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

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Happy Christmas, from Helmand

This year instead of waking up to two very excited little girls with stockings full of presents, I prised myself out of my winter sleeping bag and stepped out into a bitterly cold Christmas day in Helmand Province Afghanistan.

I have been in the reserves now for just over eight years and have spent lots of time away in places like Iraq and Kosovo and I have been to Afghanistan once before. But this has been the first time I have spent Christmas out of the country let alone away from my family.

In all that time although far from home in some very challenging places I know that it is harder for wives and children than it is for us soldiers. Christmas is such a special day and with the girls just four and nearly six they are very aware that daddy is not there to share it with them.

But I was with a small team of British soldiers at Patrol Base Talibjan near Musa Qala, and we were just two kilometres from what is called the FLET or Forward Line Enemy Troops. And it was to the FLET that we headed out to on Christmas Eve.

The Brits I was with work alongside the Afghan National Army, sharing the same basic mud walled compound. Each day they patrol the surrounding area talking to the locals, meeting with the Afghan National Police and reassuring their rural community with a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign. But Christmas Eve was different. While I would have given anything to back with the family the lads and I had to keep those thoughts at the back of our minds.

As you slept tucked up in bed with snow flakes falling outside we were already in the thick of a fire-fight with the Taliban. Christmas Eve was a different operation altogether, not just one of the usual patrols. We were there to intentionally probe the Taliban, to test their positions and to test their resolve. To ensure we had the upper hand we brought in support.

Once the Taliban took us on and tried to out flank us, we pushed out our Scimitar light tanks and the armoured Mastiffs broke cover. For what seemed like ages the air filled with the sound of gun fire and the sonic cracks as Taliban bullets whizzed pasted our heads.

As we pushed them back an RAF Tornado flew in low drowning out every noise in its wake, reinforcing how serious we were in our intent that day.

The team had been awesome. We pushed back the Taliban, swept through their compounds and captured a raft of components destined to make deadly IEDs, the improvised explosive devices that soldiers here fear more than anything else. But we didn’t get them all. One of the vehicles got hit by and IED. Luckily no one was hurt, the armour did it thing. It does make you think that as infantry on foot we can go where ever we choose. But in a vehicle you can be channeled by the terrain and targeted.

Not until we marched back through the fields and over the hills and once the heavy body armour and day sacks were off, did we start to think of home – wondering what our loved ones were up to – maybe sledging. Then deep in our own quiet thoughts as the events of the day sank in, did we really start to miss them.

But, being British soldiers we crack on and move forward. There was much to do. The Taliban don’t take Christmas off, so nor do the troops. But we can always squeeze in a bit of a celebration as nothing gets in the way of Christmas. Many of us had parcels from family with Santa hats and treats. We even had a small Christmas tree, not a real one, but it was there flashing away in the ops rooms.

A frozen turkey had arrived together with stuffing, carrots, potatoes and sprouts. And the Afghan soldiers’ bread oven had inspired our ammo tin oven built into one of the compound walls that cooked the turkey to perfection.

With the sun blazing in the sky, I have to say I sat down to one of the most unusual Christmas lunches I think I will ever have. I pity the girls who will no doubt hear the tale each and every year as they grow older. But this year using a satellite phone to talk to them I told them Santa had visited the little boys and girls here, just like he had at home. For now they think that I am out here to help the little boys and girls have the sort of life that they take for granted. In a way that is what we are here to do. But for now, how we do that can wait as they need not worry like my wife.

Hearing them laughing and giggling with excitement on the phone makes you realise how much you miss them. But, you have to stay strong and reassure them. However you feel at the time, it is not for them to hear, so that is not what they get.

With half of the tour complete there is still a long way to go. Looking to the future I can see that I will be back here again. But, things are improving. The ANA we fought alongside are getting better all the time. Once we get them up to speed fully and they can master their own destiny we and the International Security Assistance Force can come home.

What a day, what a Christmas Eve and what a way to celebrate Christmas. I know it isn’t the norm but it is what we are trained for, it is what we expect. It is hard out here and the environment is tough, but we take pride in what we are doing and we will do the very best that we can.

Lying here, in the cold on my cot bed with what seems like all of my clothes on, there is just one thing left to say and that’s ‘Happy Christmas’ from Helmand. We’re thinking of you.

Major Paul Smyth, RIFLES
TA soldier

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To see more pictures from the front line at christmas click the links below:

On route from Musa Quela to an OMLT Patrol Base
On ops with the OMLT from Patrol Base Talibjan
Reassurance patrol from PB Talibjan
Christmas Eve reassurance patrol from Patrol Base Talibjan
Christmas day in Patrol Base Taliban
British Troops Tuck Into Xmas Lunch in PB Talibjan
UK troops celebrate Christmas on the frontline
.50 cal sunrise on Boxing day
Living at Patrol Base Talibjan

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Day in the Life of A Thinking Rifleman

Rfn Phil Thomas - 3 Rifles BG

The day normally starts with a kick to the cot bed I’m curled up on. Its six o’clock in the morning and I can see my breath as a cloud of mist against the dirty white of the wall in my room.

“Get up Tommo! Time for a scrape.” My Plt Sjt Tim Exley says. I force myself out of my doss bag, and head down the well. The lads have fashioned a pulley system to get the water out so we don’t have to dip in to our valuable “brew water” supply.

We moved into these two compounds about eight days previous and, with the help of an engineer section, have transformed them into something resembling a home. After washing and shaving comes breakfast around the communal fire, the hub of the camp. There is the usual bartering over ration packs (usually with ALOT of corned beef hashes left in the corner, swiftly followed by the platoon commander Lt Dixon sniffing around for seconds).

The plan for the day is a routine patrol for a couple of hours and then some down-time till my multiple takes over the guard of the patrol base. We spend the next couple of hours getting kit ready, oiling weapons, checking comms and, for some of the lads, getting some head down (a good soldier sleeps when he can).

Its soon time to head to the loading bay then out the front gate. Today we have the ANA (Afghan National Army) with us, it’s a major bonus for us because they really excel at interacting with the local community in a way that ISAF forces could never achieve and this helps with building up the hearts and minds initiative that is so vital to rebuilding the country.

Whilst walking around we tend to attract groups of children looking for sweets or pens and, in the case of some of the riflemen’s attempts at Pashtu (the local language), something to laugh at. It is slow and hard going, with the weight of the kit combined with the drills we use to combat the IED threat. But we have all known people who have either been killed or injured by these devices so you don’t hear any complaints.

We meet a local mullah (elder) and the Boss discusses improvements to local amenities such as the mosques and schools. We head back to the patrol base and say farewell to the ANA until the next patrol. After a short debrief then it’s off to fill sand bags and carry on making little improvements to the camp (a plt serjeant is only happy when his men are working hard rather than hardly working).

While we were out, some mail was dropped off so the lads spend some time reading letters from loved ones and parcels full of sweets. As it’s the run up to Christmas as well, we have started to get cards and mince pies and all the usual paraphernalia that comes with it. We’ll be having the local ANA commander over for Christmas as we were kindly invited over to his base for Eid (Islamic equivalent to Christmas) where I tried goat for the first time and for the record it’s like a really fatty lamb. Christmas is a chance to have the great tradition of the boss and sjt cooking and serving us all Christmas dinner.

