Monday, August 31, 2009

VIDEO: Afghanistan: An Election for Some? - New York Times

In some areas of Afghanistan voters took part in presidential and provincial elections, but intimidation and allegations of fraud are dogging the count.

Precision Voting: Michael Yon

The historical Afghan elections scheduled for 20 August were days away. While the west mostly continued to vote for Afghanistan, the big question was, “Will Afghanistan vote for itself?”

The latest media wave splashed into the main voting centers in places like Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad, Herat and Lashkar Gah. The larger cities only account for perhaps 20% of the Afghan population. Whereas the easy and obvious stories are in the cities, a crucial and larger dimension—the other 80%—would unfold in the boonies. Most Afghans would have no chance to vote.

The election was to be run by Afghans. In theory and in practice this would be a recipe for disaster. The strategic thinkers cannot be faulted for this; after nearly eight years of war, if the west were still running the elections, the elections and government would be a failure to begin with. By comparison, the Iraqi elections on 30 January 2005 (less than two years after invasion) were run mostly by Iraqis. In the voting of October and December of that same year, Iraqis had two more runs at the ballots, which were increasingly successful. Afghanistan, however, is different. This would be only the second election in history.

There are no good choices here. Either we run the elections and the central government and in doing so undermine the same central government we are investing in, or we allow that central government to run the elections and probably watch it undermine itself. But who knows?

We need more troops. The leadership tells us that the Taliban and associated groups control only small parts of the country. Yet enemy influence is growing, and so far, despite that we have made progress on some fronts, our own influence is diminishing. For example, an excellent British infantry unit that I embedded with in Iraq and now Afghanistan, the “2 Rifles,” is staked out in the “Green Zone” around the Helmand River. HQ for 2 Rifles is at FOB Jackson near the center of the map above. There are several satellite FOBs and Patrol Bases, each of which is essentially cut off from the outside world other than by helicopter or major ground resupply efforts (which only take place about once a month). The latest ground resupply effort from Camp Bastion resulted in much fighting. The troops up at Kajaki Dam are surrounded by the enemy, which has dug itself into actual “FLETs.” FLET is military-speak for “Forward Line of Enemy Troops.” In other words, the enemy is not hiding, but they are in trenches, bunkers and fighting positions that extend into depth. The enemy owns the terrain.

The British are protecting Kajaki Dam but otherwise it’s just a big fight and no progress is being made. The turbine delivery to the dam, which I wrote about last year, was a tremendous success. Efforts to get the turbine online have been an equally tremendous failure. Bottom line: the project to restore the electrical capacity from Kajaki Dam is failing and likely will require multi-national intervention to bring it online and to push back the enemy.

We need more helicopters. Enemy control of the terrain is so complete in the area between Sangin and Kajaki that when my embed was to switch from FOB Jackson to FOB Inkerman—only seven kilometers (about four miles) away—we could not walk or drive from Jackson to Inkerman. Routes are deemed too dangerous. Helicopter lift was required. The helicopter shortage is causing crippling delays in troop movements. It’s common to see a soldier waiting ten days for a simple flight.

When my embed was to move the four miles from Jackson to Inkerman, a scheduled helicopter picked me up at Jackson and flew probably eighty miles to places like Lashkar Gah, and finally set down at Camp Bastion. The helicopter journey from Jackson began on 12 August and ended at Inkerman on the 17th. About five days was spent—along with many thousands of dollars in helicopter time—to travel four miles. Even Generals can have difficulty scheduling flights. Interestingly, when I talk with the folks who reserve helicopter space, they say the Generals are generally easy-going about the lack of a seat, but that Colonels often become irate.

For the rest of the report click here

ISAF Commander Submits Strategic Assessment

General Stanley McChrystal, the Commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan forwarded his strategic assessment today to the Commander, U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus, and the Commander, Joint Force Command Brunssum, General Egon Ramms, who will comment and forward through their respective chains of command to the U.S. Secretary of Defense and NATO Secretary General.

“The situation in Afghanistan is serious, but success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort,” said McChrystal.

The assessment, which was directed by U.S. Secretary of Defense and NATO Secretary General, seeks to implement NATO’s Comprehensive Strategic Political Military Plan and the U.S. President’s strategy to reduce the capability and will of the insurgents, Al Qaeda and trans-national extremists, support the growth in capacity and development of the Afghan National Security Forces, and to facilitate improvements in governance and socio-economic development.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

British Chinook helicopter deliberately destroyed in Afghanistan

A British Chinook helicopter was deliberately destroyed by ISAF Forces at 1605 local time having sustained damage on landing approximately 10km East of Sangin at 0530 this morning, Sunday 30 August 2009.

In addition to four crew members, the helicopter was carrying 15 soldiers from 2 RIFLES Battlegroup who were being inserted into the area as part of an ongoing security operation.

The crew and passengers were unharmed.

The aircraft is believed to have suffered a 'hard landing' and sustained damage to the undercarriage, nose and front rotor which subsequently made it unflyable.

The troops continued with the operation and the crew were extracted by one of the two other Chinooks also on the operation.

Despite all options being investigated, due to the location and the environment, the decision was taken that the aircraft could not safely be recovered and so it was subsequently destroyed by military personnel using explosives.

The cause of the incident is under investigation however there is no evidence to suggest that it was caused by enemy action.

Options for replacement of this aircraft are being considered and in the meantime assets from the joint ISAF helicopter force will be made available to ensure there is no loss of operational effectiveness.

Brown pledges extra troop support

Gordon Brown has promised more support for UK troops in Afghanistan, during a surprise visit to the country.

Speaking from Helmand province, he pledged greater protection for troops from roadside bombs, which hours earlier claimed another British life.

His plans, which include the training of another 50,000 Afghan soldiers, came in the wake of criticism that UK forces are under-resourced.

The Conservatives said he was "woefully slow" in properly equipping soldiers.

As the prime minister was flying home from Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence announced the death of the 208th UK soldier to have died in Afghanistan since 2001.

A Royal Marine was killed on foot patrol in Helmand early on Saturday morning.

On his fourth visit to the country this year, the prime minister said that getting another 50,000 Afghan troops trained by November 2010 would enable them to "take more responsibility for their own affairs".

He said new equipment was being brought in to the field, such as more armoured vehicles.

"[This is] new equipment simply to give better protection to our forces and at the same time to make them more manoeuvrable.

"That - working with a big lift in the Afghan forces - is going to be the next stage of the post-election effort in Afghanistan."

In 40-degree heat in the Helmand capital of Lashkar Gah, Mr Brown viewed the reconstruction work being carried out, and met Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff, and US commander General Stanley McChrystal.

In promising greater help to counter the threat of improvised devices - which have caused a heavy toll among British forces - Mr Brown said another 200 extra anti-IED (improvised explosive device) specialists would be deployed in the autumn.

There would also be more unmanned surveillance aircraft and better protected vehicles, he said.

All these measures are to be paid for out of government reserves, over and above the defence budget.

The BBC's deputy political editor, James Landale, who was in Helmand with the prime minister, said that training that number of Afghans so quickly could potentially require an increase in the number of British troops.

There are currently 9,000 UK troops in the country, mostly in Helmand.

Shadow defence secretary Liam Fox said: "IEDs are the single biggest killer of British forces in Afghanistan and this government has been woefully slow to provide our troops with the equipment they need to minimise the risk to them in a very dangerous environment.

"While we welcome this much needed increase in counter-IED capability, the prime minister has left many questions unanswered."

These include, said Mr Fox, what will happen to the extra 900 troops temporarily deployed to provide increased security for the elections, and why so few of the 158 Ridgback protected vehicles ordered two years ago were now on the frontline.

Karzai talks

Former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, Colonel Richard Kemp, said increasing Afghan Army numbers from 85,000 to 135,000 in that time frame was possible if the US and UK invested sufficient resources.

"It's essential we get them trained to give us some sort of exit strategy," he said, otherwise there was a danger the mission would lose public support and "drift".

While in the country, the prime minister spoke on the phone with President Hamid Karzai and his leading opponent, Abdullah Abdullah.

British troops had been trying to secure parts of Helmand ahead of the presidential election nine days ago.

The latest results showed President Karzai widening his lead and edging closer to the 50% required to avoid a run-off.

