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Stabilisation in Afghanistan: winning the population from the insurgent

It is often said that in a counter-insurgency campaign 'the people are the prize' and it is this mantra that perhaps best describes the driving force behind the Military Stabilisation Support Group - or MSSG. Report by Tristan Kelly.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The MSSG is based in Gibraltar Barracks, Camberley, and is led by Colonel (soon to be Brigadier) Greville Bibby. He is an expert in stabilisation who was awarded a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) for his work as deputy commander of both the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) and Task Force Helmand in 2009.

Colonel Bibby explained why the MSSG is working in Afghanistan:

In terms of trying to provide security to what is a very volatile and insecure situation, we are operating amongst people. We are operating in a province that is fully populated by people with both large and small communities, all very closely linked by roads, canals and rivers and the rest.

So we are trying to secure the population because that is what it comes down to. Because an insurgent, his fighting ground, his battlefield, is the population.

It is all about influencing the population and using the population to his own ends and therefore it is not as straight forward as killing the insurgent, it is much more complex than that, it is about outwitting and out-influencing the insurgent.

As an organisation the MSSG has evolved out of the experiences of the CIMIC (Civil Military Co-operation) forces deployed to the Balkans, Sierra Leone and Iraq, with the aim of further professionalising the discipline and embedding it into the everyday culture of land operations:

CIMIC used to be about co-ordination and co-operation between the military and civilians,” Colonel Bibby explained. “The stabilisation group - my people now who go over to Helmand - are actually doing stabilisation.

They are doing the facilitating, they are working with civilians and making sure that the military and the civilians are working together, but they are also now truly doing stabilisation.

They are on the ground working with local nationals within communities, assisting them with stabilising their own communities - and that has been a fundamental shift in the military’s approach to this.

Colonel Bibby’s men and women on the ground come from all three Services - Regular and Reserve - and are selected for their people skills as much as their military skills:

They tend to be a little bit older with quite a lot of experience in life and with a desire to do what we are asking them to do,” Colonel Bibby explained.

“They have worked on operations in places like the Balkans and Iraq and they have also organised their military operations and people for a while. And the chances are they are family people as well so they understand families and children and schooling and all the things that come with being a family person.

You put all that together and you have already the raw product of somebody that has absolutely the right skills set because this is all about life skills.

However, modern stabilisation work in Afghanistan is far from ‘pink and fluffy’, as the CIMIC work of old has sometimes been described.

MSSG members are required as they can deploy to areas too hot and dangerous for civilian stabilisation advisers to visit and therefore real military skills are needed by all - whether they be submariners, airmen or infantry soldiers.

There is also a whole raft of cultural awareness training programmes that MSSG members undergo, highlighting the cultural mores of Afghanistan and the best way to interact with a culture wholly different from our own.

This is then overlaid with the practical training needed to deal with the exchange of money, planning of restructuring programmes and the day-to-day needs of representing the PRT in the field.

Explaining the benefit of the MSSG, Lindy Cameron, Head of the Helmand PRT, said:

They essentially give us the eyes and ears further out into the field than we can get from the DSTs [District Stabilisation Teams].

I can get the civilian stabilisation teams based at PRT headquarters out to forward operating bases but they can’t for example go out on a patrol in the same way that members of the MSSG can.

So for example if we need to go out on a recce to find out about one of the places we are going to, what we will often do is use one of the MSSG who will go out with a normal patrol so we don’t divert a huge amount of effort to go and do a certain task.

“They can do it as part of a regular patrol and come back and report on whether it is worth us sending out a bigger team to actually do it.

“So it is a combination of the eyes and ears on the ground that gives us a whole extra level of support and a whole extra level of visibility and understanding.

There is also the institutional memory side of it all. People who also go back and help the next brigade on their MRX [Mission Rehearsal Exercise] and help the next brigade understand the sort of issues and offer far more continuity than you see in some of the other areas of operational deployment. We are much less static as a result.

Personnel join the MSSG for two years. It begins with a minimum nine-week course of training before MSSG members are deployed to the field and dispersed among the various battle groups in teams known as MSSTs (Military Stabilisation Support Teams) - six-man groups which include a commanding officer and engineer.

Spread around Helmand, the MSSTs are the local representatives of the PRT, charged with delivering local projects and winning influence away from the insurgents with the overriding philosophy of ‘the people are the prize’.

Warrant Officer Class 2 Chris Davis, a Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers vehicle mechanic who deployed with the MSSG in March 2009, explained:

The job is empathy, respect, common sense and manners. You apply them and talk to the people and it will come back to you ten-fold.

I don’t think it is understood in the wider Army yet about what we do and what it is all about. And there is a perception that it is pink and fluffy. I can assure you it’s not.

You are out there with the patrols, going out on deliberate operations, and you have to think. It’s not just thinking about what the company is doing, you are advising the locals and potentially advising the battle group commander.

The locals understood as well that security is a two-way thing. We need to communicate, if we don’t communicate it’s not going to work.

Living and working with companies out in the patrol bases, the MSSTs are there to learn, listen and win trust - using small scale projects such as rebuilding a school or clearing a bazaar to help show a brighter alternative to the Taliban.

Their work can also make life safer for the combat troops fighting hard to provide security. By winning over the trust and support of the locals information is often revealed about the location and plans of the insurgents.

Colonel Bibby said that stabilisation is increasingly getting into the heart of operations:

With each deployment and each ‘turn of the handle’ we see more and more emphasis being placed on stabilisation and therefore the commanding officers really understanding the importance of this population thing.

That is not a criticism of earlier HERRICKs but a reflection of the fact that security was absolutely appalling. You can’t start building wells and bridges when you are being blown up and shot at.

Colonel Bibby emphasised that the increased importance of stabilisation was possibly due to all the ‘blood and treasure’ expended over the years, and, while conceding that ‘Helmand is not Hampshire’, there are large tracts of the country where security has increased to such a level stabilisation is possible.

WO2 Davis added:

The British military is massively changing its attitude to stabilisation. The company commander I was working with got the DSO [Distinguished Service Order] and in the citation it actually goes on about opening the school, engaging with the locals and things like that. He got it.

A lot of people say to you ‘you go to Afghanistan and you can’t make a difference’. But you can start to make a difference. It really is a fantastic job.

Published 4 August 2010