My turn for sentry comes around far too quickly so it’s time to wrap up warm and sit on a cold sand bag for an hour at a time, not the most exciting job but considering we’re in Sangin, a necessity none of us take lightly. Its 21:00 by that time and I’m glad the lads have gotten the fire going so when I come off the sangers, I can warm my ice cold hands and listen to the banter, with the lads coming from as far south as Cornwall and as far north as Newcastle (plus anywhere in-between) it’s quite varied, mostly at me for being the only Welshman.

By half ten it’s time to hit the hay. It’s surprising to how tired you can get, thinking you have to do the same thing tomorrow, but as we’re finding out no day in Sangin is ever the same as the one before.

A Day in the life of LCpl Paul Livingston

Its 0300 hrs and the Fire Support Group (FSG) A Company 3RIFLES from FOB NOLAY, just south of Sangin are preparing to move out on a Company operation to find and arrest a known Improvised Explosive Device (IED) maker.

I am LCpl Paul Livingston, a ‘Jackal' armoured vehicle commander and currently acting as A Company’s FSG second in command. Early starts like this are common because they allow us to move into position without the enemy knowing where we are, giving us the element of surprise. Our role is to secure a route for the Company to move along, and then using the high ground, provide overwatch to allow the Company to move forward safely to the target compound.

Not every morning is this busy. Usually my day starts at around 0600hrs. I get into my morning routine, washing, shaving and getting some breakfast, before attending the daily operational brief, which tells us what patrols are happing during the day. This is important especially for the FSG, as we are the quick reaction force (QRF) if any patrols need assistance”

The rest of the morning is spent doing essential maintenance on all the Jackal armoured vehicles, making sure they are fighting fit for whatever task the FSG may well find itself dealing with. As the second in command of the FSG my main responsibility is that we have enough ammunition, water, fuel and man power to carrying out any tasking we are given. The vehicles we have are the key to our mobility, so if they are in rag, we are practically useless.

Lunch at FOB NOLAY usually consists of noodles, pasta, and any leftovers from breakfast, but every now and again something special gets laid on like frankfurters or quiche. Usually after lunch a trip to the gym is usually on the menu. The gym at NOLAY is pretty basic, but there is enough here to beast yourself with. Hopefully there will be some extra gym equipment in time for Christmas.

Throughout the day there is the usual task of ‘Stagging on’, in the Sangers to provide protection for the FOB. Constant improvements to the FSG’s accommodation are always taking place. The most recent additions to the FSG, two chickens and two goats have meant that a new enclosure has been created to keep them till Christmas, where they will make a fine addition to the usual lunchtime meal of noodles. The evening is an ideal time to try and relax. We all try and get together and watch a film or play a few games on the Wii games console.

Over the next few days I will be leaving NOLAY to be a part of an ISAF operation to establish new patrol bases along a key supply route. The days leading up to this will be taken up by battle preparation, getting all the vehicles, and ourselves ready for the challenge. I’m really looking forward to the operation. Once it is complete it will bring much more security to a large area and will cut down movement to the insurgents.”

I wish my girlfriend a Happy Christmas, good luck with the birth, and I can’t wait to see you

LCpl Livingston platoon commander Captain Andy Michael says “LCpl Paul Livingston is an exemplary soldier. He is physically robust, professional, and cares deeply about the rifleman in his charge. He is much liked by his commanders and all members of the A Company FSG”.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Major Richard Streatfeild, OC A Company 4 RIFLES


If you want to understand the Afghan then look no further than Buzkashi. Not my words but still relevant.

The national Afghan game is called Buzkashi. The translation of the name is "goat pulling".

It involves two teams of 15 setting off from a single point on horseback. They race towards a dead goat placed in a circle. The goat is grabbed and they gallop towards a second marker. The teams must get the goat round the marker and back into the circle.

The game is violent. The peculiarly Afghan element is that once a team has the upper hand the goat will often be stolen by players within that team in order to get the final glory.

The game is played in the barren desert with distances of over a mile between the markers and the circle.

I have asked our interpreters whether Buskashi is played in this area. The answer is yes but that was before the fighting.

The cultural point is that, faced with a common enemy the Afghans unite, but quickly argue amongst themselves when the external catalyst is gone.

Perhaps our answer to this is cricket, where the game is played over five days, a good tea is very important, and the most likely result is a draw.

Cricket is also played in Afghanistan courtesy of our imperialist past. We have had several six-a-side games in the FOB. Our interpreters are generally from Kabul and are archetypically good slow bowlers or wristy batsmen with a good eye.

The playing surface leaves a little to be desired, which makes the occasional LBW hotly contested.

The common ground is found in football for which we have enough room for a small five-a-side pitch.

Again the surface is a bit dodgy. But after work, if there is still enough light, I will often find a group of Tiger Team Afghan troops mixed with Riflemen, interpreters, and our locally employed civilians enjoying a kick about that more often than not turns into an international friendly.

Sport doing its bit to turn colleagues into friends.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Major Richard Streatfeild, OC A Company 4 RIFLES


There is no such thing as a normal day in Afghanistan.

One of my platoons has begun to partner a Platoon from the Afghan National Army. The Afghans have already got a small team of UK mentors in their camp, but this move is part of the renewed effort to help the Afghan National Army take on the insurgency with more vigour.

All the planning and conduct of patrols is done jointly. The platoon has worked extremely hard in the last forty eight hours to give their new home enough protection.

The insurgents have responded in a number of ways but today they out did themselves.

The Afghan Army Platoon had received some information that the insurgents were going to try to strap an IED to a donkey and send it towards the camp. Donkeys do not have the reputation of being the most compliant animal, so it was treated with some scepticism at first.

Then in the afternoon the gate guard realised there was something suspicious going on. A group had just let go of a donkey a short way from camp and hurried off. He tried to divert the animal with flares and other warnings.

Obstinacy not being the best quality in that situation, the beast of burden eventually had to be stopped by a rifle shot.

The team went out and established there was something very suspicious under the bundle of hay carried by the donkey.

Eventually one brave ANA warrior set fire to the hay with a flare from a distance, and 30 seconds later there was a considerable explosion. No one was hurt.

Swift appropriate action had saved them from an unusual attack. But it is impossible to report a donkey IED up the chain of command without either a wry smile at the ridiculousness or a feeling that the world is slightly off its axis.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Mother of all baptisms on first tour of Helmand

FLIGHT Sergeant Tony Kyle’s first shift on his maiden tour to Afghanistan is one he will never forget.

The Bishop Auckland-born nurse had been in Helmand Province only a matter of hours when he was faced with a major incident.

The 38-year-old arrived in Camp Bastion at the start of last month, but was almost instantly plunged into an emergency.

Multiple injuries were reported to the Medical Emergency Response Team (Mert) and once he had flown via Chinook helicopter out to the scene, miles outside of Camp Bastion, he discovered four patients – all with legs severed and bleeding heavily, more victims of improvised explosive devices – the Taliban’s deadliest weapon.