BBC correspondent Chris Morris, in Kabul, said that counting of votes has been slow amid "massive" allegations of fraud directed at the government.

Last week the new head of the British army, General Sir David Richards, pledged to focus on the military effort in Afghanistan, as he took over the role.

Gordon Brown makes surprise visit to rally forces in Helmand

As the premier hints more troops may be sent to support a new surge, a Royal Marine is killed

By Brian Brady, Whitehall Editor

Gordon Brown made a surprise visit to the front line in Afghanistan yesterday as part of a concerted effort to tackle criticisms that the battle against the Taliban was being undermined by troop and equipment shortages.

Amid spiralling concerns over the human cost of the campaign, the Prime Minister arrived in Helmand province to pledge further protection against the lethal roadside bombs that have helped push the British death toll beyond 200 in recent months. But the trip was overshadowed when the Ministry of Defence announced, soon after he left the country, that a Royal Marine had been killed in an explosion during a foot patrol in the area, bringing total British losses to 208.

Reports from Afghanistan last night suggested that Mr Brown had hinted that he could send more troops to back up another "surge" against the Taliban in the coming months. However, neither officials in London nor those travelling with the Prime Minister could substantiate the claims.

In a calculated response to rumours of an increase in the international presence in Afghanistan, Mr Brown highlighted the Afghans' responsibility for helping to restore order themselves. He said local forces should accelerate their training as part of a strategy to increase Afghan control over the country. The Prime Minister said the target of training 134,000 Afghan soldiers by the end of 2011 should be brought forward to November 2010. He also pledged British help to double the number of recruits – to 4,000 a month – to an army currently just under 90,000 strong.

"We can get another 50,000 Afghan armed personnel trained in the next year," Mr Brown said, during a two-hour visit to Camp Bastion in Lashkar Gah. "Stepping that up means Afghans take more responsibility for their own affairs, backed up by partnering and mentoring by British forces."

The decision to concentrate on the Afghans' role in rebuilding their own country comes as Britain is expected to come under US pressure to increase its troop presence beyond its present level of around 9,000. The Independent yesterday revealed that, once the Afghan election result is clear, General Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan, will ask for 20,000 more international troops. Mr Brown held talks with General McChrystal as part of his visit.

But the question of sending more troops to Afghanistan presents critical problems for Mr Brown, as support for the conflict has plummeted and the number of British casualties has soared during recent months.

Mr Brown spoke by phone to the incumbent Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, and his challenger Abdullah Abdullah. He said he made it "absolutely clear" to both that the UK expects Afghanistan to train more soldiers.

The latest polling released yesterday showed President Karzai extending his lead in last week's vote, but still falling short of the 50 per cent needed to avoid a run-off. The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan said he had 46 per cent of the vote and Mr Abdullah 31 per cent, with barely a third of the votes counted. The country will be plunged into a run-off if no candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the first-round vote, and final results of the election are not expected until the middle of next month.

During his visit, Mr Brown discussed improved techniques for detecting and disabling improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which have killed three-quarters of the soldiers who have died in Afghanistan. He said Britain would double the number of specialist troops it has in the country for dealing with the bombs, from 200 to 400, by the end of the year and increase flights by unmanned surveillance aircraft that provide intelligence to track and target bomb makers.

Mr Brown said: "This has been a most difficult summer in Afghanistan, because the Taliban have tried to prevent elections taking place. I think our forces have shown extraordinary courage during this period.

"They know the reason why we are here and that our security at home depends on a stable Afghanistan – no return of the Taliban and no role for al-Qa'ida in the running of Afghanistan."

The Prime Minister flew into Lashkar Gah, where he was joined by Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff, and General McChrystal.

The shadow Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, said Mr Brown had been "woefully slow" to provide British troops with the equipment and claimed that his visit had failed to answer a number of significant questions about the British mission in Afghanistan, including the supply of Ridgeback armoured vehicles.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Helmand Province? Yes, this makes a change from Ardoyne on the Twelfth...

Reforming the Afghan National Police is an essential part of the military effort in Afghanistan. During day two of our special series Lesley-Anne Henry travels to the provincial capital of Helmand to meet the men using the skills honed in Northern Ireland to help build the new force

“This is the first Twelfth of July that I haven't spent standing at the Ardoyne shop fronts since about 1993,” Belfast police officer Peter Leckey said.

Instead of policing parades and riots in a soggy north Belfast, the 44-year-old PSNI inspector is training and mentoring dozens of Afghan National Police (ANP) officers in the blistering heat of the Helmand.

Based at Lashkar Gah — the British Task Force headquarters in Afghanistan — he has spent the last six months trying to reform the fledgling police force into a credible service accepted by the local population.

“In terms of a police service it is a police service in it's infancy and is very different from what you'd expect to find in Europe and the United Kingdom. But that's simply because of the circumstances in which they find themselves in.

“At the moment, their role is very much a security role — guarding checkpoints, guarding key personalities, key places and where necessary fighting the insurgency alongside ISAF troops and the Afghan National Army.

“By definition we talk about policing and think about community policing and whereas that will ultimately be the goal for the ANP the circumstances for that development aren't exactly favourable. The phrase the military use is, it's very kinetic — there is a lot going on.”

Omagh-born Royal Irish Regiment officer Major Gareth Duncan (37) has been deployed to Helmand for nine months and is drawing on experience working with the RUC and PSNI in Tyrone and Fermanagh to train the new policemen and women.

He added: “I've worked many years with the police in joint patrolling, planning and training. While I wouldn't say it's similar, there are definitely experiences that have come across from Northern Ireland to help me in this role.

“Just being able to understand that the police are different from the Army, they've got a different agenda. We are there to protect on the periphery while the police do community policing, investigating skills.

“It's a slow process but a worthwhile process. There's no time frame for the time we'll be here but we'll be here until the job is done and we feel that we are leaving behind a security force that can both look after themselves and be able to manage themselves.”

The ANP is infamous for being corrupt but Belfast man Captain John Steele (29) believes the steps they have taken to make them accountable will help to kick start day-to-day life.

The Royal Military Police officer, who has been training the ANP in the towns of Helmand, has come into close contact with the Taliban.

“All of the troops here who have done the police mentoring have encountered the Taliban at some stage and we have actually suffered losses as a result. Sgt Ben Ross was killed in May by a suicide bomber in Gereshk.

“It would be difficult to say how hard it has been. It has been difficult but you can see the progress that we have made.

“In the places that we have been to you can see a growth in the local activity and that people can get day to day groceries and if the Taliban are stopping them the police are quite keen to kick start day to day life and keep that going.

“You do meet different receptions, but I would say on the whole where we gain their trust then that trust is reciprocated and really they are glad to see us and the Afghan Police.”

Read more:

US wants 20,000 more troops to fight Taliban

British and American soldiers to shoulder brunt of surge's next phase

By Kim Sengupta in Kabul

The commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan will ask for 20,000 more international troops as part of his new strategic plan for the alliance's war against a resurgent Taliban, The Independent has learned.

The demand from General Stanley McChrystal will almost certainly lead to more British soldiers being sent to the increasingly treacherous battlegrounds of Helmand, the Taliban heartland, despite growing opposition to the war.

General McChrystal, tasked with turning the tide in the battle against the insurgency on the ground, has given a presentation of his draft report to senior Afghan government figures in which he also proposes raising the size of the Afghan army and police force.

But the request for troop reinforcements will come at a time of intensifying public debate about the role of the Nato mission. Last month saw a record number of troop deaths and injuries in a conflict that has claimed more than 200 British soldiers since the start of the US-led invasion in 2001. British losses rose sharply last month with 22 deaths, making it the bloodiest month for UK forces since the Falklands war. August has been the deadliest month for American troops in the eight-year war. Most of the deaths have come from lethal roadside bombs that Western troops appear unable to combat effectively. For the first time, the American public now views the fight against the Taliban as unwinnable, according to the most recent opinion polls.

The conduct of the Afghan government has not helped the mood on either side of the Atlantic. While US, British and other foreign troops are dying in what is supposedly a mission to rid Afghanistan of al-Qa'ida militants and make the country safe for democracy, the incumbent President stands accused of forging alliances with brutal warlords and overseeing outright fraud in an attempt to "steal" the national elections, the results of which are still being counted.

