Friday, July 31, 2009

Gunners arrive home

Members of B Flight, 63 Squadron, The Queen’s Colour Squadron (QCS) RAF Regiment return home to RAF Uxbridge after a 4 month detachment to Afghanistan.

Greeted by family and friends the squadron now begins preparing for their parade through the town of Uxbridge.

A and B Flight return soon. After that it will be the last time that RAF Uxbridge will see QCS return from detachment as they will soon be moving across to RAF Northolt.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Mapping Operation Panther's Claw - BBC

Click on the map for a larger view

Defence chiefs in Afghanistan have hailed the first stage of an operation to secure an area of Helmand province a success.

Ten soldiers were killed in Operation Panther's Claw, which was aimed at securing an area the size of the Isle of Wight against the insurgent Taliban forces.

1. 19 June: 350 soldiers from The Black Watch launch an air assault on a Taliban drugs bazaar and secure a key crossing point on the Nahr-E-Bughra canal.

2. 25 June: 1st Battalion Welsh Guards push up Shamalan canal securing 14 more crossing points, cutting off the insurgents' supply route

3. 2-8 July: Danish Battle Group leaves Camp Price and advances into enemy territory of Spin Masjed, securing two further canal crossing points.

4. 10-14 July: The Light Dragoons Battle Group move into target area defined as "Panther's Claw Triangle" pushing insurgents towards Shamalan canal. The Afghan National Army, assisted by the 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment follow, securing checkpoints and compounds.

5. 10 July: The Black Watch fly 160 troops into Babaji region, while The Light Dragoons Battle Group continue to advance across Spin Masjed towards Babaji.

6. 20 July: Final air assault by The Black Watch combined with push by 2nd Battalion The Royal Welsh south-west from Spin Masjed to secure area against Taliban.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Angel of Operation Panther's Claw

Brave squaddie fought at the very heart of Operation Panther’s Claw

Standing just five feet tall, Private Kerry Smith is one of the smallest soldiers in the British Army, but the challenges she has faced over the last three weeks have been enormous.

24-year-old combat medic Kerry has been at the very heart of Operation Panchai Palang or Panther’s Claw, the British military operation to clear one of the last remaining Taliban strongholds in Helmand Province.

In sweltering temperatures often topping 50 degrees, Kerry accompanied soldiers from The 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment into fierce fighting through a rabbit warren of mud compounds and across rugged terrain, as they tackled Taliban fighters at every turn.

Despite her small stature, Pte Smith has been in the thick of it, holding her own with the men of 2 Mercian, who’ve been involved in some of the toughest fighting yet seen in Afghanistan.

“The first few days of Operation Panchai Palang were the hardest. We were coming under fire all day and were suffering lots of casualties from IEDs and RPGs. It was certainly very hard work.”

Kerry, who is from Dunscroft near Doncaster, spent 28 weeks learning her life saving skills before she deployed to Afghanistan and her experiences on Operation Panchai Palang. Her job as one of two combat medics looking after 35 soldiers in the field has seen her provide life-saving treatment to some of the most badly wounded soldiers in the moments immediately after injury.

“Before I came here I’d never done this for real; only in training. Since I’ve been in Afghanistan I’ve dealt with shrapnel wounds, missing limbs, head injuries and shock. I’d never seen anything like this before and, if I’m honest, I thought I’d freeze. But I didn’t. I just got stuck in and my training took over.”

With a Bergen not much smaller than Kerry herself, she showed extreme levels of fitness, sticking by the unit through thick and thin and providing medical treatment to those that really needed it.

“To be honest one of the most difficult things for me has been carrying all the kit; it’s so heavy! My pack weighs about 20kg and then I have my body armour and weapon to carry too. All together it’s almost as big as me,” she said laughing.

Treating her comrades has proved challenging for Kerry, but they have not been her only patients. Whilst on patrol recently Kerry had her first experience of treating a local Afghan female from a compound they’d just liberated from insurgents.

“The other soldiers cleared the route ahead so that I could get to the patient’s home safely. The threat of IEDs is always around. Because I was a female medic, the men of the village were OK with me treating the women.”

After treating the woman for a throat infection, the patrol were soon on their way again. Kerry said: It was an interesting experience. There’s such a lot of variety in this job. At the end of the day we are here to deal with any medical issues. Anyway that I can help, I will.

“This tour has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I’ve grown much more confident over the past few months. It’s very rewarding.”

Operation Panchai Palang began on 19th June 2009, with an air assault along a canal north of Lashkar Gah. The Light Dragoons Battlegroup, which two companies of 2 Mercian are attached to, have been responsible for sweeping across the Babiji area, clearing towns and villages and securing them prior to the Presidential and Provincial elections next month.

Army dog and handler save life then bust deadly bomb makers

A dog handler serving in Afghanistan not only saved the life of a soldier who had been critically injured by an IED blast but then went on to trace and apprehend the bomb makers with the help of his canine comrade.

Lance Corporal Lee Edwards, 27, and his dog Molly were just three metres away from the near fatal blast which threw both of them into the air.

The pair had been tasked to support an IED search team along a road close to Sangin when night fell on the 28th June. Lance Corporal Edwards said: “We knew that the road was heavily laden with IEDs. It had already claimed casualties and it was our job to assist in finding the devices, both for the benefit of the local population and also to prevent further British casualties.”

But a short time into the task, things went badly wrong. “One of the soldiers stood on a pressure plate IED. It was very close to where I was stood with Molly and the force of it blew us both into the air. When I landed I was dazed for a moment and my hearing was badly affected. I could just about hear screaming through the smoke and dust. I knew there were multiple casualties.”

Lance Corporal Edwards sprung into action, dusting himself off and moving towards where the explosion had happened. In the pitch black, with a shattered head torch and night vision goggles, he scrambled around in the dark, struggling to find casualties. As his colleague sent up an illuminating flare Lee quickly identified the most seriously injured through the flash of light: “I ran over to him. He was in a really bad way. He had lost three limbs and was losing a lot of blood. I applied tourniquets to each of his wounds to stem the blood flow. With the help of field dressings and a blood clotting agent, I managed to stop the bleeding.”

Despite his catastrophic injuries the soldier survived, thanks to Lance Corporal Edwards’ quick action: “I just stayed calm and put my training into practice and it worked.” The casualties were evacuated by helicopter for further treatment while Lee and Molly returned to the patrol base for the night.

But their work was not done. The following day, they carried on with the task of clearing the road and moving through compounds identifying and disposing of a number of Taliban death traps left in their path. As they moved into a compound close to where the explosion had happened the previous day, Molly perked up.

“I knew that she was onto something and I waited for her to show me where the explosive material was. She led me to an IED making kit, probably similar if not the same as the one that would have produced the IED that had hit our patrol the day before. There were four people with the IED making kit who were arrested immediately and flown out. It felt good to know that we were addressing the source of the problem; not just the IEDs themselves.”

Lance Corporal Edwards is currently serving with 101 Military Working Dog Unit based in Aldershot. He joined the unit after transferring from the 1st Battalion The Duke of Lancasters (Regt) last year. “I just fancied a change. I’ve always wanted to work with animals and I knew being a dog handler would present a whole new range of challenges. I’m very lucky because only about 15 out of 500 who apply get in. Sangin is a particularly challenging place to be posted because of the high number of IEDs planted in and around the town.”

Lee is four months into his tour of Afghanistan and spends the majority of his time on patrol with Molly searching routes, compounds and emergency HLS. He is proud of Molly’s achievements so far: “It is very hot weather for her but she is a typical English Springer Spaniel. She loves it and searches ten to the dozen. I have to stop sometimes to rest her, because she won’t stop herself!

“She has had a very successful tour. She has found loads of IEDs; we’re in double figures now and she also helped to detain the four bomb makers. The lads love having us both with them on the ground. She is a really vital part of our task force. She is really is saving lives.”

Lee, who has been in the army for eight and a half years, is looking forward to getting home to see his mum and brother in Wigan. “I head home in two months and I’m really looking forward to seeing my family and getting down my local pub, The Moon Under the Water in Wigan. I still think about the guy who was injured by the IED that day. I’d never met him before and I hope that, when I get back home, I might be able to check up on him and see how he’s doing.”

Trooper Phillip Lawrence killed in Afghanistan

It is with deep regret that the Ministry of Defence must confirm that Trooper Phillip Lawrence was killed in Afghanistan on Monday 27 July 2009.

Trooper Lawrence from The Light Dragoons died in an explosion whilst travelling in a SCIMITAR, or CVR(T), vehicle, as part of a patrol in Lashkar Gah district, Helmand province, while helping ensure the security of an area earlier cleared as part of Operation PANCHAI PALANG. He had volunteered to step in to drive for another Troop to fill a temporary manning gap when his vehicle was hit by an explosion, mortally wounding him.