It was the Mert’s job to pull them out of trouble, treat them and make sure they arrived at the medical centre, at Camp Bastion, in the best possible condition. All the patients survived – it was the mother of all baptisms for Flt Sgt Kyle.

Back at the Mert’s camp, sitting on a large wooden table, covered with graffiti and names carved into the grain, Flt Sgt Kyle explains that it is something that he would soon get used to.

The former Parkside School student, from Oakenshaw, near Willington, County Durham is currently off duty, having completed a 24-hour shift – the norm for the Mert.

The team camp has been well personalised – a Mert sign, scrawled with marker on a piece of wood hangs above the door, just next a joke bag of blood.

They even have their own pets – a ginger kitten playfully attacks flies in the warm afternoon sun at the door to the canvas tent. Many camps will use vaccinated cats to control vermin.

Flt Sgt Kyle started his medical career in St John Ambulance before gaining a nursing qualification at Bishop Auckland College and going on to practise at Freeman Hospital, in Newcastle.

He joined the RAF, gaining an emergency nurse degree and worked in Portsmouth and Birmingham before being posted to Afghanistan this autumn.

His 24-hour shifts start at 10am with a briefing before the team, normally made up of a doctor, two paramedics and a nurse, heads to the helicopter to prepare equipment should a call come.

After that it is just a case of waiting. There’s admin work and other tasks to be done, but everything is immediately dropped if a casualty needs treatement. It’s not always as serious as Flt Sgt Kyle’s first shift.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as appendicitis or a high temperature, but that still means we fly out to the front line,”

says Flt Sgt Kyle.

Every trip comes with its dangers – the vital role of the Mert doesn’t go unnoticed by Taliban fighters.

“We have been shot at and had rounds go through the cabin because they want to take the helicopter down.

“One of my colleagues was in the front of the helicopter when a round just missed his head and it was only afterwards that you realise how close he came.

“When it is happening the adrenaline is pumping and you just don’t have time to think.”

Flt Sgt Kyle said he regularly speaks to his parents Norma and George, who live in Oakenshaw, but rarely goes into detail about his job.

“My mum and dad are petrified for me, so I try to keep as much from them as possible.

“I have had to treat Afghan children and it is at times like that you start reflecting on things back home,” said Flt Sgt Kyle, who has one son and another child on the way.

As part of the Geneva Convention, Flt Sgt Kyle is required to treat an injured member of the Taliban with the same care and attention that he would give to a British soldier. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that two men who hours earlier had been involved in a gun battle against each other, could be lying side by side in a hospital bed at Camp Bastion. But Flt Sgt Kyle says giving medical treatment to the enemy is not something that concerns him.

“Patients are patients to us,” he says.

“We are here to save lives and it doesn’t matter if they are Taliban, Afghan or British – it could be anybody.”

Just a few hours before speaking to Flt Sgt Kyle, Camp Bastion had been under a communications lockdown – when there is a ban on outgoing phone calls in the wake of a fatality or serious injury.

This time, it is following an injury to a soldier, but Flt Sgt Kyle says news of a communications lockdown always brings on sadness among soldiers.

“There is a depression that sets in and people do grieve because they know that someone is badly hurt or dead,” he says. “But one thing I have realised is that people here are so professional they get on with their jobs. Even though their best friend might have died, they just carry on.”

Friday, December 4, 2009

Welcome to Helmand

Economic Adviser, Afghanistan

I work in a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Helmand province, Afghanistan – part of the international mission to support the Government of Afghanistan and help Afghans govern their country for themselves.

I work in a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Helmand province, Afghanistan – part of the international mission to support the Government of Afghanistan and help Afghans govern their country for themselves. My job title is Economic Adviser. I work with the local government to support economic development in Helmand and help give people the chance to earn a decent living - so they aren’t forced to join the Taliban’s ranks out of desperation.

We’re a multinational team, made up of staff from the UK, Afghanistan, Estonia, Denmark and the US, and working closely with the UK and US military, known as Taskforce Helmand and Taskforce Leatherneck respectively. I’m the new kid. I flew in from Kabul last week – so I’m still getting used to the way things work and learning all the military terminology. (To me, M&E means monitoring and evaluation. To the military it means mines and explosives. It’s important to be clear exactly what we’re talking about).

Life here is very different from the picture of Afghanistan you see on the news. I’m based in the town of Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s provincial capital, which sits on the Helmand River 200 miles from the southern border with Pakistan. The Helmand River valley is actually one of the most green and fertile regions in Afghanistan. But security remains very difficult, and British soldiers are laying down their lives in the fight against the insurgency. Yesterday I attended a memorial service for two soldiers from this base who were killed by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device). It brought home the stark reality of the situation here.

The aim of the Provincial Reconstruction Team is to help the Government of Afghanistan improve security, create jobs and deliver services to the Afghan people. It’s a crucial part of the international mission here. I’ve already seen some of the successful projects we’ve delivered. In the photo I’m standing next to a bus station which we helped to build.

We’re providing small-scale loans so local farmers can buy land and equipment. And as a result of a US funded project, people in Lashkar Gah recently started receiving a reliable supply of electricity for the first time, generated using hydro-power from the Helmand River. Businesses can now operate more easily. Families can switch on a light and listen to the radio. Winter is approaching in Helmand and one of the Afghan staff in my team who lives in Lashkar Gah told me that he can now use an electric heater for the first time.

This is just the beginning of the story. Over the coming months I’ll try to explain what it’s like working here and what my team is trying to achieve in Helmand.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Major Richard Streatfeild, OC A Company 4 RIFLES


For all soldiers in Afghanistan, the basics of living assume much greater importance.

Food, drink, sleep, cigarettes for some, press-ups for others, or a visit to the deep trench latrine, are all important rituals in the day.

Food is by far the most important element of this. There is an army joke that the chef's course is the hardest in the Services because no chef seems to have passed it.

Whilst variety and taste has improved immeasurably in recent years, the staples are still there - bacon grill, sausages, tinned tomatoes, powdered egg and beans for breakfast. Generally with porridge. Noodles and soup for lunch with a couple of rice or pasta choices for supper.

Military efficiency being what it is, the food is chosen for its nutritional value and ease of preparation. In this base we are particularly lucky that the chefs are doing an outstanding job.

Given limited ingredients the four chefs from of the Royal Logistic Corps have done us proud. The processed cheese cheesecake, tinned fruit crumble, pizza, spam balls in sweet and sour sauce, chicken jerky and fresh bread have all been added to the daily fare.

We all eat together on bench tables in the cook house. Cardboard plates and plastic cutlery are the order of the day in order to prevent the spread of illness.

But whilst there is much that is functional about the food the best days are reserved for when fresh rations come in. Steaks to order were a particular highlight, as well as fresh fruit in place of the processed fruit bar.

Being well fed is probably the single most important aspect of a soldier's morale. We still march on our stomachs.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Major Richard Streatfeild, OC A Company 4 RIFLES


The start of a tour is always incredibly busy. Every day is a new experience.

Yesterday we held a Shura at the base. Or more accurately, we had a Shura come to us. A large group of elders arrived to protest the innocence of a man who had been arrested in a security operation. There was no doubt that they had been sent by insurgents, but they were a notable gathering.

