Sunday, January 31, 2010

US Marines facing a 'different war' in Afghanistan

By C. J. CHIVERS, New York Times

Abdul Salam, an elder in this impoverished Afghan village, rose to meet the approaching Marines and Navy corpsman. Behind him, his mosque had a new concrete floor and two windows. Last month, before the Marines paid him to refurbish it, the mosque was windowless and had a dirt floor.

The Marines’ investment, $1,200 to pay for building materials and labor, was part of an outreach effort intended to reduce violence in Helmand Province.

Following the emphasis on a more assertive counterinsurgency approach mandated last year by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of American forces in Afghanistan, here on some of the country’s most dangerous ground, infantry units are using this winter to try a soft touch.

In the province’s lower Nawa District, many conventional missions for now are a low priority. Airstrikes and high-explosive artillery fire are in disfavor. Even mortar fire is rare.

Instead, in places where it is able, the infantry is sending patrols to enter into development contracts with local men. The ambition is to use local labor to build bridges over canals, shore up irrigation systems, repair water gates or small dams and, in the most determined contest of influence against the Taliban, renovate mosques.

The effort rests on a simple premise: to fight the Taliban, money may be more effective than guns. “We’re trying to buy a little peace,” said Capt. Paul D. Stubbs, commanding officer of Company W, First Battalion, Third Marines, which operates in this area.

For the full article click here

Saturday, January 30, 2010

PICTURE of the day: Life in Musa Qul'eh, Helmand

Pictures: Cpl Steve Blake, RLC

Allies eye the beginning of the end on Afghanistan but a departure is a long way off

In echoes of Churchill's "beginning of the end", the conference on Afghanistan in London heard repeatedly about the beginning of a "transition" to Afghan control.

By Duncan Gardham, Security Correspondent -

Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, said America was not formulating an "exit strategy" but if the conditions were right Nato could "begin the transition."

David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, said there was a "clear and viable goal for bringing the conflict to and end."

But Bob Ainsworth, Secretary of State for Defence, told the Daily Telegraph he believed Britain would remain in Afghanistan for a "very, very long time to come."

He said the military presence would reduce and added: "I am pretty sure we can begin to show progress this year and towards the end of this year or early next year we can begin the transition to an Afghanistan lead.

But he added that transition was the "beginning part but it is not withdrawal" and that withdrawal depended on "getting the Afghan National Army where it needs to be and in a reasonable length of time."

"Just because they are in the forefront and accept responsibility for security does not mean they will be able to stand on their own two feet," he added.

Mr Ainsworth said the reconciliation process was diminishing the "confidence in the insurgency" that junior members of the Taliban retained and offering them opportunities, jobs and security so that they would lay down their arms.

Inviting them to join the Afghan National Army would "depend on the degree of confidence and what they would or wouldn't do."

One diplomatic source said the counter insurgency plan from Gen Stanley McChrystal represented the "campaign starting afresh" and that the 15-year timescale envisaged by President Hamid Karzai sounded reasonable.

Lord West, the security minister, said he would be "amazed and horrified of we are fighting the campaign we are now in 15 years" although Britain would "still be involved", possibly in training Afghan forces.

Amid talk of inviting the Taliban to join the government, Rangin Spanta, Afghanistan's foreign minister said "the reintegration strategy is not to share political power with the Taliban."

Instead he said it was about offering "simple countryside Afghan citizens who are not happy with the government or paid by the hard core Taliban" the "prospect of a real life, a job, education and a future."

A reintegration fund has so far received $140m for the next year - $50m from Japan and some of the rest released from US military funds.

The final total is expected to be around $500m.

Officials expressed some concern that the corruption oversight body would be appointed by the Afghan government and said: "We will have to watch closely to make sure the appointments have auditing and accounting experience."

Taliban deny meeting UN envoy to talk peace in Afghanistan

The Taliban denied Saturday that leaders of the Islamist group fighting to overthrow the Afghan government had met with UN representatives to discuss bringing peace to Afghanistan.

The Taliban issued a statement branding reports of a meeting with the UN's outgoing special representative to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, in Dubai this month as "rumours" and "propaganda".

Referring to itself as "the leading council of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" -- as it did during its 1996-2001 rule of the war-torn nation -- the group said the reports were "propaganda by the invading forces against the jihad and mujahideen".

"The leading council of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan strongly denies the rumours reported by some international media about talks between Kai Eide and representatives of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," the Taliban said.

"To defuse this (propaganda) we insist on continuing our holy Islamic jihad against the enemy," it said in a statement, referring to the US and NATO forces fighting the Taliban insurgency.

The statement said the Taliban's refusal to negotiate peace had ensured that an international conference in London on Thursday, attended by around 70 countries, was a failure.

"Now in an effort to recover their military and political prestige, the enemies are resorting to a propaganda conspiracy," it said.

The reports that Eide had met with Taliban figures emerged after the conference, which aimed to thrash out a roadmap for Afghanistan's future with one of the main themes being the social reintegration of Taliban fighters.

A UN official revealed that "active members of the insurgency" had met Eide this month, at their request, to discuss peace talks.

Kai Eide met the men in Dubai, reportedly on January 8, and details were shared with the Afghan government, the official said on condition of anonymity.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who hosted the conference, declined Friday to comment on the reported meeting, calling it an "allegation".

Asked to comment while attending the annual World Economic Forum meeting in the Swiss Alps, Miliband said tersely: "You'll have to talk to the UN about that, because that's an allegation that's been run in the newspapers."

The Taliban had already dismissed the London conference as a propaganda ploy, calling US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown "war-mongering rulers" who wanted "to deceive the people of the world... that people still support them".

The statement also dismissed a plan by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to woo what he and Western leaders refer to as Taliban "moderates" -- essentially unemployed and poor men who fighting for cash rather than ideology -- with offers of money and jobs.

"They announce that they will provide money, employment and opportunity to have a comfortable life abroad for those mujahedeen who agree to part ways with jihad," the Taliban said in an earlier statement.