Trooper Phillip Lawrence

Tpr Lawrence from Birkenhead, was born 31 March 1987, and enlisted into the Army in July 2005. After completing recruit training in Jan 2006 he conducted his Royal Armoured Corps training in Bovington before joining The Light Dragoons.

Joining C Squadron from the outset, he deployed almost immediately on his first tour of Afghanistan in late 2006, where he quickly learnt his trade in the most demanding conditions. He was a talented, reliable and dedicated soldier.

Tpr Lawrence deployed to Afghanistan this year as part of Emsdorf Troop, a Fire Support Group attached to A Company 2 MERCIAN. For the first three months of the tour he had operated on foot and in Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked) in Garmsir, before the Battle Group deployed to the Lashkar Gah district.

Always the first to volunteer for anything, Tpr Lawrence made a name for himself across the Regiment for not only being a surprisingly good dancer, but simply being the most cheerful, helpful and friendly person you could hope to meet. You could not help but like him, and he was universally popular as a result. He was a devoted husband to his wife Amy, and doting father to their baby daughter Jessica.

Tpr Lawrence's family paid the following tribute:

"No words can ever explain the loss, he was our Knight in Shining Armour. Husband, Dad, Son, Brother, Grandson, Son-in-law, Brother-in-law, Friend and in the early years The Man of The House a pleasure to be around.

"The Light has been turned off in our world but his memories will always live on in his precious daughter who he thought the world of.

"He lived for the Army and died for his country. A Hero in everybody's world he will be missed by everyone always in our hearts you will never be forgotten. Rest in Peace."

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Warrant Officer Class 2 Sean Upton killed in Afghanistan

It is with deep regret that the Ministry of Defence must confirm that Warrant Officer Class 2 Sean Upton was killed in Afghanistan on Monday 27 July 2009.

Warrant Officer Class 2 Upton from 5th Regiment Royal Artillery was killed as a result of an explosion whilst conducting a foot patrol in Sangin district, Helmand province. He was serving as second-in-command of Sangin's Police Mentoring Team.

Warrant Officer Class 2 Sean Upton

WO2 Upton was born on 29 November 1973 in Nottinghamshire. He enlisted into the Army in June 1990. A career Royal Artillery weapon locator specialising in RADAR systems, he served operationally in Iraq, Northern Ireland, Cyprus and Bosnia, and previously in Afghanistan.

He was a natural leader and intensely professional soldier who rose sharply through the ranks, quickly gaining trust from, and the confidence of, colleagues wherever he served.

At the start of Operation HERRICK 10 he commanded the Counter Fire elements at Kandahar Airfield, protecting it from insurgent rocket and mortar fire. It was the sort of job in which he revelled, needing a sharp technical intellect and a calm and decisive manner he was yet again superbly effective.

On transfer to Sangin district, Helmand province he approached his duty with the same energy and intelligent attention to detail that characterised his career.

WO2 Upton was one of the central figures that make 53 (Louisburg) Battery so effective. He was absolutely key to the life and ethos of the unit, whether on Operations or at home.

Always approachable, and hugely capable, he inadvertently became a role model to a generation of junior soldiers. His character was self-effacing and generous, and he lived his life through an unimpeachable set of values.

Throughout the build-up to this tour WO2 Upton was always at the heart of training activity; cajoling and encouraging soldiers, and sometimes prodding the junior officers and imparting wisdom in the diplomatic and avuncular manner required; he seemed always to be in exactly the right place.

His popularity across the wider Regiment marked him as a man whose company was always fun and who could be relied upon to deliver; he was consequently relied upon heavily, in particular by his Battery Commander and Battery Sergeant Major.

Despite all of his professional achievements, WO2 Upton remained a devoted family man and was hugely proud of his young family; he leaves behind his wife Karen and two children Hollie and Ewan.

Lieutenant Colonel John Musgrave, Commanding Officer 5th Regiment Royal Artillery, said:

"WO2 Sean Upton was a naturally gifted soldier, the complete professional, noted for his light touch in command and dedication to his solders. He specialised in the defeat of enemy rockets and mortars – an art he had practiced in the Balkans, Iraq and on both his Afghanistan tours, always remaining calm under fire, and decisive and effective in his response.

"His rapid progression through the ranks was testimony to what would have been the brightest future in the Army. 5th Regiment has lost a truly dedicated and exemplary soldier and man, who was a role model to all he met and worked with; always living and working to the highest standards, but also always with a smile on his face and a ready laugh, true to his belief that soldiering should be a rewarding way of life.

"He will be sorely missed by the soldiers of 5th Regiment Royal Artillery and by all in the Royal Artillery who had the privilege of knowing him and working alongside him. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, particularly his wife Karen and his son, Ewan, and daughter Hollie."

Operation Panther's Claw Commanders Diaries

A final armoured thrust across enemy territory has marked the end of Operation PANTHER'S CLAW; a five-week campaign to clear one of the few remaining Taliban strongholds in Helmand province.

In a unique set of dispatches from key commanders outlining the challenges they faced during the operation - click the links below to read them on the Frontline Bloggers site:

Lt Col Stephen Cartwright, CO of The Black Watch - First air assualt into key drugs bazaar - 20 June 2009

Lt Col Doug Chalmers, CO 1st Battalion of the Welsh Guards - The Push up the Shamalan Canal - 25 June - 25 July 2009

Col Frank Lissner, Commanding Officer of the Danish Battlegroup - Siezing the entry crossings along the Nahr E Bughra Canal - 2 and 8 July 2009

Lt Col Gus Fair DSO, Commanding Officer of The Light Dragoons - The sweep across Spin Masjed and Babiji 4-8 Jul and 10-14 Jul 09

Major Nigel Crewe-Read, OC C Coy, 2 Royal Welsh - The armoured thrust through Babiji 20 – 25 JULY

Part 2 - Lt Col Stephen Cartwright, CO Black Watch - The final air assault and armoured thrust - 20-27 July 2009

Monday, July 27, 2009

VIDEO: Panther's Claw a success despite two more UK soldier deaths - ITN

Gordon Brown says Operation Panther's Claw against the Taliban in Afghanistan has been a success as two more British soldiers are confirmed dead

Armoured thrust clears final Taliban from 'Panther's Claw'

A final armoured thrust across enemy territory has marked the end of Operation PANTHER'S CLAW; a five-week campaign to clear one of the few remaining Taliban strongholds in Helmand province.

The operation, known as PANCHAI PALANG in Pashtu, has cleared and secured the area between Lashkar Gah and Gereshk, a region which is home to up to 80,000 Helmandis.

In a fiercely fought battle with the insurgents, British forces inflicted heavy losses on enemy forces, decimating their command and control structures and visibly weakening their resistance.

As the fighting subsided and insurgents fled from their hidden positions, local people started to flock back to the previously deserted towns and villages.

The final push in the five-week-long operation began in the early hours of 20 July 2009 when a mechanised Warrior company from 2nd Battalion The Royal Welsh (2 Royal Welsh) pushed south west from Spin Masjed in an armoured sweep towards the east bank of the Luy Mandah wadi.

Simultaneously, four Chinooks carrying 160 men from The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland (3 SCOTS), swooped into the Green Zone to secure nearby key ground in the west of Babiji.

One hundred and forty men from 2 Royal Welsh in a convoy of Warriors, supported by tanks from a Danish battalion, pushed through the lush green countryside in the heart of the Green Zone, while their Scottish colleagues used the element of surprise to storm across land just a short distance away.

The Royal Welsh cut through the countryside to avoid potentially lethal tracks and roadways strewn with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), linking up with 3 SCOTS who had pushed along the Babiji Road.

The battle groups encountered relatively little resistance, an indication that Taliban fighters have fled the area as their hierarchy has fallen apart following the sustained attack over the past five weeks.

Radio City: Visiting the troops in Afghanistan: Louise Martin's frontline diary

Radio City journalist Louise Martin is visiting British forces in Afghanistan, and as part of her trip will be writing a special diary for the Liverpool Echo, as well as sending back pictures and reports from the front line.

FLYING into Afghanistan was the most eerie felling I’ve ever had in my life.

All the reporters were looking at each other as we got closer thinking what on earth are we about to get into.

We flew the final leg into base on a C17, a Hercules type personel carrier, and because of that we had to wear the body armour I’ll need to get used to for the first time.

We were on board with some soldiers who have never been to a war zone before. Some of them were as young as 18, but they managed to sleep most of the way resting their heads on helmets – I was too nervous.