In Afghanistan, age, gender, and facial hair are all indicators of seniority in open society. Inside the compound there is alleged to be a matriarchy, outside, in Helmand, mature men with long beards get respect. It was as an impressive bunch of beards as you are likely to find.

We talked for about two hours. They are good talkers and the conversation moves at a sedate pace. "You have the watches but we have the time" is a popular Afghan jibe.

We sat on our haunches until my western joints creaked and we moved to benches. Green tobacco is taken with care. Small globules of spit form a circle of dust balls on the ground around each chewer.

Afghans often suffer myopia alleged to be the result of a lifetime of dehydration. They break into your personal space to look closely from behind a beard and leathery skin tanned by a thousand Afghan suns.

At one point I was told that we both believed in the same God. "There is only one god," he assured me. We had been going for an hour an a half at that point and I felt we might have only just warmed up if the theology continued. So I felt inclined to agree and left it at that.

We arranged to meet again in three days to see if their issue had progressed.

It all appears to be a caricature and a slightly idyllic one, but it is not. The Shura had been delayed for an hour because two children, both nine, had been brought to the FOB having stepped on an IED. Innocent victims in the battle of wills.

I will not describe the full extent of their injuries but horrific barely does the scene justice. Our doctor, medics and medically trained Riflemen worked for 35 minutes to save them. They were alive when we put them on the Chinook helicopter to the hospital in Camp Bastion with relatives. They died of their injuries there.

It is hard not to believe it was a small mercy. Their uncles returned later in a taxi with the two coffins. They were buried today.

We are left with the moral dilemma of having found, marked clearly and avoided that device only for two children to detonate it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

VIDEO: Life on the frontline with the Afghan Army

Filmed on the 1 November 09. Moving along one of the many canals in the Nad-e-Ali Valley in Helmand Province, Corporal Phillip Hodgson from Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team (OMLT) Four 2 YORKS, noticed something odd about the troops surroundings.

The locals we just passed all took off, said Cpl. Phillip Hodgson. So keep a look out for any enemy activity. It usually means we are going to be under attack soon.
After being here for five weeks, Hodgson and the rest of the OMLT have started to notice the subtle clues that help keep them on their toes while on patrol.

Its like a sixth sense you pick up when you are out on the ground, said Lieutenant Tom Dawson, the team commander. After being out here for a month you start to notice everything going on.

Minutes later, the OMLT come under attack from small arms fire. As soon as the team hears the shots, they quickly jump into the nearby canal. The ditch is filled with waste deep water and mud that swallows their feet as they take cover from the incoming rounds.

After 40 minutes of back and forth firing, the shots from the enemy slow down and the enemy retreats after being ineffective. After the fire fight ends, the team decides to return to their compound to plan for their next mission. For these troops, these events are a near everyday occurrence.

We come in to contact with the enemy about 80 percent of the time we go out, said Hodgson.

When the OMLT goes on patrol, their primary mission is to mentor the Afghan National Army. The patrols are lead by the ANA with the OMLT supervising. The OMLT gives guidance and helps the ANA to be better Soldiers. The OMLT does not limit the training for patrols only.

When we find time, we try to give them medical lessons and practice finding IEDs and other tactical training, said Dawson.

Although the troops are mentoring the ANA, they have been learning from them as well.
They have taught us how to pick up on improvised explosive devices better and to pick up on the atmospherics of the area we are patrolling. Sometimes you even pick up on a bit of the language, said Dawson.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Major Richard Streatfeild, OC A Company 4 RIFLES


It's finally here, day one on Operation Herrick. It's been some time coming as I was first told that A Company would be going to Afghanistan in early January. A Company is usually part of 4 Rifles. For this tour we are under command of another Rifles Battalion, 3 Rifles. We are to form part of Battle Group North in Helmand which is based around Sangin.

A Company is over 100 strong and with attachments from other branches of the army is considerably more than that. We have been training together since Easter.

As I look back it seems like an incredibly long period of training for the mission we are going to undertake. That said I've never heard anyone in my position say we were too well trained for the task.

The training has many aspects. Everyone going to Afghanistan needs to know how to operate safely. They need to know enough about the culture to avoid inadvertent offence.

We learn a bit of Pashtu to be able to break the ice and give basic instructions. We all do first aid training and the majority of the company are trained to a more advanced level.

And of course there is the requirement to keep people physically fit and healthy.

The collective training has been a tour of all the most delightful parts of Britain. Kent, Northumbria, Norfolk, Wiltshire and Wales - twice.

We were the second group through the new Afghan village complex in Norfolk. At times on Army training areas it is hard to replicate a civilian population this however was about as realistic as it gets, manure and straw with a number of the Afghan diaspora.

I got put through my paces in a post mission Shura trying to convince the local population that we had done something that would increase their security. Not an easy sell.

I also found it amazing how much of Norfolk is irrigated in the same way as the valley of the River Helmand. Good practice manoeuvring around the ditches, wet feet, deep mud and not much commander's dignity.

After the bulk of the training was complete we were able to take a couple of weeks leave. Whilst the training is vital there is nothing as dangerous as fatigue. Tired minds and bodies are prone to bad decision making.

We have had the chance post leave to do some refresher training and get the administration of the company in order. We will get our final training top up on arrival in Afghanistan just to get the latest from the guys who are already there. Then we'll be good to go.

Every father has hopes and fears. It is part of having children. I am no different from every other father in the land in that respect.

My greatest desire in this regard has crystallised round the hope that I will be able to take my son to the first day of an Ashes Test at Lord's. My greatest fear being that I will not be there to go with him.

This fear may be no different from other parents' but it is perhaps brought into sharper focus by the prospect of six months in the Upper Sangin Valley.

On a professional level it is rather different. We don't generally deal in fears. We harden our hearts against the prospect of some very difficult decisions.

My personal hopes and fears are wrapped into the same moment. Making the right decision. Through training, experience, character and enough thought I hope I make good decisions.

I will spend a good deal of time planning and conducting operations. During that process and over the course of my tour there will be plenty of decisions to make.

Most of the time the result of a bad decision will be rectifiable, yet in my profession and very obviously in Afghanistan it is sometimes about life and death.

It is an incredible privilege to command a company of Riflemen and all the soldiers and officers who will be part of the Company Group. I have got to know some of them and their families extremely well.

I know from friends and colleagues that the worst moments of their professional lives have been in the moments of grief following the death of a soldier for whom they feel totally responsible.

I hope that I can face that with stoicism and sensitivity. It is easy to get fatalistic about operations in Afghanistan but there are Companies in Battlegroups that all come back. I hope we all come home.

The summer has been sobering in that regard and the families and comrades of those serving in Afghanistan this summer have barely been away from my thoughts.

There will be many factors involved but I certainly feel that the decisions I make and have made during training will play their part. It is a good pressure if used properly.

My final hope is that the Company Group can do a difficult job in the right way. I hope we can understand, persuade and influence as well as clear, secure and protect.

I hope we can hold and build on ground that we clear of insurgents. I have no doubt that this is not just a six month project but I hope we can make a positive difference.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Soldier tells of enemy attack on the front line

A soldier who is serving on the front line in Afghanistan has spoken of the moment he came under enemy fire.

