Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Dispatch From Sangin, Afghanistan

Lt Col Nick Kitson - CO 3 Rifles BG

Christmas Eve seems as good a time as any to provide the latest update from the 3 Rifles Battle Group, based mainly in Sangin, and with elements up in Kajaki, here in Northern Helmand.

Since I last wrote towards the end of November, the theme has been one of continued progress on all fronts. The temperature, the reduced winter vegetation and the pressure which the insurgents face – from us and others - have all acted in our favour. We have been ruthless in exploiting these advantages and every soldier in the BG 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. This has helped us achieve the meaningful interaction with them that is the essence of Counter-Insurgency – interaction which the enemy do their utmost to prevent. That in itself speaks volumes.

Now that we are genuinely their neighbours in a large number of places (there are 29 security force locations of various shapes and size in the BG 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 (normally White Toyota Corolla Estates from the 80s containing at least 15 people), 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 for a populous that knows no better. Government services do not stretch much beyond the odd electricity line, knitted together and only occasionally carrying a current.

There are 50 policemen for a population of about 35 000; that’s less than 20 on duty, measured against the sort of shift system that we would recognise at home. As such the locals are highly prone to the tallest of stories that the Taleban have to offer. This intimidation and misinformation is purely to cow the population into submission – and rejection of the modern world - 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 amongst the population and interacting with them on a persistent basis we with our Afghan colleagues provide them visible, tangible security and protection from these abuses. We can communicate and discuss the pros and cons of the progress we hope to bring without then leaving them to the devices of the insurgents once we have gone back to our big bases. We explain what it is that we are helping the government of Afghanistan to deliver and put all our powers of leadership and persuasion towards mobilising the population to reject the insurgency.

This sets us up to ‘win the argument’ as our 2* Regional Commander, Maj Gen Nick Carter (also a Rifleman), calls it. The majority of the people we speak to dislike the insurgents and what they bring but they say they are powerless to resist. Our job is to convince them that only they can comprehensively rid this place of the insurgents and that they will have to put their own heads above the parapet, with the ANA’s and our support, to do so. By being amongst them and providing real and visible signs of progress we hope to convince them of this.

In terms of progress, our ‘crown jewel’ is the Sangin Bazaar, bustling, prosperous and ever expanding as new stalls are renovated and stocked daily. It is unrecognisable from only last year and the local population is able to go about its business there peacefully and relatively unmolested. Such is its success that it is an increasingly visible thorn in the insurgents’ side to the point where they are prepared to send suicide bombers in its direction. This is a desperate attempt to push back on the progress that we and the Afghan Government are delivering there.

The insurgents clearly have no compunction about sacrificing the lives of local Afghan civilians in order to achieve their nihilistic and self serving objectives. In stopping just such an attempt on 15 Dec, we suffered the tragic loss of LCpl Kirkness and Rfn Brown, alongside two brave Afghan Army ‘Warriors’. Two other Afghan soldiers were seriously injured in this incident when not one but two suicide bombers on the same motorbike, heading in the direction of the bazaar, realised the game was up when they ran into our vehicle checkpoint. Our thoughts and prayers are with all those devastated by this event but we draw immense comfort and pride from the fact that these sacrifices averted a much larger tragedy, both in terms of human suffering and our mission out here. These courageous soldiers died doing exactly what we are meant to be doing, which is keeping the fight away from the population centres so that they have a chance to re-generate and show progress that people can believe in and carry forward themselves.

That event was the start of what you will know has been a particularly tough patch for us regarding casualties. Since that day, the Battle Group has lost LCpl Pritchard (RMP), LCpl Roney (3 RIFLES) and LCpl Brown (PARA) as well as an Afghan interpreter. In amongst those tragedies we have also had several Riflemen wounded, some seriously. All these have been sustained in the course of the daily acts of courage and determination we witness out here. These losses are a bitter blow to us and take away highly valued and capable individuals. We have no choice but to dust ourselves off and carry on, ensuring that their sacrifices are not in vain. Once again our thoughts and prayers go out to families and friends, particularly as they and we all do our best to celebrate Christmas under testing circumstances.