Last week, General David Petraeus, the head of US Central Command, intervened against a backdrop of heightened debate about the UK's military role. He stressed that the objective of the war was "to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a sanctuary for al-Qa'ida and other extremists".

According to General McChrystal's draft plan, the number of Afghan troops would rise from 88,000 to 250,000, and the police force from 82,000 to 160,000 by 2012. These increases are higher than expected, with previous suggestions that the totals would be raised to 134,000 and 120,000 for the army and police respectively.

The US commander will, however, ask other Nato countries to send further reinforcements and will travel shortly to European capitals to discuss the issue. It is widely expected that the UK will send up to 1,500 more troops. At the same time, a force of 700 sent to help provide security for the Afghan elections last week on a temporary basis will become a permanent presence.

Following the withdrawal from Iraq, British military commanders, backed by the then Defence Secretary, John Hutton, had recommended in the spring that up to 2,500 extra troops could be sent to Afghanistan. However, following lobbying from the Treasury, Gordon Brown agreed to only the temporary deployment of 700. Criticism of the decision by senior officers has led, it is claimed, to Downing Street changing its stance.

General McChrystal, who replaced Gen David McKiernan as Nato chief in Afghanistan earlier this year, was originally due to produce his strategic report this month, but decided to wait until after the Afghan presidential election. According to Western and Afghan sources he is continuing to take soundings from various quarters and the finalised document is due out after it becomes clear whether or not a second round of voting is needed to decide the outcome of the poll.

As part of an initial troop surge overseen by General McChrystal, the US has already committed to boosting its forces from 31,000 to 68,000 this year. However Richard Holbrooke, President Obama's envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan was told by commanders in Afghanistan last week that those numbers would not be enough for what is being viewed as defining months of fighting to come.

In his meeting with Afghan officials, General McChrystal is reported to have stated that the extra troops would be needed to enforce a new policy of maintaining a presence in the areas captured from insurgents. This will provide security for residents and allow reconstruction and development.

Other Nato nations have the option of focusing on the training of Afghan security forces. However, say American officials, failure by Nato countries to "step up to the plate" would mean the shortfall would be covered by the US.

Diplomatic sources have also revealed that plans are being drawn up to sign a "compact" between Afghanistan and the US which will reiterate Washington's commitment to the security of Afghanistan while the Afghan government pledges to combat corruption and reinforce governance. Unlike previous international agreements over Afghanistan, the compact will be bilateral, without any other governments being involved. The timing of the agreement is due to coincide with a visit by Mr Karzai to New York, if, as expected, he emerges the election winner.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Life in Helmand, Afghanistan

My soldiers have fought with resilience... When the Taliban have tried to take them on we have won every time

The Co Down man in charge of British forces in Helmand Province has spoken of pride at his troops' achievements during one of the military's most difficult tours of duty.

Brigadier Tim Radford, head of 19 Light Brigade, the first full-sized brigade to deploy from Northern Ireland since WWII, paid tribute to the bravery, courage and sacrifice shown by the 3,000 soldiers who left bases at Antrim, Holywood, Lisburn and Ballykinler for a six-month stint in one of the world's most dangerous places.

Speaking during a rarely given media briefing, the Thiepval-based Brigadier said: “The soldiers in my brigade have worked extremely hard over a hard summer and they have fought with resilience and fortitude at every turn. And when the Taliban have tried to take them on with force we have won every time.

“I think what's really important is how they have done it in terms of the judgement and measure they have shown on the ground during very trying conditions.”

He added: “19 Light Brigade is the first brigade to deploy from Northern Ireland since the Second World War. It is a reflection of military bases in Northern Ireland being treated the same as those in England and elsewhere in the UK, rather than as an operational theatre for the British Army. On a personal level I am very proud to be commanding a Task Force that has left the place where I grew up and where I still have many friends.”

But Brigadier Radford, who is a former Methodist College student, also warned that peace could not be achieved by the military alone.

With the death toll soaring to 207 and casualty figures undisclosed it is the military who are taking the biggest losses.

“Afghanistan, like Northern Ireland, will not find a solution by purely military means. But the physical environment in Afghanistan is very different and the fighting here is much more intense,” he said.

Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion The Mercians, 2 Rifles, 38 Engineer Regiment and Combat Service Support Battalion, deployed from Northern Ireland back in March, have been the lead forces in Helmand.

Few regiments have escaped without serious casualties or losses but for the Ballykinler-based 2nd Battalion The Rifles it has been a particularly devastating tour. The unit is based at Sangin — a Taliban stronghold in northern Helmand — and have lost 12 men to date.

For the engineers’ deployment was made even more difficult after the shooting of Sappers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar in a RIRA attack at Massereene in March.

Brigadier Radford said: “We have had a tough tour but morale remains high. In many cases the loss of a colleague only serves to harden the resolve of the soldiers to continue the fight in their name.

“I speak to the Commanding Officer of 2 Rifles, Lt Colonel Rob Thomson, on a daily basis and I visit them in Sangin and the outlying stations as often as I can. Whilst they have taken some big hits during the tour the commanding officer has led them brilliantly.

“I am full of admiration for them and what they have achieved.”

Asked about whether the threat from dissident republicans made it more difficult leaving family back at base in Northern Ireland, the brigadier said his soldiers were looking forward to finishing the operational tour and returning to their bases.

He added: “Everybody who leaves home for six months misses their family and friends but I think we are extremely well looked after by the home team and it will be great to be able to go back home at the end of the summer.

“I believe the public in Northern Ireland are fully behind the soldiers serving in Afghanistan, judging by the letters we receive and the send-off we received when we left back in April. We are very much looking forward to returning to Northern Ireland in October.”

Tough task faces new army chief

By Caroline Wyatt
Defence correspondent, BBC News

Gen Sir Richard Dannatt has handed over his post as professional head of the British army, or Chief of the General Staff, to Gen Sir David Richards.

His appointment comes at one of the most testing times for the west's mission in Afghanistan, amid increasing public scepticism over whether the sacrifices being made in Helmand are worth it.

Providing the necessary military leadership will be no easy task, while the new chief of the general staff faces leadership challenges on many other fronts, too.

He will not only be fighting a growing insurgency in southern Afghanistan, but also battling for resources for the Army back in Whitehall, at a time of increasing financial strain and competition amid all three services for future spending.

'Too outspoken'

The man he has taken over from, Gen Sir Richard Dannatt, often found himself at odds with ministers, and was seen by some as too outspoken on issues ranging from soldiers' pay and accommodation to the number of British helicopters in Helmand.

Gen Dannatt, who retires after 40 years in the Army, is due to take up the post of chairman of the Royal United Services Institute think-tank, as well as becoming constable of the Tower of London.

Gen Richards is seen as a good communicator who is also politically astute, and perhaps more likely to fight his battles behind closed doors.

He has extensive operational experience in East Timor, Sierra Leone, and - crucially - first-hand knowledge of the challenges in Afghanistan gained as commander of Nato coalition forces there between 2006 and 2007, another key period in the battle against the insurgency.

Gen Richards, 57, has called himself "a seat-of-the-pants soldier", and has said that during his time in Afghanistan, the people and the country "entered my bloodstream".

His tour of duty there earned him an operational KCB - a knighthood - while his mission in Sierra Leone in 2000 - during which he persuaded Tony Blair and Robin Cook to allow him to return and run a bigger intervention to finish off the job successfully - saw him awarded a DSO for his leadership and 'moral courage', as well as a CBE for the operation he commanded in East Timor in 1999.

As well as trying to ensure the right resources for Britain's part in the multi-national effort in Afghanistan, Gen Richards must also focus on consultations in Whitehall ahead of the forthcoming strategic defence review.

The review will bring to a head difficult decisions that must be faced by all three services on equipment, capabilities and priorities for the UK's Armed Forces.

However, the long-running campaign that the new professional head of the British Army inherits in Afghanistan is likely to provide some of the greatest of his immediate challenges.

PICTURES: 12 Squadron Tornado GR4s at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan

12 Squadron Tornado GR4 at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fusilier Shaun Bush dies of wounds sustained in Afghanistan

It is with great sadness that the Ministry of Defence must confirm that Fusilier Shaun Bush from 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers died at the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine, Selly Oak, on Tuesday 25 August 2009.