Corporal Jamie Hilton, of the 2nd Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, was deployed to Helmand province in August. As a section commander, he is in charge of eight men.

Since the summer, he and his soldiers have been involved in operations to expand security.

They have also built two new checkpoints and are building a bridge across a canal to allow greater freedom of movement for locals, as well as the military.

Cpl Hilton, aged 23, said: “We were under some heavy enemy fire.

“We were suppressing the enemy. Then a rocket-propelled grenade came in and made an explosion and blew me off the roof. One of my lads was right in front of my face shouting man down. I was hanging off the roof by my arm, wedged in by my weapon system. I looked round and my platoon sergeant was behind me with complete shock on his face. Once I realised I was all right and everything was in the right place I jumped down.

“Me and my platoon sergeant had a laugh and I got back on the roof albeit with incoming fire still coming in but someone had to be up there to help my lads get through it, to identify the enemy and start putting rounds down.”

He admits his parents and wife, Jen, find it hard when he is away. He said: “It is never easy for them.

“In some ways it is harder for them than us because we know what is happening on the ground.

“All they see is on the news — British soldier killed or hurt and they don’t know who it is. We can’t ring home obviously to tell them it’s not us.”

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.

Monday, October 26, 2009

4 RIFLES CO reflects on OP HERRICK 10

Lt Col Rupert Jones

AS THE Election Support Force elements of 4 RIFLES prepare to fly home, and A Company start their Afghanistan commitment, we can reflect on a period of achievement and uncertainty.

The Riflemen operated in the Nad e-Ali District in the extreme south of the UK area of operations in Helmand Province. ISAF moved into the area for the first time late last year, so it is still in the early stages of development and the insurgent threat remains high. The Riflemen faced a constant and debilitating threat from Improvised Explosive Devices and operated, in the main, in austere locations living a very basic existence.

B Company operated very much alone, working through the difficult summer to keep the insurgents at bay and protect the ISAF push into Babaji to their north. Progress was deliberate and steady, but in the last month a number of local national families who had moved into the desert for security have started returning home.

While there are many reasons for their return, they would not have done so if they did not feel that the security situation was improving. This is a legacy that the Riflemen can be proud of - small steps, but ultimately it is the local population who will decide the success of this campaign and it is they who are the real judges of security and progress.

These are early days in Nad e-Ali District, but the Riflemen have set the area up for further development.

As ever, our return will be tinged with sadness for those who are not with us and their families - LCpl Taran Cheeseman who tragically died of cancer early in the tour and Rifleman Daniel Hume killed in July. We all look forward to seeing our seriously injured brother Riflemen, for whom life will never be the same. Our homecoming in Bulford will bring a mixture of joy, pride, relief and sadness, but the Riflemen know that with the support of our families that they have done a great job.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Thomson, commanding officer of 2 RIFLES

Britain's success in Afghanistan is measured in small steps

Better security, a health post, more schools – you know of the sacrifices, but let me tell you about the real progress

Both parents were inconsolable. They stood at the front gate of my patrol base in Wishtan, Sangin, and pleaded for help to find their child. We could give no satisfaction — their six-year-old daughter had stood on a Taleban pressure-pad IED (improvised explosive device); there was nothing left of the poor child. The parents continued to plead — a small part of her broken body would suffice. They had to have something to bury. The 2 Rifles Battle Group know about grief: we have seen friends killed but we had at least been able to salute a coffin. With the heaviest of hearts, my riflemen watched helpless as those heartbroken parents returned home to mourn the loss of a Muslim child who could not be buried.

It is this kind of IED that has been the Taleban’s indiscriminate and careless weapon of choice in the Upper Sangin Valley this summer. I have seen too many Afghans fighting for their lives in my trauma bay. As a battle group, 2 Rifles has dealt with more than 400 IED incidents in our six months here, finding more than 200 devices.

In my first tour of Northern Ireland in 1991-92, my platoon dealt with four IED incidents. We had nine platoons in the battalion then, so perhaps my commanding officer at the time had to deal with 36. These statistics provide some notion of the scale of the fight. One more will suffice — last year in the same period, there were 158 incidents.

And it is in the face of such adversity and such an insidious enemy, which adjusts its tactics almost weekly, that the courageous men and women of this battle group have fought. It is hard to describe the courage required to operate at all, let alone leave one’s base and take the fight to the enemy. But the riflemen and fusiliers of this battle group have patrolled Sangin and its immediate area daily to protect its people. The commitment, grit and indomitability have been humbling to observe.

The heavy cost has been recorded and rightly so — we will never forget the sacrifice made here this summer, and the hole each fallen rifleman has left behind in this battle group is enormous. I remember gathering my officers together to tell them that one of our platoon commanders had been killed. My leaders needed to know before everyone else so they could grieve briefly and be ready to lead their riflemen back out that day.

I remember telling a tough bunch of sappers late one night after they had come off the ground that the man who made them laugh the most had not made it. The cost is perhaps clearer to our country this summer than at any other time and I am grateful to the bottom of my boots for the support we have had from all corners of our nation.

But what has not been so well told by the media is the progress we have made here. The enemy has been hurt hard here in Sangin. Many of its fighters have died at our hands. We have disrupted its IED networks and are maintaining pressure on the bombers at every opportunity. We have removed four active IED teams, permanently, and the gratitude of the Sanginites was palpable.

Yet this campaign is not an attritional one; that is not the route to progress. As soldiers, we have to provide sufficient security to enable Haji Faisal Haq, the district governor, to do his job. His area, just outside the forward operating base , is now secure. He works there daily and is much more accessible to the people of Sangin. The numbers of police have increased.

We have built new police checkpoints in the bazaar and more are planned. As a result, Taleban physical intimidation has ceased and attacks have reduced. People can go about their lives with a touch more freedom. We have opened a small health post, the first government-sponsored public health provision in Sangin. And the bazaar has got bigger. It is definitely not Bluewater but an extra 100 stalls make a real difference.

As commanding officer, I spend as much time discussing reopening the schools (banned by the Taleban in a country fiercely proud of its tradition of learning) as I do where next to go and prove to enemies that they are not invulnerable. And we have done all this while fighting shoulder to shoulder with some very tough Afghan soldiers and policemen who become more capable each month.

All of this would be worthless if Sangin was unimportant. But Sangin is important and has a significance at the provincial, regional and national level. The town is a political centre with reach to Kabul; the tapestry of tribes here in the upper Sangin Valley has an echo in Kabul. Its market, which supplies the whole of the upper Sangin Valley, is a vital commercial centre. For the drug barons, Sangin is a gateway that helps to fund the Taleban and their terrorism. And the Taleban use Sangin as a route along which to infiltrate fighters, IEDs and technology further south into Helmand. The Taleban will continue to fight us here in the coming months. As a result, our work has been not just important and urgent but full of purpose.

