Friday, November 6, 2009

Initial thoughts after the first week in Helmand

Picture: Brigadier James Cowan, commander Task Force Helmand and Brigadier General Mohaiuddin Ghori, commander of 203 Brigade, Afghan National Army.

Brigadier James Cowan, 11 Light Brigade: initial thoughts after the first week in Helmand.

Letter Home on 17 October 09

On the 10th October Brigadier Tim Radford and 19 Light Brigade completed their tour in a short, simple military parade here in Laskhar Gar. After 2 years of preparation and training it’s finally good to get going.

The key theme of the tour will be one of consolidation. This does not mean inactivity, far from it. It means understanding that our 6 months is but the next phase in a campaign; recognising we will not defeat this insurgency in our time here, but that we will move the campaign forward.

We will sustain this counter-insurgency campaign’s continuity, driving on hard to meet General McChrystal’s imperative for change and passing to our successors, as 19 Brigade have done to us, a situation even further along than we found it.

Back home, I sense there is some lack of awareness of the words we use and what they really mean in Helmand. To take two examples;

The first is “counter-insurgency”.. A counter-insurgency conflict is fundamentally different from normal war because in an insurgency it is the people, in this case the Afghans, who will decide who succeeds.

We will not prevail by simply killing insurgents. Instead it is the will and support of the Afghans which is the prize for both sides. Protecting them from the insurgent is our mission and every action we take must be to gain and maintain the support of the people.

That does not mean we will not seek out, confront and capture or kill those who are irreconcilable. We will kill only when we must. Part of our task is to demonstrate to the Afghan people that we use such force in support of them and their security. The Taliban cannot defeat us militarily but we can defeat ourselves if we alienate the people.

The second example is what I mean when I talk of “we” and “us”. I am not talking only of the men and women of 11 Light Brigade. The British Military is most definitely not the only force in Helmand fighting this counter-insurgency. Broadly there are three other groupings.

First, the Afghans, the men of the Afghan National Army and the men and women of the Afghan National Police in particular, the people to whom this land belongs.

Secondly, our allies. There are 11,000 United States Marines of Task Force Leatherneck operating alongside us in Helmand, responsible for the bulk of the province’s landmass and about 30% of the population.

Within Task Force Helmand, under my command, are soldiers of one of our staunchest European allies of recent years, the Danes. From the Balkans to Iraq and now here in Helmand they have soldiered with us. They are here with us today. With an Armoured Battle Group, they hold one of the absolutely key areas in Helmand around the town of Gereshk, just to the north of Lashkar Gar, the provincial capital from where I write.

There are also Estonians with an Armoured Infantry company embedded in the Grenadier Guards Battle Group. We even have a troop of Australian gunners on exchange with 1 Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery.

But it is the third group who don’t get deserved recognition: the men and women of the Provincial Reconstruction Team, the civil-military mission staff. There are 91 civilian, 94 military and 27 police mentor multi-national staff acting as the single PRT for all of Helmand, including the Task Force Leatherneck area, and based in Lashkar Gar and 7 districts of Helmand’s 13.

Their work is utterly fundamental to success in this counter-insurgency: without the security brought by ISAF and Afghan security forces the PRT cannot move forward with its governance, reconstruction and redevelopment, “Rule of Law”, socio-economic, agricultural and counter-narcotics programmes, channelling international aid into progress. Yet equally, without the vigorous pursuit of such PRT programmes in the security “space” achieved by ISAF and Afghan security forces, such security would have little hope of enduring.

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