Fusilier Bush died of wounds he had sustained in Afghanistan. He had been taking part in a foot patrol in Sangin district, Helmand province, on Saturday 15 August when an explosive device detonated, killing his colleague Sergeant Simon Valentine.

Fusilier Bush was attempting to rescue Sergeant Valentine in the aftermath of this, when there was a second explosion.

Fusilier Bush sustained serious injuries and was returned to Selly Oak for treatment. Sadly, despite the best efforts of medical staff, he lost his fight for life ten days later.

Fusilier Shaun Bush

Fusilier Shaun Bush was born on 17 May 1985 and grew up in Warwickshire. At 21 years of age he joined his local regiment, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. On completion of his training at the Infantry Training Centre (ITC) Catterick he passed out as a Fusilier and reported for duty to 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (2 RRF) in Cyprus.

Fusilier Bush, known as 'Bushy' to his friends, saw his first operational tour in Afghanistan when his platoon went to Kabul as part of the Theatre Reserve Battalion in early 2007.

On return to Cyprus, Fusilier Bush went on to complete a sharpshooter course, the first step to becoming a sniper. He then returned home to Warwickshire for a few months where he worked in the recruiting office in Bramcote and helped recruit the next generation of Fusiliers.

Fusilier Bush then returned to the battalion which had subsequently moved to Hounslow in West London and immediately started to return to form as a battalion boxer.

Having been an indomitable boxer in Cyprus, where he won his fight in the annual regimental boxing competition, he returned to the team and spent many hours training hard for his next fight. His real passion in life though was football. A life-long Coventry City fan, he also cut an impressive figure on the pitch whilst playing with the battalion football team.

Fusilier Bush, a keen soldier, worked hard in the field and especially in the build up to his second tour of Afghanistan. After several hard live firing exercises in Otterburn, and other pre-deployment training, Fusilier Bush deployed with his platoon to Sangin in Helmand province. Fusilier Bush was from Coventry.

Fusilier Bush's father, Carl, paid the following tribute:

"Shaun was an extremely brave soldier who died while doing the job that he loved. He wanted to serve with the Army from a very young age. Shaun was a tremendous athlete who excelled at both football and boxing.

"He was a kind and generous man who was very family-orientated and he would not hesitate to help others in need. He was extremely proud of his sister Hannah and brother Lewis. He will be sorely missed by both his friends and family."

Fusilier Bush's girlfriend, Amy Taggart, said:

"Shaun was more than just my boyfriend, he was my best friend. He was my first and only true love. He taught me what true love is. I'll never stop loving him and I know he'll always love me, because he was true to his word and would always say what he thought.

"I feel lost without him already; his gorgeous face, his beautiful eyes, the smell of his hair and the sound of his voice. I'll never forget any of these things and there are so many more things that I have to remind me of him.

"I don't know what I will do without my soul mate, the man of my dreams, my perfect match. I am devastated to have lost him, but so proud to have known him; to have shared part of my life with him and to say that he was mine. My beautiful brave hero. xxx"

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Karzai, Abdullah at 40 percent in partial returns

President Hamid Karzai and top challenger Abdullah Abdullah both have roughly 40 percent of the nationwide vote for president with 10 percent of ballots counted, the country's election commission said yesterday.

The commission said Karzai has 40.6 percent and Abdullah has 38.7 percent in the country's first official returns since the nation voted for president last Thursday.

The early returns are based on only 10 percent of the country's ballots. The commission plans to release partial results each day the next several days. Final, certified results won't be made public until mid or late September.

The commission said it had based the count on 524,000 valid votes after throwing out about 31,000. Less than 2 percent of Kandahar votes have been counted, and no votes in Helmand have been counted, the commission said. Karzai would expect to do well in both provinces, suggesting his returns could go higher.

If neither Karzai or Abdullah gets more than 50 percent of the votes, the two will face each other again in a run-off.

Karzai supporters have already said that the president won close to 70 percent of the vote, but Abdullah has alleged that massive fraud has been carried out in favor of the president.

"If the widespread rigging is ignored this is the type of regime that will be imposed upon Afghanistan for the next five years, and with that sort of a system, a system that has destroyed every institution, broken every law," Abdullah said at a news conference just before the results were announced.

Six Afghan presidential candidates, including one being floated as a potential "chief executive" for the next government, warned Tuesday that fraud allegations threaten to undermine the recent election and could stoke violence.

Low voter turnout and allegations of fraud have cast a pall over the election. In particular, some worry that supporters of Abdullah could vent fury if he comes in second with no chance at a runoff.

Helmand’s Bomb Fight, Up Close and Personal with US EOD

By Noah Shachtman from Wired

The robot was back in the armored truck, and the truck was parked across the canal. That meant US Gunnery Sgt. Tony Lindsey had to get right up close to the pair of improvised bombs, and try to get rid of the things by hand.

This isn’t the way he is supposed to operate. During the Iraq war, the military gave explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technicians like Lindsey a heap of new gear to help them dispose of jury-rigged bombs in relative safety. Forget the “pull the red wire” cliché. These newly-outfitted bomb squads drove up to the hazard zone in hard-shelled, blast-deflecting vehicles. Radio frequency jammers blocked the signals that remotely detonated the explosives. Bomb-handling robots picked the weapons apart, while the EOD teams stayed inside their heavily-armored trucks.

But the improvised explosive device (IED) fight has shifted here in Helmand province — the epicenter of America’s renewed war in Afghanistan. Unlike Iraq, there aren’t many paved roads for the robots and the armored vehicles to roll down. And it’s so hot, EOD technicians like Lindsey don’t even bother wearing the heavy protective suits that are supposed to give them some semblance of protection. Besides, the bombs here are so big and so deadly, the suits wouldn’t help much, if everything went bad.

Which left Lindsey staring at two steel pipes, each 15 inches long, six inches wide, and packed with homemade explosives. Spark plugs, motorcycle gears and ball bearings provided the improvised shrapnel.

Lindsey says he wasn’t any more nervous than usual when he goes out on a bomb disposal call. But he knew he was taking an extra risk. “Any time we gotta leave the truck, the threat is stepped up. Ordinarily, we sit inside the truck so if something blows up, we’ll be alright,” he tells me.

The bombs were sitting off the side of a dirt road bisected by a canal, a few hundred meters south of an outpost from Echo company of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines. Lindsey and his partner, Staff Sgt. Andrew Toothman, did manage to get rid of the IEDs — detonating them in place with explosives of their own.

Which meant there were only two more bombs to go. A few hundred meters to the west, near a canal winding through a tree-lined corn field, an Echo company Marine had noticed a wire poking out of the dirt. He brushed it away with his hand, and saw a metal tube — another IED. A second was next to it. Most of his squad had walked right by them both.

Taliban militants have been trying all sorts of trickery to keep their bombs from being seen. They’ve used pressure-triggered IEDs, tied together with wood and rubber, to avoid being picked up by metal detectors. They’ve buried bombs underground, or placed them near small footpaths and berms, where they can blend in with the foliage.

Some of the bombs have been huge: 40- or 50-pound-jugs filled with homemade explosives. That’s enough to rip a Humvee in half — or send a soldier with the Afghan National Army flying dozens of feet in the air. Which makes Toothman and Lindsey’s inability to use their robots and their bomb-resistant trucks even more frustrating. They’ve had to trudge through mud, and swim through a goat-dung-filled canal just to handle the deadly threats.

Lindsey and Toothman blew up the second pair of IEDs – sending a chest-thumping shockwave more than a hundred meters away. Then they walked back, got inside their armored vehicle, a drove about a kilometer back to their base.

Life-saving care from the skies

The Medical Emergency Response Team – the British Forces Airmobile Hospital - is continuing to provide life-saving treatment from the skies across Helmand despite experiencing one of their busiest summers ever.

The MERT is a Chinook helicopter fully equipped with the latest medical technology to allow a specialist trauma team to provide cutting edge treatment to the most seriously injured troops on the battlefield.

The team are on call 24/7; flying into danger zones to pick up casualties, they are literally saving lives on a daily basis. The call can come at any time.


