Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Colour Sergeant Mike Saunders, 2 MERCIAN, blogs from Helmand - Part 9

Greetings friends and readers at the Marwood, Worcester!
Before I start this week’s Blog I would like to invite you to a party! For those of you who are able to get to Worcester my good friends at my favourite pub the Marwood are having a BBQ and drinks starting at 1500hrs on Sunday the 24th May (for those who have Sat Nav the post code is WR1 1JL).

As well as a chance to meet some of my loyal readers and promoters you can take part in a raffle in aid of the troops who are serving here in Afghanistan and enjoy one of the finest eating experiences in Worcester at the same time. Any money raised will be used to make the lives of those troops right on the front line a little more comfortable. This is a cause that I believe in and one that I will be putting my hand in my pocket for. In addition if you are a business that has any items that may improve someone’s life far away from home however big or small, please give generously as those who are serving here have given, as I have heard said “all gave some, some gave all”.

In last weeks blog we talked about Al who I am glad to say I have spoken to and is recovering well, he still has a fair way to go and has had more operations to fix his arm, our thoughts remain with him and his family. It is a mark of the man that he would not discuss himself, but rather asked after the welfare of his troop’s who are well at present and I am sure wish him a speedy recovery.

In a land of great natural contrasts it is perhaps unsurprising that the insurgents who fight here are at times like chameleons, blending in and out of the background seemingly at will. The Helmand province itself is bisected by the Helmand River which in itself is a miracle if man shaping the landscape with the aid of nature. Generations have used and diverted the river too irrigate crops and bring life to the scorched desert. In doing so, they have inadvertently made one of the fiercest combat areas known to any soldier today.

The “Green Zone” aptly named for the tall crops that spring from the freshly irrigated flood planes are a labyrinth of hidden tracks and paths that act as conduits by which the insurgent forces survive, hide and communicate. You will not find these tracks plotted on any map, they are difficult to place even from the air and they provide some small sanctuary for the forces we have come to oppose.

In the films soldiers see the enemy far in the distance, line up their shots and take out the bad guys. Even here sometimes that is possible but very rarely. Often the insurgents are only visible for long enough to start an engagement and will then melt away only to re-appear and fire from another location. In the green zone the two apposing forces have literally walked into each other and have had fierce battles at ranges less than ten meters.

When you engage an enemy from distance in a way you can become partially detached from the combat as if it were somewhat less real. From those who have spoken to me before, who have had to make split second life or death decisions and fought a combatant from very close, this is not a luxury they have been afforded. To be close enough to smell and see every detail of a person you are engaging in a life or death confrontation must be terrifying and require both bravery and training. As an Infantry unit we have young men from where you live, who will experience this sternest of tests of determination and aggression and you will probably never hear about it from them.

The insurgents are well aware of the aggression and determination of your soldiers and I am sure that it does not sit comfortably with them as they try and work out ways to engage us. To do this more often than not, they will choose to plant an explosive device or set an ambush; anything to try and bridge the gap between our fighting skill and technology. That is not to say the insurgents are without courage or ability. At times they show sound tactical appreciation and are able to orchestrate complicated attacks with several firing points and several types of weapon system, from the ubiquitous AK47 to heavy machine guns and rocket propelled grenades.

The main weapon in the insurgent armoury is knowledge of the land and knowledge of the people, as has been said before “to truly know a people you must live among them” and by this I believe our inevitable need for security will always hamper our true perception and interaction with the people of this land.

It could be said that the tactics of the insurgents has given him unforeseen results, by using improvised explosive devices he has forced us to protect ourselves with Armour and by doing so we have inadvertently placed another layer between ourselves and the Afghan people.

I forget where it was but I once heard a debate on which sound could be considered the noise of the 21st century. The noise of planes, trains, music and many others were offered, but one of the front runners was the sound of armour be it tanks or smaller armoured vehicles. I took time to reflect on this and tried as you might, to put myself into the shoes of a person, who going about my normal daily business is confronted with the smell, sound and power that such vehicles filled with grim faced soldiers can muster. It is not a pleasant thought and definitely not one that brings to mind “a force for good”.

It is fair in return to this argument to point out that this was never our intention and that we are only using these methods as a platform to enable us to give the Afghans what they so desperately need. Those grim faced men are not here to conquer the people of Afghanistan, but rather they are a part of the way by which the Afghans may find peace. It is a great truth that in the search for peace one must be willing to go into battle and equally in the pursuit of freedom we must be willing to impose order.

The insurgent force capitalises on our use of force in an attempt to portray us as a force of occupation, hell bent on imposing our Western values and practices on an ancient and peaceful society. They would have people believe that we have come to Afghanistan not to offer peace and freedom but to repress and squash the Afghan tribal identity.

The answers to these allegations are self evident; any force willing to use its own people as human shields is morally bankrupt. Any organisation that routinely physically represses and coerces its own community is worthy only of destruction and failure. Ultimately if you do not represent the people and the vast majority of the population do not recognise your claim to their allegiance, your motivations must be founded on something else. In this case the insurgent pursuit of power is based on the desire to rule by fear, for if you can keep a population in fear you can force them to bend to your will, the cornerstone of any dictatorship. The insurgents do not wish the Afghan people to have the choice in what they do as to keep them in primitive conditions and fear they are easier to control.

Elections later this year will give the clearest indication of how far we have moved forward in Afghanistan. If people vote in numbers there can be no argument as to the direction the Country should go and a vote is the ultimate expression of self determination.

Politics is not my strong point, but as a soldier here I would like to see the Afghan people force forward their own agenda. In doing so, they would say with the clearest voice to the insurgents that the days of violence and intimidation are numbered only by how long they can survive and hide for.

In the next issue I would like to talk more about the types of combat we experience here sometimes on a daily basis. But until then readers as always stay safe and be good to one another.

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