times each week to visit towns and villages along the Helmand River.

“People almost have to cut us some slack,” Mr Powell said inside one of the white-washed bungalows that dot the base. “It’s experimental, it’s new, there aren’t SOPs (standard operating procedures) for this. It will be, you know, a bit bumpy, but given all that, I’m pretty confident that we can make it work.”

The Helmand PRT now concentrates on what he called the “intangibles”, such as governance and the rule of law. Fundamentally, Mr Powell said, there had been a shift away from “the classic fix-a-mosque’s-roof type thing” to bigger infrastructure projects, which will persuade Afghans that central government will outlast the Taleban.

The central plank is harnessing the country’s rich history of village politics. Under the new “Afghan social outreach programme”, the Government is trying to devolve power to village level. A pilot scheme is running in Helmand.

With guidance from the PRT’s governance unit, local elders are being encouraged to become community council members, taking portfolios for justice or development or security. The idea is to build community responsibility and with it the confidence and security to resist Taleban intimidation. Elders from one nearby district even claim to have forced the insurgents to retreat.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Soldier's pub friends raise cash - BBC

Click for the BBC video

Regulars at the favourite pub of a soldier killed in Afghanistan have raised more than £40,000 for an injured soldiers' charity.

Drinkers at the Malt Shovel in Baildon have been raising money for the Help For Heroes charity since the new year.

Twenty-two year old Jordan Rossi, a regular at the West Yorkshire pub, was killed while clearing explosives in Helmand on Saturday.

Friends paid tribute to Jordan describing him as "a brilliant guy".

Best friend, Bobby Burdess, said Jordan was always sending him messages online, counting the days until they could drink together in the pub.

He said: "It still hasn't sunk in properly yet. I think about him all the time, I think about his family."

Jordan was a sapper in the 38 Engineer Regiment, and was the second British serviceman killed near Sangin in two days.

Colour Sergeant Mike Saunders, 2 MERCIAN, blogs from Helmand - Part 11

Latest installment from Colour Sergeant Mike Saunders
Click here

Wigan soldier makes Taleban gun discovery

A teenage soldier from Wigan unearthed a haul of Taleban weapons on only his second Army patrol.
Fusilier Daryl Toone discovered a loaded AK47 rifle, a pistol and a combat vest containing five magazines of ammunition while using a metal detector to search an Afghan compound in Northern Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

The 18-year-old, from Mosley Common, a soldier in A Company, Second Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, which recruits many of its soldiers from the North West, is currently on operations in the region

It was during one of his unit's regular foot patrols that Fus Toone, who is on his first operational tour of duty abroad with the Army, made the find.

He said: "I was pretty surprised when I found the hide. It gives you confidence in the kit and more importantly it means the bad guys have lost weapons they could have used against us and the locals."

A former pupil at Fred Longworth High School in Tyldesley, Fus Toone attended the Army Foundation College in Harrogate after leaving school, before enlisting as a soldier aged 18.

Platoon commander, Lieutenant Chris Danby, who led the patrol, praised the teenager's work: "The weapons were undoubtedly for use against British soldiers and hidden in such a way that they could only be discovered using special metal detecting equipment.

"Fus Toone found the weapons even though they were well hidden and hard to find.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Soldiers catch up with their Chad

TROOPS from across the area serving with the 2nd Battalion, The Rifles in Afghanistan take time out from their energy-sapping duties to relax with their favourite local paper — nearly 4,000 miles from home.
It is a rare opportunity for 'the boys' to take a well-earned breather from their work in the war-torn nation, where they have now spent many weeks stationed in the former hotspot town of Sangin.

The majority of soldiers from the 150 strong A Company are now based in Forward Operating Base Jackson, both in an around the town — where they play a vital role supporting nearby soldiers.

And Company Sergeant Maj Pete Burney, of Clipstone — who is responsible for A Company in Sangin and its district centre — says he and his men are kept busy round-the-clock.

"It's a great job out here looking out for the Rifleman, who are working a tough but rewarding role out here in Sangin," he said.

"We're on permanent standby ready to assist the guys on patrol should they ever need it, so there's rarely a quiet moment".

Fellow Clipstone man, 18-year-old Rifleman Andrew Francis, is serving as an infantry signaller — providing a vital role relaying messages between troops.

The former Garibaldi College student says he is slowly settling into his new surroundings, but is missing the comforts of proper a shower — although he is more than happy to cool off in the Helmand River after patrols.

Also manning communication systems is 21-year-old Ollerton Rifleman Sean 'Maddie' Madison, who says: "I'm really missing my fiancée April, but I never miss her telling me off!".

And Rfn Ben Taylder (23), of Selston, is another soldier missing his family and friends — closely followed by his three pet gerbils waiting back at the Battalion's barracks in Ballykinler, Northern Ireland.

City fans doing their bit

A group of City supporters will be heading out to Afghanistan at the end of this month to fight for their country.

And they will be proudly flying the club's colours with a special flag, as pictured right.

A 122-strong Squadron named Egypt, from the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, who recruit from the South West and London, will soon be heading to Helmand Province.

The Squadron face a six-month deployment, during which time the supporters plan to send updates on their progress, before a return at Christmas time - at which point they will parade at half-time for a first-team fixture.

Squadron Sergeant Major Pat Burgess told "I will send you monthly updates, operations dependant, whilst we are away with photos where possible."

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

TA officer helps train 1,000 Afghan soldiers

A Territorial Army officer who has been involved with training 1,000 Afghan soldiers is enjoying his work so much that he has twice volunteered to stay on in Afghanistan.

Major Nick Clarke, aged 48, has been in Helmand province since November 2008.

He took on the job after first working with 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment based at Tern Hill, Shropshire, last summer, looking after the administration back home while the regiment was in Afghanistan training the Afghans.

He enjoyed his time so much he volunteered to be mobilised to Afghanistan working alongside 1st Battalion The Rifles in November who were taking over the training role of the Afghans.

Then, despite being due to finish in March 2009, he volunteered to stay on for another two months to work alongside his local regiment 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment (Worcesters and Foresters) [2 MERCIAN] to provide continuity for the Afghan soldiers.

And on Friday, 22 May 2009, he was told his application to stay out until the end of August had been agreed.

Major Clarke said:

"It was important for the continuity of the training of the ANA [Afghan National Army]. It's just that little bit detached if I leave now.

"I've been involved with training soldiers in the UK and this is a real change because not only have you got a different language but illiterate people as well. But the job satisfaction you gain, where you've taught one of them to write and realised that the penny has dropped with them, that's basically why I'm staying."

Major Clarke, who used to be area manager for Lada cars until the mid-1990s, is married to Teresa, and they have a daughter, Becky. He said:

"My wife was expecting it and it was the plan in March that if I could stay out then I would, just to see the job through."

In Helmand Major Clarke is working as part of the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team which has been established to train the Afghan National Army at Camp Shorabak, next to the main UK base in Helmand, Camp Bastion.

So far more than 78,000 Afghan National Army soldiers have been trained across Afghanistan and in the months Major Clarke has been in Afghanistan he has helped train 1,000 of those soldiers.

When he arrived in Helmand he was given the task of planning, and putting into force, a new training initiative; a task he took to with relish:

"It is difficult enough to form a training centre from scratch," said Lieutenant Colonel Simon Banton, Commanding Officer of 2 MERCIAN, "but try doing this in a foreign country with low literacy rate soldiers who speak in one of three languages within a different culture and you can imagine the enormity of the task."

