Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Afghanistan: A new role for British troops

Kim Sengupta, The Independant

This time last year Major Tom Bewick was scrambling along a ditch under heavy Taliban mortar and rocket fire in hours of rolling, close quarter combat in the heart of the Helmand badlands.

Since then he has returned home, got married, had a baby and volunteered to go back with the next brigade deploying to the frontline, an example of how the Afghan war has become the defining feature in a British soldier’s life.

The Independent accompanied Major Bewick and his troops in Operation Kapcha Salaam, of ‘Cobra Salute’, to Lakari, on that last action. The furthest that a British combat team had ever gone in the lawless ungoverned space of southern Afghanistan.

Major Bewick’s next mission will see the start of a new role for British troops in the conflict, providing security for Marjah, the tract of Taliban territory due to be recovered in an impending operation.

General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, has warned that holding the area would provide more of a challenge than taking it. The insurgents may disappear in the face of vastly superior Western firepower during the assault, but, as they have shown in the past, they will return to fight another day. At the same time the loyalty of the residents would have to be won and maintained, not the easiest task for a foreign force in the fiercely independent Pashtun belt.

Major Bewick will be chief of staff to the 4th Mechanised Brigade which is being sent at a time of relentlessly rising number of fatalities. The last few days saw the numbers of British dead rise to 256, reaching and surpassing the toll of the Falklands War. There is little doubt that other such grim milestones will be reached in this bitter attritional struggle.

Speaking at the brigade’s pre-deployment exercise on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, Major Bewick, 36, said “It will be silly to say that this is something one does not think about. We see what is happening every day, the news that is coming through. There are risks involved and each time one goes back that risk heightens. But I had no hesitation about volunteering for this brigade, I picked up a bit of local knowledge when on the ground and I want to pass this on in my new job. Obviously my wife is a bit apprehensive, but she has been fully supportive.

“It is, I think, important to have continuity, learn from what you have done in the past, understand the Afghan people, that is the only way we have ahead and I just want to play my part in that.”

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