Merlin disgorges British and Afghan troops
Having been there, done that and got the tee-shirt four times
in Afghanistan, 16 Air Assault Brigade should be well prepared
for a third visit to Helmand in October.
from Salisbury Plain, Brig James Chiswell, who will deploy
as 16 Air Assault Brigade Commander, told MoDOracle
the collective experience had been "really telling"
in the pre-deployment training.
"We’ve had to prepare before, we’ve got a
sense of how we should do that and just by having a sprinkling
of old hands in this business has just raised the game we
have found in terms of our preparations."
But there have been many changes to the battlefield since
the fierce fighting of 2006 and the increasing threat of IEDs
in 2008. Although Brig Chiswell was clear that the deaths
of three British soldiers at the hands of a rogue Afghan National
Army soldier this week would not daunt the troops resolve
to support the ANA, they nevertheless face a huge task of
building confidence in an embattled Afghan people.
I met 3 Para, part of the brigade, in Kandahar in 2008 where
they were taking a brief respite from recce missions around
Zabul province, which neighbours Helmand. They had been to
areas so remote that the village elders thought they were
the Russians. It was more of a disinterest than ignorance
of who ran their country - there had been so many armed foreigners
fighting in their nation over the past few decades.
Of course, when you speak to the Afghans themselves, they
just want to make a living, put food on the table and give
their kids a good start in life with something to look forward
to in the future (no different from most families around the
world). But the wars they have endured mean they focus more
on survival than on their future. 16 Air Assault Brigade,
like all the Nato forces, try to make the region secure so
farmers and traders can go about their daily business without
the worry of being killed. Add into the equation the intimidation
by the Taliban, and it's no wonder that the people of Helmand
become contrary and fickle - their lives and often the lives
of their families depend on them making the right choice about
who to support.
The 16 Air Assault Briagde that deployed as the first British
Task Force to the sweltering depths of Helmand in 2006 to
flush the Taliban out of their heartland, will have prepared
in a vastly different way to the 16 Air Assault Brigade deploying
in October. Four years ago troops almost came under siege
in Sangin and Musa Qala as they tried to prise the strategic
towns away from the insurgents. Civilians became internally
displaced as they hurried away from the intense fighting but
it was their elders, eyeing progress only towards a stalemate,
who negotiated an agreement to keep the Taliban away if the
Isaf troops would just leave.
But the elders were unable to keep the extremists at bay andthe
Paras were in action in Sangin again two years later, as 5
Scots and the R Irish battled in Musa Qala. That's not to
say progress hasn't been made. Brig Chiswell pointed out that
some previously no-go areas now have plenty of freedom of
movement but pockets of fierce resistance still exist. And
the mission is now an Afghan-led one given the ANA is now
fully operational so 16 Air Assault will have a more supportive
and stabilising role this time. Given the tragic events of
the last week with a renegade Afghan soldier killing three
British soldiers from 1 RGR, the supporting role with the
necessity for trust might prove more than a little thorny.
The pre-deployment training has reflected the changing Helmand
scenario though, as more than 800 troops have been trained
in speaking Pashtun and Dari with Brig Chiswell emphasising
to his brigade the priority of having empathy towards their
Afghan partners. He is confident that his troops have been
trained well in the art of "courageous restraint"
when facing potentially hostile situations and knowing when
to "act with acumen" should they need to. It's a
fine but essential balance if they are to build confidence
in a nation of people truly brutalised by war.
But if it's one thing that the British Army is renowned for,
it's exactly that - an almost innate ability to brew a cuppa
and sit down for a chinwag with the locals. The Army's sense
of fair play, love of expeditionary adventures and being proud
of its professionalism will be crucial to the success of the
Op Herrick 13 mission. Having witnessed these highly-prized
skills in Sierra Leone, Ghana, Bosnia and Kosovo, 16 Air Assault
Brigade will indeed be well-prepared for their return to southern