Major Clarke instigated a number of new aspects to the training programme. He said:

"The new initiative involves training the Afghans on counter-improvised explosive device measures, M16 firing, battlefield first aid and radio operation together with a plan to begin Officer and Non-Commissioned Officer training in the near future.

Happy returns for Dorset's soldiers

TEARFUL family members gave the warmest of welcomes to Dorset’s soldiers after a tough tour of Afghanistan.

1 Rifles paraded down Chepstow’s narrow High Street in front of around 4,000 residents and relatives.

The 500-man battalion was created in 2007, mainly from the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment, and around one in 10 men is still local.

Six members were killed during their six-month stay in Helmand, as were two men from attached units.

None killed were from Dorset.

Lance Corporal John Jowett, 32, from Portland, a former Devonshire and Dorset man, was with girlfriend Becky Favajer, 34, from Cardiff.

He said: “The parade was good. We didn’t expect that many people.

“It was a really tough tour. We just did it for everybody else and the guys who weren’t here.

“We were in Afghanistan in very small teams. We had about 16 people and about 150 Afghan Army.

“We would take them out doing daily patrols mainly to help them understand the basics of patrolling.

“Sometimes I would rather be on foot than in a vehicle which is a metal object and is prone to Improvised Explosive Devices.

“I’m looking forward to spending time with my girlfriend, seeing my family and just getting back to normal life.”

The Rifles – motto ‘Swift and Bold’ – marched at 140 paces a minute under the historic stone arch and took the salute at the town cenotaph.

The flag-waving crowd was more than a dozen people deep in places and huge cheers greeted each company as it went past to the sound of the regimental march ‘Mechanised Infantry’.

Lance Corporal Andrew Miller, 29, from Weymouth, a soldier for 11 years and a former Devonshire and Dorset man, was with mum Julie, sister Nikki, and his son Keyden, four.

He said: “It was a good reception – better than the freedom parades we have done.

“We have a lot of Devonshire and Dorset men.

“We were out there in small teams and we would go out and train the Afghan Army and go on patrols with them, and if something went wrong jump in and help them out.

“We were on patrols almost every day.”

Mum Julie said: “He has had some stories to tell but he doesn’t really want to talk about them now.”

Alexandria Glenister, 34, from Gillingham, was there for partner, WO2 David Evans, 37.

She said: “I spoke to David about how he deals with it, being such a tough tour, and he said, because he is older and able to admit when it’s having an effect.

“The younger soldiers are worried about doing that. But they all support each other.”

The unit was split into small units to train and patrol with the Afghan Army. This often put them in dangerous positions.

Most of the Afghan soldiers are northerners and the challenge is to get more from the rebellious areas around Helmand.

The Afghan Army is not as capable as the Iraqi Army though progress has been made, and the British men could become close to their Afghan counterparts.

The day was full of tremendous excitement and pride but the war was ever-present.

A minibus dropped off injured soldiers on crutches who could only watch but not walk.

A watching Gulf War veteran from Taunton, whose son was in the parade, said one Rifleman had died in his son’s arms.

Afterwards the men received campaign medals at their nearby HQ, Beachley Barracks, and took the salute from The Royal Colonel The Duke of Kent.

Family members of those killed received medals on their behalf.

The Colonel Commandant Lt Gen Nick Parker, said: “Those who lost their lives are heroes and riflemen forever and they represent the sacrifice and success of this tour.”

'Progress' against Swat Taliban

BBC video - click here to watch it

The Pakistani army says its operation to remove the Taliban from the Swat valley will take another seven to ten days, but that progress is being made.

The BBC's Barbara Plett, who is in Islamabad, has said that many residents decided to leave the Swat Valley, as the Taliban continue to "dig themselves in quite deeply" by taking over houses and mines.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Sapper Jordan Rossi killed in Afghanistan

It is with sadness that the Ministry of Defence must confirm that Sapper Jordan Rossi of 25 Field Squadron, 38 Engineer Regiment, was killed in Afghanistan on Saturday 23 May 2009.

Sapper Rossi was killed following an explosion near Sangin in Helmand Province.

He was part of a Royal Engineers Search Team embedded in the Joint Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group providing close support to 2 RIFLES Battle Group and was working in an operation to clear Improvised Explosive Devices that were posing a lethal threat to both British Forces and the local Afghan population.

Despite his significant determination to survive the explosion and the heroic efforts of his team mates and the Medical Emergency Response Team, Sapper Rossi was pronounced dead soon after arrival at the UK Hospital in Camp Bastion.

Sapper Jordan Rossi

Sapper Rossi was aged 22 and came from West Yorkshire. He joined the Royal Engineers on 6 June 2006 and following his basic recruit training he attended further courses to qualify as both a Combat Engineer and a Military Engineer Bricklayer and Concreter.

Posted in October 2007 to 38 Engineer Regiment, Ripon, North Yorkshire, he completed a construction task in Northern Ireland and then deployed to Kenya in support of 3 SCOTS (The Black Watch) Battle Group. On return to the UK he participated in the regimental move to a new permanent base at Massereene Barracks, Antrim, Northern Ireland.

Following a period of intense training Sapper Rossi, or simply 'Rossi' as he was known to most of his friends, deployed to Afghanistan as an Advanced Searcher within the Joint Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group. His role was to support Improvised Explosive Device Disposal operations and provide a High Assurance Search capability to Task Force Helmand; a role in which he thrived immensely.

Sheffield soldier to guide fighter jets in Afghanistan war

BRITISH fighter jets bombarding Taliban positions in Afghanistan could soon be directed to their targets by Sheffield lad Craig Dwyer.
The former Handsworth Grange School pupil, aged 22, is a Lance Corporal in the Royal Armoured Core 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, and is training as part of a Forward Air Control team to guide pilots from the ground.

He is among 2,000 service personnel taking part in a training exercise in the Czech Republic, where they are practising how to give speedy and precise instructions to pilots in Tornado jets travelling at 600mph.

He said: "I talked pilots through to their target destinations, ensuring they knew exactly where it was.

"We can be based on the ground or in an helicopter in the air and are in direct radio contact with the pilots. We literally have only around 60 seconds to talk them through before they open fire."

Craig, who has previously been part of a FAC team working in Iraq, added: "It's essential we get it right - the targets may be near schools, in civilian areas or close to our troops on the ground.

"Any mistake, however small could be disastrous."

Pakistani military shows off captured Taliban base

A Pakistani flag now flies over army troops dug in on a strategic ridge that until two days ago was held by the Taliban, a base where militants trained fighters, built tunnels and equipped caves with electricity and air vents.

The takeover of the highest Taliban stronghold in the Swat Valley by troops who stormed up its jagged, rubble-strewn slopes is evidence of the success of Pakistan's month-old army offensive. The action has been welcomed by the United States, which fears the nuclear-armed country is capitulating to the militants.

But much of the region still remains in the hands of the militants, including Buner — a district just 60 miles from the capital Islamabad and the focus of intense air and ground operations in recent weeks, according to witnesses and police officers who spoke to an Associated Press reporter in its main town Friday.

Several residents pointed to the mountains and warned that the Taliban were not far away.

