Brigadier James Chiswell, Commander of Task Force Helmand, and his ANA partner Brigadier General Sherin Shah, Commander of the 3rd Brigade of 215 Maiwand Corps (3/215 Brigade) of the Afghan National Army, spoke to the British media today via video link from Lashkar Gah.
Brigadier Chiswell gave a mid-tour update on 16 Air Assault Brigade’s time in Helmand province, focusing on the relationship between UK forces and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and their increased capability. He said:
Myself and the General have shared responsibility for bringing security into the three central districts in Helmand. They are Nad ‘Ali, Lashkar Gah and Nahr-e Saraj.
It is a partnership which is echoed down the chain of command; company and platoon commanders have similar partnerships, so we are interlinked right the way across the two brigades, and indeed, most of our bases are shared.
Although 3/215 is a relatively new brigade - it was set up in April last year - Brigadier Chiswell said that it had seen genuine and very fast progress, building on strong national, martial foundations, their fighting skills were absolutely not in doubt, and that they were maturing as an institution:
As a partner force we find them to be very exceptional warrior soldiers, hardy and courageous by nature. They are instinctive in their approach to counter-insurgency and have an empathy and an understanding to this land and to its people, as you would expect,” he said.
The brigade is proudly regarded by the local population and seen very much as their own army protecting them.
Brigadier Chiswell drew attention to the success of Operation OMID PANJ (Hope Five) as an operational example of 3/215 Brigade’s merit.
The planning stage for this operation started in November with the District Governor of Gereshk (the old capital of Helmand province with a population of 90,000) being concerned about the security of the south eastern side of the city.
British-trained soldiers from the ANA cleared the area of insurgents and brought stability to this commercial hub. The operation involved around 500 ANA soldiers with a further 200 ISAF advisors from the 1st Battalion Irish Guards in support, working through General Sherin Shah’s command.
Throughout, there was close co-operation between the Governor and the General.
Operation OMID PANJ got underway on 27 December 2010 under Afghan leadership. ANA troops set off under the cover of darkness crossing the Helmand River waist-deep in sub-zero temperatures.
They cleared the insurgents from their stronghold around the Bandi Barq road. This was then followed up by a push to disrupt insurgent activity in the nearby town of Saidan.
The balance of the ANA troops, again moving at night, encircled Noorzai:
Thanks to the element of surprise the brigade was able to enter the location undetected without a shot being fired. So when the people of Noorzai came out of their houses at dawn to pray, they found that their own army was in their village,” said Brigadier Chiswell.
Subsequently the Afghan engineers built three patrol bases supported by ourselves and those locations are now occupied and partnered between ANA and ISAF soldiers providing enduring security to that area.
This was followed by a major project to enhance a hydroelectric plant in the area of Gereshk City. During the course of that operation the ANA exhibited their counter-IED capability. Brigadier Chiswell added:
Those living in the village were noticeably encouraged to see ANA rather than ISAF in the vanguard in terms of providing security. It was a highly complex operation carried out extremely well, importantly conducted with the people here of Helmand province absolutely at the heart of the operation. A really powerful combination.
General Sherin Shah, who happens to be the same age as the Brigadier, and who joined the army at the same time, spoke proudly of the advances made by the ANA, and of the way this had changed the lives of the locals:
Three years ago this was a very different place. All major roads were blocked. IEDs were in all regions and the people had no freedom to move around. You could not travel from the villages to the district and there were many civilian casualties from the IEDs.
Today we are in a different situation. Recently I drove through 26 villages and in each I see happy smiling faces. I ask them how they feel and they said they are now very happy, and they are happy to have ISAF and Afghan troops working together to provide security.
Now I see fields full of wheat not poppy, and children going to school getting an education.
The General described the relationship between ANA and British forces as being ‘like brothers working shoulder-to-shoulder throughout all the ranks to provide security’. He said that the effectiveness of the relationship was winning hearts and minds in the community:
The elders are happy to sit and talk with ISAF and locals inform us of insurgents who go out at night to plant IEDs.
The General said that thanks to the help of the British in supporting and mentoring the troops in his kandak (battalion) there has been an 80 per cent increase in development and security, with advances in tactics training and procedures, searching, driving skills, signals and communications, medical skills and leadership:
Before we had no army, now we have four kandaks and a proper organisation. We wish to thank you for this and for you taking the time to help us to become professional,” he said.
He said that as a result the ANA had become too powerful for the enemy who no longer had the guts to stand up and fight, ‘I am proud of that’.
He would not be drawn on how long it would take for the ANA to reach a stage where they were capable of taking on, single-handed, full responsibility for security, but he did draw attention to how much progress had been made in the last three years and that the next three would see even more advances being made.
For him now the priorities were to improve logistics, build up capability and improve the ANA’s cadre of medics.
Growing both ANA and Afghan National Police numbers is also now a priority for the General. As the ANSF prove their effectiveness so more communities are looking to them for help:
We need to have more police so that we can hand over checkpoints to them so that we can extend into other areas,” he said.
Brigadier Chiswell said that it was true that the emphasis up until recently had been to recruit and train the army, as establishing security was the priority:
As a result we can now see that the insurgents are under pressure, not broken, but certainly under pressure. There is local confidence now to stand up and reject insurgent intimidation and put their trust in the state.
We have the initiative and the emphasis has now shifted. It is clear though that it is not all over, and we anticipate that 2011 will be another hard year.
But if the same pace that has endured so far can be maintained for the next four years, transition will be on the correct trajectory. It will be shoulder to the wheel and any drawdown will be on a conditions basis.
Both the General and the Brigadier agreed that developing the police was hugely important as the social fabric that the police provide is essential to the functioning of any state:
There has been a lot of ground to clear to get the police to where they need to be,” said Brigadier Chiswell.
Putting sufficient resources into the police has been some time in coming; we are now seeing the level of input and energy going in that is required and it is an absolute critical focus for our efforts out here.
We are finding that this level of effort is making a difference quite quickly. It is pertinent that if you were talking to village elders here 18 months ago they were saying ‘how can we get rid of the police?’ and now they are sending their best young men to join the police.
The Helmand Police Training Centre has been open for a year now and only last week the Brigadier handed over a certificate to the 2,000th police student.