Typically the round of steaming hot tea had only just been put into the hands of the flight crew when the phone went off. “Yes, that’s us,” said the pilot putting down the receiver. Within seconds the atmosphere changes from jovial banter to serious professionalism.

Minutes later the team are on the helicopter and en route to a village in the Nad Ali district from their base in Camp Bastion.

After a gut wrenching flight over potentially hostile territory, the flight lands in a small clearing outside of an Afghan village compound.

The victim - 15 year old Patay Muhammad – is brought on board by stretcher. The bottom part of his leg is missing, the stump covered by a first-aid field dressing. Within seconds the MERT takes off and heads back to Camp Bastion’s Hospital unit.

The teenager’s father, who has come aboard with him, looks on anxiously:

“My boy was out helping his uncle. He’d been sent out to fetch a goat when shortly after there was an explosion,” he said.

“I appreciate this help and the treatment he will receive in the hospital – it would take much money to have him treated at a private hospital.

I am very pleased with the behaviour of the British, it was very nice,” he added.

As Helmand Province’s combat air ambulance, the MERT operates in some of the most challenging environments imaginable.

Working as a flying emergency department, they’re supported by a bomb disposal team, fire and rescue unit and an infantry close protection squad.

Once back at Bastion’s state of the art hospital, young Patay is surrounded by a dozen medics who rush to continue the life saving work of the MERT.

Watching over the scene is Colonel Tim Hodgetts, Bastion’s field hospital medical director:

“The standard of care here is second to none - it is world-leading. You will not find this standard of care elsewhere,” he said.

Although many of the casualties who come through the hospital at Bastion are injured coalition forces soldiers, it has seen 200 Afghan Nationals pass through its doors in the last four months.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Afghans move toward reconciliation with Taliban

Once the national elections are behind them, local Afghan leaders will step up efforts to reconcile with midlevel Taliban in the extremists' southern Helmand province stronghold, a key provincial official said Monday.

Helmand Gov. Gullab Mangal called reconciliation efforts the next top project.

There is little hope of even an attempt by U.S. forces for a cease-fire agreement with Taliban leaders. But officials are looking to turn what some call the "ten-dollar Taliban" — locals who are hired to fight for the militants.

"We have seen that they also are interested — that the middle-level Taliban are also interested in reconciliation," Mangal told U.S. Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, in a meeting Monday in Mangal's Lashkar Gah office.

Mangal said he was starting to work on a reconciliation strategy.

"The presidential election was the top project. We're working real hard on that," Mangal said. "After this, we will try our best, we will work on this project, reconciliation."

Conway was in Afghanistan to meet with U.S. troops and discuss with other military officials whether he will need to send in more Marines.

Mangal and Conway agreed that Afghan security forces are needed in the south, a decision that Mangal said would be made in Kabul. They also discussed making sure civilians are evacuated from villages before any future operations Marines might launch. Enemy extremists often use civilians as shields, or otherwise hold them hostage in a deliberate attempt to blame deaths on U.S. and NATO forces.

Later, at a dust-coated dirt castle in Khan Neshin, a local Afghan leader told Conway that troops already have cleared Taliban extremists from his district. Now, villagers want to know how long the Marines will remain to keep the militants away, said Massoud Achmad Rassouli Balouchi, the Khan Neshin district governor.

Conway said his troops would remain as long as they are needed.

"You tell us what the timing is," Conway told Balouchi in a cramped room in the dirt-castle compound. "Until then you tell us what needs to happen."

How long, and how many, U.S. forces will remain in Afghanistan also is very much on the minds of troops and civilian government-building teams across Helmand. Conway has said he expects to be asked to send more troops, although he does not want the total number of Marines in Afghanistan to exceed 18,000. There are just over 11,000 Marines currently in the country, meaning the Pentagon could order deploying an additional regiment of up about 7,000 Marines.

Civilian officials from the U.S. State Department and the British government also are calling for more U.S. troops to stabilize communities. Officials privately say it's not clear they can assure the Afghan people they are safe to set up local government system without more troops.

Last month, two hours after landing at their base Khan Neshin, Marines whose vehicle had broken down came under rocket shelling and gunfire. They were under fire for the next three days, said Lance Cpl. Thomas Herr.

"They were right around the corner," said Herr, 20, of Umatilla, Fla., describing mortar attacks and small-arms fire from extremists.

"Lately, since the election, we've mostly been IDF'ed," he said, referring to indirect fire, usually mortar attacks.

He did not know whether the troops' returned fire was successful.

Surveillance planes "keep saying they're dragging off bodies, but we don't know, and we haven't found any," Herr said.

"They're pretty good at covering their tracks," said another Marine.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Bad Medicine: Michael Yon

Helmand Province, Afghanistan

The British soldiers of 2 Rifles had a mission: clear and hold Pharmacy Road.

FOB Jackson is currently home to Battlegroup headquarters for 2 Rifles. The area around the river is called the “Green Zone,” but just as appropriately could be called the Opium Zone. During season, the area is covered with colorful poppies, whose 2009 products are probably showing up by now on the streets in Europe.

European money flows back here and buys fertilizer in the Sangin Market, which can be used to make bombs, produce more opium, get more money and make more bombs and grow more opium and make more money and bombs and grow more opium. Sangin is at once an ATM and weapons bazaar for the enemy. Nearly all fatalities in this unit have been caused by fertilizer bombs. The decision to mostly ignore the drug dealers has been a strategic blunder.

This mission was about tactical exigencies created by the strategic realities. Though FOB Jackson is small enough to walk from one end to another in a few minutes, it is the main base in Sangin, with smaller patrol bases spread around the Sangin area of operations. Two of those bases are Patrol Base (PB) Tangiers and PB Wishtan.

Tangiers is an Afghan National Army (ANA) PB often used by 2 Rifles, while PB Wishtan is manned by C Coy of 2 Rifles. (“Coy” is British for “Company.”)
From Jackson, one can often see or hear fighting related to Tangiers or Wishtan while tracers arc into the night, and illumination rounds cast long, flickering shadows as they float to Earth under parachutes.

Though PB Tangiers seems randomly named, PB Wishtan is named after the local area which the locals call Wishtan. The main resupply route from Jackson to PB Wishtan goes through the Sangin Market, past Tangiers, and west along the approximate 1 kilometer of Pharmacy Road through Wishtan to PB Wishtan.

British soldiers from 2 Rifles said they had sustained approximately twenty fatalities and injuries in the area. (More were killed and wounded in Sangin since this mission.) The situation is reminiscent of so many roads in Iraq, such as Route Irish, previously dubbed the most dangerous road in the world. The short stretch of Route Irish is situated between main bases in Baghdad.

Since we never had enough troops in Iraq, the route was difficult to secure despite that it was a short stretch with bustling military traffic nestled between huge bases. A lot of people were killed and maimed on that short stretch—I have little idea of the numbers of casualties on Irish—but the total must have reached at least the hundreds. Irish was eventually made far more secure by allocating substantial Iraqi and Coalition troops along with what must have been many millions of dollars’ worth of physical defenses, all augmented with frequent coverage from the air.

Despite that, car bombs, IEDs and small-arms attacks continued to occur on a less frequent basis. I’ve probably driven Irish a hundred times with no dramas, but it was never safe. Despite international infamy and the sharp political desire to secure at least one small stretch of road between main bases in Baghdad, Irish was never completely secured. Pharmacy Road in Wishtan is a small-town redux of Route Irish in Baghdad.

Pharmacy Road was effectively closed by enemy harrasment, including a blockage caused by two blown-up vehicles (a “jingo truck” and a British tractor). Resupply and troop movements were performed by helicopter, despite that a patrol could walk from Jackson to Wishtan in an hour, and straight driving would only take fifteen minutes. A bypass route was made with similar results. Captain Alexander Spry told me that Wishtan is like something from a Freddy Kreuger movie where bombs are planted in broad daylight and the enemy chisels small firing holes through the fifteen-foot walls and launches bullets down the tight spaces and alleyways.

The Afghan mud walls are so robust that the 30mm cannons from the air will not penetrate. Dropping a 500lb bomb into the middle of a compound will leave the walls standing. In Wishtan, our snipers are of little use because they can’t see or shoot through the walls, and there is no commanding terrain other than the air.