Police were still too frightened to enter parts of Buner and the town of Dagar, 12 miles away, which the military said was "liberated" from the Taliban.

"We have been destroyed by the Taliban," said white-bearded Ayub Khan, as army trucks rumbled past a ruined market and a charred gas station where a suicide bomber had killed four soldiers in the early days of the battle.

The Obama administration has declared eliminating militant havens in Pakistan vital to its goals of defeating al-Qaida and winning the war in neighboring Afghanistan. U.S military officers say insurgents use Pakistan as a base to launch attacks over the frontier in Afghanistan.

But Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, the top U.S. general in eastern Afghanistan, said there was evidence that insurgents were crossing into Pakistan, possibly to join the fight in Swat and other regions of the northwest where militants are holed up.

His comments come amid concern in Washington and Islamabad that the ongoing buildup of 21,000 additional U.S. forces in Afghanistan may end up pushing Taliban militants into Pakistan, further destabilizing its border region.

The Swat offensive has triggered an exodus of nearly 1.9 million refugees, more than 160,000 to sweltering camps, while the rest have been taken in by relatives, friends or in rented accommodation. Foreign countries and the United Nations are donating money to relieve the crisis.

Unlike other campaigns against Taliban and al-Qaida militants, the current offensive has broad political and public support in Pakistan, but some fear that could drain away if the refugees are seen to be neglected or the fighting drags on.

The army claims to have killed more than 1,000 militants, but said Friday the Taliban control the main town of Mingora; Piochar, a side-valley farther north that is a Taliban base; and several other districts. The army said those areas are increasingly surrounded by Pakistani troops.

"The noose is tightening around them," Maj. Gen. Saajad Ghani, the commander of operations in Upper Swat. "Their routes of escape have been cut off. It's just a question of time before the Taliban leadership is eliminated."

He and another senior commander estimated the operation could last another two or three months.

The army took more than a dozen reporters to the camp after flying them to the valley by helicopter from Islamabad. The scenic region that once attracted honeymooners and skiers has largely been off-limits to the media since fighting broke out.

While foreign governments are praising the Swat operation, they will be looking closely to see whether the country expands the offensive into other parts of the border region, especially Waziristan, which has been hit by repeated strikes by U.S missiles since last year.

Critics say the Pakistani army does not have the will or capability to completely take out the militants, given its close historical links to extremist groups it fostered for use as proxies in Kashmir, a region disputed with longtime foe India.

Previous operations in the northwest have resulted in widespread damage to property and significant civilian casualties.

The army has not given any tolls for civilians killed, but say there have been very few. Refugees have reported several examples. The militants have largely been unavailable for comment since the fighting began.

Flying over the valley, there was no major damage visible in several towns and cities — a sign, perhaps, that the military is making good on its promise not to use artillery and airstrikes in urban area or where civilians could be hiding.

The facilities at the Taliban camp on the ridge point to a disciplined and well-funded adversary, which is believed to have about 4,000 fighters.

At 7,500 feet, the complex was about the size of two soccer fields, with panoramic views of the valley on all sides.

Ghani said it was an operational, communications and training center for the Swat insurgency that had been there for several years.

"They wanted to retain it at all costs," he said at the base, where a dozen Pakistani army soldiers are dug in, wary the Taliban may return. "This was symbolic for them."

The heights were first bombed by jets and helicopters, leaving several large craters, before troops stormed it earlier this week.

Ghani said four soldiers had been wounded and that 200-300 fighters had been killed, but there was no evidence of this, such as graves or blood. Capt. Kamal Butt, who led the final assault, said there were no bodies when he arrived, suggesting the insurgents had fled. There was no explanation of where the bodies might have gone.

The cave mouths and bunkers were made with brick walls several feet thick and topped with large tree trunks, dirt and leaves. Flies buzzed in and out of the cave housing the kitchen, outside of which stood a bullet-scarred wheelbarrow filled with lentils.

The caves and tunnels had electricity and rudimentary ventilation systems. A system of pipes and tanks ensured those staying at the camp had water from several faucets.

Officers laid out text books belonging to pupils who, according to the headings in them, underwent guerrilla training. One was dated May 2, 2009. They said many of the students were forced to attend. They also showed reporters three sacks of chemicals used for making bombs, wires and detonators.

The offensive was launched after the militants abandoned a peace deal widely criticized in the West and moved into Buner. Coupled with a video showing the insurgents whipping a women, the advance seems to have galvanized politicians, the media and members of the public into supporting the war.

"Fighting an insurgency in your own country is hell," said Col. Abdul Rehman. "But when the whole country is behind you, you feel better."

Soldier's mum asks shoppers to put treats in baskets for troops abroad

THE mother of a Derby soldier is urging shoppers to donate items such as deodorant, wet wipes, toothpaste and even tennis balls and Frisbees to send to troops serving in Afghanistan.

Paula Taylor has organised for a collection bin to be placed by the checkouts at the Somerfield store where she works in Bishop's Drive, Oakwood.

And in just over a week, generous shoppers have put in packets of biscuits, toiletries, soft drinks and sweets.

Mrs Taylor will send these to her son, Private Brendan Ogden, who is fighting in Helmand Province with the 2nd Mercian Battalion (Worcesters and Foresters).

He will share the goodies out between his colleagues.

Mrs Taylor, of Oakwood, says it will boost morale among the soldiers.

She came up with the idea for the collection after speaking with a colleague.

The go-ahead was given by store manager Stuart Humphris, whose nephew Ian Humphris is also fighting in the war-torn country.

Mother-of-six Mrs Taylor, 44, said: "I just felt I wanted to do something for those out there fighting.

"It is hard enough being the mum of a soldier, with the worry about what they are doing out there, so I wanted to do something to help.

"When Brendan found out, I think he was a bit embarrassed at first but he did ask for things like tennis balls and Frisbees – things to keep them amused."

Pte Ogden has been with the Woofers since he was 17.

The current six-month tour is his second in Afghanistan.

He is part of the AVA platoon, which provides protection for convoys of food and water being taken to remote army out-posts in the searing heat of Helmand Province.

During his last tour in Afghanistan, in 2006, he celebrated his 18th birthday.

On April 17 this year, he was there once again – this time for his 21st birthday.

Mrs Taylor said: "That's two landmark birthdays he's had and both times he's been in Afghanistan.

"I hear from him about once a fortnight but he calls his girlfriend more often, so I get to hear he's OK.

"Organising this has helped me try and keep my mind off what he is doing out there."

Mrs Taylor's five other children are Gemma Day, 25, Sadie Longdon, 18, Dayle Taylor, 17, Savanna Taylor, 16, and Pte Ogden's twin brother, Matthew.

Store manager Stuart Humphris, 49, said he was more than happy to help the troops.

He said: "I think it is important we show those men out there that people back home are thinking about them and the work they are doing."

Speaking on behalf of the regiment, Major Jez Jerome said it was good to see so much support for the troops.

He said: "I'm very happy to see the continuing support for the battalion, both from those who have friends and relatives out there, but especially from those people who are not directly connected to serving soldiers."

Sunday, May 24, 2009

'Record' Afghanistan drugs bust - BBC

International and Afghan troops have killed 60 militants and made a record drugs haul in an operation in southern Afghanistan, the US military has said.

Its statement said the four-day attack targeted the town of Marja in Helmand province - a Taliban stronghold.