"This is baseless and futile," it said. "Had the aim of the mujahedeen of the Islamic Emirate been obtainment of material goals, they would accept dominance of the invaders in the first place."

And it criticised the Afghan government as corrupt, describing as fraudulent the recent presidential election, after which Karzai, linked to a high proportion of bogus ballots, was declared victor.

"Traffickers of intoxicating items, human rights violators, corrupt persons, national traitors and usurpers of people's private property grabbed power," it said.

Karzai's government is backed by 113,000 troops US and NATO troops, with another 40,000 being deployed this year, bringing the fight to the Taliban, who many military officials say are starting to show signs of battlefield fatigue.

Nevertheless, the usual winter slowdown in fighting has failed to materialise, with foreign troop deaths at 44 for this month, compared to 25 for January 2009.

Friday, January 29, 2010

PICTURE of the day: Wishtan – the Devil’s Playground?

By Major Graeme Wearmouth, B Company, The Royal Scots Borderers

Each patch in Helmand presents a different challenge to operate in. Certain places earn reputations more chilling than others. In the summer of 2009, Wishtan in east Sangin earned such a reputation. The sacrifices made by the Company from 2nd Battalion The Rifles based in Wishtan during that time are sadly well known, and recognition for their heroism well deserved. We picked up their baton and, halfway through our own tour it is worth reflecting on what has been achieved since September.

Outwardly not much is different. Our manning, equipment, general tactics and approach are similar. There have inevitably been tactical developments allowing us to target the IED layers with more success. We are wary of tempting fate, and our unofficial mottoes have become ‘a day at a time’ and ‘you are only as good as your next patrol’.

We have a long way to go on this tour and it remains a deadly battle. The margin for error is slim but we have built on the work of our predecessors, and the words of their outgoing commanders urging us to take this place forward still feel like a big responsibility – but one that we will shoulder.

The daily reminder to do our duty is the cross bearing the names of those who have fallen here before. Our path has, as you would expect, not been easy. We have had our own wounds to see to. But we have also had success.

Our success may seem gradual to the West but the significance of steps like successfully encouraging locals to use roads and compounds they previously have not, whether due to IEDs or a misplaced fear of soldiers, cannot be underestimated.

Locals are now more willing to come forward and speak to us, cautiously at first but with more confidence day by day. They have seen the time consuming and high risk clearance operations we have carried out to ensure their roads and compounds are safe. Their hopes are very similar to our own – security, prosperity and a better life for their children.

Most of the Afghans who remain in Wishtan’s high walled compounds, are wonderfully hospitable and show real understanding for the campaign that is being fought around them. Yes, they may sit on the fence due to fear of insurgent backlash, waiting to see who endures as the dominating force - but they do not enjoy the oppression the insurgency brings.

We speak to the victims of the insurgency – the fathers’ whose children have been killed by IEDs while playing in the street and the already impoverished who have their money and supplies stolen from them. These people understandably plead for revenge.

There have been isolated examples of insurgents rejected by the locals but we want to see this trickle become a steady stream and then a surge. That is the longer term hope and as the Afghan Security Forces develop, the people’s confidence to stand up will follow. In the meantime they quietly tell us about dangers and about the methods of intimidation they face. They attend shuras and quietly accept grants from the Government to develop their communities which are real signs of progress.

I will not claim that we have turned the corner in four months. This is a long campaign and we know from bitter experience that the insurgents have not disappeared. They have kept up their activity over the colder months but have been unable to halt the development work being done. This is a sign of the growing will of the local people and we hope it will continue.

Pictures: Lt Sally Armstrong, RN

VIDEO: Lt Col Harry Fullerton - mid tour update

In a joint operation two years ago, Musa Qaleh was taken back from the Taliban. A recent offensive has seen the battlegroup take yet more ground from the insurgents.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Restraint the new tactic for UK troops in Afghanistan - BBC

By Caroline Wyatt
Defence correspondent, BBC News

As a key summit on the future of Afghanistan starts in London, a shift in emphasis towards protecting civilians has seen British troops employ a new strategy dubbed "courageous restraint".

British troops from the 4th Battalion the Rifles come under fire in one of the most dangerous parts of Helmand province.

One of their snipers is poised to take a shot at the Afghan who appears to be pointing out their exact position to the insurgents, a possible "dicker".

But the sniper holds fire. The man might just be a civilian caught up in the middle.

So, instead, the British soldier aims a shot close by, not to kill or wound but to warn. The man and the insurgents disappear. The threat was enough.

That story is cited by British commanders in Helmand as just one recent example of "courageous restraint".

Gen Stanley McChrystal, the overall commander in Afghanistan, has ordered this to be one of the central tenets of the current counter-insurgency strategy: Putting protecting civilians at the heart of the military operation.

Commanders are all too aware that military force alone cannot defeat the Taliban but that getting it wrong on the battlefield - and killing or injuring Afghan civilians, or damaging their homes and crop - can help fuel the insurgency.

This new restraint means dropping fewer bombs, using fewer munitions and - when fighting - using more brain-power than fire-power.

The British unit in Helmand put together specifically for counter-insurgency - 11 Light Brigade - is trying to put that doctrine into practice on the ground, in some of the most heavily-populated areas of the province.

Use of high-explosive artillery shells by British troops is down more than 60%, while the use of smoke shells to mask movement is up nearly 70%.

For the full article click here for BBC Online

Progress slow and messy in Afghanistan - BBC

By Ian Pannell, BBC News, in Helmand province, Afghanistan

t is six months since the guns of Operation Panther's Claw fell silent. It was the biggest British military operation last year and left 10 soldiers dead and many others seriously wounded.

The last time I was in Spin Majid, we were surrounded by hundreds of heavily-armed troops, in the midst of an intense and bloody battle to take a large swath of territory from the Taliban.

Danish tanks blasted insurgent hideouts, the air crackled with the sound of pitched gun battles, attack helicopters hovered overhead and, every few minutes, there was the nauseating blast of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) - bringing a brief but heavy pause to the march forward.