As with Route Irish and probably hundreds (thousands?) of other routes in Iraq and Afghanistan, routes cannot be secured without pinning substantial numbers of troops. Life is far easier for the guerrilla than for the counterguerrilla, just as arson is easier for arsonists than for firefighters.

With the shortage of helicopters in mind (and the fact that an RPG was recently fired at a helicopter as it lifted out of PB Wishtan), closure of Pharmacy Road increased enemy freedom of movement while decreasing our own. Though British forces continued to push into combat around Wishtan, battlegroup commander LtCol Rob Thomson wanted Pharmacy Road open.

Most of us tried to sleep the night before the mission, but there was much to do. At one point, perhaps half a dozen 81mm mortar illumination rounds from another base were shot straight over FOB Jackson. The empty casings, weighing perhaps 2lbs each, swooshed through the darkness, possibly at several hundred miles per hour, and thumped onto Jackson. (Terminal velocity varies from object to object.) One casing was heading toward a sergeant named Marty who runs Flight Ops. Marty hit the dirt and the casing landed just next to him.

For the rest of the report and some amazing images click here

Merlin helicopters training for Afghanistan deployment

In the last step before deploying to Afghanistan, the RAF’s Merlin Helicopter Force has started a four month training exercise in the US. The Merlins, from RAF Benson in Oxfordshire, will provide vital support to operations when they arrive in Helmand, increasing the capacity of UK helicopter lift a further 25%.

The training in the US will push the crews hard and present them with some a raft of unique challenges. Two of the hardest challenges will be the environment: the ‘hot and high’ conditions.

With temperatures soaring to 50oC and rarely dropping below 35oC at night the ‘Hot’ part of the training requirement is met, along with the opportunity to test landing in dusty conditions.

‘High’ training comes in the form of mountain ranges of varying heights, which with the high temperatures means the environment allows the Merlin to operate to the limit of its capabilities, providing outstanding preparation for deployment to Afghanistan.

RAF Sergeant Tom Pringle, Merlin Crewman said:
“The environment out here is very challenging but I believe that it will prepare us well for success in Afghanistan. Train hard, fight easy. The facilities are great and the Americans have been very welcoming and supportive.”

Camp Bastion Airfield in Helmand is now the fifth-busiest UK-operated airport.

It may have been set up just three years ago, by two men, on a gravel dirt track - but new movements figures show that Camp Bastion Airfield in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province is now the fifth-busiest UK-operated airport.

Although initially designed to handle no more than three aircraft movements per week, the facility has grown to such an extent that it now handles more traffic than Luton, Edinburgh or Birmingham airports, and is busier than the Leeds-Bradford and Coventry airports put together.

The contrast between today and April 2006 is stark. On 10 April 2006 a two man control team from the RAF Tactical Air Traffic Control Unit activated the dirt track landing strip, and 90 minutes later the first aeroplane landed. What they didn’t realise was that it was to be the first of hundreds of thousands of aircraft movements to come.

Today, combat operation, medical evacuations and logistics sustainment flights all operate from what has become a vital military hub, and the air traffic controllers based at Camp Bastion are integral to the support of the Army’s operations in southern Afghanistan.

The incredible expansion has taken place mainly in the past year, under the leadership of the Royal Air Force’s 904 Expeditionary Air Wing. In late 2007 a concrete runway became operational enabling the number of movements to rise to 5,000 per month by the end of 2008. But the most rapid increase has taken place this year, as the massive in-flow of coalition aircraft to southern Afghanistan has meant an enormous rise in the intensity and complexity of air operations at Bastion.

Squadron Leader Steve Smith, Senior Air Traffic Control Officer at Camp Bastion, explained:

“You won’t find any last minute deals or duty free shops at Bastion but we’re still busier than most consumer airports. That’s a pretty impressive claim for a former dirt track! And it’s not just traditional aeroplanes that fly in and out of Bastion, we’ve got helicopters and unmanned aircrafts as well."

“Now the air traffic control team are handling on average 400 aircraft movements per day or 12,000 a month, ranking it just below Stansted Airport in terms of aircraft movement. Unlike UK airfields, Bastion Air Traffic Control have the challenge of dealing with large numbers of jets, helicopters and drones, all operating from different locations – a challenge unique to Camp Bastion.”

In order to manage the increases in the complexity and intensity of air operations at Bastion, the UK has deployed a range of Air Traffic Control equipment and personnel to ensure the airfield can operate effectively in all weather conditions. Recent improvements have seen the deployment of a brand new, state of the art, Mobile Visual Control Room, an airfield approach radar system and additional personnel.

All this new technology has been integrated, under the lead of Squadron Leader Smith, with the United States Marine Corps (USMC) precision approach radar which is also located on the airfield at Camp Bastion and is used to guide aircraft on to the runway in poor weather conditions.

In addition to incorporating the USMC equipment in to the RAF air space management system, two US marines have been trained through the RAF Air Traffic Control training system in Afghanistan and have been awarded with a certificate of competency - the RAF ‘Blue Book’ - the first time this has been done with coalition forces during operations.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Medal honour as troops come home

Picture: L/Cpl Christopher Harkett's widow and father collected the Elizabeth Cross

Wales has welcomed back 2nd Battalion the Royal Welsh after six months in Afghanistan.

Charlie Company paraded through Cardiff city centre after a tour which saw them involved in various missions.

Tributes were paid to L/Cpl Christopher Harkett, 22, of Pontardawe, who died after an explosion in Helmand.

His wife Danielle was presented with the Elizabeth Cross, given to the families of service personnel killed on operations or in acts of terrorism.

L/Cpl Harkett died after an explosion near Musa Qala on March 14, a month after the company was deployed.

He trained as a medic, a gunner and a signaller and the Army said he had had a bright future, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

Campaign medals were presented to the soldiers by four Welsh members of the British and Irish Lions rugby union squad.

They were addressed by First Minister Rhodri Morgan, who said "words cannot convey the honour" of welcoming C-Company home after a period of intense fighting.

Crowds lined the streets as 131 members of the company marched from City Hall with a regimental band and colours flying.

Hundreds more inside Cardiff castle, including friends, relatives and former service people, cheered when they entered the grounds.

The march follows one by the 1st Queen's Dragoon Guards, who paraded through Cardiff on their 50th anniversary at the end of July.

C-Company, which is is based in Lucknow Barracks, Tidworth, Wiltshire, but recruits from the whole of Wales, and it helped secure territory ahead of this week's elections.

Major Nigel Crewe-Read, officer commanding C-Company, said: "I think the overriding feeling we've had is success and not without sacrifices and L/Cpl Christopher Harkett and his family are at the forefront of our minds.

"We've defeated the Taliban whenever we've come across them and then seen the Afghan population get back up and running, re-establish schools, have power supplies, and we've ensured the Afghan security forces take ownership of the situation.

"We can reflect on a job well done."

Mr Morgan said the people of Wales should be proud of C-Company's "great courage and determination".

"While we celebrate their homecoming and safe return to their families and friends we should remember those who have lost their lives in the conflict," he said.

"We will remember, in particular L/Cpl Christopher Harkett, who should be marching through the streets of Cardiff with his comrades and our thoughts are with his family."

Saturday, August 22, 2009

VIDEO: US Combat Outpost Sharp - Helmand

Watch CBS Videos Online

Combat Outpost Sharp in Helmand Provence, Afghanistan, has been home to Echo Company for almost two months. Lara Logan reports on the how the Marines fought the Taliban for the old school building.

Soldiers fight off Taliban ambush

British troops have revealed how they fought off a Taliban ambush near an Afghan polling station.

They sped to the rescue of Afghan police who came under attack while providing election security south of Gereskh in Helmand Province on Thursday.

The UK forces then escorted ballot boxes from the polling station back to the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, to be counted.

Corporal Pete Swierczek, 34, from Dundee, of the RAF Police, attached to Foxtrot Company of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles, spent two days at an Afghan police checkpoint near a polling station close to the village of Puplazay.

The British troops were called out after an Afghan police patrol was ambushed just over a mile south of their position.

"We got the report through and thrashed out of the check point to assist," said Cpl Swierczek.

