I’m writing this from the comfort of home, the tour in Afghanistan now over. How do I feel? A sense of release, of course, but a little nostalgia too.
The final two months of the battalion’s tour was a very hard period - but we know for sure that it has been harder for the insurgents. We continued to bring more security to the population, both through establishing more small patrol bases in their midst and through targeted operations into insurgent safe havens. We know our comrades from 40 Commando Royal Marines, who relieved us at the end of our tour in March, will have wasted no time in carrying this forward.
So what’s changed since we arrived? The move from larger company-sized forward operating bases into smaller patrol bases has been interesting, and a significant feature of the evolution of our approach in the past months.
Thanks to the hard-won achievements of those who fought before us in Sangin we were able to make the leap of faith and spread ourselves out more. This has undoubtedly been effective; it’s also presented many challenges.
It is logistically more of a burden, and has created more bases to equip and resupply, which in itself brings extra risk with every move, although every move does show a security presence whatever its purpose. It has demanded more of our junior commanders - young officers, corporals and serjeants [this spelling with a ‘j’ is unique to The Rifles] in their twenties - out on their own in smaller groups, separated and thus potentially more vulnerable; having to know and read their own little ‘patch’ and to make their own plans and their own instinctive life and death decisions.
They have risen to these challenges in a way that should give us all the utmost pride in our young leaders. This approach has created more complexity and with it more risk. Yet it has also broken an uneasy stalemate in which we were increasingly hemmed in by enemy IEDs.
Earlier in our tour, which began in October 2009, we were effectively corralled into a small number of large, obvious, observable bases. Mainly on the fringes of the population, we patrolled in strength, due to the distance we had to travel to our objectives, whether they were known or suspected concentrations of enemy (who would see us coming) or pockets of the local community with whom we would never be able to linger for long.
Rather like the pair of enemy sentries pacing up and down outside the HQ in an old Second World War film, the security we were providing was predictable, temporary in any given area and easily avoided or attacked. It was also not quite the sort of presence with which the locals felt inclined to engage - even if they overcame their nervousness at such intimidatingly large fighting patrols, which inevitably attracted trouble, their co-operation would be immediately apparent to the ever-watchful Taliban and a price would undoubtedly be paid.
With more bases we were able to mount many more patrols - more frequent, less predictable and more amongst the people because that was where the new patrol bases were. Most importantly, we were able to do so more easily with our brave comrades from the Afghan Army and Police who were our eyes and ears as well as the manifestation of Afghanistan’s future.
We had the good fortune of greater numbers than our predecessors but these more numerous patrols were necessarily considerably smaller. In some ways this was a virtuous circle as they were closer together, of shorter duration, and, with several patrols out at the same time in the same area, able to support each other.
This all made them less vulnerable even though in other ways they were taking more risk because they were smaller and right up close to the population within which our enemy hid. And thus, inevitably, because we had more presence on the ground the number of incidents was greater as there were still plenty of enemy about.
The key point, however, was that with more presence amongst the people, and an unflinching determination to do the job despite the risks, the soldiers of the Battle Group were in a far better position to protect the population from Taliban intimidation and exploitation.
They could at least give some of the locals the confidence to side with and spread the influence of the Afghan Government. Most importantly of all, we were maintaining the initiative and, despite casualties, demonstrating to the people an inexorable forward momentum which was, albeit slowly and painfully, squeezing the Taliban out, giving room for the legitimate government to function and meet their needs.
This sense of inevitable Taliban defeat, or rather their marginalisation as a destructive, corrupt and self-serving impediment to community progress, had far greater impact than the death or capture of another gunman or IED layer, although such opportunities were never passed up.
As they lose more control over the people and the people get ever more exposure to a brighter and more prosperous future, so the insurgents get increasingly desperate. No clearer sign of this was there than the use of two further suicide bombers during the latter stages of the tour.
One sadly claimed the life of Rifleman Daniel Holkham, whose two brothers were also serving in Sangin with us. The other, while mercifully ineffective against the Marines who had replaced B Company, 3rd Battalion The Rifles, was tragically carried out by a young boy of about eleven.
