Brigadier Felton has been commanding British and other ISAF forces in Helmand since April 2010 in the deployment known as Operation HERRICK 12, whose lead formation has been 4th Mechanized Brigade. He is due to hand over authority in the province to 16 Air Assault Brigade in the next few days.
Speaking to the press via video link from Afghanistan today, Brigadier Felton said that during his period of command he has seen much progress in the region, not least in the development of the Afghan National Security Forces and consolidation of areas recently brought under the command of the Afghan Government and ISAF forces.
Brigadier Felton said:
When I deployed, my intent really was protecting the people as a priority, to protect them, respect them, and also make sure you can isolate the insurgent from them. I saw partnering with the Afghan security forces as my centre of gravity - and not just in training them but in enabling, growing and developing them.
The Brigadier explained that from this he developed his operational priorities; these being the development of governance, increased freedom of movement, expanding the capacity of the Afghan National Security Forces and, lastly, disrupting the insurgent.
Splitting the six-month tour into three phrases, Brigadier Felton said that the first of those phases, which he labelled the ‘coherence phase’, ran from April to May 2010:
The first thing I wanted to do when I got here was to establish and build an Afghan plan,” he explained.
It was very important for the Afghans to take responsibility for the operations in Helmand province. This was part of the development of the Afghan National Security Forces.
This led to the development of a series of operations that were designed with the Afghan security forces that took place over the summer. Focus in this phase was also placed on intelligence, counter-IED work and communications.
The next phase, dubbed the ‘consolidation phase’, ran from June to July 2010 and was marked by the end of the poppy harvest in the province. Brigadier Felton continued:
Unsurprisingly we saw a large rise in violence during this period and 37 of the Task Force’s troops were lost during this two-month period. This, as we expected, was the peak of the insurgent’s pressure.
In response, the pressure was applied through increasing - and maintaining - the tempo of ISAF operations. This, Brigadier Felton says, was important due to the lack of a high profile, large scale operation during the tour such as Operation MOSHTARAK during HERRICK 11 or Operation PANCHAI PALANG during HERRICK 10:
In that time period of consolidation we also saw the deployment of the Theatre Reserve Battalion and I needed it to maintain the momentum that I had started and it allowed me to have more manoeuvre and conduct a number of operations I needed to do to help deepen the ‘build’.
This led into the final phase in August and September 2010 - labelled the ‘continuity phase’ - building on the gains made in the previous two months and with a focus on expanding Afghan governance and freedom of movement for political leaders and local Afghans.
Reflecting on the progress achieved as a result of these three phases from the perspective of protecting communities, Brigadier Felton said:
We have made considerable progress in this. We have probably quadrupled, at least, the number of communities that are now protected. But this is intensive both in terms of the equipment it needs and in the manpower it needs and we have been working very hard with our partners to make sure we can man the various checkpoints and patrol bases that are used within this model.
This will also see the Afghan National Police take over these protection duties in due course and leave ourselves and the Afghan National Army to concentrate on the contested areas.
He went on to explain that the population were also contested and the larger aim was to convince them that it was better to live under Afghan governance and protection than outside. To this end, development programmes have been running, led by the Provincial Reconstruction Team.
Building on the work of HERRICK 11 there has also been extensive further work on Route Trident over the last six months. This key road links the trading centres of Lashkar Gah and Gereshk:
The difference that road is making, and will make when it is complete, to the local economy and to the local people will be significant,” Brigadier Felton said.
To illustrate the improvement in freedom of movement over the period, Brigadier Felton highlighted the fact that on Route Elephant, which runs from the Durai Junction on Highway 1 to Lashkar Gah, 1,400 vehicles a day feel confident enough to use it, compared to just 200 six months ago.
He also said that taxis and buses were now willing to travel to many more areas - and were offering lower fares.
Progress has also been seen in the Afghan National Security Forces and Brigadier Felton pointed to a ten per cent increase in trained Afghan National Army troops on the ground and well over 1,000 more trained police.
The increase in police has been assisted by the opening of the Helmand Police Training Centre in Lashkar Gah in December 2009. Since opening, the centre has trained more than 1,200 patrolmen and 130 non-commissioned officers:
The product of the Helmand Police College when I go around with different chiefs of police is stark,” Brigadier Felton said. “These police are well-motivated, they have a good ethos, they are well-trained and they stand out as a beacon within their societies.
Turning to his personal reflections on the last six months, Brigadier Felton said that he felt immense pride in the forces he had commanded:
I feel immense pride in the progress they have achieved,” he said. “They have done the hard yards, not me, and the progress that they have achieved has been incredible.