The troops seized 92 tonnes of opium poppy seeds and other drugs, "severely disrupting" a key narcotics centre and command hub of the insurgency.

The US denied reports that civilians were killed during the operation.

However, a spokesman for the Afghan defence ministry told the BBC that it was investigating the reports.

Taliban militants have so far not commented on the US statement.

Weapons seized

On Saturday, the US military said the joint operation focussed on Marja, south-west of the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah.

It said the troops targeted the town's bazaar, describing it as a key hub for militant and criminal operations.

The area was emptied of civilians overnight on Friday, before precision airstrikes were launched, the statement said.

The international and Afghan forces then seized the poppy seeds, along with tar opium, processed morphine, heroin and hashish.

Helmand is the main producer of Afghan opium, which accounts for more than 90% of the global supply.

The US military also said that a large amount of weapons and bomb-making equipment was seized during the operation.

Pakistan troops battle Taliban in Swat capital

Pakistani troops on Saturday stormed into the main town in the Swat valley and fought street battles in a bid to wrest the capital of the northwest from Taliban control, the military said.

Chief military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said parts of Mingora had already been cleared and that 17 militants, including an important commander, had been killed.

The ground assault on Mingora, a city with an estimated population of around 300,000 -- most of whom have fled -- marks the most crucial phase of the military's blistering offensive against the Taliban in the scenic valley.

Although the military has bases inside Mingora, the town has been under effective Taliban control. As the administrative and business hub of the district, its capture is essential for the army to declare victory in Swat.

Pakistan says 15,000 troops in Swat are now fighting 1,500-2,000 "hardcore militants", nearly a month after ordering a battle to eradicate fighters who advanced to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of the national capital.

"Today the most important phase of operation Rah-e-Rast, the clearance of Mingora, has commenced," said Abbas.

"In the last 24 hours, security forces have entered Mingora; 17 miscreant-terrorists, including an important miscreant commander were killed," the spokesman told a news conference in Islamabad.

There were intense exchanges of fire, one would-be suicide bomber was shot dead and another "suicide vehicle" rigged with explosives had been destroyed during the operation, the military said.

Pakistani troops had been tightening their encirclement of the city for days and Abbas said on Saturday that militant supplies were cut off, but the fighting in Mingora is likely to heighten concerns about civilian casualties.

Attempts to contact local residents by telephone were impossible on Saturday with both mobile and landline networks down.

Abbas estimated that 10,000-20,000 civilians remained in Mingora, the capital of the stunning mountainous district once popular with tourists but ripped apart by a two-year Taliban insurgency.

"We are trying our best that there should be minimum civilian losses and that's why the operation is slow," said Abbas.

"The communication with the town of Kalam remains cut off, but we have received reports from the nearby town of Fatahpur, where troops are present, that there is food shortage," Abbas said.

"Food supplies for residents on civilian trucks are on the way to Kalam," Abbas said.

Commanding officers have stressed that soldiers are under orders to avoid civilian casualties and not to use artillery or air strikes in built-up areas.

Pakistan says other towns in Swat -- Matta and Khawazakhela -- have already been cleared without civilian casualties or damage.

The United Nations on Friday appealed for 543 million dollars to help 1.7 million people displaced by the offensive, on top of 550,000 people who have fled violence in the northwest since August last year.

The military says 1,095 militants and 63 soldiers have died in the onslaught launched in the districts of Lower Dir on April 26, Buner on April 28 and Swat on May 8, but those tolls cannot be confirmed independently.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown voiced support Saturday for Pakistan's "vital" drive against the Taliban, pledging more aid to support those displaced by the fighting.

But despite fears that a full-scale onslaught in Mingora could spark a bloodbath, some analysts doubted that the Taliban would fight to the end.

"If they (the militants) are not too many, then they will not indulge in street fights, but try to inflict maximum damage on the army in a hit-and-run manner," said Rahimullah Yousafzai, analyst and expert on the northwest.

"In any case, civilians are caught in between the security forces and militants and unfortunately they are going to suffer," he said.

US-based Human Rights Watch earlier this week quoted residents as saying the Taliban had mined Mingora and "prevented many civilians from fleeing, using them as 'human shields' to deter attack".

The group also said that Pakistani aerial and artillery attacks had caused a high loss of civilian life -- claims flatly denied by the army.

Fusilier Petero "Pat" Suesue killed in Afghanistan

It is with regret that the Ministry Of Defence must confirm that Fusilier Petero "Pat" Suesue, of the 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, was killed in Afghanistan on Friday 22 May 2009.

Fusilier Suesue was killed a result of a gunshot while on a foot patrol near Sangin in Helmand Province.

Fusilier Petero "Pat" Suesue

Fusilier Suesue, or Pat to his mates, was born in Levuka in Fiji in December 1980. He joined the Army in February 2002, and on successful completion of his infantry training at ITC Catterick, was posted to the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (2RRF) later that year.

He was always eager and proud to be a Fusilier and Infantryman.

On arrival in the Battalion, Fusilier Suesue joined Fire Support Company and the Anti-Tank Platoon, remaining there throughout his career. In 2003, he deployed to Northern Ireland and was based in Girdwood, Belfast, during which time he was involved in Public Order operations. After a short spell in mainland UK, Pat found himself back in Belfast with 2RRF based at Palace Barracks.

During that time he represented the Battalion at rugby, playing with distinction. His ability on the field was recognised with a place on the Infantry Rugby team for their tour to South Africa in 2004. In late 2005, Fus Suesue moved with the Battalion to Cyprus, and during the Theatre Reserve Battalion commitment, deployed from Exercise Saffron Sands in Jordan to Iraq for four months, operating from Basra Palace.

On his return in November 2006, Pat went to Fiji, where he married Emalaini. On his return, he then deployed to Kabul with Fire Support Company, but was soon needed in Sangin with C Company as an integral part of their Javelin capability.

Once back in Cyprus, his wife Emalaini moved to join him in Dhekelia, and the Suesues moved with the Battalion back to Hounslow, West London, in March 2008. After the move to London, Pat again distinguished himself as a key member of the Anti Tank Platoon during Exercise Druids Dance, and then subsequently during the Battalion's period of Public Duties in London.

When called on to deploy to Afghanistan again, Fus Suesue threw himself into the challenge with his usual tenacity and enthusiasm, training as a Jackal heavy weapons gunner for A Company's Fire Support Group, now attached to the 2 Rifles Battlegroup and based near Sangin.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Welcome home, heroes of Helmand

THE heroes of Helmand were applauded every step of the way as the 750 men of 45 Commando staged a homecoming parade after a gruelling tour of Afghanistan in which 12 of their comrades lost their lives.
More than 3,000 residents of Arbroath, friends and family lined the one-mile route yesterday to honour the Royal Marines' completion of their arduous six-month deployment.

It was first time that the Marines of RM Condor, the sprawling commando base on the outskirts of the town, had exercised their right to march through the streets of the royal burgh since 45 Commando were granted the freedom of Arbroath in 2003.

As the commandos set off on their march from Victoria Park, the crowd lining the streets broke into spontaneous applause. And they kept on clapping until the Marines had passed the ruins of Arbroath Abbey, where Ruth Leslie Melville, the provost of Angus, and Georgina Osborne, the Lord Lieutenant of Angus, took the official salute.

