Friday, October 30, 2009
Humbled by his riflemen - Lt Col Robert Thomson, CO 2 RIFLES
Lieutenant Colonel Rob Thomson with Major Karim of the Afghan National Army
When we were told in 2008 that we would become the Battlegroup responsible for the town of Sangin and the Upper Sangin Valley, we were only too well aware of the challenge that lay ahead.
Having deployed each and every year over the last ten years, we had the right operational experience but there was not one iota of complacency as we headed out to Afghanistan on our toughest assignment yet.
We have a saying in the Battlegroup that one is only as good as the next operation so, as we grabbed our rifles, body armour and packs, we knew we would be called upon to strain every sinew over six hard months. We were not wrong.
Our area of operations, the patch, was about the same size as Dorset, approximately 2,225 km2, a massive area for a Battle Group numbering 1,100 soldiers; there were over 25 different cap badges represented in our ranks including the RAF and one sailor! A Company 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers joined the Battlegroup to make us five Companies strong.
The Battlegroup was focused on the town of Sangin which has a population of 20,000 people, all living on the equivalent of about $2 per day. Life for the Afghans is harsh. Most are farmers or bazaar stall holders. Electricity, while limited, is improving and water all comes out of a well.
But the people of Sangin are as clever and committed as anywhere else and are determined to build a future for their children, free from the Taliban and its horrific threats.
The threat this summer has been growing rapidly. The enemy knows he loses when he fights us openly so he has resorted to indiscriminate and lethal Improvised Explosive Devices (the infamous IED) which also kill and maim innocent locals.
So, the enemy has planted IEDs in a greater number than ever before, trying to restrict our movements. It has been a hard battle but the Riflemen have found more than 200 IEDs across the Area of Operations.
We have targeted the bomb-maker in his home and in his factory and when he is putting the IED in the ground.
Since the end of July, we managed to kill four IED teams who were laying IEDs. It is difficult to describe accurately the intensity of this fight. When on patrol, everyone is fixed on the job in hand. The Rifleman operating the VALLON metal detector literally holds the lives of his comrades in his hands.
One of My Riflemen has found 19 IEDs whilst on patrol. This extraordinary job is made more difficult by the heat (temperatures have been above 40 for most of our tour) and the weight we all carry (most hump over 40 kilograms around on their back when on patrol). It is not a job for the faint-hearted.
Furthest to my north was I Company at Kajaki Dam, a stunningly beautiful and striking place, but one which harboured a lethal enemy.
I Company faced a largely conventional fight to keep the enemy from the strategically important dam that delivers electricity to the entire Upper Sangin Valley.
Coming south and only seven kilometres north of the Sangin District Centre, home to the District Governor, is Forward Operating Base Inkerman, home to the men and women of B Company. FOB Inkerman is critical to interdicting the routes of the enemy as they try to infiltrate into Sangin from the enemy bases in the Upper Sangin Valley.
B Company has fought fiercely with a tenacious enemy who combine improvised explosives with small arms fire ambushes.
Sangin DC and the town centre was protected by A Company, the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police, all based out of FOB Jackson, which sits on the banks of the wide-flowing Helmand River.
Here, military operations seek to protect the people and prevent the enemy from getting its grip on the town centre.
A British Stabilisation Advisor works shoulder to shoulder with the Afghan District Governor, one of the local tribal elders, to improve the day to day lives of the Afghan people.
FOB Wishtan, just to the east of Sangin, where C Company lived, guards the eastern approaches to Sangin. Like the rest of Sangin, it is a place strewn with IEDs and all movement is dangerous. We have been fighting a battle of wills with the enemy here and gradually we have been able to increase our control of the area and our freedom of movement.
Finally, FOB Nolay, my most southern base, guards the southern route into Sangin, vital to our own resupply but also provides a commercial lifeline for the bazaar in Sangin.
Conditions have been refreshingly basic (austere is the posh word). There are no soft mattresses, no hot showers for the mornings or nights, the most basic toilets you've ever seen and very little fresh rations. But one gets used to a simple and basic existence very quickly.
The heat was the hardest thing to get used to - one could never drink enough and I am not sure I need to eat pasta for a while!
But the true test is whether we have left Sangin a better place. For me, progress in Sangin has not been dramatic but we have moved forward, indelibly so. We will definitely leave Sangin in a better state then when we found it.
Security in the heart of the town has improved, based on new Police Checkpoints and an increase in police numbers.
Afghan Governance has also improved as District Governor Fazil Haq has moved out of the FOB and now works from his offices in the secure Governance zone, protected by Afghan security forces.
A Mayor has been appointed - a first for Sangin - who will pick up some of those unenviable bureaucratic responsibilities which make local government work. The bazaar has got bigger under a sponsored regeneration scheme.
One hundred new stalls were added in June and more are planned. The Afghan Army opened a new Patrol Base which has reduced the enemy's freedom to operate. And the enemy has come off second best on countless occasions.
There are too many tales of heroism to tell here but if you want to know more, come and ask.
All of this has not been without a heavy cost. The Battlegroup has lost 24 soldiers killed in action, 13 of them Riflemen from 2 Rifles, and more than 80 soldiers have been wounded in action.
We will never forget the sacrifice made by those who have given their lives and we are holding their families close. The wounded are in the best of care and have got the strength of character and determination to fight back - we will be in close support.
The commitment, courage and sheer grit of every man in the Battle Group has been humbling.
In extraordinary times, extraordinary men and women have day in, day out done extraordinary things for the good of our Nation and for the benefit of the impoverished people of Afghanistan.
Some as young as 18 have taken the fight to the enemy in some of the most arduous and demanding situations faced by British soldiers for a generation.
That they have retained their sense of humour and sanity is, to me, quite remarkable. You would not believe me, but we have faced donkey-borne IEDs - it fell off and the donkey sat on it with inevitable consequences.
So, as we come home to those we love dearly, our first thoughts and prayers are for those families who will not be able to wrap their arms around a loved one because he has gone.
But they would be the first to say, 'thank you for holding the baton high, now go and rest.
We will celebrate our return - the noise will, I am sure, be heard, far and wide, but we will also remember the sacrifice and the courage of every man and woman in this extraordinary Battle Group.