In a husky voice, raw not from celebratory pints of Guinness but from recent homecoming parades, Lieutenant Colonel Colin Weir, Commanding Officer of 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment (1 R IRISH), briefed members of the media.
As part of 16 Air Assault Brigade, 1 R IRISH had just returned from their deployment to Nad ‘Ali (South), and the Colonel was keen to talk about their successes.
When the 1,000 men and women under his command arrived to form the core of Combined Force Nad ‘Ali for HERRICK 13, with a squadron of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment to transport them around in their formidable Mastiff armoured vehicles, they and their coalition partners had one aim:
Whether we were British, American or Afghan, we all wanted one thing,” said Lt Col Weir, “to help develop the people’s confidence by providing them a secure enough space that their government could help them achieve a better life.
Although the efforts of preceding battle groups, such as the Grenadier Guards and 1st Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, had forced the Taliban out of the northern part of Zarghun Kalay, there was still a thorn in the side of the district - a Taliban sanctuary known as the ‘Red Wedge’. It was a thorn 1 R IRISH were determined to remove.
When we arrived, thanks to ISAF and the Afghan security forces there was a bustling bazaar, a clinic, and a strong police presence,” said Lt Col Weir.
The constant refrain from adults was that they wanted the roads opened so they could take their produce to other bazaars and so that they could reach the district centre. And the refrain from the children was that they wanted schools.
However, some of the outlying areas were not yet secure, and worst of all was the Red Wedge, a triangle driven into the north of 1 R IRISH’s operational area.
Checkpoint Shingul is barely 2.5km from the centre of Zarghun Kalay, and it was under attack every day. The fighting was intense, the enemy were capable; hard core out-of-area fighters who demonstrated that they were adept at command and control and small unit tactics,” said Lt Col Weir.
That no soldiers were killed, Lt Col Weir puts down to the quality of the training and kit:
In particular the new Osprey body armour.
In effect, Shingul was cut off from Zarghun Kalay and the enemy had the local population in its grip. Insurgents were using the wedge as a staging post from which to launch attacks into the district centre and to plant IEDs, especially along the main route, Route Plymouth.
Until we removed that threat, the Government could not move forward in any real way. The ultimate aim was to connect the people physically and psychologically to their Government,” said Lt Col Weir.
The District Governor wanted the Red Wedge cleared, and 1 R IRISH were happy to oblige. It was their first major operation and would take a month.
On two occasions with the Afghan National Army (ANA) taking the lead, 100 British and ANA troops were inserted at night by helicopter into the heartland of the enemy. Although it was the first of their aerial operations, it was by no means their last. The largest took place at the end of their tour in an area to the south of Nad ‘Ali on the boundary of Marjah and involved the insertion of huge numbers of troops using 15 helicopters in a combined air and land manoeuvre operation. Having cleared the area, the enemy were held off while a checkpoint was established.
Our partners in the ANA unit took on this most difficult task, securing the western edge of the Red Wedge, forcing open the route and employing its newly-trained counter-IED experts,” said Lt Col Weir.
The newly-constructed police checkpoint meant that Route Plymouth could be kept open, and access to the district government maintained:
The District Governor and members of his ministry came to meet the people rather than waiting for the people to come to them. They listened to the issues and things began to happen.
Almost immediately shops began to spring up everywhere with agricultural equipment distributed and irrigation ditches cleared.
It also served to introduce the people to their new police force,” said Lt Col Weir. “People had been sceptical at first, believing they would be the same as the old police force, but the output of the Helmand Police Training Centre showed them that the new police force was markedly different.
Keen to give his ANA partners their full due, Lt Col Weir said:
Afghans did all of this work. Afghans secured this area. We assisted them, but by the time we established the checkpoint we were very much in the background. Since the op finished there have been no direct fire engagements in the area Zarghun Kalay (West), and only a handful of IEDs have been laid.
In February, Zarghun Kalay was handed over to Afghans to take the security lead, thus releasing ISAF soldiers to operate in higher risk areas and to concentrate on mentoring the Afghan Army and Police. In a voice, now even huskier, Lt Col Weir said:
The ANA and the ANP [Afghan National Police] are more than capable of looking after themselves now. And, they are more than capable of looking after their people.
This article by Ian Carr appears in the May 2011 issue of Defence Focus magazine - for everyone in Defence.