With the march towards transition well underway across Helmand province, British soldiers have increasingly found themselves stepping aside as Afghan National Security Forces take control of the region.
But, in the Upper Gereshk Valley, UK personnel are taking the fight to the Taliban on the front line as they seek to promote and maintain prosperity along Route 611.
The road links Gereshk to Sangin and the Battle Group of 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh is striving hard to create a platform for the local community to flourish.
Operating out of Forward Operating Base (FOB) Ouellette, the formation has seen its fair share of kinetic activity in what has traditionally been an insurgent stronghold:
In years gone by this has been the rest and recuperation area for the Taliban. It has been a safe ground and that is why the enemy is now kicking off,” said influence officer Captain Jamie Woodfine of 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh.
Our aim is to connect the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan [GIRoA] with the people of Gereshk and Sangin.
We hold weekly meetings for whoever turns up. One or two locals will attend, but it is dangerous for them to come here. If they do, it is usually because they have something desperate they need to say.
We want to promote commercial activity along the 611, with shops and bazaars to give the Afghans a growing sense of ownership.
The US Marines previously manned the remote outpost and the British Army arrived at Ouellette in October last year.
The local economy has revolved around the poppy industry and efforts are now being made to expand government influence in a region where fighting and contacts are a regular occurrence:
We are dealing with a population that has been at war for many years,” the officer added. “To them there is no discernable reason to follow GIRoA.
But we have had more interaction as time has gone on here. If we can follow what we are doing with proper government involvement it can work.
Captain Anna Crossley, from the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps and a reservist who is acting as the Battle Group’s female engagement officer, has gained first-hand experience of the frustrations that come with operating in such an environment.
She described how local women do not have any opinions on ISAF, GIRoA or the insurgency as they are restricted to life in their compounds and have no real education to speak of.
It is not like Gereshk where there are women’s centres; here they have no interaction in their communities, let alone with the outside world.
A female engagement officer is supposed to have the ability to talk to anyone and keep communities connected. The local males do talk to me, but they generally think I’m amusing. They ask if I want an Afghan husband and why I do not have any sons.
It would be nice to think of some kind of initiative that would help the women. But because this area is so far behind, any such project could become a target for the insurgents. It could have a totally adverse effect. It is pretty frustrating, but in other areas it is different.
I was not hoping to come here and do anything radical, but if one person sees me and thinks ‘I can do something else other than having children at a really young age’, then it will be worth it.
With the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh Battle Group facing a kinetic challenge on the ground, the need for safe and secure communications between personnel has been a key priority in the Upper Gereshk Valley.
The Royal Signals infantry support team has met these demands head on and the five-man outfit has relished the opportunity of pushing itself on the front line.
Bowman system manager Corporal Nick Penn said:
I provide communications from the Battle Group to a high level at Task Force Helmand and lower levels at the checkpoints and patrol bases on the ground.
It provides a network that allows people to connect and, most importantly, access mission-critical information such as nine-liners for casualty evacuations and ten-liners for the EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal] teams.
It is completely secure so the enemy does not know what we are doing or where we are.
The kinetic nature of this area of operations means everything is life-threatening. It is so important to have secure communications.
Team commander Staff Sergeant Symon Hopkins believes the role has allowed his team to forge a close bond with the infantry, while expanding their skill-set and experience.
It is a different world to what we are used to. This is a HERRICK-specific role. The CO [Commanding Officer] here sees this as an asset he does not want to lose; other battle groups have said that as well.
We have gained a lot of knowledge and experience from the infantry signallers. We can use that to our advantage in the future and it is a two-way thing.
This is the most kinetic area in Helmand province, which means my operators are on the radio desk dealing with real-time casualties and real-time contacts.
We thought that having a ground-holding role with no real strike ops would mean we are not that busy, but this has been an eye-opener; it is a dangerous environment.
Mentoring and partnering the Afghan National Security Forces is a key part of life out at FOB Ouellette.
The Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP) man checkpoints along Route 611 and both organisations have a direct link to their British colleagues through the Intermediate Joint Operations Centre.
UK personnel have tailored their training to help the formations reduce their reliance on the International Security Assistance Force and progress with foot patrols, compound searches and local engagement:
Over the last two-and-a-half months they have gone from a couple of patrols a week to an average of two-a-day from each of their checkpoints,” explained Lieutenant James Taylor of the Grenadier Guards who is the ANA unit advisory training team commander.
When we first took over there was no patrol structure, but there are now plans in place that allow them to dominate the area.
They are improving, and we also run training sessions in counter-IED, medical drills, map-reading and weapons. On every single patrol you can see their skills and expertise improving.