As we came in the lights were turned off and all the soldiers around us bowed their heads.

We are now based in Camp Bastion in Helmand Province. It is flat here and basically a desert.

We have already done a lot. We have seen how the army deal improvised explosive devices. The people we met were so brave.

We went to see the dog handling team which was fantastic and we have had a look round the medical centre. The boys there had fractured jaws and fragment injuries.

I was also really impressed that they were helping Afghan people. I saw them treat two little Afghan girls.

I am now living among 4,500 troops. Around 1,000 are American and there are some Danish here too.

Sand gets everywhere and my hair is sticking up in spikes constantly, but the men out here are so respectful.

They hold the door for me and the respect for their superiors is evident every minute. At mealtimes it is most noticeable.

In my place of work we call the canteen the zoo. But here they are quiet at mealtimes and the order is amazing.

They enjoy banter between each other and you can always hear them joking, but under that is a sense of focus.

Louise will be updating her diary regularly throughout the week.

Bombardier Craig Hopson killed in Afghanistan

It is with great regret that the Ministry of Defence must confirm that Bombardier Craig Hopson from 40th Regiment Royal Artillery (The Lowland Gunners) was killed in Afghanistan on Saturday 25 July 2009.

Bombardier Hopson was killed when the JACKAL vehicle in which he was travelling struck an Improvised Explosive Device while taking part in Operation PANCHAI PALANG.

Bombardier Hopson was part of a patrol in the Babaji area of Helmand province, tasked to recce a suitable area for a polling station in the forthcoming Afghan Presidential elections.

Bombardier Craig Hopson

Bombardier Hopson was born on 11 March 1985 in Castleford, West Yorkshire and attended Castleford High Technology College before deciding that he wanted a career in the Army.

He joined 40th Regiment Royal Artillery (the Lowland Gunners) on 28 August 2002 after completion of his Basic Training at Pirbright and Phase 2 Training at Larkhill, Wiltshire.

After an initial tour in 129 (Dragon) Battery, he was posted to 38 (Seringapatam) Battery where as an Observation Post Assistant he very quickly established himself as a core member of the team.

Having previously completed operational tours in Iraq and Cyprus, he completed Pre-Deployment Training for Afghanistan and subsequently deployed to Kandahar in March 2009 as Second in Command of a Fire Support Team, attached, with his Battery, to The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland.

Known to colleagues as 'Hoppo', Bombardier Hopson was a larger than life character and always at the centre of the action. Be it in the thick of the fight in Afghanistan on one of numerous Black Watch Operations, or back in barracks with his mates, his contribution was always characterised by good humour and the often painful honesty of a proud, steadfast Yorkshireman.

On operations, his role as Second in Command of a Fire Support Team was a vital and challenging one; the need to provide timely, accurate and overwhelming Artillery and Air Support to ISAF troops, balanced with the need to minimise collateral damage and civilian casualties can often be a difficult equilibrium to achieve.

In finding this balance, as in the technical and tactical aspects of his application of Gunnery, Bombardier Hopson excelled; he was truly in his element. A man of tremendous moral courage, he understood the consequences of his actions and the effect that they may have on the wider campaign and the people of Afghanistan, knowing that it often took more bravery to choose not to engage a target.

That he had the fortitude to apply this courageous inactivity under pressure and under fire was a mark of the man.

In addition to his considerable professional skill as a Joint Fires Controller, Bombardier Hopson was a talented sportsman, having represented the Army at Rugby League. He leaves behind his mother Lynn, partner Eleanor and their three month old daughter Amelia.

Bombardier Hopson's family paid the following tribute:

"Craig was the light in so very many lives. The light has now gone out. His family and many, many friends will love him and miss him forever. Craig the legend. Our Craig has left a hole in our lives that no one else can ever fill. He was loved so much."

Afghanistan offensive 'a success' - BBC

The commander of UK forces in Afghanistan has hailed their latest operation a success, as its first stage draws to a close.

Brig Tim Radford was "cautiously optimistic" about the future but said there was "a long way to go" to improve security in time for elections.

Twenty UK soldiers have died in Operation Panther's Claw - involving 3,000 troops - since its June launch.

Troops will now focus on holding ground won from the Taliban in recent weeks.

The offensive ends as UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband urged Afghanistan's leaders to talk to moderate Taliban members.

Armoured thrust

In a speech to Nato, Mr Miliband said a political coalition must be built which included some of the current insurgents.

The Ministry of Defence said the first stage of Operation Panther's Claw was the most heavily-militarised phase.

It ended with a final armoured thrust into former Taliban territory, clearing an area the size of the Isle of Wight.

Brig Radford said: "What we have achieved here is significant, and I am absolutely certain that the operation has been a success."

How to help Afghans defeat the insurgency - Financial Times

By David Miliband, UK Foreign Secretary

In recent weeks the debate about Afghanistan has centred on the UK military’s tactics and resources. The bravery and commitment of our forces has been remarkable, and the toll of death and injury from recent operations heavy. But the result is 80,000 to 100,000 Afghans secure from Taliban threats and violence, and able to vote in the Afghan elections on August 20.

We committed to this mission for one reason: to deny al-Qaeda a base from which to attack the world. People support this and understand that in the 1990s the Taliban authority in Afghanistan provided a convenient incubator for al-Qaeda. But people now want to know whether and how we can succeed. We can. This is how.

The insurgency we face is more complex than a single “Taliban”. Different groups operate in different areas across the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. Co-operation is opportunistic and tactical. The southern Afghan insurgency, led by members of the former Taliban government, has the most fighters and is the best organised. In the east and in Pakistan there are a variety of other factions, including ones allied to al-Qaeda.

Afghans are drawn into the insurgency for different reasons. There are soldiers paid $10 a day, narco-traffickers who want safe passage for their drugs, and those who fear the Taliban will win and so hedge their bets.

The insurgency has proved resilient, adaptable and deadly. But its weaknesses are also clear. It is a wide but shallow coalition of convenience. It is deeply unpopular: only 8 per cent of Afghans say they want the Taliban back. Its support base is limited to Pashtun areas. And it cannot take and hold territory for long against conventional forces. By the end of 2011 there will be more than 134,000 members of the Afghan army. Alongside them will be 97,000 Afghan police.

General Stanley McChrystal, head of the Nato force in Afghanistan, has explained that success is measured not by the number of Taliban killed, but the number of Afghans protected. Success against the insurgency requires legitimate local politics, formal and informal.

That explains the importance of credible elections next month. The decisions of the next Afghan government will be key. There are three major political challenges for it to address: it must divide the insurgency through the reconciliation and reintegration of former Taliban; it must reassure and support the Afghan population at large; and it must develop a constructive dialogue with Afghanistan’s neighbours.

First, Afghanistan needs a political strategy to dismantle the insurgency’s power base. Afghans need effective governors and district leaders and local governance that works with the grain of tribal structures and history. An inclusive political settlement must bring in conservative Pashtuns and separate them from the hardline Taliban, who must be pursued relentlessly.

The reintegration of former Taliban requires offering bigger incentives to switch sides and stay out of trouble, alongside tougher action against those who refuse. There are precedents: former enemies now work together in the Afghan government; former Taliban sit in the parliament.

At a local level, this means giving village elders the confidence to speak out against the Taliban. Military pressure has an important role to play – Afghans must know that they will be protected from the insurgents if they side with the government.

So the second imperative is that Nato must support the Afghan government in showing the people that they will not be deserted to Taliban retribution. We are not fighting in Afghanistan because girls were not allowed to go to school, but helping them do so will lead to a better future for Afghans. In Helmand, we are working to help build schools, provide clean water and electricity, surface roads and support agriculture. The UK Department for International Development will spend more than £500,000 in development assistance over the next four years.

Finally, Afghanistan’s neighbours must definitively accept its future as a secure country in its own right. It has long been a chessboard upon which the geopolitical struggles of others have played out. The new dialogue between Afghanistan and Pakistan is important. There are now mutually reinforcing efforts on both sides of the border, with extra troops deployed in southern Afghanistan alongside Pakistani military operations in Waziristan. This trend must be maintained and deepened, including with Afghanistan’s other neighbours.

People talk about Afghanistan as the “graveyard of empires”. But the international community, still less Britain, is not trying to create a colony. We are there to help an Afghan government dismantle the insurgency through the twin tracks of military power and political engagement. That is a necessary mission, and an achievable one.