Success has not been glamorous — as soldiers in Sangin, we talk of edging forward, taking small but essential steps in the right direction. This battle is not one we have lost nor are we losing. There is much to do but as I take my gang of extraordinary men and women home, I know that the baton in Sangin has not been dropped (nor is it likely to be) and we have played our part in the security challenge of our generation that, for the UK and this region, we must tackle. And, in a small way, we have helped to improve the lives of impoverished Afghans of Sangin. It has been the campaign of our lives.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Maj Rupert Follett, 2 RIFLES BG, FOB Wishtan

Update from Forward Operating Base Wishtan – 23rd September

The end of the tour is almost in sight, the days are ticking by and our replacements have started to arrive. The new Royal Engineer section has now been here for over a week, new signallers arrived today and the first man from 1 SCOTS is in and getting used to his new surroundings. All our replacements will receive a thorough handover during the coming few weeks, so that they are prepared for the challenges of living and operating in Wishtan. The R and R window has now closed so the FOB is as full as it has been for months.

Operationally there is no let up and the tempo remains high. 5 Pl under Lt Parry and Sjt Clark deployed on a 4 day expeditionary patrol and worked closely with the Afghan National Army with great results. C Company are now a routine presence in the Sangin Wadi, which is one of the main arterial routes into Sangin District Centre. We patrol to extend ISAF influence, deter insurgent activity and reassure the locals.

9 Pl under 2Lt Little and Cpl Scott recently deployed to Patrol Base Chakaw and will remain there until the end of the tour. Sjt Moncho has remained in the FOB to conduct the G4 handover and has his hands full accounting for kit and equipment. We have said goodbye to Sjt Heng who was the previous G4 stores account holder, he has finished his tour and has headed back to 7 Rifles.

Election day is now a month ago and we still feel the tragic loss of Pte Young YORKS and Sjt McAleese who were killed that awful day. Now that we have BFBS television and internet we have been able to watch some of the coverage surrounding their deaths and their funerals, all of our hearts go out to their families and friends.

C Company also feel the loss of Sjt McGrath, killed in action recently near FOB Keenan. He was our Mortar Fire Controller in FOB Gibraltar before the Company moved to Wishtan and again our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends.

We have had the RSM patrol up from FOB Jackson to spend a few days with us. It was good to see him and he helped to reconstruct our outdoor gym. Sideburns have noticeably lengthened since he went back to FOB Jackson! On a lighter note the Company Serjeant Major, WO2 Thompson, continues to play the same tracks from ‘The Wurzels’ greatest hits every night. Cpl Rowley has just returned from Bastion, where he managed to squeeze a morning’s work into 5 days as he checked the signals account. The Pharmacy Road Cricket Club has been formed, 2Lt Hilliard fashioned a bat from a piece of wood, a pole from a cot bed and a lot of black nasty tape. Regrettably on the very first ball delivered by our Doctor – Capt Cranley, 2Lt Hilliard’s enthusiasm got the better of him, as an Australian he was probably trying to win back the Ashes, and he smashed the ball over the perimeter wall. No one has yet been brave enough or daft enough to go and retrieve it. It is hoped that a game against the Salamanca Cricket Club founded by Lt Horsfall when he was in Patrol Base Chakaw can be arranged.

We are all looking forward to coming home as it has been a long and brutal slog. The number of Riflemen sun bathing in any spare moment has increased, in an effort to look suntanned and interesting for our return. I cannot finish without mentioning all the welfare parcels and mail we have received throughout the tour. It has been overwhelming and really does make a marked difference to morale, so huge thanks to everybody who has supported us.

With best wishes

Major Rupert Follett
Officer Commanding FOB Wishtan.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Colour Sergeant Mike Saunders, 2 MERCIAN, blogs from Helmand - Part 19

Greetings friends and readers at the Marwood, Worcester!

This will be my last blog for a few weeks as I will soon be going home for some rest, I hope to see some of you in person as I will make a visit to the Marwood on my return.

This week the theme, if such a thing exists with my ramblings, is departures. We have all seen the news and know of the great losses sustained in the fierce fighting here. What is less publicised is the soldiers who return home injured or at there end of tour, both of which deserve attention and recognition for different reasons.
For those injured soldiers the road to recovery may be a long and painful process and we must guard against not including them as the friends and comrades that they are.

This is difficult as the pace of operation’s here continues and on return the drive to restart lives put on hold is intense. For some seeing again the injured and the results of such injuries can be a traumatic process that will force them to relive moments that will have been buried deep. Individuals will deal with this in different ways and I for one will not judge any man who finds meeting casualties again too much.

After our previous tour I made a few visits to the Forces rehabilitation centre at Hedley Court. I was struck by a number of things but mostly the quantity of the casualties and their absolute refusal to be defeated by the injuries inflicted upon them. It sounds like a cliché to say that I was humbled by these soldiers, but I was and I still am.

If the pictures on the news of the crowds at Wooten Basset teach us one thing, it is that soldiers will always be soldiers, regardless of when their service ends and indeed for what reason. I sat here and watched with my colleagues the pictures as the hearses drove through the town. For us who serve here this was an emotional time as we had seen these men on to the plane that would take them home and then they were there, in the spotlight of the world media for all to see and acknowledge.

I must admit that a small part of me did not want to see this, as if by avoiding it the truth would be somewhat diminished and some of the shock dispersed. Alongside the well wishers and the general public were soldiers old and new, some of whom will have tasted the bitterness of loss and the sadness of seeing good friends injured in the line of duty.

We as a Battalion have sent many friends home, some of whom will take many months to recover if they can at all. I speak of people like Major Stuart Hill one of the Company Commanders who was injured badly in the incident that took the life of Private Robbie Laws. He is now in a fight of a different kind as he must now try to climb the mountain of recovery which is set before him. He will do this in the same way that he conducted himself here, with pride, dignity and the tenacity that befits an Infantry soldier.

We have also sent friends home who have completed their time with us and in doing so have built strong bonds that have been tested to the limit in a place that does not support petty unit differences or minor grudges. In this case I speak of people like Colour Sergeant Al Dunn, who has got to be the angriest man I have had the pleasure of meeting. Al came to us with the Company from the 3rd Battalion the Royal Scottish Regiment and was given to us to be a Company Quartermaster Sergeant. This task involves ensuring that men and material get to the right place at the right time and is as difficult a task as it is critical.

Al while being angry secretly possessed a heart of gold that was well hidden, but not unseen beneath a gruff archetypal Scottish exterior. Indeed I recall vividly him enjoying himself greatly with us all as he sat and enjoyed the feast we had on St Georges day, surrounded by Englishmen as if he was born to be there!
To Al and others who will be gone by the time I return from leave I wish only the best of luck and if there is any justice we will meet again near a bar so I can secure the pint that he owes me.

In all of this I am reminded that departures can be the saddest of times but on reflection they can be the foundation on which great memories are made. We are given over in this life to make many partings some of which will inspire us, some of which will rend our hearts in two. Experience of such comings and goings are the fabric by which we make the backgrounds for our life, they bring meaning and substance to the ebb and flow of all that we are and as such we must embrace the opportunity to keep moving forward while fixing an eye on those of whom we have left behind.

Soon I will be amongst my family and friends and it will be strange for some time to not wake up and go through the routine of my day here, for a time I will miss my friends that continue on in my absence but I will rejoin them soon enough.
For the time being readers be careful, be safe and remember to live in the now. I will leave you with a short poem I wrote after watching the repatriations of so many of our number that to recall it brings me sadness.