Today there is a school in Spin Majid; there is a new road, a clinic is being built and even a tiny market has opened that Regimental Sergeant Major Jon Sheard jokes is the local Whitewater shopping mall.

It is the centre of a battle for influence under way not just in Babaji district but across Afghanistan. It goes to the heart of the counter-insurgency strategy in the country.

But although the Taliban no longer have free rein here, they maintain an insidious presence.

Najibullah is one of the teachers at the school. He looks nervous as we arrive with a group of soldiers from the Coldstream Guards. It is their prize project in the district, one that must be made to succeed.

For now the school is housed in two yellowing tents while a permanent building is finished.

A few dozen small, raggedy children clutch colourful new textbooks and holler the words written in the local Pashto language on the blackboard. While the soldiers wait outside, the teacher reveals why he is so pensive.

"I will be honest with you, security is good and bad. The Taliban have threatened all of us.

"They say that if we run this school, they will do such terrible things that we cannot even imagine."

The parents have received the same threats and the empty desks are a testament to the insurgents' ability to wage a campaign of intimidation.

There should be 180 children at the school; today there are just 40. One teacher is absent because of a dispute over pay and the other turns out to be a policeman.

Winning and losing

Babaji district is home to the Coldstream Guards Battlegroup. They have made important steps forward here but as the school shows, they also face significant obstacles.

Like the Pied Piper of Babaji, Sgt Maj Sheard is shadowed by a trail of small children trotting along to keep up with him. "Salaam aleikum, sangay?" He asks how they are. The children are hoping for sweets and pens.

To read the complete report click here for the

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Girlfriend delivered special present for Welsh solider

A Welsh soldier fighting in Afghanistan received an extra special Christmas present – a baby boy.

Infantry soldier Danny Hughes, 19, from Buckley, North Wales, even heard his son’s first cries after phoning his girlfriend from the front line.

The baby boy, Alfie Lee, was due on Boxing Day but arrived a day early, weighing in at 8lbs.

Fusilier Hughes, of 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh, phoned his mother on December 25 only to be told his girlfriend, Jenny Chung, was in labour.

He said: “I called Jenny’s mobile straight away and was amazed when she answered.

“She was actually in labour and had taken the mobile in case I called.”

After an anxious few hours he called back with perfect timing to discover his son had just been delivered.

He was even able to hear his son’s first cries after the doctor held the mobile phone to the baby.

Soldiers on the front line do not receive paternity leave but Fusilier Hughes will see his son when he returns to the UK for a two-week break.

He arrived in Afghanistan in the middle of December as part of the extra wave of British troops.

Fusilier Hughes said: “It is great being out on the front line.

“Although we have had some pretty hairy moments it is not all about fighting.

“Our job is also to patrol out into the villages and talk to the local Afghans.”

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Birth of Afghan army is British exit strategy

In the mountainous outskirts of the Afghan capital, on a vast exercise area littered with rusting Soviet-era tanks and derelict buildings, British infantry commander Lieutenant Colonel Nick Ilic explains why training the Afghan National Army is crucial to British success in Afghanistan:

“It is absolutely fundamental we get this right. This is our exit strategy. The guys down south in Helmand and elsewhere are holding the line, creating a safe environment for us to train the Afghan National Army (ANA) to the right standard and quality so they can take on the fight when they’re ready.”

British, American and other NATO soldiers are working together to train and mentor thousands of ANA soldiers each month at the flagship Military Training Centre, Kabul (KMTC).

Lt Col Ilic, 41, a father of six from Warminster in Wiltshire is the UK Leadership Training Team’s (LTT’s) Commanding Officer, based at Camp Alamo, near KMTC. He heads up a team of 64 British military personnel charged with overseeing the ANA’s Officer and Senior Non-Commissioned Officer (SNCO) training. The training of junior ANA soldiers is run by US military teams.

In the past ANA training was delivered by coalition forces but now, Lt Col Ilic explains, it is delivered by the ANA themselves:

“My team advises, mentors and trains the ANA instructors who run the training. The aim is for Afghans to lead the training of other Afghans; when required to do so we step in an assist in the training ourselves. The mentors are here to ensure that the training is carried out safely and that standards are kept high.”

“Witnessing the birth of this new Afghan army is a humbling experience. There is no doubting the enthusiasm of the troops. They’re all determined to make a better Afghanistan for themselves and their families. The fact they are joining in their droves illustrates there’s a new found confidence in Afghanistan.”

The ANA trainee soldiers at KMTC are recruited from all over Afghanistan. They pass through an eight week training package of basic infantry and core military skills essential for fighting the Taliban - such as weapon handling, live firing, section attacks and compound clearances – before graduating and deploying to the various Provinces in ethnically mixed teams.

Some deploy to live and fight alongside British soldiers in Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams (OMLTs) in Helmand Province’s green zone, where fierce fighting with insurgents takes place. Others deploy to work alongside units like the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh who are partnered with ANA soldiers and over the course of the next three months numbers will grow until an entire Kandak (the equivalent to a British battalion) will live and fight alongside the Welsh soldiers.

The mentoring staff at Alamo are responsible for ensuring the ANA is trained to a strength of 134,000 by the end of October 2010. Initially, the Army will be an infantry centric force able to fight insurgents and hold the ground until the national force reaches full operational capability – with its own logistic and support elements – of 240,000 by 2013.

Lt Col Ilic is under no illusions about the size of the task ahead, but is infectiously optimistic about the prospect of success:

“To reach that target we need to train 5200 soldiers, officers and NCOs every month and we’ve already trained 100,000 – that’s a similar number to the total size of the British Army.”

“At the moment recruiting is high because the harvests are in and people are looking for other employment. The challenge is to maintain that momentum in spring and summer but we’re confident we’ll be able to achieve that.”