VIDEO: CNN Reporter embedded in Helmand with US Marines

A CNN exclusive as Ivan Watson travels with the US Marines as they battle the Taliban in Afghanistan's Helmand Province.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Helmand surgeon tells of her fight to save lives - Telegraph

By Sean Rayment, Defence Correspondent

Every morning – usually just after 7am – the pager strapped to her waist bleeps into life, warning the trauma team at the British Army’s field hospital in Helmand that a severely injured patient is inbound on a Chinook helicopter

The wounded are often young soldiers, usually the victims of an improvised explosive device (IED), with one or more of their limbs missing.

In recent weeks the casualty flow has been unrelenting, as British and Nato troops involved in Operation Panchai Palang – meaning Panther’s Claw – battle with the Taliban in central Helmand. Since the start of this month, 21 soldiers have been killed and dozens more have sustained life-changing injuries.

On Thursday, the MoD is due to publish new casualty figures which will reveal the number of soldiers killed during the first half of this month. It will include those injured on July 10, the worst single day for British forces so far. In one 24-hour period eight soldiers were killed and more than 30 were wounded, some severely, in a variety of attacks around the province.

While front-line troops are tackling the Taliban with bullet and bayonet, back in the safety of Camp Bastion, medics are waging a different but equally important daily battle: trying to keep alive soldiers whose injuries are so severe that just a few years ago they would have proved fatal.

Speaking from the field hospital in Camp Bastion, Surg Cdr Stapley told The Sunday Telegraph: “The demands are constant. Every day, we usually have a trauma call in the morning, first thing, that is when we are notified a casualty is coming in. Casualties are a daily occurrence, sometimes two, three, four times a day.”

The Royal Navy surgeon, who has completed three tours of Iraq and two in Afghanistan, says the injuries now being sustained by the troops are “horrific”.

“The injuries have become more severe than when I was here first, in 2007,” she said. “Each one is horrific but my experience helps me deal with them both professionally and psychologically. The injuries can be shocking but your main aim is to treat the patient so you have to put that behind you and you have to treat the patient and hopefully they will survive.”

In the past 10 days more than 157 people have been treated at the hospital for conditions ranging from battle shock and heat exhaustion to amputations and bullet wounds.

Mass casualty events are now common. Surg Cdr Stapley recalls that she worked for 33 hours over a 35-hour period shortly after arriving in Afghanistan five weeks ago. “We were having continuous casualties coming in every few hours and some of those required immediate surgery. Events like that are not unusual here, the time went actually very quickly – you do get use to working long hours.”

Surg Cdr Stapley’s decisions often mean the difference between life and death. If the victim’s limbs are badly damaged, she has to decide, and quickly, whether or not the arm and leg can be saved. “In many cases that decision has already been made for you because you are often dealing with a traumatic amputation,” said the orthopaedic surgeon who joined the Royal Navy in 1987.

Much has changed since 2007, when Surg Cdr Stapley, who has a long-term partner, first arrived in Helmand. Then the medical centre was housed in a tent. Today troops are treated by medics from Britain, Denmark and the United States in an air-conditioned field hospital with eight intensive care beds and two wards that can treat 25 patients.

The nature of the fighting in Helmand has also changed in that time.

Gone are the pitched battles with the Taliban which typified combat between 2006 and 2008, these days troops are targeted by suicide bombers and booby traps.

Those who survive are often left crippled, blind or brain damaged. Since 2006, 52 servicemen and women have lost one or more limbs, six have been paralysed and another seven have lost the use of one or both eyes.

Hundreds more have sustained lesser injuries and have often returned to the battlefield days, some times hours, later. Treatment at the medical centre is not restricted to members of Nato. The Afghan national army and police are also treated, as are civilians who get caught up in the fighting.

“We treat the Taliban as well, if required. The Taliban are just normal people. Many of them are grateful, many are scared. I don’t know what they have been told [about] what might happen in one of our hospitals but we treat every patient the same and to the best of our abilities and I think they are surprised that they get such treatment, and I hope they take that message with them.”

Away from the blood and gore of the operating theatre, Surg Cdr Stapley relaxes by going to the gym, eating or reading a book. “But most of all I try and sleep – that’s pretty important.”

Friday, July 24, 2009

Replacement troops deploying to Afghanistan

125 British Service personnel are to be deployed to Afghanistan to help sustain the progress of current operations following recent casualty rates, Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth has announced today, Friday 24 July 2009.

Since deploying to Afghanistan in April 2009, 19 (Light) Brigade has been engaged in a number of high intensity operations.

Most recently, Operation PANCHAI PALANG has seen British forces engaged in hard fighting in an effort to bring security to parts of Helmand previously under Taliban influence.

The operation has been extremely successful, driving fighters out of towns and providing the necessary security that will allow Afghan families to vote in next month's presidential elections.

But this intense period has resulted in a significant number of casualties, both due to enemy action and the harsh terrain in which they operate.

Today's announcement follows requests by commanders on the ground to enable them to sustain the required operational effectiveness for the remainder of their tour, in particular, through the election period.

The personnel, who will deploy from Monday 27 July, will comprise of a company from 3rd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment (Duke of Wellington's), specialist counter Improvise Explosive Device personnel from 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment The Royal Logistic Corps, and members of 19th Regiment Royal Artillery.

They will deploy for the remainder of the current 19 Light Brigade tour, due to end in October when 11 Light Brigade take over.

The company from 3rd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment (Duke of Wellington's) had previously been scheduled to deploy to Iraq. But with the mission in Basra now winding down they are no longer required and are instead available for Afghanistan duties.

All troops deploying have received the appropriate training and personal equipment, like all troops do, for conducting operations in Afghanistan.

This deployment will ensure specialist skills, notably counter-IED operations, are not lost to commanders.

Next stop Helmand: On manoeuvres with the British Army - Independent

The men of 11 Light Brigade are preparing for a mission from which some may not return.

Kim Sengupta joins them on Salisbury Plain

The task is to scramble into the searing heat and swirling dust of Afghanistan on a few minutes' notice and fly into combat zones, manoeuvring through some of the most difficult flying conditions in the world. Some missions will involve trading fire with the Taliban on the ground, others will mean landing in the middle of a battle. This will happen day after day, month after month.

This is the reality for British helicopter pilots in Afghanistan, amid accusations and recriminations at home over shortages of aircraft.

For the men doing the flying – and for those they ferry – the focus is on survival with what they have got, rather than what may materialise from the promises of politicians.

Yesterday, pilots and infantrymen trained on Salisbury Plain ahead of 11 Light Brigade's deployment to Helmand in September, under Brigadier James Cowan, the former commander of the Black Watch.

Wing Commander Simon Paterson and Captain David – who did not wish to give his surname – were among the pilots training. They have toured Afghanistan before and learnt of the dangers in the conflict, which has cost 188 British lives to date.

The latest fatality named was 28-year-old Captain Daniel Shepherd, an explosives specialist, killed while attempting to defuse a roadside bomb of the type which has taken such a terrible toll among British troops. A soldier from 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, attached to the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, was killed yesterday morning by an explosion while on a dismounted patrol in Nad e Ali District.

A lack of helicopters, senior officers say, makes the soldiers dependant on road movement and so more vulnerable to lethal blasts.

Wing Cdr Paterson, a Chinook pilot, and Capt David, who flies Apaches, are returning to the war. Wing Cdr Paterson, 36, Officer Commanding 28 Squadron, RAF, also served in Iraq. He will be taking in a squadron of Merlins, some of the much-needed additions to the helicopter fleet due to arrive at the end of the year.

"Flying in Afghanistan poses more dangers than we faced in Iraq, we have to cope with a lot more ground-to-air fire, something we did not have to really cope with in Iraq after the initial phase," he said. "We have problems because of the altitude and the dust which is very fine, almost like talcum powder, which makes visibility quite difficult. Of course, it also takes its toll on the aircraft. But we do feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to the guys on the ground. We need to evacuate the injured, ensure that the supplies get through. We do not take unnecessary risks – we will not fly in the mail in the middle of a battle for instance, but essential jobs must be done and the transport helicopters get invaluable help from the Apaches."

The Taliban have learnt to fear the Apaches, with their devastating firepower, and melt away at the sight of the aircraft. "They are right to be nervous," said Capt David, of 3 Regiment Army Air Corps. "Our role is not just to fight but act as a deterrent as well and if that works, that's fine.

"I am not in a position to talk about the numbers of helicopters, all I can say is that we are working very, very hard and this is going on 24/7. We are on a very short notice to move, you could be just sitting around with a cup of tea and then 15 minutes later you are flying. Obviously it does get very tense and you are on edge, but it is a question of learning to cope.

"It is dangerous, we have to climb high enough to get beyond the Taliban small arms fire, but we have pretty good defences and we have adapted our flying to be as safe as possible. At the end of the day it is a very good feeling to know that you help bring some casualties out because these guys are going through a hell of a lot out there. They need all the help and support that they get."