The unit's commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Jim Morris, said after the parade that he had been overwhelmed by the public's response.

He said: "The turn-out was fantastic. It was great to see so many people taking the trouble to turn out. Some of the lads have already said what a highlight it was for them – to see the respect being shown towards them for their efforts and the support from the local community.

"I think the clapping started from the minute we set off to the minute we stopped."

Some of the men marching in the parade bore the scars of battle. Others, who were so severely wounded they were unable to march, joined the crowd of well-wishers along the bunting-lined route.

Lt-Col Morris stressed, however, that the event had been tinged with sadness for those who had died during the six-month tour in war-torn Helmand province.

Nine men from 45 Commando were killed in action and three other servicemen from support units attached to the Condor Marines had also died.

Lt-Col Morris said: "This was such a happy, positive event, but tinged with sadness when we remember those who have fallen in Afghanistan.

"We also remember the great commitment that has been made by those very fine young men who have suffered some very serious injuries."

The crowds had begun to gather at vantage points along the route more than an hour before the parade was to begin.

They included the mothers of two Royal Marines based at RM Condor. Anne Clements, from Lumphinnans, near Cowdenbeath, was sharing a park bench below the saluting base with Jacqueline Ross, from Leven.

Mrs Clements's son, Jordan, 26, a lance corporal, had been on his second tour of Afghanistan.

She said: "I am proud of all of the lads. They had a horrendous time in Afghanistan. My son lost one of his best pals over there, but they all did a fantastic job."

Mrs Ross – whose son, Stuart, 23, a "rookie" Marine, also served in Helmand – said: "I was demented with worry when he was over there, and it's great to have him home. And I just think it's wonderful that so many folk have turned out here today."

Ben Smith, 66, a former sergeant in the Royal Artillery from Arbroath, was among the crowd lining the top of the High Street.

"I am standing here as a mark of respect for all these men," he said. "I am tremendously proud of these lads – and have been all my days.

"I know that the folk here in Arbroath certainly appreciate what they do for this country. Arbroath has a lot of time for the Marines."

Andrew Welsh, the MSP for Angus, said: "What a great welcome home for 45 Commando. I think it shows the whole town's appreciation of the work they did and their devotion to duty.

"It is also a day to say to the Marines that the town remembers those who did not return."

Fighting in Afghanistan: proceed with caution

The United States has agreed to deploy at least 21,000, perhaps up to 30,000, additional American troops to Afghanistan. About 55,000 NATO soldiers currently serve in that country, about half of whom are Americans.

More recently, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the appointment of Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, with extensive Special Operations command experience, to replace Gen. David McKiernan as U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. At the same time, the Obama administration continues to review its overall strategy in the area. Although it has announced no consensus for future action, the President has made clear that his approach will involve more than just military force, and it will incorporate the entire region, with appropriate emphasis on Pakistan.

There are few more volatile areas in the world, and few with higher stakes. The reason for entering Afghanistan in the first place was to eliminate the Taliban-sponsored sanctuary for Al Qaeda. This mission failed, and once it did, the Bush administration offered little substantive guidance to improve the situation. Afghanistan became a backwater as the U.S. turned its attention to Iraq, and inadequate coalition resources facilitated a Taliban resurgence against an ineffectual Afghan military establishment, the spread of corruption apparently at every level of government, and the increased involvement of apparently ungovernable tribal areas in Northwest Pakistan. In 2008, the U.S. lost 155 Americans in combat, and the casualty totals undoubtedly will rise.

With the die cast in Iraq, President Obama rightly has turned attention to Afghanistan, an improbable source of frightening destabilization in South and West Asia. Afghanistan is a landlocked nation that suffers from extreme poverty in some of the most rugged terrain in the world, and the U.S., like it or not, has committed itself to a struggle there that could lead to long-term military and diplomatic frustration reminiscent of the Vietnam War.

No end is remotely in sight in Afghanistan, and plenty of U.S. observers know full well that success is far from certain. Memories of the Soviet Union’s failure to control the country are still fresh, and it is worth noting that Afghanis probably do not consider Soviet and U.S. motives to be very different. In fact, Afghanistan has never willingly accepted foreign intrusions. So, in addition to remembering the Soviet experience in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989, I propose we also remember one person.

The gentleman in question is William Brydon. Dr. Brydon was the assistant surgeon of a British force marching 90 miles in January 1842 under the command of Major General William George Keith Elphinstone from Kabul to Jalalabad after an insurrection in the former city forced the evacuation of 16,500 British and British Raj soldiers and camp followers. A week after the march began, Dr. Brydon, horribly wounded, rode his exhausted horse through the gates of Jalalabad with Afghan riders in pursuit. When asked where the army was, he replied, “I am the army.” He was the only survivor of the entire force to reach safety. The rest surrendered or died in battle or of exposure during the march.

It is worth noting that the British Empire fought three wars in Afghanistan, losing the first in 1842, securing partial victory in the second by 1880 and inconclusively ending the third in 1919. The reason for all this conflict was to protect the Raj from Russian incursions through Afghanistan into India. It is worth noting that the Russians had even less success overall than the British with military and diplomatic forays that came to be known as “the Great Game.”

Of course, any romantic attachment to conflict has long since vanished in the world. Even a backwater war is nasty business, and the U.S. should, and I believe will, proceed with caution. Americans need not reach too far to conclude that U.S. lives and treasure lost in an inhospitable region with equally inhospitable people not remotely related to us through geography culture, politics, economics or religion could well be waste of the most egregious sort. If we remember Dr. Brydon, perhaps we can minimize the potential for damage.

Pakistan Generals Claim Taliban on the Run

Suffering Swat Valley Residents Say Fighting Has Cut Off Access to Food and Water

On the top of this mountain, where the only thing that impedes the view is the horizon or a nearby peak, the Pakistani flag is flying for the first time in more than three years.

Until two days ago, the Taliban controlled the 7,000-foot point, according to local Pakistani army generals, using it as a command center and training facility from which they sent out young boys to fight an insurgency across the besieged Swat Valley.

Today, the army escorted a group of mostly foreign media to the peak and a base below it to try and prove that it was succeeding in its attempts to defeat an embedded Taliban insurgency in a valley of 1.7 million people.

Friday, May 22, 2009

MOD policeman swaps Yorkshire beat for Helmand heat

An MOD policeman with 20 years previous experience working with West Yorkshire Police is currentrly deployed to Helmand where he is mentoring the Afghan National Police Force.

Following two decades of service with his local police force, Inspector Bill McGuinness transferred to the Ministry of Defence Police in 2006. He deployed to Helmand Province in December 2008 where he works alongside his international police colleagues.

British and NATO forces are in Afghanistan to stabilise the war-torn country and to extend security, and vital to this is the development of the Afghan National Police.

Insp McGuinness is based at the Headquarters of UK Task Force Helmand in the town of Lashkar Gah.

One of his main roles is mentoring the police and passing on the basic skills he has picked up back in England, from evidence-gathering to conducting investigations and dealing with suspects.

He said:

"I have been involved in working in a number of other roles since arriving in Afghanistan including counter-narcotics and logistics. I am currently mentoring a major in the Afghan National Police who commands the Guard Force that is responsible for the security of the newly-built Provincial Police Headquarters in Lashkar Gah."