The Marines had been talking to him perfectly amicably for some time before he disappeared and then returned a while later to kill himself and try to take some of them with him. It is hard to imagine the levels of ignorance and misguided belief that can lead to such an incident. In many ways, this epitomises the challenge we face in stabilising this place and securing a better future.
Of real significance though, and a sure sign that we and the Afghan Government we support are having effect, is the in-fighting that has begun to boil over amongst our Taliban adversaries. It seems that the locals may be getting increasingly fed up with the extremism of the external militants loyal to Quetta and out of area power brokers.
While we continued to fend off our enemy, often with a fierce fight, and targeted them ruthlessly when the appropriate opportunity arose, one of this Battle Group’s principal achievements was to take the heat out of the fight. Our soldiers took considerable extra risk upon themselves to move in these small numbers amongst the people, not to overreact when provoked and do their very best to engage with the locals so as to pass the message of what we stand for, what we are trying to achieve, and to ask them what they want from the Government.
We were told since before we deployed that our mission was about ‘winning the argument’ and we left a situation where the argument is most definitely being had - and it is a socio-political argument not a fighting argument. The most important thing is that, now Sangin has a credible District Governor committed to his people and a better future, the argument is between the people and the Afghan Government. Our role was simply to provide enough security for them to exist normally and to bring them together. Reducing the levels of fighting on the streets of the centre certainly helped that begin to take place.
If war is politics by other means (as Clausewitz tells us) then we can tentatively take heart that we are now perhaps beginning to move back towards politics. The Helmand Provincial Governor, Gulab Mangal, visited again in early April and was visibly impressed by what the new District Governor had achieved in his month in office.
Mangal was able to sit down with genuine, respected local elders and remind them of their responsibilities for uniting the people and the tribes to work together for a better future. This was a far cry from his previous visit in mid-January where the previous District Governor had that morning press-ganged a few old tramps from the bazaar to come and pretend to be community elders.
The locals beyond the security footprint that we provide in the town (the district centre) are beginning to see what is on offer by way of development, healthcare, education and assistance with agriculture. Our struggle for the hearts and minds of the people, on behalf of the Afghan Government, has forever been hampered by a leaderless population of fence-sitters too battered, intimidated, cynical and jaded to trust anyone. Perhaps now the grass is beginning to look decidedly greener on the government side.
If we look back to when we took over the Battle Group area in October, we can take pride in the fact that where we were in fewer than ten bases across the area, we left present in almost four times the number of forward operating bases, patrol bases and checkpoints. We secured and built about ten of these from scratch in what was previously ‘enemy territory’ but many are ones in which we joined our comrades from the Afghan National Army.
We could barely drive out of the headquarters without a heavily armed convoy and deliberate IED-clearance operation, but by the end of our tour things had improved markedly. The Battle Group ended up genuinely living amongst the people and the benefits were clear; we helped the problem from the inside and there was less chance of us unwittingly exacerbating it from the outside. We built relationships with the people and had a much better idea of who was who and what they were all up to. The ordinary citizens began to trust us and to understand what we are trying to do for them.
Sangin is hardly the centre of the universe when it comes to Afghanistan and this can be hard to accept when there is a high human price being paid. But just as our mantra within the Battle Group was to focus on the mission and the people rather than on ourselves, so would it be an unsound strategy to slew military resources purely on the basis of casualty figures.
While we did and must do everything feasible to minimise casualties, and while each one is a desperate tragedy, even the numbers we sustained have not been sufficient to throw us off course. There is no sense among the locals that we are coming through the fight worse off - and they frequently share our pain both physically and emotionally. It is them we need to convince.
We have continued to progress the mission according to our part in the overall plan and, while more resources would self-evidently put us in a better position, it would be inappropriate to jeopardise other higher priority areas purely on this basis. There is, however, no question that Sangin is important. We could ill afford such a key trading crossroads, tribal heartland and agricultural area to be outside government control.
We have paid a desperately high price but not one of us has failed to notice the clear progress that has taken place. Nothing can make up for our losses but they have not been in vain. While the local population may not quite yet be at the stage of throwing flowers at the feet of ISAF forces, our Afghan partners, military and civilian, bade us farewell with genuine and deep gratitude for the small steps we enabled on the long path to solving their problems.