The 11 Light Brigade will specialise in counter-insurgency and Brigadier Cowan's plan has been approved by the Army's high command. His soldiers are preparing for the campaign against a backdrop of almost daily news of bomb fatalities, and approach the mission with trepidation and hope.

Corporal Rob Whiffin, of 3rd Battalion, The Rifles, said: "People are nervous. There is anxiety about what is happening. But this is what we do and we are looking forward to going. The main thing is to do our job well and come back alive."

Sergeant Gareth Gardner, pictured left, of the same regiment, said: "Anyone who says they are not nervous is lying. But we have trained very hard and that will be hugely helpful... I have been in the Army 11 years and we have seen a lot of improvement in kit in that time, that is something we should bear in mind."

Lance Corporal Liam Jones, also of 3rd Battalion, The Rifles, said: "The feeling is that this tour... is going to be particularly difficult. But that isn't surprising. There is nothing we can do about it except put everything we have learnt into good practice." Major Mark Melhorn, 30, fire support group commander, said: "I hope all my boys come back. But I'm a realist. The boys are nervous, they'd be crazy not to be, but they're still desperate to get out there."

The man taking them all, Brigadier Cowan, said: "One can always do with more helicopters, but one needs to cope with the reality on the ground... As far as more troops are concerned, it is up to the ministers to decide, I'll make do with what I am given, I am a practical man." He will lead Britain's new strategy in Afghanistan, which aims to dovetail with the plans of General Stanley McChrystal, the new US commander of Nato forces there. The strategy emphasises winning over the public, hastening reconstruction and adopting new measures to avoid civilian casualties.

"In conventional warfare the aim is to defeat the enemy," said Brigadier Cowan. "In counter-insurgency it is winning over the people. That is what we will be doing."

Taliban were firing at me and I just thought of my little girl, says Army's only female Jackal driver - Daily Mail

The only British woman soldier driving combat vehicles on patrol in Afghanistan has told how thinking of her daughter got her through the terror of an ambush.

Staff Sergeant Claire Griffiths, 33, was driving a Jackal armoured patrol vehicle guarding a supply convoy when rocket-propelled grenades exploded just yards away from her.

She said: 'We came under small-arms fire from several directions. As we forced our way through the hail of bullets, the insurgents began to fire RPGs at us.

"My heart was thumping with the adrenaline. All I could think about was my three-year-old daughter back home.'

Little Nicole is being looked after by her father, Sergeant Simon Griffiths, at the family's home in Wantage, Oxfordshire, while her mother completes her six-month tour in Afghanistan, for which she volunteered.

S/Sgt Griffith's patrol managed to escape the ambush in Helmand province with the help of covering fire from another coalition patrol.

They then worked through the night, filling up sandbags until 1am the following morning.

After just a few hours' sleep, the patrol set off again, leaving the checkpoint just as dawn broke on May 16.

As they reached an Afghan National Police (ANP) checkpoint, officers rushed out to warn them that the Taliban had just planted an improvised explosive device ahead on the road, which was not much wider than the Jackal itself.

The bomb exploded before troops had time to make it safe.

'It was a massive explosion but thankfully no one was injured,' said S/Sgt Griffiths, who has previously served in Iraq, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Bosnia.

'After the explosion my survival instincts kicked in and I just began to laugh. I guess it was nervous laughter. The device could have killed any one of us.'

Warned that the enemy was planning to fire on their position, the patrol moved away quickly, cutting a new route through the desert.

S/Sgt Griffiths added: 'We always knew... that we would eventually come under some sort of contact but it was the not knowing when, where or how.

'That patrol was our first real test and we know it won't be our last within Helmand.'

S/Sgt Griffiths, who is originally from Fulham, South-West London, is part of 31 Close Support Squadron based in Abingdon, Oxford.

She is half-way through her tour, attached to the 2nd Battalion the Mercian Regiment - there to provide 'mentoring' to the Afghan National Army by taking part in joint patrols and operations.

'I'm really enjoying my time here. It's exciting and a bit of an adventure every day,' she said.

'Our role is vital to make sure supplies continue to reach the people who really need them, so it's rewarding work.'

11 Light Brigade ready for Afghan deployment

In preparation for 11 Light Brigade's deployment to Afghanistan this October, 4,000 troops have come together on Salisbury Plain over the last two weeks for a mission rehearsal exercise.

Troops from 11 Light Brigade, which was specially formed from many different regiments for operations in Afghanistan, have been training on the plain on and off since December 2008.

The Brigade will be commanded by Brigadier James Cowan who was tasked with assembling the force in 2007:

"I formed it, trained it, I will deploy it, fight it, bring it home and disband it," he said. "We are ready for the task."

Brigadier Cowan explained that the training on Salisbury Plain is the climax to many months of preparation and likened his role so far to that of a conductor of a symphony orchestra, bringing together many disparate and specialist units to act together as one:

"This is the culmination of our training," Brigadier Cowan explained. "What has gone before is about people learning to play their instruments or play as a quartet. Here the whole orchestra comes together for a full dress rehearsal."

As well as the thousands of troops, the other component of the orchestra on Salisbury Plain over the last two weeks is equipment, including some 400 wheeled and 20 tracked vehicles, Apache, Lynx, Gazelle, Sea King, Merlin and Chinook helicopters as well as a small number of Fast Jets and Air Transport C130 Hercules aircraft.

Brigadier Cowan added:

"The performance [in theatre] is only the tip of the iceberg. What delivers success is rehearsal and if you rehearse properly and train hard you fight easy."

Much of that rehearsal and training has been based around counter insurgency, and with one of the main weapons currently used by the insurgents against coalition forces being Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) 11 Light Brigade will have several specialist teams to discover and disarm the bombs.

A veteran of a previous deployment to Afghanistan, Sergeant Ken O'Dwyer of 33 Engineer Regiment (EOD) has being working with the counter IED taskforce and will be one of those charged with the task of discovering the IEDs before they pose a threat to his comrades.

He has been impressed with the progress made in his training and equipment since his last deployment in Afghanistan in 2007:

"Since then the equipment has got a lot better and we have everything we really need," Sergeant Dwyer said. "I feel much more confident going out there now. The training we have had is phenomenal."

In addition to counter insurgency there will be several other main themes for 11 Light Brigade during their six month tour of duty in Afghanistan which include counter-narcotics and developing the Afghan National Security Forces.

Now together, 11 Light Brigade will continue to carry out final preparations on Salisbury Plain until deployment in October.

Surveying his force, Brigadier Cowan was optimistic and proud of what his men have achieved so far but said that the task would be a difficult one and that theirs was just a small part of a much bigger and ongoing effort:

"What I see are soldiers who are cheerful, whose morale is high and who are looking forward to what lies ahead.

"In a counter insurgency we are seeking to win Afghanistan for its people. But that is not going to be in my time because counter insurgency requires patience. I'm not seeking at the end of six months to declare success or victory.

"It is about inching our way towards that success. Others will achieve it in the longer term. We are merely one task force in one half of a province in a much longer campaign that will endure over time."

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Guardsman Christopher King killed in Afghanistan

It is with great regret that the Ministry of Defence must confirm that Guardsman Christopher King, of 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, was killed in Afghanistan on 22 July 2009.

Guardsman King died whilst serving on operations in the Nad e Ali District in Helmand Province. He was serving as a rifleman with Number 2 Company, 1st Battalion Welsh Guards.

He was part of a Section of Coldstream Guardsmen who had been attached to the Welsh Guards since the end of last year, and who have been working with 2 Company throughout.

Guardsman King was working as part of a team responsible for the protection of vehicle patrols, which involves checking vulnerable points are clear of danger.

On the morning of his death he was on such a patrol on Operation PANCHAI PALANG and was on foot clearing a vulnerable point when an Improvised Explosive Device detonated. He died immediately from the injuries caused by the blast.

Guardsman Christopher King

Guardsman Christopher King was born on 1 June 1989 in Birkenhead, near Liverpool. He joined the Army and, on passing out of the Infantry Training Centre, Catterick, in August 2008, he joined Number 3 Company, 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards.

He quickly completed a sharp-shooter's course, and took part in tactical exercises with the Battalion. At the end of the year he took part in state ceremonial duties in London. In early 2009 he volunteered to serve with 1st Battalion Welsh Guards for a six-month operational tour to Afghanistan.

Although his time with the Welsh Guards was short, he had settled in well and quickly become a popular member of his platoon. He had hoped to complete a sniper course on his return to the UK, one of the most demanding challenges he could volunteer for. He had great potential, and will be sorely missed by all who knew him.

Guardsman King lived in West Buckland, Somerset. He was unmarried.