Although his police career in Yorkshire was certainly active, Insp McGuinness has witnessed more than his fair share of trauma during his tour in Afghanistan. One day in particular, 16 March 2009, will forever stand out in his memory:

"Obviously my colleagues and I will never forget the day the suicide bomber attacked the new police headquarters we were working in at the time," he said.

Army nurse deploys to Helmand for her first operational tour

For her first operational deployment, Army nurse Corporal Sandra Jordan has travelled to Helmand province where she is a working as a Ward Nurse in the Camp Bastion Hospital.

At Camp Bastion she is serving alongside doctors and nurses from 202 (Midlands) Field Hospital (Volunteers), a TA unit of the Army Medical Services. She says:

"The majority of doctors and nurses here in Afghanistan are TA. We all work well together because we all work in the same NHS hospitals back home."

Her day-to-day duties as a Ward Nurse at Camp Bastion Hospital include the feeding, washing, dressing change and general care of patients, ward administration, maintaining medical stock levels, taking of bloods and movement of patients around the hospital:

"Working at the hospital at Camp Bastion is a great experience," she says.

"Putting our training into practice, with all the different patients you meet on operations, is very rewarding. And, the standards here are second to none - they're comparable to the NHS in the UK."

The medics at Camp Bastion's Hospital treat UK and coalition force soldiers, Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police personnel, as well as Afghan civilians and enemy forces. Cpl Jordan says:

"I prefer not to know who patients are and what they do. It helps me treat everyone just the same and do my job professionally nursing them back to health. I love what I do."

She has served in the Army for four-and-a-half years, three of which were spent studying for a degree to qualify as a Nurse. Prior to joining the Army, she was a veterinary nurse for nine years:

"I reached the top of the ladder as a vet nurse, so I decided to do something different. Army nursing appealed to me," she says.

UK backs Afghan efforts to reintegrate Taliban - Reuters

Britain voiced support on Thursday for Afghan government efforts to reintegrate Taliban insurgents who abandon violence, saying a political settlement is needed to bring peace to the country.

"Peace and security in Afghanistan does not turn purely on the men in uniform; it depends on a broader and more inclusive poiltical settlement," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in a speech to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies.

"That is why we must support the Afghan government's efforts to reintegrate those Taliban who are prepared to abandon violence, engage in the democratic political process and renounce al Qaeda."

Former Taliban officials have been trying to mediate between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the insurgents since late last year. The mediators are pushing the government to provide asylum for members of the Taliban and other armed opposition groups as part of an effort to pave the way for peace talks.

U.S. President Barack Obama has spoken about the need to work with moderate Taliban as part of a new strategy.

Violence has risen dramatically in Afghanistan in the past two years despite the deployment of more foreign troops to fight a worsening insurgency. Britain has more than 8,000 troops in Afghanistan, the second biggest foreign contingent after the United States.

Both Britain and the United States have recently published new strategies on Afghanistan and Pakistan that focus on boosting aid and development rather than relying purely on a military solution.

Marines homecoming street parade - BBC

Royal Marines who recently returned from Afghanistan are set to take part in a homecoming parade in Arbroath.

The 700 men of 45 Commando have the Freedom of Angus, which allows them to march through the streets.

The unit, which is based at RM Condor in the town, was awarded the freedom in 2003 in recognition of its services and close links with the area.

The men spent six months in Helmand Province, during which time nine members of the unit were killed.

A further three men serving alongside them also died.

The unit returned to Scotland last month after its operation fighting the Taliban, destroying heroin and poppy crops and helping improve local infrastructure.

The parade is due to start at 1200 BST and will move from Victoria Park to Arbroath Abbey accompanied by the Royal Marine Band of Scotland.

Commanding officer, Lt Col Jim Morris said: "We're very proud of our links with the local community, so it's a tremendous honour to parade through our home town of Arbroath.

"It's an opportunity for us to say thank you to all those in the area who supported us. That support to the men and their families cannot be underestimated, and was very welcome.

Lt Col Morris said it was "a tough but successful" six months and he was proud of his marines' achievements.

"We made real progress in the region - delivering security and local governance to the Afghan people, allowing schools, shops, health clinics and offices to open in the region," he said.

"We also found and destroyed a number of Taliban weapons and opium. This success has come at a cost and we pay great tribute to our marines who sadly made the ultimate sacrifice, or were wounded in battle.

"Enduring and sustainable progress was certainly made, but it was gritty, slow and dangerous work."


Operation Sarak 1, AFGHANISTAN -- The Black Watch, the 3rd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland (3 SCOTS), left the relative safety of Camp Roberts at Khandahar Air Base for Operation Sarak 1 from the 21 April till the 25th April 2009.

Op Sarak 1 is the first operation as a battle group for 3 SCOTS which saw them enter the region of Maywand to carryout searches and exploit compounds of interest.

The operation was carried out in a number of phases which consisted of an air assault comprising of three waves of four CH-47 Chinooks, and two CH-53 Sea Stallions to shuttle troops to their area of operation. AH-64 Apaches and American Cobras were tasked with air cover for the initial drop.

A troop of Vikings and a mortar platoon were all so on call in the area if needed.

Maywand is split in to two key areas by a transport road running through it from north to south known as Bigfoot. Alpha Company was dropped in the North in an area called Zarzadah and Bravo Company in south in an area called Kaykak.

Pictured is a CH-46 Chinook taking off just outside of the FOB after a re-supply.

Afghanistan Countdown - Training for duty

SCARBOROUGH soldiers are preparing for a six-month deployment in Afghanistan's Helmand province, just 18 months after they were last there training members of the Afghan National Army (ANA).
The 2nd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards) have just completed a two-week training exercise – Wessex Warrior – on Salisbury Plain to prepare for the task.

Evening News reporter IAN DUNCAN travelled to Wiltshire to observe the
preparations and talk to the troops about how they felt about returning to the warzone.

IT MAY sound like a plot from a science fiction movie, but Scarborough soldiers have been using laser weapons as part of their training in the lead up to a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan.

The Tactical Effects Simulation (TES) equipment, attached to the improved standard issue SA80 rifles – as well as machine guns used by the troops – is designed to give the soldiers a realistic idea of the extent of casualties in a battlefield situation.

Troops from 2nd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards) spent two weeks training on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire – and Exercise Wessex Warrior concluded with a gruelling six-hour battle to capture the town of Copehill Down.

Lt Col David Colthup, the battalion's new commanding officer who took over in December, said the exercise had gone well and followed lower level training in Otterburn, Northumberland, in March.

"Of course there's not so much you can replicate on Salisbury Plain," he said. "It's not based around Afghanistan exactly – we aren't using Afghan names."

In the exercise the setting was the imaginary country Kakun and the enemy was the APK, not the Taliban, but the situations were very similar to those expected after 2 Yorks are deployed to Helmand Province in September as part of Operation Herrick 11.

The weapons still fired blank rounds to deafening effect during the exercise, with soldiers wearing jackets covered with laser sensors to detect the invisible beams.

Lce Cpl Darryl "Lammy" Lamb, 24, from the town centre area of Scarborough, says the training has been good and using the laser equipment had been useful. He said: "Up until we came here it wasn't really benefiting us but since we've been here it's more Herrick orientated.

