Friday, November 13, 2009
Light Dragoons' CO on Afghanistan - the price is worth it
Lieutenant Colonel Gus Fair, Commanding Officer of The Light Dragoons Battle Group
This has been the second time that The Light Dragoons have deployed as a Battle Group Headquarters 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 district centre [DC] was derelict, destroyed by months of fighting as we battled to exert control of the ground only a few hundred metres outside our front gate.
We returned to the same ground earlier this year in April, once again with the outstanding soldiers of the 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment with justifiable trepidation.
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 formally shattered and deserted DC 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 end result was that some 15,000 Afghans lived in 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.
Having handed the area over to the United States Marine Corps in June, the 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 of 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 [improvised explosive devices] for us to clear and safe routes for our vehicles to use.
I am clear 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 what progress in Afghanistan looks like, as they have witnessed it in Garmsir.
It is mine 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 the locals was reduced significantly.
We were winning the all important battle of perception for dominance over the area.
Probably the most significant demonstration of progress was the distribution of wheat seed to the local farmers. In the face of Taliban intimidation and brutal violence against local recipients and their attempts to disrupt the distribution through a combination of attacks onto the distribution sites and queuing locals, over 1,000 farmers received wheat with more to follow.
"In the week that we left, a local farmer said to me 'You can see by the amount 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 and meaningful direct assistance from both ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] and the Government, and at the same time see that the Taliban are not fighting for their interests.
"Though the Taliban fight on they do so within a population that is increasingly of the opinion that the Taliban is fighting them; their support is waning fast and their freedom of manoeuvre is increasingly sustained through threat and violence.
"With improving perceptions of security, communities are gaining confidence sufficient to begin to passively resist Taliban infiltration and, for the first time in thirty years of fighting, exercise some control over their own destiny.