Guardsman King's family paid the following tribute:

"Chris was a tremendous son, he was proud to be a Guardsman and died serving his country doing a job he loved. We are very proud of the fact that Chris was prepared to do his duty, helping to secure a lasting peace and provide stability to the people of Afghanistan.

"We are devastated by the loss of Chris, who was a loving son and ask that the media respect our privacy and allow our family to grieve in peace."

Lieutenant Colonel Charlie Antelme DSO, Commanding Officer 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, said:

"Guardsman King will be remembered by all his friends within the Battalion as a consummate professional, undeterred by danger or hardship, who brought great spirit and humour to every task asked of him.

"The words of his brothers-in-arms from the Welsh Guards and beyond are a lasting tribute to this exceptional soldier, fearless character and ever-cheerful friend. Our thoughts are with his Regiment, the Coldstream Guards, his many friends and of course, most importantly, his family who will be feeling his loss so keenly."

Lieutenant Colonel Doug Chalmers MBE PWRR, his battle group commander, said:

"Guardsman Chris King was every inch a Coldstream Guardsman. Although very proud of his own Regiment he had fitted easily in to No 2 Company, 1stt Battalion Welsh Guards, earning respect at every turn as a professional young soldier with a resilient sense of humour.

"He was energetic yet reliable and lived life to the full. We are poorer for his loss and our thoughts are with his family who will miss him the most. We will not forget him."

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

VIDEO: Minister defends Afghan operation - BBC

Armed Forces Minister Bill Rammell has pointed to the increase in the number of helicopters and their flying hours in UK operations in Afghanistan.

He said the casualties had been high, but that had been expected in "one of the most challenging phases of this campaign".

He was speaking at Salisbury Plain, where 11 Light Brigade are training ahead of their deployment to Afghanistan in October.

1 YORKS soldier honoured for bravery in Afghanistan

A 20-year-old soldier from 1st Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment (1 YORKS) has been recognised in front of his battalion, friends and family for his courage during a battle with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

During a recent medal parade at 1 YORKS base in Munster Germany, when soldiers from the battalion were being presented with their Iraq campaign medals, Private Andrew Troup had his Mention in Dispatches read out for his actions while on operations in Afghanistan.

Private Troup was deployed to Afghanistan during the winter of 2007 – 2008, working as part of an OMLT (Operational Mentor and Liaison Team) providing military training to the Afghan Army.

His Mention in Dispatches was awarded for his actions during a patrol, consisting of six British and 28 Afghan soldiers, which was ambushed from a number of firing points to the front and flanks. Some of the inexperienced Afghans fled to a safe location creating a loss of morale in what seemed to be an overwhelming enemy ambush.

Private Troup's Mention in Dispatches explains what he did next:

"Despite heavy fire he broke cover, sprinting to where they had gone to ground. Through strength of character, a powerful and courageous display of determination - brought them back into the fight. This single act of bravery allowed the Afghans to regain composure and have the will to fight."

Captain Daniel Shepherd killed in Afghanistan

It is with deep regret that the Ministry of Defence must confirm that Captain Daniel Shepherd from 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, The Royal Logistic Corps, was killed in Afghanistan on Monday 20 July 2009.

Captain Shepherd was serving with the Joint Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group when he died following an explosion in Nad-e-Ali District in Helmand Province, Southern Afghanistan.

At the time of his death, Captain Shepherd was commanding an Improvised Explosive Device Disposal (IEDD) team within the Joint Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Group who were dealing with a confirmed IED.

Working in concert with a Royal Engineers Search Team, their task was to clear a route in order to ensure that an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) re-supply convoy and the local Afghan population were able to move freely through a particularly area.

Another member of his team suffered minor injuries in the incident.

Captain Daniel Shepherd

Captain Shepherd aged 28, was married and came from Lincoln. Following a degree in Electrical Engineering, he joined the Royal Logistic Corps on Commissioning from Sandhurst in August 2003.

He subsequently attended specialist logistic training before, as a junior officer, joining 8 Transport Regiment Royal Logistic Corps, with whom he served in Iraq in 2004.

In 2007 he attended and passed Ammunition Technical Officer training before being posted to 11 EOD Regiment RLC as a Troop Commander and Joint Service IED Disposal Operator with Northolt Troop, 621 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Squadron, providing bomb disposal support in the Greater London area.

In December 2008 he joined the select group of our very best Bomb Disposal operators by attending and passing the IEDD No1 (High Threat) course.

In Afghanistan, Captain Shepherd commanded an IED Disposal Team within the Joint Force EOD Group. His role was to conduct IED Disposal operations, clearing the way to make routes safe for ISAF and the Afghan people, during the course of his tour he had already dealt with over 50 devices and he died whilst deployed in support of Operation PANCHAI PALANG.

He was at his very best on operations and excelled in the demanding operational environment of Southern Afghanistan. Such was his talent and operational experience that he was shortly to take up a high profile appointment, focused on countering the threat from IEDs in Afghanistan, at the Permanent Joint Headquarters in Northwood.

Captain Shepherd leaves behind his wife, Kerry, his devoted parents David and Judith and his brother Paul.

Capt Shepherd's wife, Kerry, said:

"He was doing what he loved. I was so proud of him. I have not lost just a husband but a best friend and he will be missed by everyone."

The family of Capt Shepherd said:

"We are very proud of our youngest son and husband. He lived life to the full. Daniel worked hard to achieve all he set out to do in his career in the Army. He has left a huge hole in our family and our lives and will be sadly missed. He is in our thoughts, always."

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Corporal Joseph Etchells killed in Afghanistan

It is with great sadness that the Ministry of Defence must confirm that Corporal Joseph Etchells of 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers was killed in Afghanistan on Sunday 19 July 2009.

Corporal Etchells, aged 22 from Mossley, Greater Manchester, was killed as a result of an explosion that happened whilst on a foot patrol near Sangin, northern Helmand Province.

Corporal Joseph Etchells

Corporal Etchells, or "Etch" to his mates, was born on 23 March 1987. He joined the Army in December 2003, and on successful completion of his infantry training at Army Foundation College, Harrogate, was posted to 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers later that year. He was always eager and proud to be a Fusilier and Infantryman.

On arrival in the Battalion, Cpl Etchells joined B Company 6 Platoon in Palace Barracks, Belfast subsequently moving to with the Battalion Cyprus. Whilst in Cyprus he deployed with A Company Group to Now Zad, Afghanistan in 2006 as a Fusilier in 6 Platoon. He returned to Cyprus from Afghanistan and in June 2007 he passed his Junior NCO cadre moving to A Company on promotion.

Whilst in Cyprus he represented the Battalion and Garrison side at cricket and was an active member of the Battalion cross country team. In late 2007 Cpl Etchells deployed to Jordan on Exercise Saffron Sands and showed huge potential for the future in his Army career. On the Battalion's return from Cyprus to UK he secured a place on the Section Commander's Battle Course in June 2008 a course he passed with ease and was promoted to Cpl soon after.

When called on to deploy to Afghanistan again, he was the ultimate professional ensuring his Section were fully prepared for their role in Helmand. His dedication and loyalty to his men was evident from the moment he took over his Section. Cpl Etchells was an enthusiastic and dedicated individual who loved his job, cared about his men and was the consummate professional. He will be sorely missed.

Lieutenant Colonel Charlie Calder, Commanding Officer, 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers said:

"Corporal Etchells was a remarkable young man. He showed a gift for soldiering that touched all who worked with him. His enthusiasm, determination, loyalty and professionalism would have seen him progress with ease through the ranks. Above all he will be remembered for the friendships that he easily made; at home, in barracks or facing daily adversity in Afghanistan.

"The Battalion; his friends mourn his loss. However our loss is nothing compared to the loss sustained by his fiancée, and his family. Our prayers are now for them, Julie and their daughter."

Monday, July 20, 2009

Helicopter assault starts latest phase of attack on Taliban

Following a Chinook and Apache helicopter assault on the Babiji region of Helmand Province, troops from The Black Watch 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland (3 SCOTS) and the Light Dragoons have linked up to continue flushing insurgents out of the area.

This latest assault which is part of Operation PANCHAI PALANG, or Panther's Claw, was part of a strategic push to flush the insurgents out of towns and villages in order to secure them for Afghanistan's Presidential and Provincial elections taking place next month.

The air assault, launched under the cover of darkness and involving four Chinooks and two Apache helicopters, also resulted in the discovery of a large narcotics laboratory in which the soldiers found 750kg of a precursor base chemical required to create heroin and 5kg of a morphine derivative substance.

