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Brigade Commander urges cautious optimism following tough Helmand tour

It is with mixed feelings that I look forward to the 4th Mechanized Brigade Memorial Service on Monday 6 December 2010. In many ways it will…

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

It is with mixed feelings that I look forward to the 4th Mechanized Brigade Memorial Service on Monday 6 December 2010. In many ways it will signify a sense of closure for the many who served in Afghanistan over the summer months on Operation HERRICK 12.

On the one hand I feel a huge sense of satisfaction for what the soldiers, sailors and airmen of Task Force Helmand did over the summer months, for they achieved a great deal and I have nothing but the deepest respect and pride for them. On the other hand, the sacrifice of those troops injured or the 63 who lost their lives sits heavily on my heart. And it’s not just the British who gave their lives, but six Danish soldiers and one Estonian.

The memorial service is such an important event. Most of the bereaved families will be there and my most heartfelt condolences will continue to go out to them. It will allow us all to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice or were wounded. The setting in York Minster is fitting as is the list of those who will join us.

It was a tough tour. Conditions were demanding; austere, with minimal facilities in the numerous patrol bases and checkpoints where most of the Task Force lived and fought in temperatures often in the high 40s and 50s.

It was a highly contested summer which saw unprecedented levels of insurgent activity. This was not because the insurgency was in the ascendancy, indeed quite the opposite. It was clear that the insurgents realised that on the back of the US surge their window of opportunity to have a decisive impact on the campaign in central Helmand was closing fast.

We were all fighting for the same prize - the trust and confidence of the local Afghan population - and the joint Afghan and ISAF plan rightly put us with our Afghan security force partners in a position to prevent the insurgents getting to the population.

We deployed in April as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). It made absolute tactical sense that we would serve under a US Marine Corps General in Regional Command (South West) and that we would hand over responsibility for Kajaki and Sangin to them.

These moves were part of the overall NATO plan and allowed the Task Force to concentrate its forces in the centre of Helmand where the majority of the population lived. It was also where the insurgent wanted to be and hence the hard combat we faced.

The operations we conducted were all part of the ISAF plan we developed in partnership with Afghan provincial and district governors, the Afghan National Army and Police, and the UK-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (a multinational team predominantly of UK members from the FCO and DFID, and very ably led by Lindy Cameron).

It was clear to me that there was no need to conduct an iconic Task Force-level operation akin to 19 Light Brigade’s PANCHAI PALANG of the previous summer. I wanted to consolidate the gains made by my predecessors and build on the opportunities offered by Operation MOSHTARAK.

Essential to the process of persuading the people, that what the Afghan Government offered was better than that of the insurgents, was providing a level of security to communities to allow provincial and district governance to connect with their people. This was fundamental and for us a sharp focus. Over our tour we more than quadrupled the numbers of communities protected and to which governance could extend.

We also vastly improved security on the roads and built roads and bridges to allow Afghans to travel safely to do the things all of us in the UK would take for granted - to go to work or to the market, to take their children to school or to attend local health clinics. We did everything in partnership with the Afghan Army and Police.

We lived together, planned together and conducted our operations together. In doing so we learned from each other and improved the capability of their security forces. We also trusted and respected each other and ensured the horrific events of 13 July, when an Afghan Army Sergeant murdered three UK soldiers, did not divide us, but made us stronger.

By the end of the tour both the Afghan Army and Police had a greater ability and confidence to conduct their own discreet operations with less support. We trained them as well; developing the Afghan Army’s engineers, artillery, reconnaissance, logistics and combat capabilities, teaching them how to plan and execute operations and importantly how to deal with IEDs.

We trained over 1,100 Afghan Police patrolmen and 130 NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officers] on formal residential courses in the Helmand Police Training Centre which was run in conjunction with our Afghan, US and civilian partners from the Provincial Reconstruction Team.

What we did was in many ways in spite of the insurgency and not because of it. Our focus was on providing space for governance and reconstruction and development to improve the locals’ lives, for no counter-insurgency operation is won by just chasing and killing insurgents.

However, those insurgents who opposed us or threatened the population were relentlessly pursued and dealt with. The numbers of insurgent leaders and foot-soldiers we killed are largely irrelevant, it’s the effect we had of separating them from the local people that was important.

Throughout the summer we ran numerous operations with our partners, on average up to 15 at any one time towards the end of the tour. This high tempo was important as it not only allowed us to achieve the tangible gains described above, but considerably stressed the insurgency in central Helmand to the extent that their leadership, morale and supply chains suffered.

We could all see progress and this kept morale high and made us more determined. The parliamentary elections on the 18th September provided a clear example. On election day the insurgents, despite it being their very clear intent, failed to disrupt the elections; not one shot was fired within 9km of Lashkar Gah, the capital city of Helmand.

This was very much an Afghan success as it was their plan carried out by them with us very much in a supporting role. Also we were getting better at countering the IED. Owing to better training, better counter-IED capabilities and intelligence, and working with the Afghans, during the tour IED incidents dropped by 31 per cent. Our progress was telling on the nature of insurgent attacks for although the number of incidents was high, their nature had changed to more indiscriminate, less well-planned and co-ordinated events.

As plans were being developed for the transition of security responsibility from ISAF to the Afghans, for the first time I really felt there was light at the end of the tunnel and a realistic path emerging that would see us ending combat operations.

Although there is a place for cautious optimism, I know there is still so much to do for the progress made is not fully irreversible and the insurgents will continue to kill our troops and innocent Afghans. We must hold our nerve and ensure troop densities remain sufficient in central Helmand.

What we achieved on Operation HERRICK 12 was to do our part in taking the campaign forward. On 10 October we handed the baton to our successors in 16 Air Assault Brigade.

Published 7 December 2010