Recruitment has undoubtedly been assisted by the doubling of salaries. A Warrior fighting in Helmand (equivalent rank to a British Private soldier) now receives $240 per month - an attractive prospect when over half the Afghan population lives below the poverty line. In a move to prevent corruption, the money is paid into soldiers’ own private bank accounts rather than as cash.

“Managing the training is a huge challenge and resources are probably the biggest challenge. We are bulging at the seams here at KMTC. To cope, we are expanding the training bases so that training Afghans can take place in each of the regional core areas of Gardez, Herat, Kandahar and Maz i Sharif.”

Lt Col Ilic refutes allegations that the quantity of ANA soldiers being trained is trumping quality:

“The training at KMTC is only the first leg in a relay race. After graduating, the soldiers undertake selection and training for specialist roles followed by pre-deployment training and then partnering on the front line by embedded training and mentoring teams.”

“KMTC is therefore the start of a long training cycle that each ANA soldier must undertake to ensure an army of the right quality and size is developed to guarantee the long term stability and future of Afghanistan.”

Literacy is also a key area that the British team are addressing. Every recruit receives a two week literacy course when they join. At each and every stage of training after that, such as the NCO courses, they undertake a further week’s literacy training. This is invaluable as reading and writing are skills for life and the soldiers are very aware of the value this brings them.

The British have been training and mentoring their Afghan counterparts since 2006 and are constantly developing the training programmes to make sure it is efficient and relevant to the current operational environment. Drill, for example, has been reduced to make room for more weapons training.

From June, different specialist schools will begin to be established with the British leading on the delivery of Combat Arms skills such as infantry and artillery training.

“We are not trying to create a British Army - ours has been hundreds of years in the making. What the ANA needs to be able to do is to take on and defeat the Taliban. They can achieve that because they are better trained, better equipped and better motivated with a long term future. In time, quantity and quality will tell.”

Lt Col Ilic has been personally mentoring Colonel Abdul Sabor, the ANA Non-Commissioned Officers’ Academy Commander. Col Sabor says the relationship between the mentors and the ANA is good:

“We have one aim, one enemy. The ANA is improving all the time and after four or five years, with the help of coalition forces, there’ll be no Al Qaida or Taliban in Afghanistan.”

Pictures: Lt Sally Armstrong, RN

Lance Corporal Daniel Cooper of 3 RIFLES killed in Afghanistan

It is with deep regret that the Ministry of Defence must confirm the death of Lance Corporal Daniel Cooper from 3rd Battalion The Rifles.

Lance Corporal Cooper died from wounds received as a result of an explosion near Sangin, in Helmand province, during the morning of 24 January 2010.

Lance Corporal Daniel Cooper, 3 RIFLES

Daniel Cooper was born in Hereford on 10 March 1988. He went to Whitecross High School before enlisting and going to the Army Training Regiment in Bassingbourn in 2005 for his phase one training. He received phase two training at ITC Catterick and joined 2 LI in Edinburgh in 2006.

Lance Corporal Cooper deployed with A Company 3 RIFLES to Afghanistan in October 2009 and was operating in southern Sangin. Following the injury to his section Second In Command he was promoted to LCpl in the field on 21 December 2009 and stepped up to fill this role.

On 24 January 2010, he was leading a resupply patrol when an improvised explosive device detonated critically injuring him. He later died of his wounds.

Lance Corporal Cooper's parents, Karl and Caroline Cooper said:

"A caring son, brother and partner. He was not just a brother but a best friend who will be sadly missed by all that knew him. Daniel, we were proud to be your parents from the day you were born."

Lieutenant Colonel Nick Kitson, Commanding Officer 3 RIFLES Battle Group said:

"Lance Corporal Daniel Cooper was one of the great characters of the Battalion; his sense of humour and zest for life were topped only by his ability and determination. The consummate soldier, he was the complete package; fit, bright and dedicated to his work. Ever cheerful and irrepressibly positive, he shone as an example to the more junior Riflemen on how to act and what to aim for.

"Lance Corporal Cooper was cruelly taken from us while doing the job he loved. He had survived numerous brushes with danger in this tough fight alongside colleagues and mates who respected, trusted and loved him. The loss of a Rifleman brimming with such talent and potential leaves a real gap in the Battle Group for the here and now and in this his Battalion for the longer term.

"The thoughts and prayers of this whole Battle Group go out to his family and loved ones. We know that they, like us, will take comfort from fond memories of a man who truly loved life and made every second of it count. We shall continue with the noble task for which he laid down his life, steeled by his unhesitating sacrifice and in the certain knowledge that this is what he would expect of us.

"A proud son of Herefordshire, he will be sorely missed by us all."

British and US troops to launch new Afghanistan offensive

ritish troops during a firefight with Taliban forces in Helmand. Photograph: Major Paul Smyth/PA/MoD

• Attempt to wrest Helmand areas from Taliban control
• Move comes on eve of peace talks in London

By Julian Borger and Richard Norton-Taylor, Guardian

British and other Nato troops are preparing a major offensive in southern Afghanistan aimed at seizing areas in Helmand province still under Taliban control, the British commander in the region said today.

Major General Nick Carter said the operation would be aimed at asserting the control of the Kabul government over areas of Helmand that are either ungoverned or under the influence of a Taliban shadow government.

Carter, who commands the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in southern Afghanistan, did not say when the operation would be launched, but the announcement came three days before an international conference in London that is due to agree a peace and reintegration plan to persuade Taliban fighters and commanders to give up their fight.

The British army chief, General Sir David Richards, said that negotiations with the Taliban should be conducted from a "position of relative strength and the knowledge on their part that they [the Taliban] could just lose".

"So it's a matter of timing, not the principle," Richards told Reuters.

The new operation, which focuses on the Helmand river valley to the west and south-west of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, will involve elements of the 10,000 British troops in Helmand and 13,000 newly-arrived US marines. It will also rely on intensive political preparations, including contacts with local elders to explain the purpose of the mission, in the hope of minimising casualties.