After securing the site north of Lashkar Gah, and handing it over to Afghan-led counter narcotics police the 140 soldiers from 3 SCOTS continued their advance to clear the land ahead and push north to meet with the Light Dragoon's Battlegroup, who had been working their way down from the Nahr e Burgha canal for the previous two weeks.

Operation PANCHAI PALANG began in June 2009 with the Welsh Guards Battlegroup securing several crossing points along the Shamalan canal and 3 SCOTS doing the same along the Nahr e Burgha.

In doing so they created a 'gated community' allowing freedom of movement for local people but making the movement of insurgents difficult and crucially cutting off their supply routes.

The Light Dragoons Battlegroup moved across the region both on foot and in armoured vehicles, and encountered heavy and prolonged fighting from compounds along the way held by insurgents.

The fighting paid off however, and on the 15 July the 3 SCOTS Battlegroup and The Light Dragoons met up, linking the two areas they have cleared and consolidating their control of a large area of previously Taliban-dominated ground.

The troops met with locals who welcomed the British and Afghan troops. On several occasions they told of how the insurgents had stolen all of their food. One 16-year-old boy spoke of being tortured by the Taliban after they caught him making a telephone call to his family in Lashkar Gah and accused him of spying for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Operation Panther's Claw: how British troops are hunting the Taliban to the end - Telegraph

Operation Panther's Claw, the battle to drive the Taliban from a key corner of Helmand, has been under way for a month - but British troops need more time to finish the job.

By Thomas Harding of the Telegraph in Helmand
19 Jul 2009

It was at first light of dawn on July 3 that the tanks began to roll in the most dangerous phase of Operation Panther's Claw - the offensive in Helmand province that is being seen as the biggest British engagement since the invasion of Iraq.

More than two weeks later, the same units were still engaged with an increasingly desperate enemy - several hundred Taliban fighters being pushed steadily westwards towards what military planners hope will be their nemesis.

Only sporadic details of the protracted military operation have been revealed by the Ministry of Defence so far. But now The Sunday Telegraph has assembled the first full account of the unfolding battle which has already left an estimated 200 enemy fighters dead, and claimed the lives of nine British soldiers.

The plan from the outset was to seal off an triangular area of Helmand about the size of the Isle of Wight, a stronghold of bomb-makers and heroin factories, and drive its resident Taliban fighters westward along the Helmand River.

There, caught between the river and a parallel canal, and faced on both sides by Nato and Afghan forces, they could be finally eliminated.

At Checkpoint 8 on the Nahr-e-Burgha canal, as the heat of the day began to grow, Danish Leopard 2 tanks moved parallel with a stretch of water. Their 120mm guns peered into the lush trees and bushes of the "Green Zone", watered generously by criss-crossing irrigation ditches that later that day would provide life-saving cover from Taliban fire.

The loud report of tank guns announced to the 300 or so Taliban who had been living here unmolested for two years that the battle had now begun in earnest.

The insurgents had already claimed an early victim by killing the commanding officer of the Welsh Guards, Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe, and Tpr Joshua Hammond, before the force of 1,200 Nato troops and 500 Afghans had even entered the area known as the "Claw".

Those men had died during the earlier drive, beginning on June 19, to secure 13 crossing points across the Shamalan canal at the six-mile-wide western end of the triangle.

A single platoon of 30 Welsh Guards had suffered 19 casualties as the Taliban desperately fought to stop a cordon being drawn around them.

With the sides of the claw-shaped triangle sealed, the British task force was to start smashing its way through from the east, conquering each of three sectors in turn.

The northern boundary was Nahr-e-Burgha canal, the southern edge the waters of the Helmand river.

The Light Dragoons battle group, led by Lt Col Gus Fair, was chosen as the spearhead force. The Dragoons, on their second tour of Helmand in two years, are equipped with the 12-ton tracked Viking armoured vehicle which - although vulnerable to bombs - are light enough to manoeuvre in the Green Zone of orchards and lush fields, and provide a fire-support with their heavy machine guns.

They also have Scimitar light tanks, with excellent thermal-imaging systems, and the heavier, well-protected Mastiff, which has limited off-road ability.

Accompanying them are more than 200 men from two companies of 2nd Bn The Mercian Regiment, also veterans of 2007, and two companies of Afghan National Army. Later, a company of 2 Rifles was also drafted in for the push.

A few miles to the west, the men of the Black Watch were to make two separate air assaults, landing in the middle of enemy territory to confuse the Taliban and make them cover their backs. In each such assault - one of which is under way this weekend - the "Jocks" were to remain on the ground for at least 48 hours, constantly harassing the insurgents.

As the main force advanced westwards, it seemed to some of them more like the Somme - with troops moving carefully across open fields, crossing streams and moving through orchards before the air was cut by gunfire and rockets. The heat has been such that the battle group of around 500 men has needed 3,000 litres of water a day.

Progress was sometime agonisingly slow. One the first day, troops advanced just a few hundred metres and objectives that were meant to have been overwhelmed in an hour took more than a day to seize. "We were essentially manoeuvring in a giant minefield," said one of the Light Dragoon soldiers.

For the first three days, the gun battles were constant, and progress meagre. The Taliban knew the British were coming and set up a multitude of booby traps.

Laboriously, and with the constant threat of instant death, soldiers equipped with mine detectors carried out sweeps of roads, walls, ditches and trees for the lethal IEDs (improvised explosive devices). By the end of day four, the Light Dragoon battle group had picked its way through Spin Masjed district - but progress was still slow, with many casualties. Three soldiers had been killed during the fighting, including one while clearing a helicopter landing site to retrieve a casualty.

A single company of 100 men was reported to have suffered 47 wounded, although several had heat exhaustion or minor injuries.

With snatches of sleep taken in 20-minute lulls between fights the troops continued the slog. The advance took longer because of the new instruction by American Gen Stanley McChrystal, the overall commander in Afghanistan, to minimise aerial bombing to avoid civilian casualties .

Some insurgents desperately swam the Helmand river to escape, but many more were detained. Three more soldiers died during 24 hours over July 9 and 10 - the worst day in recent memory for the British army, as elsewhere in Helmand, five riflemen of the 2nd Bn The Rifles were also killed in a complex ambush of roadside bombs.

In one attack an officer lost an arm, both legs and his genitals, but survived through the excellent medical care.

After a week of arduous combat in a landscape described as "tight country", commanders ordered a "tactical pause" in the second district of Malgir, for the exhausted troops to recuperate and to be re-supplied.

The cordon around the "claw" meant the Taliban trapped inside were prevented from any resupply or reinforcements.

Officers beleive that the command structure of the insurgents is becoming less effective by the day, with the enemy left to fight in small pockets. They have suffered high casualties: an estimated 200 dead, two thirds of their force.

The final phase of Panther's Claw opened on Thursday with the latest Black Watch air assault operation, dropping into enemy held territory in the district of Babaji.

On the ground, infantry of the Light Dragoons battle group are fighting their way towards the Taliban, forcing them back on to the line of Welsh Guards to the west.

The next phase could take weeks rather than days, but commanders are hopeful that the Taliban's back is broken.

Locals, who have started showing soldiers where bombs have been planted and safe lanes through minefields, are reported to have begun returning to their homes in the districts taken by the British.

"It will go on for a while, it could take days or even weeks, but we believe the back of the enemy has been broken," said Lt Col Simon Banton, commanding officer of 2 Mercian.

The price of the operation has been high in British dead. But military officials are hoping that, aided by the influx of 10,000 Americans, it will herald the start of the Taliban's final demise in Helmand.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Mandelson on Afghan 'shopping list' - BBC

The Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, has given his reaction to General Dannatt's calls for better equipment to protect troops in Afghanistan.

Lord Mandelson said the Army chief had brought back "first hand experience" and his comments would be "taken very seriously".

He also said that troops on the front line needed the united backing of ministers and politicians of all parties.

Rifleman Aminiasi Toge killed in Afghanistan

It is with great sadness that the Ministry of Defence must confirm that Rifleman Aminiasi Toge, of 2nd Battalion The Rifles was killed in Afghanistan on Thursday 16 July 2009.

Rifleman Toge was killed as a result of an explosion that happened whilst he was conducting a foot patrol close to Forward Operating Base KEENAN, near Gereshk in central Helmand Province.

At the time of his death, his platoon were attached to C Squadron Light Dragoons as part of a Danish led Battle Group.

Rifleman Aminiasi Toge

Rifleman Aminiasi 'Togey' Toge was born in Suva, Fiji, with his twin brother on 19 July 1982.

He swapped the southern Pacific paradise of home for the Infantry Training Centre in Catterick, North Yorkshire in September 2007 and passed out as a Rifleman in April 2008. Posted to the 2nd Battalion, The Rifles based in Ballykinler, County Down, Rifleman Toge soon deployed to Kosovo before returning to the UK and starting pre-deployment training for Afghanistan.

