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Undaunted
Collective experience gained from eight years in Afghanistan solidifies 16 Air Assault Brigade's resolve for third tour of Helmand - 15 July 10
British and Afghan troops, Salisbury Plain
A 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.

Speaking 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 Afghanistan.