The Iron Fist ready to tackle Afghan transition

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

The British Army's 20th Armoured Brigade (The Iron Fist) has completed a rigorous training period to thoroughly prepare for the challenges it now faces in preparing the Afghan National Security Forces for transition in Helmand province

Mentoring Afghan troops and police has been part of the British forces’ mission in Helmand for some time.

But it is only in recent months, with the process of transferring responsibility for security in the province to homegrown forces underway, that the quality of their teaching has been put to the test.

This examination will be in full swing when the men and women of the Paderborn-based 20th Armoured Brigade arrive in theatre next month for a tour that will span a pivotal period in Afghanistan’s history:

Ours will be the first task force to go into Helmand province while transition of security is becoming a reality, not just something we are talking about,” said the Brigade’s Commander, Brigadier Patrick Sanders.

Speaking as the units under his charge massed on Salisbury Plain for a final training exercise, Brigadier Sanders said the focus of the forthcoming deployment would be on how best to support the mentoring programme’s graduates:

The biggest challenge for us is going to be how we really effect and accelerate transition and the tempo and momentum of that,” he said.

There’s no doubt that in some areas the Afghans are not only ready but actually really want to take control themselves - Lashkar Gah is a really good example.

But in other areas that are more rural and outlying then it’s a bit more difficult to lift our blokes off the ground and get them replaced in a short period of time.

Brigadier Patrick Sanders
Brigadier Patrick Sanders [Picture: Graeme Main, Crown Copyright/MOD 2011]

Ensuring Helmand command units are capable of organising Afghan forces will be an essential part of the handover process and a key objective during the Brigade’s impending six-month tour:

That system of operational control centres needs to be capable of co-ordinating all the security forces,” the Brigadier explained. “There’s a bit more work to be done there, without making it too glitzy - because it won’t be glitzy after 2014, it will be functional.

Another challenge will be working out how you give a checkpoint in an isolated rural area to Afghan local police and then continue to mentor and monitor them in a systematic and controlled way. We have been training so we can manage that evolution.

It’s no longer about us taking ground and keeping it, but about handing over, bit by bit, areas to the locals - checkpoints and pieces of land.

Brigadier Sanders said that his formation’s training on Salisbury Plain - Exercise Pashtun Dagger - was the culmination of a year of preparation ahead of Op HERRICK 15:

In 25 years in the Army I have never been better trained for operations,” he said.

The package is state-of-the-art and the crucial bit is the Afghan element - we are increasingly using Afghans as a backdrop.

This is not just about practising tactics and use of our own equipment and vehicles. It’s also about practising partnered and mentored operations with the Afghan National Security Forces, working with cross-government stabilisation resources, and engaging with the local population in a culturally-sensitive way.

Rifleman Gavin Winwood, from 5th Battalion The Rifles, said this precise focus had helped to prepare him for the winter tour:

It’s been beneficial to learn about the ground in Afghanistan, how the people there work and how we should treat them, the respect we should give them.

We’ve been working with Afghan nationals on exercises and will carry that on in Helmand, and hopefully give their national army the chance to take control.

During the summer, homegrown officers that will work alongside 20th Armoured Brigade in theatre - Chief of Police General Hakim Angar and Commander of the Afghan National Army’s 3/215 Brigade Brigadier General Sherin Shah - visited the UK to train with Brigadier Sanders and his headquarters team:

20th Armoured Brigade are completely ready,” said Brigadier General Shah. “I’m confident that the things they have learnt in training will be put into practice in a productive way in Afghanistan and that it will convey a positive message to the people of Helmand province that their safety is being ensured.

Brigadier Sanders pointed to this as a key aspect of his brigade’s preparations, revealing that both visitors had stayed with him during their UK trip:

It was really important because for the first time we were working with the partners that we are actually going to be supporting, learning how they do business, what their priorities are,” he said.

Relationships in this business are really important, so that helped a lot.

With 20th Armoured Brigade’s thorough pre-deployment education complete, its personnel now face the challenge of imparting their knowledge to the Afghan National Security Forces in Helmand province.

Helping yesterday’s students become tomorrow’s peacekeepers is set to be a key feature of Op HERRICK 15 and those on the tour know that attaining top marks could represent a significant step towards British drawdown.