"When we arrived we came under enemy fire from two positions, and we returned fire. The reports that we got back were that the Taliban had sustained four major casualties, who were believed to be dead."

The Gurkhas were then called on to take voting papers back to Lashkar Gah for counting.

Cpl Swierczek said: "It was pretty much a case of miscommunication with the Afghan national security forces who were intended to escort the ballot papers back. I think the Afghan National Army had to be back by a certain time and the guys ran out of time."

The Gurkhas have spent their current tour in Afghanistan mentoring the Afghan National Police. Their comrades said the Gurkhas were invaluable because of their close cultural and linguistic links with the Afghans - many of them can converse in Urdu, and they share a love of Bollywood films and dishes involving goat.

Large crowds welcome soldiers back from Afghanistan

Picture - 2 Royal Welsh soldiers boarding a UK Chinook

THOUSANDS of people lined the streets of the Welsh capital today to welcome home troops from their latest tour of Afghanistan.

Soldiers from Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion the Royal Welsh, marched from Cardiff’s City Hall to the grounds of Cardiff Castle where a ceremony is being held in their honour.

The soldiers have recently returned from six months of fighting in Afghanistan and took part in Operation Panther’s Claw during a bloody tour that claimed the life of one of their comrades.

Lance Corporal Christopher Harkett, 22, from Pontardawe, Swansea, was killed in a blast near Musa Qala, in Northern Helmand, on March 14.

L/Cpl Harkett, whose family are at today’s ceremony, was deployed to Afghanistan as a sniper after two tours in Iraq.

At the time of his death, fellow soldiers described how he died after moving ahead to allow colleagues to advance.

This afternoon, a commemorative service was followed by the presentation of the Elizabeth Cross and Victoria Scroll to LCpl Harkett’s family.

Speaking at the event early this afternoon, First Minister Rhodri Morgan said: “It is an incredible honour for me to welcome back C Company the 2nd Battalion Royal Welsh on behalf of the people of Wales.

“Behind every soldier is a family, behind every family is a village and behind every village is Wales.

“We thank you.”

Commanding officer Major Nigel Crewe-Read said: “I think the overriding feeling we’ve had is success, and not without sacrifices and L/Cpl Christopher Harkett and his family are at the forefront of our minds.”

C-Company helped secure territory in Helmand province ahead of this week’s elections as part of 19 Light Brigade.

Maj Crewe-Read added: “We’ve defeated the Taliban whenever we’ve come across them and then seen the Afghan population get back up and running, re-establish schools, have power supplies, and we’ve ensured the Afghan security forces take ownership of the situation.

“We can reflect on a job well done.”

Serjeant Paul McAleese and Private Jonathon Young killed in Afghanistan

It is with great sadness that the Ministry of Defence must confirm that Serjeant Paul McAleese, of 2nd Battalion the Rifles, and Private Jonathon Young, of The 3rd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment (Duke of Wellington's), were killed in Afghanistan on Thursday 20 August 2009.

The two soldiers were killed following two explosions that happened while they were on a foot patrol taking place in Sangin District, Helmand Province on Thursday morning.

Serjeant Paul McAleese

Serjeant Paul McAleese was born in Hereford on 18 October 1979. He began his Army training in March 1997 and joined the 1st Battalion, The Royal Green Jackets in August. A natural soldier, he rose through the ranks quickly and found his calling in the Sniper Platoon.

As a Rifleman he completed the demanding Close Observation Platoon course before going on to complete the Infantry's gruelling Section Commanders' and Platoon Sergeants' Battle Courses with distinction.

A keen boxer and rugby player, Serjeant McAleese was fit and unbelievably tough. After tours of Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Kosovo, he had relished life in Afghanistan and had been outstanding as a Sniper Team Commander in Kajaki.

Recently moved to take over as a Rifle Platoon Serjeant following the injury of a colleague, he had excelled on the streets of Wishtan, Sangin and had been at the centre of so many of the incidents of the last few weeks.

One of the best of his generation, Serjeant McAleese was destined for truly great things. He died in an IED explosion on 20 August 2009 whilst helping to secure a key thoroughfare in the Sangin area as part of providing security for the elections.

Serjeant McAleese leaves his wife, Jo, and his adored young son, Charley, born just a week before he deployed to Afghanistan.

His wife Jo said:

"Mac, my husband, my best friend, my hero. You were an amazing Daddy to Charley and the best husband I could have ever asked for. We will love you and miss you for ever. We will always be so proud of what you achieved in your life and I am so, so proud to be your wife."

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

"Serjeant McAleese was one of the 'big men' in 2 Rifles whose military prowess was the envy of the rest of the Battalion. He had a huge rucksack full of talents - everyone looked up to him and wanted to be in his team. Militarily, there was nothing that he wasn't good at. He was fearsomely fit, a talented shot and a man who saw this campaign in its wider perspective.

"He had been superb in Iraq, our last encounter with the Queen's enemies, and he had stood very tall. Here in Afghanistan he has fought in Kajaki and in Sangin and died as a Platoon Serjeant, the job of all jobs, on election day, helping to give democracy a chance in Sangin.

"He had so much yet to give - he was on the track to greatness and was one of those men who was destined to promote first time, every time. The rest of us mortals could not keep up.

"His energy levels were unrivalled and he extracted the best out of my Riflemen, especially when sat behind his favourite sniper rifle. In the Serjeants' Mess, he was nothing but delightful and full of appropriately insubordinate mischief - always trying to photograph his fellow Serjeants talking to me.

"It was immensely satisfying to out-manoeuvre him once (I only did manage it once) and ensure he was 'snapped' with me.

"We will miss him dreadfully. There is a huge hole in this Battalion now that Mac has gone. And tonight, after a mad day in Sangin, it is taking time to come to terms with his loss. But, Mac, we are back in the fight. In fact we have been in the fight all day - for you as well as for the people of Sangin.

"Our first prayers now are for Joanne, his adored wife, and Charley, his precious boy of only 4 months, whom he talked about constantly. Be assured, little man, your father was a hero and we will never forget him. We will tell you all about him one day and you will be so proud."

Private Jonathon Young

Private Jonathon Andrew Young was born in Hull on 19 September 1990. He joined the Army on 24th February 2008 and completed his training at Catterick, North Yorkshire, in September 2008 before joining the 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment (Duke of Wellington's) based in Warminster, Wiltshire.

Private Young made an immediate impression for his easy going nature, good humour and faultless manners. In the short time he was in Burma Company he was recognised by all as a popular, capable soldier with great potential.

Burma Company Group were tasked to provide Battle Casualty Replacements for 19 Light Brigade in July 2009 and Private Young was quick to volunteer. He deployed with the rest of his platoon, 6 Platoon, to 2nd Battalion the Rifles on 2nd August 2009.

Since arriving in Sangin, where he and his section reinforced a Platoon still suffering from losses earlier in the tour, he demonstrated all the tenacity and no-nonsense bravery that one would expect from a Yorkshire soldier. Private Young was killed on the Afghan Election Day, 20th August 2009, on patrol near Forward Operating Base Wishtan whilst trying to secure a vital thoroughfare for the people of Sangin.

He leaves behind his mother, Angela; his brother, Carl; his sister, Leah; and his girlfriend Nicola.

His mother and family said:

"John was so handsome. He was a good son, brother, grandson, nephew, cousin and boyfriend. He will be loved and missed by all who knew him. We were so proud of our John, he was our brave heart, our Johnny Bravo. Night night Johnny Bravo."

Lieutenant Colonel Tom Vallings, Commanding Officer 3 YORKS said.

"Private Jonathon Young joined us at the 3rd Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment in October 2008 just after his 18th birthday. He had already set his mark as a robust and determined soldier who always put his friends first. He had a strength of character that forced him to be at the very centre of events and it was no surprise that he volunteered to deploy at Afghanistan at short notice.

"Private Young had only been in Afghanistan for three weeks when he was tragically killed on patrol in Sangin. Once again, he was selfishly at the forefront of the action a true Yorkshireman: proud, tough and honest. In his 18 years he has made a big impact on those who knew him and served with him. His loss is felt by us all, but none more so than by his family."