"What's really important ... is that if there is a conversation before the operation between the Afghans and the maliks, or the village leaders, on the ground, and it is explained to them what will happen when the government asserts control and authority over those areas, we often find the Afghans don't fight - but they will welcome you," Carter told the BBC's World At One programme. He added that the provincial Afghan authorities, led by the governor, Gulab Mangal, were playing a prominent role in operations in Helmand.

Thursday's London Conference on Afghanistan will bring together about 60 governments, including troop contributors, donors and neighbouring countries. It will approve new ceilings for the strength of the Afghan army (172,000) and police (134,000) and agree a plan to hand over responsibility for security district to district from Isaf to Afghan forces.

In November, Gordon Brown said that the handover process should get under way this year, and that at least five Afghan provinces should be handed over by the end of 2010. The criteria for handing over districts have been debated between politicians seeking a timetable for the transition process, and generals who insist that handover should be dictated by conditions in each area.

The Nato commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, told the Financial Times : "I'm not sure what the outcome will be, but I believe that it will be more conditions-based, there will be an agreement on certain conditions driving the transitions."

For the complete report click here for the

Monday, January 25, 2010

Household Cavalry commander reports on challenging three months in Helmand

The Household Cavalry Regiment are half way through their current deployment to Afghanistan. Here their Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Harry Fullerton, gives his mid-tour report:

"For the last three months the Household Cavalry Regiment [HCR] has been deployed in three distinct groups in Helmand province.

"Making up a considerable part of Battle Group North West, which controls the Musa Qaleh area of Task Force Helmand, is the Battle Group Headquarters, Headquarter Squadron and C Squadron, plus an Armoured Infantry Company of A Company, 2nd Battalion The Royal Welsh, B Company, 2nd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment [2 YORKS], and A Company, 1st Battalion The Royal Anglians.

"The next group, which is further afield and away from the Battle Group, is A Squadron, who have been based in both Camp Bastion and FOB [Forward Operating Base] Price and have found themselves working in the Babaji area.

"The third group is B Squadron, which is the Brigade Recce Force, which has been tasked across the whole area, but has mostly been deployed in the central area of Helmand.

"These first three months have been challenging, but a great deal of success has been achieved during this time and the Battle Group and our detached squadrons feel confident of doing more to ensure the security of the people of Helmand, to defeat the insurgency, and to partner and train up the Afghan security forces.

"We had an excellent handover from 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, giving us enough knowledge and insight of the area that we could maintain the tempo of operations in Musa Qaleh.

"Musa Qaleh has been an area of increasing stability and security over the past 12 months, with the area under control of the government growing on a regular basis. Such is the confidence of the local people that there is a bustling bazaar area and two large markets that occur each week in the wadi, and all this is done without the need for any overt military security presence.

"The key theme of the tour has been about working with our Afghan partners, both the Police and Army. The Afghan Police have recently been on an intense training programme, run by the Americans. The finished product is a District Police Force that are better trained and disciplined and who are now gaining the respect of the locals, something that was perhaps missing in the past.

"The development of the police is vital to the long term stability of Musa Qaleh and we are heading in the right direction. The Afghan Army battalion (called a Kandak) in Musa Qaleh is a professional body, commanded by an experienced Commanding Officer who has thorough knowledge of the area.

"The Kandak has recently been reinforced with new soldiers, increasing its strength by nearly a company's worth. What we have been doing is working ever more closely with the Afghan Army and Police.

"In addition to the Kandak's companies that are mentored by B Company, 2nd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment, we are also planning our operations jointly at battle group and company level and then executing these plans in a partnered manner. ISAF and Afghan forces complement each other with different specialist skills and we have discovered how good the Afghans are at reading the ground and clearing through built-up areas.

"Together we are achieving more. The recent villages reclaimed in the south was a prime example of this co-operation.

"As I look forward into the second half of the tour, the one thing we have yet to experience is a taste of the real Musa Qaleh winter. Up until now, although we have had rain, there has been little of the harsh conditions that we have been expecting. However, January and February could bring the extreme weather and this will hamper our operations somewhat. This is only countered by the fact that it tends to hamper the insurgents as well.

"Weather aside, I expect that the next few months will see an ever more confident community, an expanding area of government control and further moves on our part to partner with the Afghan National Security Forces.

"The other possibility is that I would hope to see some moves by the less motivated insurgents to down tools and attempt reintegration with the community. We have already seen the beginnings of this and we hope for more.

"Last but not least, Musa Qaleh is about to see some significant reconstruction and development, with a new mosque being built in the centre of town, new government offices, a causeway being built across the wadi, and a route improvement being planned in the direction of Gereshk. We should also see the completion of the new police station. All in all, there is a great deal of investment going into the town.

"At the smaller scale, there have been many projects to build and open schools, repair roads, drill for water holes and teach people basic construction skills.

"There is no doubt that Musa Qaleh is a thriving town with great potential in the near future. The ANSF are strong and are improving all the time. Security is improving and the people are becoming more confident in the ability of the Afghan Government to deliver the security and services that they need."

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Royal Anglian commander: the battle is 'winnable.'

The commanding officer of Royal Anglian soldiers fighting in Afghanistan has paid tribute to men lost in action but insisted troops are fighting a “challenging but winnable” battle.

In his mid-tour report Lt Col James Woodham MC, who leads the 1st Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment, said that although the campaign had been marred by tragedies - the deaths of L/Cpl Adam Drane and Pte Robert Hayes and many serious injuries - their were grounds for optimism.

He said: “We find ourselves involved in a challenging but absolutely winnable counter-insurgency campaign and the battalion's contribution is critical, varied and hugely valued.

“I am convinced that whilst it remains hard graft, the battle for the people is turning our way and that this is time for contributing nations to stand fast in their support of the people of Afghanistan.

“Ultimately we seek to persuade the people of Afghanistan that a better future lies with supporting the Afghan government and not the Taliban. In all the areas of Afghanistan in which the Vikings are deployed there are 'green shoots', many of which have been the result of the extraordinary professionalism, bravery and determination of our soldiers.”