Positive reports have also come from those involved in training the police:
Their mission here is to secure the route itself and they have 16 checkpoints in a 33-kilometre stretch,” explained ANCOP adviser Lieutenant John Scarlett of the Coldstream Guards.
I think they are very good. I do not see myself as someone who is here to train them. They have been allowed to work in the way they are going to operate.
It is about facilitating the opportunity for them to do the job in the long term. I have been on patrol with them and I’m happy with what they do.
A multiple from 3rd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment has been posted to FOB Ouellette to act as the quick reaction force for the area of operations.
The soldiers started their tour manning a checkpoint to the south of the camp and the change in roles has introduced them to the new challenge of responding to incidents outside the wire and providing casualty evacuations when needed.
Lieutenant Jon Kume-Davy explained:
We were working in a ground-holding role. The lads went out on patrol and they got to know their patch and the locals.
As the quick reaction force, when we rock up in our Warriors everything stops. If a contact goes off and we come in, the insurgents run away. They do not like the tanks.
It has been exceptionally busy and our feet did not touch the ground for two weeks. We run the wagons until they break, fix them and then go out again.
Dismounted soldier Private Tom Tinker-Harper has welcomed the variety in workload in what has been a busy first tour:
Most of the stuff we have been doing has been quite new to me,” he said. “At Checkpoint Barcha we were going on patrols with ANCOP and since coming here we have been on ops with the Afghan tiger teams. They are great guys to work with.
Some days we get absolutely hammered, but on others it can be fairly quiet.
With the operational tempo running high at FOB Ouellette there is no shortage of work for the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.
The Battle Group’s small light aid detachment is responsible for the repair and maintenance of 120 pieces of kit and equipment and the demand for its services is high.
Craftsman Cameron Cuthbert said:
The vehicles we look after are all involved in operations and those who use them do not like us keeping them here. We have to have a quick turnaround.
We had a Mastiff that was caught in an IED [improvised explosive device] blast and it needed 60 hours of repair work.
This is my first tour and it has been a massive eye-opener; it is very different and we are getting attacked for real.
You can’t let anything slip; little jobs that you thought could be left for a week have to be turned around. You have to be on your ‘A’ game.
Craftsman James Hughes is also on his first tour and temporarily joined the detachment from the Equipment Support Battalion to cover colleagues on rest and recuperation.
I like it up here as you get to work with other regiments and you see the bigger picture. There are lots of different jobs going on.
I’m a recovery mechanic. If anything breaks down, blows up or gets bogged in I go and pick it up for the blokes to fix.
“The first time I went out my vehicle got hit. We were driving to recover a Jackal that had been involved in an IED blast and the left-hand side of my truck was completely blown up.
“We all escaped without any injuries. The support vehicle (recovery) is an amazing bit of kit.”
For the Royal Artillery, life in the Upper Gereshk Valley has been all about supporting personnel on the ground.
In two months at FOB Ouellette the gunners have fired 200 illumination rounds in an effort to keep Route 611 open and disrupt any insurgent activity in the region.
Bombardier Ronald Eugene said:
We fire these rounds as a show of force. They light up the area and it is something the enemy is not expecting.
But we are training as well. We have done a lot of gun drills to make sure we are up to scratch.
This is my first tour and it has been totally different to what I anticipated. I thought we would be utilised more. I don’t expect the situation to change; we are here to support the guys on the ground and are happy to do our bit.
While the day job has been reasonably quiet, the soldiers have been keen to offer their support to other roles within camp.
Lieutenant Ali Smith explained:
Our main capability is always the guns. Even if it is quiet we are still manning them 24/7.
We can also help the Battle Group with different things. We have had guys doing supply runs, I’ve been out with the female engagement teams, we have two sangars to man and there are a number of other tasks we do as well.
Since arriving at FOB Ouellette, personnel from the Royal Engineers have undertaken a taxing programme of security improvements and camp upgrades.
The sappers have been working long days in the searing heat since the tour began.
Having built a new observation post from scratch, the team completed renovation tasks at three other locations and have been reinforcing the camp’s Hesco walls:
We have been pretty much flat out since we’ve been here and we are one of the few troops not to have any downtime,” Sapper Jake Palmer explained. “It is hard work, but that is what we get paid for.
Lance Corporal Rhys Jones added:
This is my third tour and it has been very different to what I have done before. There has been a strong focus on the construction side and in the past I have operated in a close support role out on patrols.
We have done a lot of work on the walls and the accommodation to ensure it meets the requirements of the British Army.
It has been a busy tour and there have been lots of tasks lined up for us. We thought we would be scaling down, but that has not been the case.
_This article is taken from the July 2012 edition of Soldier - magazine of the British Army. _