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A decade after UK Forces began operations in Afghanistan, Tristan Kelly reports from Helmand as all eyes look forward to the planned end of UK combat operations there in 2015.
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US and the Taliban regime’s refusal to hand over those responsible, US and UK forces launched Operation ENDURING FREEDOM on 7 October 2001.
The operation’s aim was to end Al-Qaeda’s use of Afghanistan as its base for terrorist operations. Five years later UK troops moved into the Taliban stronghold of Helmand with the same essential aim of not allowing Afghanistan to once again become a safe haven from which terrorists can launch attacks on the streets of Britain.
The strategy since 2001 for NATO troops in Afghanistan has evolved and expanded, as the situation on the ground has changed, from the initial removal of the Taliban regime to the protection of the Afghan people while political structures and means of governance are developed in the space that improved security provides.
Key to governance of course is the rule of law and a country needs its own security forces to implement this.
So while UK troops are now undertaking a number of tasks in Helmand, from helping with reconstruction to patrolling outlying areas and protecting the population from the insurgency, it is the training of the Afghan National Security Forces that is key to fulfilling Prime Minister David Cameron’s commitment that in 2015 British forces will end combat operations in Afghanistan.
Because by the end of 2014 it is envisaged that the Afghan National Army and Police will be ready to replace NATO troops in providing protection to the Afghan people and denying the Taliban and Al-Qaeda the opportunity to use the country as a safe haven.
Current forecasts are that the number of trained Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) personnel will reach 171,600 and 134,000 respectively by October 2011.
The current Deputy Commander of Task Force Helmand (TFH), Colonel Andrew Jackson, sees the formal transition from UK to Afghan forces for responsibility of security in central Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, which took place this summer, as the key example of how this strategy will allow NATO forces to withdraw from Afghanistan.
Transition in Lashkar Gah is extremely important as it represents the start of something completely new,” Colonel Jackson says.
We are very conscious that now we are on a seam of two different types of activity; the classic shape, clear, hold, build operations largely led by British forces in the three districts of central Helmand, and then what comes after transition, which is the Afghans themselves taking a lead on these operations.
In terms of measuring progress in Helmand, Colonel Jackson says that the 2009 US-led surge in troop numbers in the province was the real beginning:
What has been achieved in those two years is incredible. I think the south has changed out of all recognition. Looking at the American areas of Nawa and Marjah, I remember thinking Marjah was going to be a bloodbath.
Indeed it was difficult but when you see what is in place there now the change is incredible. I think the same has also been wrought in parts of the British area of Task Force Helmand, particularly Nad ‘Ali and in Lashkar Gah, and there are signs that that can develop and extend elsewhere.
It is the Afghan Uniform Police (AUP) that now largely hold responsibility for day-to-day security in the central areas of Lashkar Gah and Nad ‘Ali.
Insurgent attacks in Lashkar Gah since the formal transition to Afghan responsibility in July have largely been dealt with by the AUP. The most recent, an attempted suicide attack on the main bank, caused terrible damage at the AUP checkpoint but was unable to wreak havoc on its intended target.
Afghan Police at the Operational Co-ordination Centre Provincial (OCC-P), based at the District Police Headquarters in Lashkar Gah, are at the heart of the force’s ability to respond to such attacks. Here, Afghan police controllers are currently being mentored and aided by members of the British Police Mentoring and Advisory Group (PMAG).
For Major Marcus Miles, Officer Commanding (OC) the PMAG at the OCC-P, the thwarted suicide attack on the bank is a case in point of the progress in intelligencegathering and public trust achieved by the AUP.
The intelligence is increasingly coming from Afghans as well as our own sources,” he explains.
This intelligence led directly to the checkpoints being established around the bank and Major Miles believes this reduced casualty numbers from over 100 to 24.
While Major Miles concedes that in the eyes of many Afghans a shadow still hangs over the Police from years of poor discipline and corruption, this is slowly being chipped away.
In Lashkar Gah district centre, where transition has now occurred, this is aided by the fact ISAF forces no longer patrol on foot and the only flags to be seen are those of the Afghan Government and Afghan security forces.
Outside of Lashkar Gah progress is also being seen in areas such as Nad ‘Ali where it is hoped formal transition can take place soon. Again the Police are also at the forefront of this effort - be they AUP, Civil Order Police (ANCOP) or Local Police (ALP).
