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Home from Helmand, UK commanders review HERRICK 14

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Brigadier Ed Davis, Commander of 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver Lee, Commanding Officer of 45 Commando Royal Marines…

Brigadier Ed Davis, Commander of 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver Lee, Commanding Officer of 45 Commando Royal Marines, and Lieutenant Colonel Giles Woodhouse, Commanding Officer of 3rd Battalion The Mercian Regiment, held a media briefing at the Ministry of Defence Main Building in London today, 19 October 2011, to give their accounts of the achievements made during Operation HERRICK 14.

Brigadier Davis talked of the campaign in Helmand province as being very much on track thanks not only to the efforts made during 3 Commando Brigade’s tour, but because of the hard work and sacrifice of those on previous tours. And by that he did not only mean ISAF troops:

Increasingly the progress is Afghan-led. The Afghans have developed an appetite to seize back sovereignty from the insurgent,” he said.

Putting people first was one of the four main principles that guided the work done by 3 Commando Brigade over their tour:

We put the people first and the insurgents second. The people had become disenfranchised, and we knew that what we had to do was convince them that the opportunity for a better life was through a different route than having to become an insurgent.

Speaking of the population in Nad ‘Ali (South), Lt Col Lee said:

When we met the people, they spoke with one voice. They unanimously despised insurgency, but felt that if they did anything, there would be reprisals.

We knew that by convincing them that they could do something about it, effectively we would have potentially 80,000 counter-insurgents to draw on.

To make that change the troops knew that all their decisions and actions must stem from a deep understanding of the people and the difficulties they faced. Not an easy task by any means:

You never stop learning about Afghanistan, especially when you are operating among the people,” said the Brigadier, “because it’s not obvious immediately what is going on, even with all the clever technology at your disposal.

Inherited from 16 Air Assault Brigade, the concept of front-footed precision, not just in the application of lethal force, became the mantra for HERRICK 14:

That was at the top of our list,” said the Brigadier, “making sure that we applied force in the certainty of who we were applying it to, why, and relating all of that to the impact it was having on the wider community.

Added to that was what Brigadier Davis described as the power of combinations: how to make sure that the overall effect of all the clever capabilities at the Brigade’s disposal could be maximised by linking it to Afghan insight:

It pervaded everything we did, how we fused our intelligence, and gaining as much as we could by working hand-in-glove with our Afghan partners,” he said.

From the start of the tour in April 2011, 3 Commando Brigade’s approach was to build on the previous Task Force Helmand concept of Shape, Clear, Hold and Build operations, to what was going to be needed for the future - the transition of authority to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the national government:

And that’s exactly how it played out,” said Brigadier Davis. “The tipping point was 20 July when we handed over lead security authority for metropolitan Lashkar Gah to the ANSF. That really lit the touch paper for Afghan appetite and confidence to seize back their sovereignty. From then on that’s what underpinned everything and gave the whole thing momentum.

As the tour progressed, the measure of success switched from looking at the level of how well the battle group reacted to being attacked and the effect of those responses, to looking at how successful they were in connecting with the people through shuras:

We also shifted from partnering the ANSF with us in the lead to enabling and mentoring them with them in the lead.

Managing expectation for funding and the way in which social and economic development would take place was another task, and one which created some frictions at first:

Before we went there it was very much off budget, international community, Provincial Reconstruction Team-sourced, and indeed, delivered development. Increasingly it is now on budget through the line ministries; which is the way it needs to be,” said the Brigadier.

At the start of HERRICK 14 the predominance of people in 3 Commando Brigade’s operational area were, at best, ambivalent about the role of the Afghan Government, but at the end of the tour the Brigadier said that most were now supportive. The suppression of the summer fighting season was a key factor in this change of mindset:

We moved away from the psychosis of what you can and can’t do during a summer fighting season; you can do a lot more than just fight… you can progress the campaign,” said the Brigadier.

Deeper and more frequent patrols frustrated the insurgents, as Lt Col Lee explained:

The way we exploited the night to intimidate the intimidators, and where they would find us in the morning put them on the back foot.

A lot of effort was put into destroying the routes by which the insurgents’ lethal aid came into the area:

To give you an idea of how effectively we did that, over our tour we interdicted seven-and-a-half tonnes of homemade explosive, which equates to about eight months of contact IEDs - which had a significant impact on their campaign,” said Brigadier Davis.

In comparison to previous years, across the whole of their area of operations, 3 Commando Brigade experienced a 45 per cent reduction in insurgent attacks against ISAF and ANSF forces, a reduction of 86 attacks a week, and an 86 per cent reduction in Nad ‘Ali (South):

There were some spikes in activity, but that was as a direct result of us taking the fight to the opposition in a way that completely unhinged them,” said Brigadier Davis.

As the insurgents were pushed out of the protected communities, so the nature of the insurgency changed from being rural and broad-based into something more cell-like and urban-focused.

At the end of their tour, 3 Commando Brigade leave behind a protected community about a third of the size of Dorset, with 450,000 inhabitants, which is around 65 per cent of the area identified as the target for the transition of authority by 2014:

Some areas will take longer than others, but it is all eminently doable on the trajectory we have set.

Finally, the Brigadier paid tribute to the Service personnel who had been a part of HERRICK 14:

It has been humbling to see the sacrifice and the professionalism of our people. Their humanity and their desire to reach out to the people of Helmand and their insatiable desire to make a difference has been inspiring.