Rifleman Toge was a keen swimmer and an outstanding rugby player who could open gaps in a defence with the deftest of steps before accelerating through with his extraordinary pace. He also loved to travel.

Rifleman Toge was thriving in the demanding conditions of an Afghan summer and hoped to attempt the Junior Non-Commissioned Officers cadre on returning to Ballykinler.

Along with his twin brother, Loame, Rifleman Toge leaves behind three sisters and his devoted parents. His whole family are very firmly front and centre of the prayers of every single soldier in 2 Rifles.

Lieutenant Colonel Rob Thomson MBE, Commanding Officer 2 Rifles Battle Group, said:

"Rifleman Toge was my fastest Fijian and was known as 'Lightning'. He was smaller than most of my South Pacific heroes but no less robust, determined and wily with an oval ball under his arm. And that was when he was at his happiest - on our (usually wet) pitch in Northern Ireland or throwing the ball around his FOB in the dust.

"He was one of 35 heroic Fijians in this Battalion who add huge value, character and noise to all my companies across Helmand.

"Rifleman Toge was one of the toughest Riflemen under my command and he was adored - heart-breakingly so - by all who had the privilege to encounter him. He made such light work of the heavy General Purpose Machine Gun - it was like a pistol in his hands.

"He had that uniquely infectious Fijian laugh and was a godly man who knew in whom he placed his trust. We have lost a courageous man of great stature - there was no truer moral compass in the Battle Group but there was mischief too, all very appropriate and full of fun. Rifleman Toge will be sorely missed and our first thoughts are with his family at this unimaginably difficult time.

"Across the Upper Sangin Valley, small gangs of brave Fijian Riflemen sang a poignant hymn as we gathered to remember what Rifleman Toge meant to all of us and bade him farewell. When the Bugle Major sounded the Advance tonight, we knew the call to arms would have been heard in Suva. Mothe….vinaka vaka levu."

Major Sam Plant, Officer Commanding C Squadron Group Light Dragoons, said:

"I had not known Rifleman Toge for very long – his Platoon came under my command just three weeks prior to his untimely death. Notwithstanding that, he certainly made an impression.

"A big, strong man who was very much a key player within his Platoon, Rifleman Toge was comfortable on patrol with his GPMG [General Purpose Machine Gun] in hand. He was a determined and skilful soldier who clearly enjoyed the trust and affection of his fellow men.

"Of particular note was his infectious smile and his positive attitude to life. This approach inspired those around him and he was ever present whenever a comrade needed help. He was an all round inspiration.

"Forward Operating Base Keenan has lost a great man and a true team player. He will be hugely missed by his many friends and colleagues. We are thinking and praying for his family at this terrible time."

Captain Andy Huxter, 11 Platoon Commander, 2 Rifles, said:

"Rifleman Toge was a pleasure to command. He had no problems in life and faced everything, including the cold - which he hated - with the broadest and brightest of smiles.

"He came to my Platoon in October 2008 from the Machine Gun Platoon, and has been at home in the dust and stifling heat of Afghanistan from the day he arrived.

"He was fitter, stronger and more robust than most. He would step so lightly on patrol, belying the weight he was carrying, setting an example to all of us.

"When asked by a fellow Rifleman why he went to the gym twice a day, he responded that it was so if anyone else got injured, he could carry them to safety.

"He was killed carrying his General Purpose Machine Gun, the job he enjoyed most. My lasting memories will be of him running around in the FOB (Forward Operating Base) in the heat of an Afghan summer trying to warm up because it was too cold in the FOB 'pool'.

"He was softly spoken, unassuming and utterly reliable. His presence made people laugh and be happy - his good cheer was infectious.

"Rifleman Toge was a gentle man, he will be sorely missed and 11 Platoon will not be the same without him. My thoughts and prayers are with his family for whom he cared very much. Rfn Toge, I know, is in a far better place now."

Corporal Llweyelyn Bryan, Section Commander, said:

"Rifleman Toge, or 'Togey' as he was fondly known, was a larger than life character who was forever lifting the spirits of his mates.

"Whenever his name was called, an almighty grin would appear on his face, swiftly followed by a mischievous giggle.

"Rifleman Toge was a Section Commander's dream; he rarely had to be told to do anything. He was a natural infantryman who was very proficient and professional. He was also very robust and fit.

"It will come as no surprise that he was the natural GPMG candidate. It will remain firmly etched in my mind whilst on patrol in the middle of the heat of the day, with sweat pouring down his face, he would look back at me and give me one of his monstrous grins, immediately followed by his unique giggle.

"I was very fortunate to have such a remarkable Rifleman covering my back and that of the rest of the section. Rfn Toge was a much loved member of the platoon and his constant humming and singing will be sorely missed.

"All our thoughts are with his family and friends in this very sad moment in time. Rest in peace my big Fijian friend."

Friday, July 17, 2009

Army pushes for more helicopters - BBC

The deployment of more helicopters to Afghanistan would save soldiers' lives, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, has said.

Following criticism of the government for failing to give troops air support, Sir Jock said more helicopters would "quite patently" prevent casualties.

The government insists that the military has never been so well resourced as it is at present.

Meanwhile, the 185th British death of the conflict has been confirmed.

A soldier from the 2nd Battalion The Rifles died in an explosion while on foot patrol near Gereshk in central Helmand, the Ministry of Defence said.

He was the 16th to die this month, as the Army continues an offensive aimed at increasing security ahead of Afghan elections planned for next month.

'No panacea'

Prime Minister Gordon Brown spent 40 minutes with Sir Jock Stirrup on Friday morning.

Afterwards, Sir Jock told the BBC he was "busting a gut" to get more helicopters redeployed to Afghanistan.

"I have always said that there's no such thing as enough helicopters in an operation campaign," he said.

"In a situation where you have lots of improvised explosive devices, the more you can increase your tactical flexibility by moving people by helicopter, then the more uncertain, more unpredictable your movements become to the enemy.

"Therefore, it is quite patently the case that you could save casualties by doing that."

He said operational commanders could always "do more and do things better" with extra helicopters, but acknowledged they were "no panacea".

His comments come after the head of the army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, said he was returning from Afghanistan with a "shopping list" of equipment to protect British troops from roadside bombs.

Sir Jock said he did not know how much this would cost, but said such things were non-discretionary and had to be provided.

BBC political correspondent Carole Walker said his remarks have intensified the pressure on the prime minister, who has insisted the government is providing the equipment and resources that are needed for the current operations.


The prime minister's spokesman said Sir Jock would go into further detail about equipment requirements in the future.

"Of course, we will take decisions in the light of that military advice," added the spokesman.

He said there would be a wider review of troop numbers, both at UK and Nato level, in the autumn.

"We will review the position on troops along with our allies after the election," he added.

The government has promised to consider demands for more equipment to protect UK forces in Afghanistan from roadside bombs.

The head of the British army, Gen Sir Richard Dannatt, says he was compiling a "shopping list" including surveillance and intelligence equipment.

Downing Street says the PM will take decisions in "light of military advice" and review troop levels with allies.

Gen Dannatt, who steps down from his role next month, told the BBC it was "critical" to tackle the problem of improvised bombs.

Doing this required more coalition or Afghan personnel to build intelligence, better "overhead surveillance" of Taliban activity and greater technical ability to see where they were planting explosives, he said.

"That will be a shopping list that I'll bring back," he added.

The BBC's defence correspondent Caroline Wyatt said: "He's talking about things like UAVs [or unmanned drones]... that could spot where the Taliban are laying bombs."

However, she said with government budgets shrinking it was unclear whether the Ministry of Defence would be given funding to meet these requests.

Business secretary Lord Mandelson said the general's views on troops' equipment requirements would be taken "very seriously".

"They will not go without whatever they need to carry out their very important operations in Afghanistan," he said.

Gen Dannatt had said that, despite reports, the military never made a direct request for 2,000 extra personnel.

But he warned that reducing numbers to 8,300 would be wrong and that Nato might ask for more personnel for a 12 to 18-month period.

Conservative leader David Cameron said the government must listen to military commanders.

"The prime minister has been telling us all week that they have got enough helicopters and actually now we know they don't," he said.

He refused to say whether his party would spend more on defence if it was in government, claiming it was about "commitment" rather than funding.

With commitment, he said, six Chinook helicopters which had been grounded by computer problems since their purchase at a cost of £250m eight years ago could have been in action.

Earlier, shadow defence secretary Dr Liam Fox had said it was "extremely likely" that a Tory government would agree to a request for more British troops in the short term.