The villagers of Wooten Bassett stood,
As the hearses all went by.
Above the sky had opened,
As if the clouds themselves did cry.
Old and young stood silent,
As they thought about the cost,
While families of fallen men grieved from sudden loss.
Meanwhile several hours ahead and a thousand miles away,
The fallen soldier’s comrades had seen out another day.
Another day of fighting in this distant brutal land,
Another day of being the line drawn in the sand.
Soon the fallen soldiers name will be chiselled into a wall,
Please remember not the statue,
All gave some, some gave all.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

FCO Blogger: Lisa Bandari - Waiting for the election results

Lisa Bandari
First Secretary Political, Kabul

We, like everyone in Afghanistan, are in suspense, waiting for the election results. I attended the first of the long-awaited IEC press conferences on Tuesday 25 August, to announce the first 10% of results for the presidential elections. Everyone was there, from journalists to researchers, to election observers and diplomats. The atmosphere was buzzing, with journalists deep in conversations with contacts at the corners of the room before the conference started, and everyone comparing notes so far.

We all eagerly scribbled down the figures when they finally arrived, in Dari and English, checking with each other on decimal points and provinces. Journalists were the first to start calculating what they might mean for the overall turnout and result, ready for release on the wires - although it remains guesswork at this stage.

Earlier this week I visited the National Tally Centre, where all the results from the provinces are being collated. Beneath an imposing looking hangar in the IEC compound is an impressive data entry centre, with lots of young people sitting at computer screens tapping away at keyboards. I chatted to a couple of the candidate agents observing in the gallery section, and asked them where the results had come in from, and whether any had been quarantined. After one candidate agent moved the conversation on to Iranian pop music, I beat a hasty retreat.

I’ve just been looking at the new website, with an attractive interactive map, but again, just not quite enough information to draw conclusions on the overall results. I and my colleagues will continue to follow the results through the IEC website and their press conferences - the crawl up the hill to the Intercontinental for those is made up for by its striking views over Kabul.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Colour Sergeant Mike Saunders, 2 MERCIAN, blogs from Helmand - Part 18

This week I will be short with my letters as we have been struck once again by the loss of one of our Mercian brothers. As you will have seen in the news we are currently engaged with the insurgent forces on many fronts, as we seek to deprive him of his last hiding places in the wider Helmand Province.

Be in no doubt that we are in the fight of our generation, the future of this place will be decided in part by what we do now. In such times we live that young men will give all and in doing so sacrifice their precious futures.

On the news they will show impressive graphic projections and they will discuss the merits of one vehicle against another until you the supporters of the Regiment are confused or disillusioned. Allow me if I may to make things very simple, the fight we are in is to dominate key ground, this ground has been the home of insurgents, bandits and drug lords for some time and if we are to proceed with our mission of bringing peace we must remove these men and replace them with stability and law.

Key terrain like this can only be taken by soldiers making the hard yards on the
ground. For these men their world is what they can see in the front of them as they fight metre for metre with a ruthless cunning and determined enemy. With a sweep of his or her arm the news presenter will allude to the ground being covered and taken, the reality of which is that every metre will be paid for with blood sweat and brute force.

This is nothing new and Infantry soldiers have done the same thing since records began, that is why they exist and are so very much in demand here, where ground that is not held by force will be occupied and subjected to the lawlessness of insurgents and violent men.

At the beginning of the tour in an interview I was asked what I thought of the troubled times that may be ahead. My answer is the same now as it was then, your Mercian Soldiers and their colleagues from many fine Regiments will be more than the match for those who believe we will be forced to leave here in ignominy and defeat. Despite the cost we will become stronger as your soldiers become tempered like steel in the Helmand fire.

As a soldier not currently near the fighting I take little credit for the bravery, fortitude and sheer tenacity of those who are fighting in this our greatest endeavour. They have my greatest respect as I am sure they do yours.

To finish this weeks short letter I would urge you to continue your support of your troops here and if you have a quiet moment in your hectic lives spare a thought for the young men and their families for whom the world is in darkness. I have written a short poem that gives voice to some of my thoughts at this time.

A makeshift cross on broken soil,
The final marking of the soldiers toil.
Gone to serve at General Command,
In a distant, unforgiving land.
A place where death and danger walks,
Among the ripened poppy stalks,
And on that final, fateful day,
The enemy stole his life away.
They took his future, but not his past,
Among his friends it will always last.
At home the grieving has just begun,
For a grieving mother for her fallen son.
Many will stop and question why,
This young many should early die.
Beside the arguments and great debates,
The soldier died beside his mates.
As all that’s left when the enemy attack,
Is the friend behind you, watching your back.

Until next week be careful be safe and be good to one another.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Part 2 - Op Panther's Claw: Lt Col Stephen Cartwright, CO Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland

The final air assault and armoured thrust - 20-27 July 2009

It seemed apt that, having been involved at the very start of the British strike in Babaji, we should be allowed to take part its finale. Once again, we were given enough Chinooks to lift the aviation element of the Battlegroup in a single wave. As with our first battlegroup operation, the key lay in surprising the insurgents.

“The Battlegroup for this operation consisted of Alpha (Grenadier) Company, 3 SCOTS, C Company, 2 R WELSH mounted in Warrior fighting vehicles (their role mentioned above) and Assaye Squadron, Light Dragoons, in armoured recce vehicles; 500 personnel and 60 vehicles.

A Company swooped on the target area by Chinook, Charlie Company led an armoured punch in through the Green Zone (the first of its kind) from the east using Warrior armoured fighting vehicles. They were joined by Assaye Squadron. Our logistics tail followed up in Mastiff troop carriers and armoured trucks.

It became immediately clear that the Brigade plan had been a huge success. The isolation of the area and the success of the Light Dragoon Battlegroup’s battle in the North East had taken its toll against the insurgent. Both the aviation assault and armoured manoeuvre avoided the expected IED screen and the remaining insurgents realised that they were completely overmatched by the combat power and melted into the ‘Green Zone’.

The local population was initially cautious but slowly they realised that ISAF intended to stay in the area for good and became very helpful. In turn, we provided our doctor to start conducting medical clinics. The Light Dragoons even organised a football afternoon which attracted 30 youngsters.

Further to the west in our operational area, A Company was dominating the insurgents’ old ground. Shuras were arranged quickly and the relationships are developing well. The insurgents mounted a lame attack on the night of 24th July but they were quickly overwhelmed by the A Company. C Company did a fantastic job of clearing a supply route north, linking us up to the Luy Mandah Wadi that the Battlegroup seized at the start of the operation. They found several IEDs laid waiting for them, which their attached bomb disposal officers destroyed in situ.

Tragically, our luck ran out on 25th July when my Fire Support Group, who had re-inserted into the area in Jackal vehicles, hit an IED. One soldier was killed and several others wounded. Another IED also caused injuries. The Fire Support Group had been searching for potential polling station locations for the Presidential elections, underlining stark contrast between the aims of the Battlegroup and the insurgents’ aims in the area.

