Captain Dan Davies and several colleagues from Plymouth-based 79 (Kirkee) Commando Battery Royal Artillery, part of 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, are working with the Afghan Uniform Police in Helmand province.
Before they deployed though the Commandos met with officers from Devon and Cornwall Police to see if there were insights into the world of policing that would be useful for their tour. Captain Davies said:
We spent time and got a sense of the tough job they face keeping the peace on the streets of our towns and villages.
Five months into the tour, the relevance of that meeting to the Commandos is clear and they have found the advice even more useful than they had originally envisaged:
Arguably, what we’re doing here in Helmand is conducting a police action with soldiers being required to take the role of local police officers,” said Captain Davies.
Progress is being made in Helmand which has meant that kinetic events are, on the whole, fewer in number compared to previous tours:
Op HERRICK 14 could be the first summer tour to build on the gains made during the winter, rather than merely fighting to maintain them,” said Captain Davies.
In order to be successful against the insurgency the approach has necessitated a shift from being just combat-oriented to utilising police techniques in order to capture and detain, rather than kill.
The focus for troops on the ground is on attacking the Taliban’s network, targeting the insurgency at its core, rather than merely removing low-level fighters.
A key lesson that the Commandos learnt from their session with the police back home was that it was often the influence of one or two key criminals in an area that tips the balance and therefore the removal of this influence can have a profound effect far beyond what one might naturally expect from the removal of a small number of individuals:
Another thing we are beginning to understand is that, as with crime, the insurgency is unlikely to ever be completely defeated, but it can be reduced to a manageable level,” said Captain Davies.
To achieve that, just as the police in the UK always say, interacting with the local population is crucial. The numerous checkpoints and patrol bases dotted around the area of operations control and influence their local area, similar to a police ‘beat’.
In that area, the checkpoint or patrol base commander knows the ground, but more importantly he knows the people. He knows the village elders personally and will meet regularly to discuss the needs of the population, acting in many ways similar to a local police officer - listening to people’s concerns and acting to reassure them.
Another similarity to UK policing that Captain Davies and his colleagues have noticed is that providing the local youth, whether that’s in Helmand or on the streets back in the UK, with a viable and attractive alternative to a criminal life is well worth the effort.
In Helmand, where for many years there have been few opportunities for young people, the insurgency can appear exciting and glamorous. It can be difficult for ISAF and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to engage directly with young people because of the hierarchical tribal structure.
Captain Davies said:
We have made efforts to connect directly with the local youth but have been restricted by the reticence of the elders. As a result, we have used the Afghan National Police and Army to speak directly to the elders and encourage them to take responsibility for the actions of the young people of their area.
In any command and control situation, be that in a military or a policing role, having up-to-date, reliable intelligence is crucial.
In their area of operations the Commandos use of intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) assets is similar to how CCTV cameras are used by police in the UK.
While ISTAR assets in Afghanistan are not exactly the same as CCTV cameras in a UK city centre, they are positioned to keep an eye on known trouble spots, deter (or observe) insurgent activity, and provide a starting point for more deliberate targeting:
The laying of improvised explosive devices is often picked up by ISTAR assets,” said Captain Davies, “and we have had several successes from observing insurgent activity and then either launching a strike or tracking insurgents in an effort to build the bigger picture.
In a recent incident, an insurgent was tracked to a compound which was then watched for several days, resulting in the identification of an insurgent cell. The entire cell was then targeted as opposed to a single insurgent, thus achieving a much greater effect.
Finally, there is the importance of perception. In a UK community the regular sight of police officers patrolling the streets is intrinsically linked to the perception of security in the eyes of the population - more patrols (and the more visible the better) equals more security.
How often have we heard the cry ‘we want more police on the streets’?
The same is true in Helmand. If a community sees regular patrols from the security forces, be they ISAF or ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces], it makes them feel safe,” said Captain Davies.
So, while regular patrolling undoubtedly has a deterrent effect on insurgent activity, this is secondary to the effect it has on the perception of security to the local nationals.
We have seen this first-hand during HERRICK 14; increasing the frequency of patrols into the protected communities has led to the local nationals reporting better security. In turn this has meant locals are more likely to report insurgent activity because they aren’t fearful of reprisals.
Maybe it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that as the ISAF troops’ role in partnering the Afghan National Security Forces moves increasingly towards maintaining the hard-won security, and British police go to Helmand to train their counterparts, the soldiers can also pick up a thing or two from the professionals.
Nor should we be surprised that communities, wherever they may be, look for the same basic things from their security forces.
Captain Davies and his mates are in no doubt that what they learned from the Devon and Cornwall Police helped them to develop a better understanding of their role and the population that they were supporting:
We look forward to meeting up with the police in Plymouth again on our return and comparing notes,” he said.
And maybe this time the police can pick up a few tips from the Commandos that will help them on the streets of Devon and Cornwall.