Wednesday, November 11, 2009
A British commander says the progress he has seen in Afghanistan proves that we can win the war and help create a better society.
By Lt Col Gus Fair DSO, CO Light Dragoons battle group
The Light Dragoons have just finished deploying for the second time as a battle group on operations in Afghanistan. On the previous occasion, in 2007, we were fighting for control of the southern town of Garmsir, at the very edge of the Afghan government's sphere of influence. The main administrative centre was derelict, destroyed by months of fighting as we battled to assert control of the ground only a few hundred metres outside our front gate.
In April this year, once again with the outstanding soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, the Mercian Regiment, we returned to the same ground, with justifiable trepidation. On our first tour, a Mercian captain under my command had won a Conspicuous Gallantry Cross trying to recover the bodies of two soldiers less than a kilometre south of our main base.
The progress that had been made in little over 18 months was beyond all of our expectations. The area was transformed; the formerly shattered and deserted administrative centre was rebuilt and the market thriving. The school and hospitals were rebuilt and functioning well, staffed and resourced by the Afghan state. Where poppies had been commonplace there were now fields of wheat.
The result was that some 15,000 Afghans lived in a relative safety, free to go about their daily business, within an area protected by a joint coalition and Afghan team and, most importantly, led by an Afghan district governor who exercised control in a fair, representative and transparent fashion.
After handing the area over to the United State Marine Corps in June, the 1,000-strong battle group was at the centre of the clearance of the wider Babaji area, as part of Operation Panther's Claw. We defeated the enemy wherever we found him, and pushed him outside the centres of population in Malgir and Spin Masjid.
Despite the heavy fighting, there were only three reports of civilian casualties in the clearance of Babaji and as a result, within days of the fighting finishing, we saw the people beginning to engage with us: locals pointed out dug-in IEDs for us to clear, and safe routes for our vehicles to use.
I am convinced that true achievement in a campaign such as Afghanistan cannot be measured in weeks or months but must instead be gauged over years. The soldiers in the battle group are fortunate in that they have seen in Garmsir what progress in Afghanistan can look like. It is my and their firm belief that we will see similar if not more rapid progress in Babaji by the time the regiment next returns to Helmand.
As we left, the seasonal decline in fighting had begun, the maize that provided cover for insurgent ambushes was coming down and, as a result, the insurgents' ability to intimidate and attack locals was reduced significantly.
Probably the most significant demonstration of progress was the distribution of wheat seed to farmers. In the face of Taliban attacks on the distribution sites and on locals queuing for seed, some 2,000 farmers received wheat, with more to follow.
In the week that we left, a farmer said to me: "You can see by the number of people queuing for wheat that the people are stronger than the insurgents".
The population are beginning to witness considerable community level engagement and investment, as well as meaningful direct assistance from both ISAF (the International Security Assistance Force) and the government. At the same time, they can see that the Taliban is not fighting for their interests.
While the Taliban fights on, support for them is waning fast and their freedom of manoeuvre is increasingly sustained through threats and violence. As a sense of security improves, communities are gaining the confidence to begin to resist Taliban infiltration and, for the first time in 30 years of fighting, exercise some control over their own destiny.
This consolidation of Babaji came at a significant price. The battle group suffered nine Afghan and 12 British soldiers killed, and some 94 British wounded by the enemy during the six-month tour. And the cost of the progress we are seeing was not just borne within Babaji. We were given the resources – the numbers of men, bomb disposal teams and surveillance equipment – to do our job, resources that were not available to others. Some of the losses of the 2 Rifles, Welsh Guards, 2nd Fusiliers and Danish Battle groups outside Babaji must therefore be included in the overall cost.
Many question whether these deaths are a price worth paying, and wonder whether they will be justified in the long term or whether we will continue to shed our soldiers' blood for years for no return. Based on our experience in Garmsir and the progress achieved so far in Babaji, both I and my soldiers believe that the sacrifice will be worth it.
For the full article click here for the Telegraph website