East Anglian soldiers playing a crucial role in Afghanistan’s future

Soldiers from East Anglia are making great strides of progress during a defining moment in Afghanistan's future – but their success has been won at a cost. In the first part of a week-long series, CHRIS HILL reports from Helmand.

The death of a soldier while serving his country is always a painful sacrifice for a nation to bear.

And when that hammer blow falls on your local regiment, it brings the heartbreak closer to home – reinforcing the perception of a perpetual conflict, a waste of brave young lives.

But the commander of East Anglian troops in Afghanistan said the tragic loss of one of his men on Friday must not be allowed to overshadow the huge progress being made on the ground during a pivotal time for this war-weary country.

The 1st Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment is based in the Nad-e Ali district of Helmand province.

The last time the Vikings were here in 2009/10, the whole area was a hostile battleground infested with insurgent fighters, with troops coming under constant fire and the threat of improvised bombs.

Five soldiers were killed during that tour, and countless others were wounded. But today, the picture is almost unrecognisable.

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Joint assaults by British and Afghan forces have driven the Taliban out of the fertile farmlands of the Canal Zone and into the surrounding desert.

It has created secure areas where villagers are free to move around and trade has returned to the markets and bazaars.

The Royal Anglians have overseen the 'transition' of two large areas where security has been handed back to the control of local Afghan forces, who are now taking the lead in protecting their own people.

And as the battalion's bases in these peaceful areas are closed down, many troops from our region have been re-deployed from their ground-holding roles into the formation of mentoring and training teams, to prepare the Afghan army and police for the scheduled withdrawal of UK troops in 2014.

Yet the loss of Cpl Alex Guy on Friday proves that the war is still being fought around the boundaries of those protected frontiers, to allow that hard-won security to flourish.

Pro-active operations, increasingly planned and led by the Afghan National Army (ANA), are frequently launched to disrupt the insurgents in their desert heartlands and remove weapons and explosives from the battlefield, as well as the opium crops which fund the Taliban's efforts.

The Vikings' commanding officer, Lt Col Mick Aston, said the professionalism, courage and native charm of his soldiers equipped them for the task on both fronts.

'The way our soldiers do their job is hugely significant,' he said. 'We are at a turning point in the campaign and our soldiers from East Anglia are going to do this, right now.

'We are moving from fighting the insurgency ourselves to helping the Afghan security forces to wage that campaign. The way our soldiers have with people – that common decency and their ability to relate to a different culture – has been key. They are just good blokes with a brilliant banter and they find it very easy to interact with the locals.

'Secondly, we have maintained the pressure on the insurgency to allow the Afghans the breathing space to progress. We have had our foot on their throat ever since we have been here. We do that so the Afghans can progress. It is not an end in itself.

'If you can stop the violence and not be part of the problem of contributing to that violence, the locals will see that it is not inevitable that they will be fighting all the time. When they realise that, they can see what the government has to offer.

'Ultimately, insurgency is about the popular support of the people and if they reject it, they (the insurgents) cannot just shoot their way out of it. It is the non-uniformed population that will win this – not us.'

Lt Col Aston said there had been 'big strides forward' in every aspect of the campaign.

'The population can set about their daily business, free of the daily threat of violence,' he said. 'They can farm, they can take their crops to market. They can take their kids to school and there is not an insurgent-initiated fire-fight on their doorstep where people are getting killed.

'That is not to say Nad-e Ali is not still a dangerous place, but our soldiers can see that progress more than anyone else. I suppose that is the difference between the public back at home and the serving soldier. The soldiers can see it, and they have to live it for six months.'

While the security situation has become less hostile across much of Nad-e Ali, the environment certainly has not. Soldiers are toiling in temperatures which regularly climb above 40 degrees, consuming as much as 10 litres of water a day as they patrol carrying heavy equipment, body armour and weaponry.

The Royal Anglians' 1,400-strong battlegroup has its headquarters at the Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Shawqat. It includes attached artillery, intelligence and logistics personnel, with armoured transport provided by the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, based at RAF Honington near Thetford.

Other local regiments serving in Afghanistan include the Light Dragoons, based in Swanton Morley near Dereham.

The regiment has deployed about 350 servicemen and women, with the majority in the Dragoons' traditional reconnaissance role – although soldiers from one squadron are also being retrained as police advisory teams (PAT) to reflect the evolving requirements of the campaign.

Lt Col Sam Plant, commanding officer of the Light Dragoons, said: 'The Light Dragoons have made a huge, huge contribution here in Afghanistan, as has everybody. Our core role is part of that, in that we are conducting principally reconnaissance tasks, operating across the whole of our area, producing reports back to my commander so he is able to understand what is going on across the whole piece.

'The soldiers have performed superbly. They continue to demonstrate resilience, bravery, and, importantly, intelligence. It is a complex environment and to be able to understand the cultural sensitivities and the various nuances out there is absolutely key. They have absolutely nailed it.

'We have seen how the Afghan army and police have developed beyond recognition, which is hugely encouraging. Importantly, I have got a good number of soldiers working as advisors to the Afghan police. That is a really significant role because we are seeking to ensure that the Afghan national security forces have the confidence and the competence to take over the lead for the security once we depart.'

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