"The laser equipment just starts beeping and tells you of all sorts of injuries. I've been hit a few times. It just beeps and it does your head in."

During the exercise soldiers from the Polish Army took the role of the Afghan National Army (ANA), with the language barrier proving difficult, according to 20-year-old Private Tom Pashby who is also from Scarborough.

He said: "They are keen. With the ANA I'll know certain phrases but with the Poles it's a lot harder. You know what things to say and what signals to use. It's body language as well. This is just brushing up on your skills."

Private Pashby said using the equipment was similar to the game of Laserquest or paintball. "You have to act like it's real and you have to go through the procedures," he said.

Capt Andy Bell, who is originally from Reading and the commander of B company, said the TES system added realism because officers had to take into consideration the evacuation of casualties.

Cpl Andrew Jackson, 33, from Windsor Crescent in Bridlington, said the laser kit was a lot better than the older equipment they used to use. He said: "The older stuff used to just go off."

He added that it also warned of near misses. He said: "We've had close calls from indirect fire, rockets and mortars. It depends how close you are to the impact point and it also gives you an idea of casualties."

Lce Cpl Onur Caglar, 24, from the South Cliff area of Scarborough, said it had been a tough exercise. He said: "It's pushing us to our limits seeing how we can work under pressure.

"They need to know how well we can work under pressure."

Reporter Laura Jones reflects on her time in Helmand Province

By Laura Jones
I HAD seen the TV news and read about it in newspapers, but nothing could have prepared me for the unnerving reality that is frontline Afghanistan.
Understanding the mission to bring peace to this troubled land was one thing, but trying to work out why people put their lives on the line for it is another. I was going to find out at first hand.

As I stepped outside the terminal building at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, to take a phone call I saw soldiers lined up, pacing backwards and forwards talking to loved ones.

Parents, partners, children, relatives, friends all on the other end of the phones sending their love and well wishes through the airwaves, worried sick that their nearest and dearest were about to enter one of the most volatile countries on earth.

Their eyes spoke volumes. Sad looks and emotional smiles washed over the faces of the men and women, and even my eyes filled with tears, knowing my friends and family were at home worrying about my safety, but for very different reasons.

I settled into my seat on the plane, all strapped down with no way out and suddenly the realisation that I was heading into one of the world's most unpredictable war zones hit me.

There was an eerie silence on the plane, and it dawned on me that these brave young men and women were about to dedicate six months of their lives to fight and work in one of the most dangerous and unpredictable places on earth.

They may have been flying out as young and naive but they would return as adults.

It was a one way ticket to uncertainty where nothing was sure, not even the next sunset.

Touch down at Kandahar Afghanistan and we hit a wall of heat and were immediately under threat.

While still in the plane a rocket had hit 50 feet away from us and the surreal experience soon hit me with a thud.

Literally. The air raid siren blasted out, someone shouted "down" and as I thrust my head between my knees I closed my eyes and wondered what on earth I had let myself in for.

As the troops were spilt up and deployed to their various posts, the mood shifted and faces that just hours ago had me heart-wrenched, had turned stern, serious and focused. The job had begun.

As Hercules planes flew troops into the hell of Helmand Province, it was clear that many had resigned themselves to living without their loved ones and without the comfort of home; to cope with brutal fighting and harsh living conditions, surviving on rations for more than 160 days.

We had arrived two weeks behind the Welsh Guards who were already at the forward operating bases in south central Helmand.

Soldiers are living in oppressive 30-man bases that are bang in the centre of Taliban country – set up in abandoned enclaves in the Afghan countryside far away from western civilisation and surrounded by enemy fighters with an insatiable hunger to kill.

It was hard to gauge what life was really like, but as a Welsh Guard had been injured and later died the day that I arrived I started to understand the unpredictability of a live theatre of war and the necessity for back up as the fighting began to heat up.

Enduring the crippling heat when every pore is clogged with dust and dirt from the appallingly dry conditions just adds to the harsh realities of war, the only respite coming in the tepid droplets of army issue solar showers.

Those just returned from the frontline couldn't be more positive, that even in the harsh environment, people's morale was stronger than ever.

They have no choice but to bond with each other and it was evident that frontline fighting had turned them into a band of blood brothers.

"You stick together, you have to know that the men behind you, you can trust and that they could and would do anything for you," said Signaller Rachel Jones, who the only woman at a patrol base in Nad-e-ali.

"You can come under fire, you can see your friends being hurt and it's hard to switch off, of course it is, but we make an effort to sit around after every patrol, even if nothing has happened to talk about it and get everything out in the open."

At the end of a patrol a soldier told me that after he has talked to his comrades about the day, he likes to sit and reflect by watching the flames that heat his rations.

He told me that when he looks at the flames, "the world just fades away".

This escapism is a single but crucial piece of armoury if a soldier is to survive in Afghanistan.

There have to be light-hearted moments to balance the horror and it was good to see them laugh and have fun in their own version of "Afghan Idol" performing for their mates on the edge of danger.

Reminders of home also help the troops to escape their surroundings.

Needless to say, post is a lifeline for everyone in the enemy's eyeline.

Messages of love from their partners, admiration from their children and respect from their friends, soldiers told me that it makes what they're doing seem worthwhile.

The vulnerability of these men and women could not be more apparent than when a life is lost in battle.

So far 158 lives have been lost as a result of the fighting in Afghanistan.

The camaraderie, the support and the friendships that are built on a base is only shattered when someone is killed and I saw this first hand when I attended a vigil at Camp Bastion.

As the flags flew at half mast, hundreds of soldiers bowed their heads in unison and the four men who died fighting for their country were honoured and remembered for their dedication and for their sacrifice.

It was then that the realities of war hit me and I realised that these men had died to protect all of us, particularly the Afghan people.

During my stay I was given the unique opportunity to meet some of these beleaguered people.

The gratitude in the eyes of the children said it all.

Only five days into my journey I was longing to be home again.

To be able to walk outside my front door and not have to wear a bullet proof vest.

Not to have to lie in my bed and hear the sound of mortar bombs destroying villages, homes and families.

To not wake up with the smell of cordite in the air – to breathe fresh clean air, to drink clean water, to be educated, to be accepted and to be free.

As I left the intense fighting and the soaring temperatures of Afghanistan it was with a war wound in my soul that will not heal until our servicemen and woman are also safely back home.

Afghanistan left me humbled and probably changed for the rest of my life.

Regiment 'overwhelmed' by welcome - BBC

Thousands of people have lined the streets of a Monmouthshire town to pay tribute to an Army regiment which has returned from Afghanistan.

More than 400 soldiers and officers from the 1st Battalion The Rifles marched through Chepstow in their desert combat uniforms.

Commanding officer Lt Col Joe Cavanagh, said his soldiers were "overwhelmed" to find around 5,000 lining the streets.

The regiment is based at the nearby Beachley Barracks.

Lt Col Cavanagh added the occasion was an emotional one as eight soldiers from the Rifles' battle group lost their lives during the deployment in Helmand province.

These were Rifleman Stuart Nash, Corp Richard Robinson, Corp Daniel Nield, L/Corp Stephen Kingscott, Sgt Chris Reed, Rifleman Jamie Gunn, L/Corp Paul Upton and Corp Tom Gaden.

Lt Col Cavanagh said: "We thought that there would be hundreds of people there but in fact there were thousands.