But to put this in a perspective that rarely comes through in the media at home, these are our first losses for a month during which time we have continued to fight as hard, continued to take casualties, continued to engage with the locals and continued to make progress alongside our Afghan colleagues.

An upturn in casualties such as this is not in itself an indication of increasing success, failure or even activity in terms of our campaign here. It is simply luck - good or bad - and events taking their often unpredictable course in this most unpredictable of environments. None of these things stop the steady surge of progress that we are making and which gains momentum as it goes along. The background noise, the intensity and frequency of the fight, the daily routine remains largely unchanged – the difference between good and bad outcomes is often a matter of inches and seconds, as all soldiers know. We’ve had some bad luck but we continue to have plenty of good fortune and success at the same time.

In the past 10 days, we have opened up three new Patrol Bases and brought the beginnings of security to new communities yet further out from the centre of Sangin. Initially, our new presence is contested by the insurgents but they cannot keep it up for long; we hit them hard when they show themselves and most of the population in the new areas welcome us. This is as hard a blow for the insurgents as our decisive but measured military response to their desultory shoots and desperate, indiscriminate IED laying.

The locals are war weary and want the prosperity the Afghan government promises. They do not reject us but rather fear the day we might have to leave. That is why we also work hard to bring our Afghan comrades on, sharing bases and patrols with them as we do, setting them up for the time when they can take this on themselves. We are dominating our ground and pushing the enemy away from the ‘crown jewel’. Our task is to allow Afghan development and governance to flourish in central Sangin by creating the space for it to take root.

The brave soldiers of this Battle Group are doing just that, through thick and thin. The enemy is out there and we are doing battle with him but he is not at the gates. Fighting is less frequent, less destructive and further afield. Eid al Adha was celebrated openly here for the first time in four years, women who choose to can go about unveiled, people are moving back into their homes.

A brief mention of the home team in Edinburgh and more widely who are doing such a great job of looking after our wounded and our families. It is a source of great strength to us here that our loved ones at home are so well cared for, whether they be anxious families on ‘the patch’ or those who have sadly been affected by events out here. Reports from Selly Oak, Headley Court and elsewhere about the determination, good humour and positivity of our wounded are truly inspiring and humbling.

The generosity of our supporters who have contributed so comprehensively to our Wristband Fund has made it possible to show how much we as a Battalion and a Regiment care and are prepared to go the extra mile beyond the excellent medical care already provided. The generosity and support of the great British public, manifested through parcels and messages, is heart warming and means a great deal to us all. We shall all miss our families over Christmas but we at least have the comradeship and close bonds that sharing in this tough fight brings. Christmas this year will be celebrated with our military family – our brothers in arms.

To purchase a wrist band click here


  1. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 01/04/2010 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  2. Thanks for the interesting comments and insights. My son will arrive at Camp Bastion this weekend.

  3. thanks for keeping us informed. i don't comment all the time but i read this blog all the time!

  4. A great post - many thanks!
    I'm a regular visitor to "helmandblog" but I haven't been coming to this blog as often as I could do - I must change that!
    To everyone in our forces in Helmand - **keep up the GREAT work!** I am CERTAIN that few things will be as satisfying for you as to see the ANA, in a few years time, able to mount operations on their own. Their ability to do so will be **very much** due to the superb hard work that you people are doing!
    Bye for now... :)

  5. You guys are just awesome "The best fighting forc in the world " The way you deal with tragedy and still stay focused on the job is amazing. You guys see things that we the joe public have nightmares about so i really hope that there are things in place to help you out when you return. Keep up the good work and try to remember that we are all behind you and the things you are all doing out there will last forever You are rebuilding for the future of he little kids. God bless