Major Jamie Murray, is OC of B Company, 2nd Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles (2 RGR), who are currently mentoring and partnering ANCOP, AUP and ALP in southern Nad ‘Ali. He says that a key indicator of the progress has again been the willingness of locals to offer information to both Afghan and ISAF forces.
Over the tour so far his company has conducted over 75 shuras with local elders.
At those shuras,” says Major Murray, “and elsewhere, we are getting told where bad things are happening, ie where IEDs are being laid. It is the Afghan locals that have told us in all but two or three incidents where the IEDs are. We use the phrase that we have well over 25,000 counter-insurgents in this area.
He adds though that the information provided at the shuras is not just about security but about the locals’ lives in general.
If you did this a year ago that shura would be entirely about security,” Major Murray emphasises.
One of the key features of Nad ‘Ali, as opposed to Lashkar Gah, is the presence of ALP, a force whose development saw “huge amounts of frustration”, according to Colonel Jackson. Pushed heavily by former ISAF Commander General David Petraeus, the ALP programme has been described by NATO as a critical component to bringing governance and security to the Afghan people at the local level.
We thought that the idea for a Local Police initiative was going to be picked up by local people and run without any problems at all, but it exposed all sorts of different tensions that we weren’t aware of,” Colonel Jackson said.
Travelling to one Local Police checkpoint it is easy to see how those tensions could arise. Major Murray explains that it is manned by relatives from a single family, armed but dressed in civilian clothes, and that his fears were raised when they discovered that they had all travelled to the nearby compound of another family with which they had a blood feud.
It was with relief that he discovered that they had done so to deliver the peace offering of a goat so that they could begin their operations in the area from a fresh footing.
What eventually happened is we created something that was driven by the Afghans at a pace they were comfortable with and as a result it is now much stronger,” Colonel Jackson adds.
High profile attacks in Kabul and fierce fighting still occurring in other areas of the country show that Afghanistan is still short of anything approaching normality. But the benefits of increasing the capacity of the Afghan security forces and the respect they are starting to garner as a result is already beginning to show.
Across the TFH area of operations as a whole the traditional summer fighting season this year was much subdued. For example, 2 RGR’s B Company, partnering Afghan Police in what was just 18 months ago a hotbed of insurgent activity, has not seen anything like the levels of violence they were expecting.
This, together with the arrests of high profile Taliban commanders and ever-improving infrastructure, notably roads and social and economic development, give Major Murray reason to be optimistic about the prospects for the future.
ISAF will begin to decouple and move into what is known as tactical overwatch in this particular area and the Afghan Army, for its part, will move further to the edges, to the peripheral areas,” he said.
Concomitant with an Afghan Police rise of capability and strength we are getting close to a point where this area will transition to Afghan security responsibility.
Ten years on from the first Western forces setting foot in Afghanistan it is easy to lose sight of why British forces are there at all, and the sacrifices that have been made, but for Colonel Jackson the events of 9/11 and the overthrow of the Taliban regime are very much in the minds of British forces as they continue their mission.
I think it is still very relevant for young soldiers here, after all if 9/11 hadn’t happened we wouldn’t be here,” he said.
“That was the reason for coming to Afghanistan and we have been pretty effective at achieving the goal that was set out as a result of 9/11, which is preventing Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist safe haven. That of course has led on to everything else we are doing here.
People always say that of course the Taliban are just waiting for you to leave in 2014. My counter to that is they can wait as long as they like. But what they will find when they come back is substantially different to the situation they left before we arrived in strength.
What they are going to find is a revitalised and very capable set of security forces. Police, Army, NDS all operating together, they are going to find a government that is actually reaching out to the people in the rural areas in a way they didn’t before and are able to give them an opportunity they didn’t have before.
But more than anything else as a result of that security and as a result of that opportunity they are going to find people that are confident enough to reject the insurgent and also reject the intimidation, as we have seen already.
I think what’s been a achieved is heading in the right direction and if we can keep this momentum going then come 2014 we can leave the Afghans with a going concern that security has a chance of enduring.
This report by Tristan Kelly features in the October 2011 issue of Defence Focus - the magazine for everyone in Defence.