Brigadier Ed Davis, Commander TFH and Commander of 3 Commando Brigade, the current lead element of British troops in Helmand, was speaking at a media briefing in London via satellite link from Lashkar Gah.
Speaking at a point roughly two-thirds of the way through the HERRICK 14 deployment, Brigadier Davis said that before deploying he had characterised the tour as being on the seam between what had gone before, and what was going to come in the future, adding:
Now you may say that sounds a little obvious, but there is a fairly significant seam being crossed at the moment, and that’s between the Task Force Helmand-led shape, clear, hold, build in order to build up protective communities and the future which is the transition to Afghan National Security Forces [ANSF] protecting these communities under the authority of the Afghanistan Government.
The objective for HERRICK 14, he said, was to maintain that momentum and the approach adopted to achieve that focused on the task of enabling the people to shake off and shun the influence of the insurgents:
The bottom line is that I think we are maintaining momentum,” said Brigadier Davis. “I do believe the campaign is on track and, looking back on the first 12 weeks of the fighting season, I would say we have very much suppressed the fighting season this year.
But he said that although it had been suppressed, it would be wrong to claim that the fighting was over and the insurgents defeated:
There is still much hard, dangerous work to be done. We are still conducting full spectrum counter-insurgency operations. At one end of the spectrum we have a transitioned, metropolitan Lashkar Gah being run on a day-to-day basis by the Afghans.
We then move through to Nad ‘Ali where it is probably sensible to do some informal transition, and then further to the north east, Nahr-e Saraj, we have a very immature area of operations still going through the clear, hold and build operations.
Brigadier Davis assessed the campaign so far, describing the move to transition as a process, not an event. Firstly, he spoke of the situation in terms of the people of Helmand province who he said were clearly sick of fighting and were looking for ‘a better offer’, and that they were beginning to see that the Afghanistan government process was offering them the kind of future that they wanted.
Ordinary people were resisting insurgent intimidation to a much greater degree than in the past and the Brigadier said that the fact that 40 per cent of the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that had been uncovered were as a result of locally offered intelligence was an indicator of change for the better:
There is also a palpable feeling of self-confidence,” he added. “It is noticeable that, at shuras, the word security is no longer included in the first sentence - and sometimes isn’t mentioned at all. The talk is about the future, about building schools rather than patrol checkpoints.
Secondly, the insurgents’ command and control had been hit hard, Brigadier Davis continued, saying in the first four months of the tour 16 low-level insurgent commanders had been either killed or captured, and quite a few others had moved back into Pakistan:
They are also struggling to get their supplies of ammunition and explosives through. Since we have been here we have interdicted just over two-and-a-half tons of homemade explosive which equates to about two months supply of IEDs - probably about 300 devices in total.
This progress had led to demoralised and fractured enemy forces, who are now taking a more defensive approach to ISAF and ANSF forces and a more offensive stance against the people, which the Brigadier felt was a sign that the insurgents were becoming concerned about the grip that they had over the population:
However, while the attacks are about 43 per cent down on last summer, which equates to about 70 fewer attacks across my Area of Operations a week, there is a hard core of the insurgency left. It is becoming harder to kill or capture the ones who are left, so the challenge is very much still there.
Brigadier Davis said that the insurgents were trying to reinvigorate their campaign and he sensed that they would attempt to do this by turning to more ‘spectaculars’, as they try desperately to prove their relevancy:
It is our job to see that doesn’t happen and continue to suppress the fighting season,” he said.
The third element of the Brigadier’s assessment addressed the ANSF which he said were continuing to develop and prove their ability to take responsibility for the planning and maintenance of security in the area:
They are taking control of some of the battlespaces on a routine basis, they are sustaining themselves, planning, and they are executing, and are beginning to spread their influence east along Route 601 from Lashkar Gah. In quite a significant degree, we are moving from partnering to mentoring.
In Nad ‘Ali in April, there were 34 ISAF-controlled checkpoints, a percentage of those have now been handed over to the ANSF. Today just 25 were under ISAF control and the Brigadier felt confident that by the end of the tour that would be further reduced to 18.
A very successful Afghan Local Police initiative had resulted in there being 180 extra patrolmen and six police checkpoints in Nad ‘Ali. But Brigadier Davis added there are still problems that need to be sorted out such as the shortfall in numbers of NCOs, logistics, and that the counter-IED effort needed beefing up. And while corruption continued to be a problem, it was being tackled, with a district chief of police having been replaced as a result.