Friday, April 2, 2010

British troops to learn about Afghan culture in new army unit

Ministry of Defence says Bedfordshire unit is part of counter-insurgency tactics

Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian

A "cultural unit" has been set up to improve British troops' understanding of Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence announced today.

The unit is based at Henlow in Bedfordshire, and the MoD said it "will help to build a picture of Helmandi society and give commanders reliable advice on the beliefs, expectations, hopes and fears of the Afghan people".

It is part of what the MoD described as the "classic counter-insurgency tactics" promoted by US commander General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan. He has emphasised the need to engage with the local population. The unit will be able to take 42 people at any one time.

About 20 defence personnel have some knowledge of Farsi or Dari, which are mutually comprehensible, and 360 of Pashto, the language of most Taliban fighters in the south of the country, according to the MoD.

Air Vice-Marshal Andy Pulford, assistant chief of the defence staff responsible for operations, said that focusing on cultural issues was essential to success in Afghanistan.

The unit "will help improve the military understanding and appreciation of the region, its people and how to do business there", he added.

A soldier from 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards was killed yesterday in the Babaji district of central Helmand province, the MoD said. He was on a foot patrol when he was struck by a roadside bomb.

The soldier was engaged in Operation Moshtarak, involving thousands of US, British and Afghan forces and designed to drive out Taliban insurgents from populated areas of central Helmand.

A defence spokesman said the number of attacks on troops was falling, though the Taliban were continuing to intimidate the local population at night.

Yesterday's fatality took the British military death toll since operations began in Afghanistan in 2001 to 279.

Most recent deaths, including three in the past week, of British soldiers have been in the Sangin area, where UK troops are supported only by some Afghan forces, north of the Moshtarak offensive.

Maj Gen Gordon Messenger, spokesman for the defence chiefs, described Sangin this week as "the most challenging area in Helmand". But it was also a "critical area" to control, he said.

British and Afghan forces earlier this month detained three men suspected of being responsible for manufacturing improvised explosive devices, the MoD said today.

Messenger played down reports that British troops were planning to leave Helmand province for deployment elsewhere in Afghanistan, including neighbouring Kandahar province. However, he added: "We can't say where they're going to be in two or three years' time."

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