Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Maj Tim Harris, Officer Commanding A Coy 3 RIFLES

Reflections on Op Ghartse Ghadmahe, Sangin, Northern Helmand

As I look out across the Sangin Green Zone from Forward Operating Base Nolay, I see green shoots. Perhaps it is too soon to describe them as the ‘green shoots of recovery’ but the seasons are changing and the wheat and poppy crops are beginning to appear; they represent a sign of hope. Most of the fields near me are wheat: the Afghan government’s wheatseed distribution last October was widely seized upon, although hopes of any altruism behind the local farmers’ choice of crop are wide of the mark.

They grow wheat because it is profitable, nothing more. The fields are busy – farming here is labour intensive and involves these hardy people stooping for hour after hour, nursing their precious crops by hand. This makes it doubly difficult for a soldier to identify who is a farmer and who might be laying an improvised explosive device. If we are not sure, we will observe them and make a note of the area so that we might treat it with caution when we next patrol there. But my men now have a good idea of what constitutes ‘farming’ and what is more nefarious. The Afghan soldiers we work with are even more culturally tuned in; together we form a strong team which is the essence of embedded partnering.

There have been dark days, days when our luck has deserted us, but I am confident that there have been more days when the enemy must have felt that fate was conspiring against them. We have given him a bloody nose on more than one occasion, and more importantly he is no longer able to patrol the agricultural ‘green zone’ to our west with impunity, weapons on show to scare the locals. They are still around and among us, and are still hell bent on intimidating the people and stopping us from achieving our goals, but the Rifleman is a resolute beast, and does not scare easily.

It is very easy after we take a casualty to find yourself asking “are we doing the right thing?” The answer, most definitely, is ‘Yes’. Progress can be hard to measure in counter insurgency: the metrics are often difficult to define. In ‘conventional’ warfighting, we can measure success by yards gained, relative body counts and key enemy equipments destroyed. It is easy to demonstrate progress.

However, in a counter insurgency battle where the people are the prize, how do you measure victories, when a victory may simply be a local who decides in his own mind to stop hosting out of area fighters? It is difficult to show graphically how Sangin ‘feels’ better over time. It is sometimes worth going back into old reports and comparing them with today’s circumstances; in doing so I have realised that areas in the summer that would only have been visited at Company strength are now patrolled by Platoons, or even sections. As a barometer of success this is encouraging. But the question we now have to answer is: can the progress that has been made during the winter be maintained over the summer?

Talk of a ‘fighting season’ misses the point. The insurgency is locally based with support from outside (whether foreign countries or other areas of Afghanistan). Contrary to popular myth, most of the insurgents we fight do not pack up and go home for the winter period. They are locals, who fight for a wide variety of reasons: vengeance for the death of a family member, money, status, coercion or in some instances for fun.

The summer brings with it the complexity of the maize crop, which will replace the wheat and poppy that I now see growing. The maize provides, well, a maze for the insurgents to move about in. Up to ten feet high, it is a serious issue. If the gains that have been made over the winter are to be held throughout the summer by our successors, the Royal Marines, we must provide a solution now, perhaps dwarf varieties of maize, that will give the locals a profitable crop that can feed their families and make some money, but do not obscure fields of view.

The seasons change, time marches on and the wheat serves as a daily reminder that the maize is coming too. If we get this right, we can really begin to ‘take the fun out of fighting’ for the insurgents, and make further steady demonstrable progress, however glacially slow that progress may sometimes appear.

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