Saturday, October 10, 2009
New Task Force Helmand Spokesman talks to the BBC
Picture - Lieutenant Colonel David Wakefield, OBE
Today the Transfer of Authority ceremony marking the handover from 19 Light Brigade to 11 Light Brigade at Lashkar Gar, Helmand Province took place.
The new Task Force Helmand Spokesman talked to BBC presenter Maxine Mawhinney live from the ceremony.
Maxine Mawhinney, presenter: Now, we were telling you that a new brigade and commander has taken over control of British operations in Helmand Province in Afghanistan. Nineteen Light Brigade is returning home after losing 70 of its men in the last six months. Now, they’re going to be replaced by the specially formed 11th Light Brigade. It’s let by Brigadier James Cowan. Well, Lieutenant Colonel David Wakefield is the British Forces spokesman for Task Force Helmand, and he joins me now from Lashkar Gah. Thank you very much indeed for joining us, Lieutenant Colonel. Just tell us a bit about this new brigade, first of all.
Lieutenant Colonel David Wakefield, spokesman for Task Force Helmand:
Yes, we’re 11 Light Brigade. We’re led by Brigadier James Cowan, my commander, who’s also taken over Task Force Helmand command.
It’s important to understand, that sometimes people in the UK can forget that Task Force Helmand consists of the Americans alongside us. The Estonians – they have an army infantry company here with us. The Danes, and of course the civilian provincial reconstruction team alongside whom we work. So it’s more than just 11 Light Brigade. But he is the military commander now here in Helmand.
MM: And 11 Brigade has been formed specially for this task for Helmand. Is that unusual, to bring in sources from different units?
DW: Well, we’ve been formed specifically for this tour and it goes back of course to when we were formed in November 2007 and we were trying to sustain a brigade in Iraq and a brigade here in Afghanistan. We were created specifically for this purpose. We’ve trained specifically for it, we have been trained to do counter-insurgency, and that’s what we’ve been working up through in all of our training, and that’s why we’re here now.
MM: Well, Panther’s Claw was an extremely difficult operation with… there’s been a lot of loss of life – 70 men have been lost. Is the mandate now changed? Will 11 Brigade be doing anything differently?
DW: Well, I think it’s the right moment in time to say from our side we’re in awe of 19 Brigade. They have faced the toughest, the harshest operational environment imaginable; they’ve been tested, and they’ve more than delivered. And it’s down to their courage, their fortitude and their resolve, not only of the soldiers, the men and women out here, but the families and friends back at home who supported them. It’s been a long hard summer, but they really have delivered. And it’s now up to us to take what they’ve done, to build on it and take it forward over the next six months of our tour here.
MM: But has the mandate changed? Will you be doing anything differently?
DW: Well, the important thing that people need to understand is that we won’t be doing things significantly differently, but to articulate the way we’re doing it. This is counter-insurgency. The people are the prize. And it’s more than just delivering security, which is what the military are doing, so we will be really focusing on training, and working with the Afghan national police and Afghan national army, the people who ultimately will be delivering security, by Afghans, for Afghans here. But there’s also all the work with economic reconstruction, redevelopment, because those things are important too.
We’ve got to make the Afghans want us more than the Taliban, and so that they can then go on and deliver their own security and their own environment.
MM: And what sort of a situation are your men facing? Has it improved or is it still just as tough?
DW: Well, it would be wrong to paint a flat picture across the whole of the province. In certain areas there’s been real progress, either militarily against IED threats or in terms of reconstruction and redevelopment. I’m here in the province Lashkar Gah, and I spent a lot of time a couple of days ago talking with local journalists, and they were really keen to tell me just how good things are in Lashkar Gah now, and they’ve given me a very positive feedback. In other parts of the province it’s still hard work, so it’s not a blanket picture that I can present here, any more than it would be right to compare the rest of Afghanistan with Helmand Province. Where things are going well elsewhere in the rest of the country, Helmand Province is particularly challenging.
MM: What about morale among our troops there? What is it like?
DW: I think the thing with 11 Brigade is we’ve been working up to this for two years. We’ve gone right through the training from the very lowest individual training, focusing on cultural awareness, the principles of counter-insurgency, the medical training, through to units training in the right environment; so for example, up in Thetford in Norfolk we’ve a purpose-built Afghan village, real Afghans there to play against; also a replication of the green zone. People tend to think of Afghanistan very much as a flat, barren desert-type environment, but of course there is the green zon. It’s easy to think of it really as semi-jungle – it’s wet, it’s difficult to manoeuvre. So we’ve trained for all those environments. We’ve trained in the principles of counter-insurgency. So, you know, we’re here; we’re ready to go. That’s what morale’s like.
MM: And I know that a part of your unit is a specialised counter-IED task force, the improvised explosive devices.
DW: That’s right.
DW: Do they still remain one of the biggest threats?
DW: They are. They are a very big threat. But it would be wrong for people to go away thinking we’re not making progress against it. The counter-IED task force brings together a whole range of capabilities – from the obvious things that people might think about, of disposal of IEDs, of bomb disposal, but also there’s all that intelligence and the other things that go to identifying the networks, the people that are behind it – and attacking the whole thing, not just the device on the ground. It’s a complex business. It’s drawn together under Lieutenant Colonel Gareth Bex who’s an expert in the field, and that’s really beginning to show signs of moving forward. It’s going to be hard work, but that’s what they’re focused on.
MM: What about the local people? Do you get any sense of where they feel that things are at the moment?
DW: Well, again, it varies across the province. I mean, local people want us. For example, in relation, say, to poppy growin, people want to grow wheat; they’re being compelled to grow poppy.
They want the security we’re offering. But equally, they’re very realistic about the threats posed by the Taliban.They’ve got to believe that we’re going to stay, and that’s what we want them to know, because we are going to stay, that life is going to be better if they choose us. So as I said at the start, counter-insurgency is about the people. The people are the prize. And that’s what we’re focused on.
MM: OK, Lieutenant Colonel David Wakefield, thank you very much indeed for joining us from Lashkar Gah. Thank you.