Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Better security, a health post, more schools – you know of the sacrifices, but let me tell you about the real progress
Both parents were inconsolable. They stood at the front gate of my patrol base in Wishtan, Sangin, and pleaded for help to find their child. We could give no satisfaction — their six-year-old daughter had stood on a Taleban pressure-pad IED (improvised explosive device); there was nothing left of the poor child. The parents continued to plead — a small part of her broken body would suffice. They had to have something to bury. The 2 Rifles Battle Group know about grief: we have seen friends killed but we had at least been able to salute a coffin. With the heaviest of hearts, my riflemen watched helpless as those heartbroken parents returned home to mourn the loss of a Muslim child who could not be buried.
It is this kind of IED that has been the Taleban’s indiscriminate and careless weapon of choice in the Upper Sangin Valley this summer. I have seen too many Afghans fighting for their lives in my trauma bay. As a battle group, 2 Rifles has dealt with more than 400 IED incidents in our six months here, finding more than 200 devices.
In my first tour of Northern Ireland in 1991-92, my platoon dealt with four IED incidents. We had nine platoons in the battalion then, so perhaps my commanding officer at the time had to deal with 36. These statistics provide some notion of the scale of the fight. One more will suffice — last year in the same period, there were 158 incidents.
And it is in the face of such adversity and such an insidious enemy, which adjusts its tactics almost weekly, that the courageous men and women of this battle group have fought. It is hard to describe the courage required to operate at all, let alone leave one’s base and take the fight to the enemy. But the riflemen and fusiliers of this battle group have patrolled Sangin and its immediate area daily to protect its people. The commitment, grit and indomitability have been humbling to observe.
The heavy cost has been recorded and rightly so — we will never forget the sacrifice made here this summer, and the hole each fallen rifleman has left behind in this battle group is enormous. I remember gathering my officers together to tell them that one of our platoon commanders had been killed. My leaders needed to know before everyone else so they could grieve briefly and be ready to lead their riflemen back out that day.
I remember telling a tough bunch of sappers late one night after they had come off the ground that the man who made them laugh the most had not made it. The cost is perhaps clearer to our country this summer than at any other time and I am grateful to the bottom of my boots for the support we have had from all corners of our nation.
But what has not been so well told by the media is the progress we have made here. The enemy has been hurt hard here in Sangin. Many of its fighters have died at our hands. We have disrupted its IED networks and are maintaining pressure on the bombers at every opportunity. We have removed four active IED teams, permanently, and the gratitude of the Sanginites was palpable.
Yet this campaign is not an attritional one; that is not the route to progress. As soldiers, we have to provide sufficient security to enable Haji Faisal Haq, the district governor, to do his job. His area, just outside the forward operating base , is now secure. He works there daily and is much more accessible to the people of Sangin. The numbers of police have increased.
We have built new police checkpoints in the bazaar and more are planned. As a result, Taleban physical intimidation has ceased and attacks have reduced. People can go about their lives with a touch more freedom. We have opened a small health post, the first government-sponsored public health provision in Sangin. And the bazaar has got bigger. It is definitely not Bluewater but an extra 100 stalls make a real difference.
As commanding officer, I spend as much time discussing reopening the schools (banned by the Taleban in a country fiercely proud of its tradition of learning) as I do where next to go and prove to enemies that they are not invulnerable. And we have done all this while fighting shoulder to shoulder with some very tough Afghan soldiers and policemen who become more capable each month.
All of this would be worthless if Sangin was unimportant. But Sangin is important and has a significance at the provincial, regional and national level. The town is a political centre with reach to Kabul; the tapestry of tribes here in the upper Sangin Valley has an echo in Kabul. Its market, which supplies the whole of the upper Sangin Valley, is a vital commercial centre. For the drug barons, Sangin is a gateway that helps to fund the Taleban and their terrorism. And the Taleban use Sangin as a route along which to infiltrate fighters, IEDs and technology further south into Helmand. The Taleban will continue to fight us here in the coming months. As a result, our work has been not just important and urgent but full of purpose.
Success has not been glamorous — as soldiers in Sangin, we talk of edging forward, taking small but essential steps in the right direction. This battle is not one we have lost nor are we losing. There is much to do but as I take my gang of extraordinary men and women home, I know that the baton in Sangin has not been dropped (nor is it likely to be) and we have played our part in the security challenge of our generation that, for the UK and this region, we must tackle. And, in a small way, we have helped to improve the lives of impoverished Afghans of Sangin. It has been the campaign of our lives.
Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Thomson is commanding officer of 2 Rifles