"We were overwhelmed with the number of people that turned out to support us. This was the formal homecoming for us.

"We have had lots of informal ones since we came back from Afghanistan but this was the town and the people of Chepstow welcoming us home."

He added: "It was quite an emotional march with the sound of the crowd cheering. It was a wonderful occasion but it was obviously tinged with sadness because of the eight soldiers we have lost."
The mayor of Chepstow Henry Ashby said the cheers during the march could be heard for miles.

"It was absolutely amazing," he said.

"I think the whole of the town turned out. We think there could have been 5,000 people there as it was at least six deep at the side of the road.

"I think the cheering would have been heard from as far away as the racecourse which is miles away from the town centre."

He added: "We asked the regiment because they have only recently moved here and we thought it would be nice as a mark of respect to say 'welcome home."'

After the march, the soldiers were presented with the Operation Herrick medal in the presence of the Duke of Kent, the Royal Colonel of 1st Battalion The Rifles.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Inside a freed Taliban town - BBC

The Pakistani army says it is making progress in its operations against Taliban fighters in the Swat valley, and the neighbouring districts of Buner and Dir.

The BBC's Haroon Rashid is one of the first journalists to see the impact of the fighting in Buner and he reports from a checkpoint in Ambela, where the military is claiming victory.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Laura Jones on a mission which is much more than fighting Taleban

Laura Jones travelled to the troubled Helmand province in Afghanistan not only to meet our troops but to gain an understanding of the violent and volatile situation and of what the future holds for the Afghan people.
Last week the Leader published her daily diary from the country which is a crossroads between the Middle East and Asia.

Today she reflects on her time and experiences there.

AFGHANISTAN and its people have suffered three decades of unrest.

Since the country became a key battleground in the Cold War, the people of the landlocked nation have been subjected to a series of conflicts, and there is still no end in sight.

After the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, the country, then led by the Taleban, was seen as a 'cradle of terrorism', and US attacks ensued.

After only three months of fighting the Bonn Agreement was drawn up on December 5, 2001, and the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) began its mission of re-creating the state of Afghanistan in a bid to give power and security back to its people.

The moment I arrived at Camp Bastion, the military hub of Operation Herrick, it was clear to me that the people of Afghanistan will not be without war for a long time to come.

As foundations are laid and permanent structures are constructed, as roads are surfaced and the airfield stretches to capacity, the longevity of the campaign becomes apparent.

Soldiers I spoke to had already been booked for tours in 2011 and 2013, as the ISAF's mission for Afghan security becomes larger, more serious and more intense each day.

The 550 1st Battalion Welsh Guards arrived at Camp Bastion a little over a fortnight ago and I met commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, the man responsible for battle groups currently occupying five of the remote forward operating bases across Helmand province.

The Welsh troops arrived at a key period in the Afghan calendar, as insurgent activity hotted up.

Not only was it the end of the harvest season, it was also the last week for candidates to put themselves forward for the presidential elections, and fighting was set to increase tenfold in the next few weeks.

But Lt Cnl Thorneloe told me he has confidence in his troops and in the ISAF mission to suppress insurgents and to increase security in Helmand.

Lt Cnl Thorneloe said: "The Welsh Guards are the best trained for the mission they have ever been and in my 17 years in the army we have never been this well focused and prepared for what we are doing.

"The Welsh Guards battle group operate in the centre south of Helmand and there is obviously a limit to what we can do. Our area where we patrol has half of the population of Helmand in it, which is significant in terms of how we operate here.

"Providing security is challenging, and we are a busy battle group. There is some demanding fighting but that is just the nature of the beast."

With little known about the numbers of insurgent fighters, the 550 Welsh Guards out on regular patrols are being stretched to capacity as the scale of the operations increases every day.

More than 8,000 British troops have been trying to secure the population centres either side of the Helmand River that cuts through the province.

But because of insufficient troop strength, brave men in their modest numbers often conduct operations only to pull back to their base, leaving the population exposed.

Lt Cnl Thorneloe admitted to me that more US forces will be 'really helpful' to 'spread the footprint' within Helmand and increase the security of 60 percent of the population in the south of Afghanistan even further.

It is hoped that the new US troops will make it possible to expand that to 90 per cent by the end of the summer fighting season.

In between, they expect a 'bloody summer' as the huge new US contingent deploys into southern areas firmly under the sway of militants.

Before the ISAF forces came into Afghanistan, two million people had been killed in the fighting and six million of the 30 million population were forced to flee their homes and become refugees.

When the British were first sent to Helmand three years ago, it was billed as a humanitarian mission to protect development projects. But since then they have been involved in some of their most intense fighting since the Korean War 50 years ago.

Soldiers must live out on the front line and put their lives in their comrades' hands.

In these small bases, they face some of the toughest living conditions for British soldiers anywhere in the world. They sleep in 12 man tents, cope with primitive outdoor washing facilities and eat boil-in-a-bag rations.

And with temperatures soaring above 44 degrees C the day I arrived, the men face a harsh battle, not only with the enemy, but with the elements.

Captain John Bethell, intelligence officer for the Welsh Guards, said: "This is the nature of a counter-insurgency campaign – foot patrols are the most effective way to combat the enemy.

"But when we talk about insurgency we are not talking about an informed army, we are talking about hardcore foreign fighters who take part in terrorist acts.

"We have seen a small backlash from small arms attacks but the majority of the attacks are now improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

"The aim of our patrols is to gather information about their activity and their plans. They are a credible enemy, not a ragtag militia and we are aware of this and are acting effectively towards it."

Patrolling in these conditions, wearing heavy body armour and carrying machine guns, radios, batteries and ammunition, is hard enough without having to worry about the Taleban.

While I was out in Afghanistan, I had the opportunity to break from the security and go out on one of these patrols with Four Mercian Company and even though I was in an armoured vehicle, the heat, which topped 112 degrees F, pushed my body to the limit.

As I drove out of the gates of Camp Bastion, over the barren desert lands of southern Afghanistan and into the sweltering villages of Helmand, I started to gain an understanding of the scale of the mission here and the immediacy of the aim.

As I stood, surrounded by vast poppy fields and mud compounds, I realised that with the battle against insurgents came a battle against the drugs trade, tribalism and religion, all of which seemed far out of even the Afghans' hands because of years of built-up tradition and pride.

Since it began seven years ago, Operation Herrick has been costly in both the lives lost and the money spent here. But Lt Cnl Thorneloe is positive the mission is not in vain.

He said: "The Taleban have a saying, 'you may have the watches but we have the time' and I really don't sense that with Herrick.

"They can offer brutal stability in a country which is tribalistic but the reason we are here is to create and maintain security. I am confident that in our time here we will continue the upward trajectory progress.

"We are grateful for the support from home and we are aware of the sacrifice our families make back home and we miss them terribly.

"The people of Wales have embraced what we are doing here tremendously, and facing these enormous hardships and dangers is nothing without their support.

"They should be hugely proud of what these people have achieved out here - they really hit the ground running. We have had some difficult situations and everybody, no matter who, have stood up to the test, and there is a great sense of camaraderie about the whole thing. The Welsh Guards still face a considerable threat here and we have to be prepared for that.

"But morale is sky high and this is a mission people believe in.
"They say that war brings out the best and the worst in people, but it has certainly brought out the best in the Welsh Guards."