The battalion, nicknamed the Vikings, currently has 400 soldiers deployed to the notorious Helmand province; many recruited from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.

A (Norfolk) Company recently carried out a major offensive alongside the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police which has expanded the area of Musa Qal'eh in which people can safely go about their normal lives. The company is responsible for securing the area around this former Taliban stronghold.

“The security situation in Musa Qal'eh, once seen by some as the most dangerous in Afghanistan, is currently very good and the thriving bazaar is testament to the confidence felt by the local people,” Lt Col Woodham said.

C (Essex) Company have found themselves in one of the most contested areas of central Helmand, clashing with the Taliban almost daily in the Nad-e' Ali district.

But Lt Col Woodham added: “Their operations are providing much needed security to an area to their north in which every day life can continue, schools and clinics can re-open and the government of Afghanistan can conduct its business.”

D (Cambridgeshire) Company led an important operation over Christmas to rid areas of farmland of improvised bombs allowing the locals to safely tend their crops. More recently they conducted a night operation during which they destroyed a bridge that was being used regularly by the Taliban.

Lt Col Woodham added: “This impressive work comes with a human cost and at this time the Vikings have lost two brave soldiers killed in action and a number who have suffered significant injury.

“I know that both these soldiers were utterly committed to their important work and those of us they have left behind find inspiration in their sacrifice. Our thoughts are with their families.

“It would be wrong not to mention those in the battalion who remain in the UK providing first class support to those deployed and most importantly to our families. We, as soldiers whose job takes us to far away lands, rely on the support of our families and friends in the UK.”

Rifleman Peter Aldridge of 4 RIFLES killed in Afghanistan

It is with deep regret that the Ministry of Defence has confirmed the death of Rifleman Peter Aldridge of 4th Battalion The Rifles, in Afghanistan on Friday 22 January 2010.

Rifleman Aldridge, 4th Battalion The Rifles

Rifleman Aldridge, a soldier from A Company 4 RIFLES, serving as part of 3 RIFLES Battle Group, was killed by an explosion near Sangin in Helmand Province. He was on a foot patrol, part of a larger operation to provide security for the local population in Sangin, when the explosion happened.

Rifleman Aldridge’s family made this statement:

"Our Son died a hero, he lost his life doing what he believed in. Peter said, "If I'm going to die I want to die a Soldier." Our son joined the Army as a Rifleman in the Royal Green Jackets and he didn’t want to be anything else. He was determined to get his first tour of duty under his belt. He believed in the Army and was proud of his job and we are so proud of you Peter.

"We would like to thank our family, friends and the Army for being there to support us in our time of need.

"Peter leaves behind his Girlfriend, Jem, and his Brother, Matthew, who he loved with all his heart.

"We love you sweet pea. Swift and Bold Forever."

Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Jones, Commanding Officer 4 RIFLES, said

"Rifleman Peter Aldridge was just 19 – still very much a young man, but having gone to the Army’s Foundation College in 2006, he had a great deal of experience despite his young age. Indeed he was one of the longer serving Riflemen in his platoon having joined their band almost 2 years ago.

"He made a mark from the outset and was already one of the natural leaders in his platoon. The less experienced Riflemen respected and looked up to him as a role model. He was genuinely dedicated to being a Rifleman and took great pride from it. Looking the part was important to him and he spent plenty of money on making sure that he did.

"He fully embraced The Rifles mantra to be a Thinking Rifleman and was never backward in asking 'why'. Indeed, he will be remembered affectionately for having something to say about most things. He was always in the thick of events and being such a central character in the platoon, he was a regular subject for their jokes. This only encouraged him more as he was a man with a great sense of humour and an infectious ability to laugh at himself.

"It was clear from when he first arrived in the Battalion that he was more comfortable in the field than in barracks and in Afghanistan his character really came to the fore. Early in the tour he was his Platoon Serjeant’s wingman as the 60mm mortarman, but later took over as a section lead man. There is no lonelier task and it demands real depth of courage and selflessness. Rifleman Aldridge had plenty of both. Deeply loyal to his brother Riflemen and with maturity beyond his years, he volunteered for the task after his predecessor was killed.

"Rifleman Aldridge's section has had a particularly tough tour and his loss is a cruel blow to them, but also to all who knew him. The most fitting testimony that can be paid to him is that we all continue the task on which he died – he would want nothing less. All his brother Riflemen in 4 RIFLES salute him.

"His loss will be a devastating blow to his family and loved ones; our thoughts are with them. The last thing Rifleman Aldridge said to the medic treating him at the scene was to tell his mother that he loved her."

Saturday, January 23, 2010

PICTURE of the day: Operation Bambirik 3

Operation Operation Bambirik continues with the third mission into the "Pear", in North east Nad-e-Ali Region of Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

Images by: SSgt Mark Jones (British Army)

Friday, January 22, 2010

Lead UK brigade in Helmand changes

British forces in southern Afghanistan will be led by 4th Mechanized Brigade from April 2010, Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth has announced.

The routine rotation will install 4th Mechanized Brigade as the UK's lead formation in Helmand province.

They will replace 11 Light Brigade and be in command of the majority of units serving in the country.

There are currently more than 10,000 UK troops deployed in Afghanistan, including about 500 special forces.

Mr Ainsworth announced the deployments in a written statement to the House of Commons.

The deployment - which does not change overall force levels in Afghanistan - will include 40 Commando Royal Marines, the Royal Dragoon Guards, the Queen's Royal Lancers, 1st Battalion the Scots Guards and the Royal Scots Borderers.

It will also include 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, 1st Battalion the Mercian Regiment and 1st Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said although deployments had been announced, the objective of bringing UK forces home remained.

Speaking on a visit to a housing estate in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, he said: "Our aim is that the Afghan army itself is strong enough, and the police is stronger, so that they can take over control of the country and we can gradually bring our troops home."

