Wednesday, May 20, 2009
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."