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Black Rats' prepare to continue Afghanistan transition process

Members of 4th Mechanized Brigade (4 Mech Bde) are finalising their training ahead of their deployment to Afghanistan this autumn as the UK's Task Force Helmand on Op HERRICK 17.

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Due to the significant progress in the development of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in Helmand province, the deployment will see the Task Force begin the UK’s phased drawdown in numbers of manpower and materiel in Afghanistan, with Brigadier Bob Bruce, Commander 4 Mech Bde, committing to sending 500 British troops back to the UK by the end of the year.

4 Mech Bde, also known as ‘The Black Rats’, is based in Catterick but made up of units from across the UK, including a number of reservist as well as regular military units.

At a facility held at Bulford Camp on Salisbury Plain yesterday, Brigadier Bruce, who has deployed with 4 Mech Bde three times in the past in three different ranks, praised the training and the new equipment that his men and women have received:

As we have deployed Task Forces to Helmand of course we learn the lessons of that deployment, and we constantly adapt the training to make it better and better, and we are regularly in receipt of new pieces of equipment,” he said.

Through this process of continuous improvement, I absolutely believe that we will be the best-prepared and the best-equipped British Task Force ever deployed on operations.

The Brigadier outlined the challenges that his personnel will face:

Looking towards the challenges that we’ll face on the tour, I think that they can best be summed up under three headings.

The first, and I think the most important, is that we will have to continue to develop this process of enabling the Afghan National Security Forces to take control for security in their own areas, and that’s going to involve us working very closely alongside them, and that is something absolutely that we will do, from me all the way down to the most junior soldier and marine.

This very close level of co-operation of course is not without risk,” he added, referring to the recent reports of ‘green on blue’ incidents - insider attacks on members of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) and partnering forces by members of the ANSF.

Brigadier Bruce added:

We will take great steps to reduce the dangers to our troops deployed. I have spoken already to my Afghan counterparts, I have met them in Afghanistan and I’ve worked with some of them before, and I have hosted them here in the UK, and I have urged them to work with their people to reduce these risks, and I know that they are doing that.

And of course, this is their counter-insurgency. It is in their country, and they must win it for themselves. Our role will be to support them, to help them, even to enable them where we can to do that, but it is theirs. And that absolutely demands this close level of co-operation, and of course it’s worth bearing in mind that thousands of ISAF troops work alongside thousands of their Afghan counterparts every day in Afghanistan, and they do so very successfully.

Indeed, Brigadier Bruce used an Afghan phrase, ‘shana bashana’, which literally translates as ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’, to describe the increasingly important working partnership between UK forces and the ANSF which will continue to be developed over the course of HERRICK 17. The term itself was used so frequently by the Brigadier and the men and women of 4 Mech Bde during the course of the day that it could well become the Brigade’s unofficial motto.

Brigadier Bruce continued:

The second of the three major parts of our challenge is that, as the Afghan National Security Forces grow their capability and capacity, and as they and the Afghan people grow in confidence, then we will reduce our own profile, ultimately sending some manpower and kit and equipment back to the UK, and I am planning to send 500 troops back to the UK by the end of this year.

The third big part of our challenge is that, recognising that we will deploy for a six-month period but as part of a co-ordinated ISAF campaign plan, we will look beyond the tape, beyond the end of our tenure, and work hard to set the conditions for success for those that will follow us.

The emphasis on continuity resonated strongly amongst the servicemen and women I spoke to throughout the day. 4 Mech Bde will be continuing the work put in place by the members of 12 Mech Bde, whom they will take over from in October, and will in turn be thinking ahead, throughout HERRICK 17, to setting firm foundations for 1 Mech Bde, who will carry the baton during HERRICK 18; working ‘shana bashana’ with the ANSF throughout to deliver as smooth a transition of security to Afghan control as possible.

Brigadier Bruce said that his Task Force is deploying at an exciting time in the transition process:

I have been to Afghanistan, for varying periods of time, every year for the past five years, and I have seen tremendous change during that period. I have seen, particularly recently, tremendous improvements in the capacity and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces; I have seen them really seize opportunities to take the lead for security responsibility; I have seen the overwhelmingly positive response of the Afghan local people when this happens, and I think that my Task Force is really fortunate to be deploying at the time that we are.

We will benefit enormously from the huge work, and the very significant achievements of those who have gone before us, but I’m sure that we will be there at a time when this process of change, this process of transition to an Afghan lead is absolutely bound to draw the flame of pride, of confidence and of self-reliance in the Afghan people.

You can read the Brigadier’s full briefing on the UK Forces Afghanistan blog. See Related Links.

Also at Bulford yesterday, Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology, Peter Luff, announced the procurement of an additional 25 Foxhound protected personnel vehicles. See Related News to read more on this.

Mr Luff said:

There has been a lot of progress since the Black Rats’ last tour there in 2010. By the time they leave, 75 per cent of Afghanistan will be under the lead of the Afghan National Security Forces themselves when it comes to protection of the population.

The Brigadier is going to oversee the first withdrawal, or drawdown, of numbers of men and materiel there as well, moving towards that end of all combat operations by the end of 2014.

He reinforced that this deadline would not be a ‘cliff edge’, and that the decisions taken in the next couple of years will depend on the operational requirements, conditions on the ground, and what force protection requires; but there would be ‘a big change nonetheless’:

One thing hasn’t changed, Afghanistan remains a very difficult and dangerous place, and the troops are still very firmly in the firing line … the repatriations of three soldiers this week reminds us of the challenges we continue to face.

In a special series of stories on the MOD website next week, we will meet some of the men and women who are deploying with 4 Mech Bde in October.

Published 24 August 2012