The 11 Light Brigade, which was formed specifically for Helmand, replaced 19 Light Brigade in October 2009.

The latter lost 70 men during six months of fighting.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Lt Col Nick Kitson: This is no time to waver: progress in Helmand is slow but steady

In recent weeks here in Helmand, the theme has been one of continued progress on all fronts. The temperature, the reduced winter vegetation and the pressure the insurgents face – from us and others – have all acted in our favour.

We have been ruthless in exploiting these advantages and every soldier has worked tirelessly, with great commitment, to ensure we press home every opportunity to increase the security in our areas and convince the locals to reject the insurgents.

Mobilising the population to reject the insurgency is the name of the game; our Afghan army and police partners are working with us towards this goal. Having conducted several significant operations to establish ourselves in new, smaller patrol bases with a broader and more comprehensive footprint we are now living at much closer quarters with the population.

Now that we are genuinely their neighbours in a large number of places – there are 29 security force locations in the Battle Group area, of which we are present in 23 – we can communicate with the locals on a continuous basis, understand their hopes and fears and tell them the truth about what we are trying to do.

This is a traditional and remote rural area with few trappings of the modern world, even by Afghan standards. Yes, there are battered old cars, motorbikes and the occasional ancient tractor but even the ubiquitous mobile phone has no functioning network here. The people have not had the benefit of meaningful modern education. The limited healthcare is normally in the hands of profiteers offering little but quackery.

As such, the locals are prone to the tallest of stories that the Taliban have to offer. This intimidation and misinformation is purely to cow the population into submission – and for no other purpose than to retain the dominance of power-hungry extremists and smugglers with no interest beyond their own status and material gain.

By getting among the population and interacting with them on a persistent basis, we with our Afghan colleagues provide them with visible, tangible security and protection from these abuses.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Outrage over kids used as shields

Attack ... raid last week


TALIBAN fighters were branded cowards last night for using kids as human shields during an assault by British forces.

Insurgents also forced locals into the line of fire in a "disgraceful" attempt to save their own necks, said military chiefs.

Details of the Taliban's tactics emerged after a four-day mission by members of the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh and local Afghan soldiers.

More than 300 helicopter-borne troops surprised the enemy at their stronghold in a Helmand area known as Babaji Pear. The Taliban were smashed without a single British or civilian casualty. At least three insurgents died.

Commanding officer Lt Col Nick Lock yesterday told of the enemy's sick tactics during the assault last week. He said: "On several occasions insurgents were seen to use children as human shields and locals were herded into the open in an attempt to draw fire."

He said there was "no lack of courage" in the Afghan soldiers fighting alongside his men.

Last night the ex-commander of British forces in Afghanistan, Colonel Richard Kemp, condemned the Taliban. He said: "They are cowards who have no honour."

Pictures: Major Paul Smyth

Monday, January 18, 2010

Corporal Lee Brownson and Rifleman Luke Farmer killed in Afghanistan

It is with sadness that the Ministry of Defence must confirm that Corporal Lee Brownson and Rifleman Luke Farmer from 3rd Battalion, the Rifles were killed in Afghanistan on 15 January 2010.

The soldiers were killed as a result of an IED explosion while on patrol near Sangin, in Helmand Province.

Corporal Lee Brownson

Corporal Lee Brownson was born in Bishop Auckland on 15 September 1979. He went to King James the First Comprehensive School prior to enlisting in the Army on 30 August 1996.

He attended phase one training at the Army Training Regiment in Winchester before attending the Infantry Training Centre Catterick in November 1996. He completed training and was posted to the Second Battalion, the Light Infantry based at the time in Palace Barracks, Northern Ireland.

During his time in the army Corporal Brownson has served in Sierra Leone, Cyprus, Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan. He completed the Platoon Serjeants Battle Course in Brecon in March 2009 gaining the highest possible grade. Corporal Brownson assumed the role of section commander with 2 Platoon, A Company 3 RIFLES and it was in this role that he deployed on Op HERRICK 11.

He leaves behind his wife Leeanne, two daughters Ginalee and Morgan and his unborn child.

Lieutenant Colonel Nick Kitson, Commanding Officer 3 RIFLES BG said:

"Corporal Lee Brownson was the very best of Riflemen, brimming with energy, cheer, modesty and resourcefulness. Such was his self confidence and inner strength that nothing was too much trouble for him in understanding and caring for the needs of those around him. Whether for his beloved wife and daughters at home or for his brothers in arms here in Afghanistan, his first priority was to take care of others.

"His loss leaves a gaping hole but we shall close ranks and continue the fight, a fight at the forefront of which he was always to be found. We honour his brave sacrifice, saluting his commitment and example.

"He played a massive part in our work out here, proving himself in combat on countless occasions and giving untold strength to his men through tough times. With spirit and compassion in equally copious measure, he was a beacon of inspiration to us all.

"He was a leader in every sense; commanding the respect not only of those who worked for him, but also of those for whom he worked. Representing the bright future of the army and his loss is a heavy burden to bear.

"There will be no shortage of Riflemen willing to share stories of his life with his children in the years to come. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family. We know that they will draw strength, as do we, from the finest of examples he set in life."

Rifleman Luke Farmer

Rifleman Farmer was born in Pontefract, West Yorkshire on 27 July 1990. He went to Minsthorpe Community College before joining the Army in 2008. He attended training at the Infantry Training Centre in Catterick from October 2008 to April 2009 before joining A Company 3 RIFLES in their pre-deployment training for Op HERRICK 11.

Mark, Luke's father said:

"I was the proudest dad at his passing out parade. I felt 20 feet tall the day Luke received the award for the fittest soldier within his intake. He could have one day gone to the Olympics as a 100m metre sprinter, he was that fast."

Angela, Luke's mother said:

"Luke was a young man who didn't cause us any problems. He was well loved by us and his extended family and friends. He was a good rugby league player who played for Upton Amateur Rugby Football Club. His favourite Rugby League team were The Castleford Tigers. He will be missed by all including the friends and his cousin who he joined up with."