Throughout the next 48 hours it became clear that there were insurgent IED teams operating in the area and several inadvertently killed themselves whilst laying devices. A Company continued to dominate the ground, understand the locals’ concerns and kill insurgents, wherever they could find them. The Battlegroup extracted by vehicle and Chinook early on 27th July.

It has been an immense operation; emotionally and physically exhausting but exhilarating at the same time. As the Regional Battlegroup (South), I am delighted that 3 SCOTS have contributed so much to 19 (Light) Brigade’s Panther’s Claw. I am certain that everyone in the Battlegroup will look back in a few years to an extraordinary operation when we did our jobs in the most demanding environment.

The main factor of the success has been team work from the lowest infantry section to the whole Brigade.

I am very proud of my jocks, gunners, sappers, redcaps and signallers. Their contribution to the UK’s summer offensive has been outstanding. The Battlegroup’s attention now turns to other operations in Southern Afghanistan but we will never forget those that they gave their lives during this one.

Major Nigel Crewe-Read, OC C Coy, 2 Royal Welsh

The armoured thrust through Babiji 20 – 25 JULY

Accompanied by artillery from 52 (Niagara) Battery Royal Artillery, Engineers from 11 Field Squadron Royal Engineers, IED clearance teams, and military civilian reconstruction teams, we conducted a swift night move from Bastion to Forward Operating Base Price. As dawn came the Company was escorted down through the areas that had been liberated from the Taliban. It was obvious that there had been quite a fight to achieve the earlier goals of Panther’s Claw.

Crossing the line of departure, everyone was braced for what could be a very bloody fight. Breaking off the main track to avoid IEDs, the Warriors began to move into the Helmand Green Zone. This was the first time Warriors had ever actually been taken into the complex terrain of the Green Zone which consists of many irrigation ditches, flooded fields, and sprawling compounds. Not easy terrain for 36 tonnes of armour to cross without becoming stuck.

The lead platoon scouted a route ahead with the rest of the Company following behind. Engineer support was integral to the Company and proved useful in fording many of the ditches. Combat aircraft, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Attack Helicopters coordinated by the Artillery provided air cover and overwatch as the Company swept forward.

The first objective, the village of Tabella, was reached at midday and the Company formed up into assault formation. The time for the assault came and the Warriors surged forward across the open bazaar onto the objective. Meeting no enemy resistance, we dismounted from our vehicles and began to sweep through the village to check it was clear of insurgents. Conducting a thorough clearance took time, but by 1700, the village was deemed to be clear of insurgents. A local shura was then conducted with local Afghans to reassure them of ISAF’s good intentions and that ISAF would remain in the area to provide security for them.

At 0600 on the second day, 21 Jul, the clearance of the next village, Bahloy Kalay, started. This was an even bigger objective to clear than the previous village. Three platoons were tasked with this, and they made good progress through the intense heat of the Afghan day. Local Afghans greeted us and proved very friendly offering us refreshments, as well as passing us information and even lending a helping hand to repair a broken down Warrior. By evening the village was clear of enemy fighters and a further 92 compounds had been cleared. Again, a shura was held at 1630 to reassure locals of ISAF intentions.

At 0530 on 22 July, the Company handed over the secured villages to the Light Dragoons battlegroup and moved to clear a route from those villages up to the Welsh Guards Battlegroup in the North West. The Company moved down to a vast cemetery and then turned north to clear the route.

Progress was measured as the Company moved forward with dismounted patrols providing flank security, the IED clearance team working flat out, Engineers providing essential support to cross large irrigation ditches, and the Artillery coordinating the air cover. After a day of hard work the Company paused overnight in a defensive position and then moved forward again at 0500 on 23 Jul. Progress continued to be made and by 1800, the Company had reached the Welsh Guards Battlegroup, linking the two Battlegroups together.

Overall, although the operation had not involved any fighting, it was a great success. Locals stated that the Taliban had run away as soon as they saw the Warriors coming. A total of 198 compounds had been secured, 12 kms of Green Zone had been crossed in heavy armoured vehicles, and the area had been cleared of armed Taliban fighters, allowing the Government of Afghanistan’s influence to begin in this area which had once been the heartland of insurgent resistance.

Op Panther's Claw: Lt Col Gus Fair DSO, Commanding Officer of The Light Dragoons

The sweep across Spin Masjed and Babiji 4-8 Jul and 10-14 Jul 09

The clearance of Malgir and Babaji was one of the final phases of Op Panchai Palang and was very much dependant on the hard work put in across the rest of the Brigade. Having effectively sealed off the Green Zone, with the Welsh Guards blocking the West, the Danes the North and the East, and A squadron of Light Dragoons the south, The Light Dragoons Battle Group was tasked to clear the Green Zone of Taliban and free the local people from their intimidation and brutality.

This we have done. The Battlegroup broke in through a bridgehead secured by the Danish Battlegroup and fought its way South through determined enemy resistance. We subsequently cleared our way west, and have now cleared the enemy from Malgir and Babaji.

This was the most intense fighting over a protracted period I have experienced in my 20 years in the Army. The men, women and equipment delivered more than we had any right to expect. The conditions could barely have been more testing and I am humbled by the extraordinary bravery, determination and resilience that I witnessed from soldiers ranging from the young female medic who walked every inch of the way to the 49-year-old TA WO2 (Territorial Army Warrant Officer Class two) who ran a sniper team.

As a result of this operation many more Afghans are now living under the control of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan; people who were previously subject to the rule of the Taliban. They can now live without the fear of the Taliban visiting in the middle of the night; they have the freedom to vote in next month’s elections; the chance to look forward to enjoying some of the rights and privileges that we are lucky enough to take for granted.

Progress such as this does not come for free, and we have paid a heavy price. The fierce fighting resulted in the deaths of Pte Laws 2 MERCIAN, LCpl Elson 1st Bn Welsh Guards, and LCpl Dennis and Tpr Whiteside from The Light Dragoons. 4 Afghan soldiers have also lost their lives fighting alongside us, and their commitment and dedication to their country’s future should not be underestimated. The cost on the enemy should also not go unreported; we have comprehensively defeated the Taliban wherever we have found him, and his losses have been far in excess of ours.

Some will ask whether the progress is worth the cost. I can answer for everyone in my battlegroup when I answer with a resounding yes. At the beginning of this tour, the battlegroup deployed to Garmsir, now under command of the US Marines. Many of the soldiers had fought there in 2007 as we battled the Taliban for control of the District Centre. The progress we saw there was remarkable. Where we had once fought in a deserted and ruined town, there is now a burgeoning market and people able to go about their day to day lives in peace. Wheat was being grown instead of poppy, and the people were able to determine their own future independent of either ISAF or Taliban control.

That progress is achievable in Babaji and Malgir, and already we are seeing people attending shuras with both ISAF and the local governance. However, the Taliban recognise the threat, and progress will not come without the continued efforts of the soldiers under my command and those that replace them. Some of them will give up their lives to achieve this, as will some Afghans we fight alongside, but we know that we owe it to those killed and injured over the last month, the people who we have liberated with the promise of a better life, and the people in the UK whose way of life we seek to defend, to ensure that we do not fail.