Friday, August 21, 2009

Top Military Commander in Afghanistan commends Afghan Security Forces for Afghan Election Security

General Stanley McChrystal, commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, offered his compliments to the Afghan National Security Forces’ successful efforts in ensuring Afghans’ secure access to voting polls.

“Regarding security, the Afghan National Security Forces did a commendable job addressing all security issues they encountered,” said General McChrystal. “Though violence was higher than normal, the Afghan National Security Forces effectively stopped insurgents from preventing Afghan voters’ access to the polls.”

“Today’s security posture reflects the Afghan National Security Forces’ successful planning and preparation efforts and demonstrates their professional capabilities and dedication to the future security of their nation,” General McChrystal said.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

PICTURES: Polling day in Helmand

Pictures by PA

Afghanistan Elections: Polling Day - FCO Blogger - Lisa Bandari

Lisa Bandari - First Secretary Political Kabul

I’ve just returned from a visit with the Ambassador to a polling centre in an Ismaili religious compound in Taimani, an area of Kabul, feeling exhilarated. The polling centre was busy. There were long queues outside the male and female stations, and searches before they were allowed to enter. As ever, I was flattered when the policeman on the gate mistook me for the interpreter, but tried to remember the Dari for ‘international observer’, as I wasn’t sure he could read the card I handed him.

The male and female polling stations were at different ends of the compound. Male voters were queuing in the sunshine to vote in a small tent, while the women had the better deal, voting in a building.

The women’s queue was lively, with lots of chatting. Female security staff joined hands to form a kind of cordon to keep them in check. There was a slight scuffle with one woman in the queue, and some remonstrating. I flashed my international observer card to get past the Afghan police and female staff into the centre, feeling slightly nervous about not having my male Afghan colleague with me to interpret. But I needn’t have worried.

In the centre itself, everyone was very friendly, asking me where I was from, and politely answering my questions. It was orderly and well staffed, despite having twelve cardboard polling screens crammed into one room, and lots of polling centre staff. The voters queued up in two neat rows, and entered three or four at a time. They registered showing their cards and were given two ballot papers, one for presidential and one for provincial council elections. The latter was like a small book, with over 500 candidates on the ballot. The voters disappeared behind the cardboard before carefully depositing their ballots in the ballot boxes. A stern female member of staff circulated, checked who I was, and generally kept things in order.

A line of earnest candidate agents with badges drooped round their necks watched the process keenly, clutching pens and forms. Two of them told me they were representing Abdullah, and one Karzai, and three were there on behalf of provincial council candidates. A male Spanish journalist wandered in amongst the bustle, and stood looking slightly bemused. Everyone seemed to ignore him.

I found it very heartening to see the various papers and posters on voting procedures finally come to life in a real polling centre, with engaged voters, and IEC staff who seemed to know the process. The high numbers of young women were particularly encouraging.

Reports from colleagues out on the ground suggests similar impressions in Kabul – an orderly, calm, if slightly less excited atmosphere, and IEC staff following procedures. We’re hearing reports of hole punches being a problem, and some concerns about the ink, but otherwise cautious optimism on the process so far.

Am keeping my fingers crossed for the rest of the day, but I feel privileged to have been a very small part of a very important process.

Count begins in Afghanistan as pollling stations close

Afghan officials have begun counting votes as polling sites closed in the presidential election.

Taliban threats had appeared to dampen voter turnout in the militant south with scattered rocket, suicide and bomb attacks closing some voting sites.

Low turnout in the south would harm President Hamid Karzai's re-election chances and boost the standing of his top challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.

Turnout in the north appeared to be stronger than in the south, a good sign for Abdullah.

Election officials extended voting by one hour to allow more people to vote.

International officials have predicted an imperfect election - Afghanistan's second-ever direct presidential vote - but expressed hope that Afghans would accept it as legitimate, a key component of Western war strategy.

A voting official in Kandahar, the south's largest city and the Taliban's spiritual birthplace, said voting appeared to be 40% lower than during the country's 2004 presidential election.

Militants carried out attacks around the country. Security companies in the capital reported at least five blasts, and Kabul police exchanged fire for more than an hour with a group of armed men; two suicide bombers died in the clash.

Mr Karzai, dressed in his traditional purple-and-green-striped robe, voted first thing at a Kabul high school. He dipped his index finger in indelible ink - a fraud prevention measure - and held it up for the cameras. Presidential palace officials released a rare photo of his wife casting her vote.

Mr Karzai, who has held power since the Taliban was overthrown in late 2001 by the West, is favoured to finish first among 36 official candidates, although a late surge by Mr Abdullah could force a runoff if no one wins more than 50%. Preliminary results are expected to be announced in Kabul on Saturday.

Afghans defy the Taliban rockets to vote for ‘peace and security’

A Voter in Helmand today

By Jerome Starkey

Hundreds of people defied Taliban threats and rocket attacks to vote in Afghanistan's most dangerous province today.

One boy was killed and two more were seriously injured when a volley of Taliban rockets screamed into Lashkar Gah just 20 minutes after polling opened. One landed 10 metres outside a football field where the local governor and President Hamid Karzai's local campaign manager were voting.

But with an astonishing bravery, most voters brushed aside the attacks in the capital of Helmand province. “Afghans are not women, they are brave,” said 80-year-old Faiz Mohammed. “They will come and vote.”

But Lashkar Gah's women proved their mettle as well. “I'm voting for my future and for the future of my children,” said Haja, a mother of nine, as the sound of Nato air strikes rolled across the polling station. “I want a better government, peace and security.”

Officials said turnout was far lower than Afghanistan's first presidential elections, in 2004. But across the city a steady trickle of voters braved the Taliban bombardment to vote.

Outside the city, one polling station was closed after a Taliban assault. “Fighting is still going on,” said a government source. He asked not to be named because Mr Karzai's government has ordered a news blackout on all reporting of Taliban attacks, invoking “emergency powers” that diplomats fear could be used more widely if there is post-election violence.

Rachel Reid, an Afghanistan-based Human Rights Watch researcher, attacked the move as censorship.

One girl, proudly showing off her ink-stained finger to show she had voted, admitted she was just 15. “I desperately wanted to vote,” said Shugafa. “I voted for Karzai because all my family is voting for him.” The Taliban had threatened to cut off any fingers bearing the voting ink.

Across the province fewer than half of Helmand's polling stations opened. Taliban threats forced 115 sites to stay closed, and just 107 polling sites opened in pockets of the province controlled by Nato and the Afghan government, the head of Helmand's Independent Election Commission told the Standard.

“We're prepared for up to 350,000 people to vote,” said Abdul Hadi, an engineer. “But only god knows how many people will come.” Despite more than 12,000 foreign troops, officials predict a maximum turnout of only 40 per cent. The election is a watershed in Western-led efforts to build a peaceful democracy, but a low turnout may threaten the legitimacy of the result.

President Karzai is desperate for votes in Pashtun heartlands, such as Helmand and Kandahar, but many of his key constituencies are areas where the insurgency is strongest.

Governor Gulab Mangal said there were three Helmand districts where there are no polling sites at all, including Washir, next to Britain's main base, Camp Bastion, and Bagran in the far north of the province.

Security there is much worse than at Lashkar Gah, but insurgents have done their best to disrupt voting here as well. Taliban checkpoints a few miles outside the city have blocked roads to stop people travelling to vote.

Locals in Marja are allowed to leave the district only with special Taliban travel permits, signed by the local commander. “I've been waiting to come back for two days,” said Rahmatullah, 43, as he reached a bridge on the city outskirts yesterday that links Lashkar Gah with no-man's land. “But I didn't have a permit.” The carpenter had driven to the poppy-growing district on Monday, 25 miles outside the city, to celebrate his daughter's wedding.

“The Taliban told everyone, all the traffic, all the cars, You are not allowed to leave Marja',” he said. “They said, If you go to Lashkar Gah, you will vote in the elections. We won't let you'.”

His permit is worrying proof of the Taliban's shadow government. The white slip of paper was printed with heraldry proclaiming “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Helmand Province, Marja District.”

A roadside bomb exploded next to a convoy of EU observers and journalists driving past Helmand governor Gulab Mangal's heavily guarded compound in Lashkar Gah. There was a muffled bang and a cloud of dust flew up. No one was hurt.