Scott, Luke's eldest brother said:

"He was simply the bestest brother."

Derek, Luke's paternal grandfather said:

"Luke was a brilliant grandson. We'll always remember the times we took him and his brothers on holiday."

Lieutenant Colonel Nick Kitson, Commanding Officer 3 RIFLES BG said:

"Rifleman Luke Farmer was everything I could ask a Rifleman to be; fit, robust, capable, determined and loyal. His dedication served as an inspiration to his fellow Riflemen and his selfless commitment was an example to all.

"Rifleman Farmer is a shining example of the young men who are serving in this place for the benefit of all. His sacrifice is as humbling as his commitment is inspiring and we shall take strength from his memory.

"Our pain is no less for him being quite new to our band of brothers; indeed the loss of such blinding potential, and one so young, is a bitter pill to swallow. We lost a top quality young Rifleman, so much so that he had most definitely made his mark during the very full months he had been with us.

"The thoughts and prayers of this whole Battle Group go out to his family at this tragic time. We know that they too will find comfort in all that he had achieved and the great promise which he showed."

Army chief calls for more troops and fewer ships to fight wars against insurgents

The head of the Army has said that more troops and fewer ships are needed as the changing face of warfare requires the most radical changes to military tactics for more than 80 years.

By Richard Edwards, Telegraph

General Sir David Richards, Chief of the General Staff, said that the rules of war had been rewritten by the challenges of fighting insurgents and the armed forces were now facing a new “horse versus tank moment” – when cavalry was phased out in favour of tanks in the First World War.

With a defence review set to follow a spring general election, Sir David said that it was time to rethink conventional “old-war fighting” involving heavy armour and ships.

The success of insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan and the emerging threat of cyber-attacks against Britain's infrastructure made radical change unavoidable, he said.

Sir David suggested that more troops, unmanned spy planes and high-tech cyber-defences would have to be paid for by slashing the budget for ships and fighter jets.

"Soldiers give you the most choice and the most utility in today's sort of conflict”.

He continued: "People say I'm only talking about war with non-state actors [such as the Taliban]. I'm not. I'm saying this is how even war between states is more likely to be fought in the future."

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the military has faced a string of counterinsurgency or stabilisation operations in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sir David said: "In our heart of hearts, we thought that was an aberration and we'd go back to jolly old war-fighting like in the western desert or a hot version [with battle lines drawn] of the cold war."

But the general said the examples of Basra and Helmand have proved "unsophisticated opponents with very cheap weaponry" can pose severe threats – and said that future opponents were likely to use similar tactics.

"Why would you not learn a lesson from that and think, 'Actually, that's how I would bring down great nations and great alliances, much more subtly, cleverly and at much less risk'?" he said.

Sir David, who is due to speak today at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said he lived in "the real world" and envisaged significant spending cuts in the defence review.

He insisted that Britain still needed ships, aircraft and tanks. But there may have to be fewer of them because more soldiers are required, along with more helicopters to carry them.

Last month the Government announced that a £900 million package of 22 new helicopters, body armour and other support for troops in Afghanistan would be funded by closing a Royal Air Force base and scrapping a squadron of Harrier jets. In addition, two Navy ships will be retired early.

The move led to former military chiefs questioning whether the focus on Afghanistan risked leaving Britain exposed to other threats.

Sir David, however, compared critics to the cavalry officers who insisted, long after the introduction of the tank in the first world war, that it would never replace horses.

He also said that Britain will need to develop better defensive and offensive measures to ward off cyber-attacks.

Royal Welsh target Taliban in their biggest air assault yet

More than 300 helicopter-borne soldiers have targeted a Taliban stronghold in one of their biggest operations since arriving in Helmand over a month ago.

Soldiers from the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh, newly arrived in Helmand as part of the Prime Minister’s troop uplift, have been conducting air assault operations in an area known as “The Babaji Pear” because of its distinctive shape on the map.

The “Pear” includes part of western Babaji, the area where fierce fighting took place last summer in Operation Panchai Palang, and north eastern Nad-e Ali district.

Commanders hailed the assault as “extremely successful”, with no soldiers killed or wounded throughout.

The area where the assault took place is an insurgent stronghold and the troops have been building up to this battle group operation with a series of smaller raids aimed at disrupting them.

Codenamed Operation Bambirik, the Welsh soldiers worked alongside the Afghan National Army during the four day mission with the ANA making up quarter of the force.

The British see the Afghans role as vital as they are far better at engaging with the locals who up until now have never seen the new Afghan soldiers in this part of Helmand.

“We have been very impressed by them and there is no lack of courage in the Afghan soldiers. They want to get in and push out the Taliban,” said Lt Col Nick Lock, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion Royal Welsh.

“The Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police are a key part of our mission. They are excellent fighters and as we progress through the tour we will partner with more and more of them until we are working alongside a full Kandak, which is the equivalent of a British battalion.

The operation was not with out risk and the troops were engaged in numerous contacts involving small arms fire and rocket propelled grenades. On several occasions insurgents were seen to use children as human shields and locals were herded into the open in an attempt to draw fire.

During numerous shuras few residents criticised the operation but those that did were even handed and placed the responsibility for the fighting with the insurgents.

D Company along with the commanding officer flew into the area at last light, while the Mobility Reconnaissance Force, part of the battalion, together with a platoon of Afghan National Army supported them using a patrol base on the northern edge of “The Pear” as a staging area.

For the Royal Welsh helicopters are the providing them with the ability to get out on the ground. By flying into the heart of Taliban territory the soldiers can avoid the lethal IEDs that surround the patrol bases and disrupt the insurgents where they least expect it.

For the Royal Welsh and the Afghan soldiers that work along side them, there will be no let up in the pace as they continue to take the fight to the Taliban for the rest of their tour.

"The end result will provide lasting security for the local population free from intimidation and violence by the insurgents.

Pictures: Major Paul Smyth