Royal Anglians and Light Dragoons prepare for Afghanistan’s end-game
Soldiers from East Anglia are paving the way for the withdrawal of UK troops from Afghanistan by training local forces to take over responsibility for their own security. In the third part of a week-long series, CHRIS HILL asks how preparations are going for 2014.
Even leaving aside the last bitter decade of war, Afghanistan is a hugely complex country.
Its rich ethnic patchwork of religious cultures and tribal loyalties is mirrored in the diverse array of security forces which are now being trained by East Anglian soldiers to take responsibility for protecting, and uniting, this fractured state.
The Afghan National Army (ANA), the Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP), and the Afghan Local Police (ALP), among many other agencies, must all work seamlessly together if the scheduled British withdrawal of troops by the end of 2014 is to leave this country with any hope of a lasting peace.
To make that happen requires skill, diplomacy and military acumen – qualities deployed in abundance by training and advisory teams from the 1st Battalion, the Royal Anglian Regiment, known as the Vikings, and the Light Dragoons, based in Swanton Morley, near Dereham.
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The critical question of how successful that effort will be, and how ready the Afghan forces are to fend for themselves, is a difficult one to answer.
Commanders from our region are supremely confident in the abilities of the combined Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to secure their communities and prevent insurgents seeping back into society.
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But some of the Afghan officers, although determined, seem reluctant to share their optimism.
The overbearing worry is how these capable and patriotic warriors will fare without the 'safety net' offered by the presence of the combined military superpower currently at their shoulder.
Several East Anglian officers I spoke to likened their situation to that of a protective parent, who sees the growing independence of their offspring and realises it is time to take off the stabilisers and give them a gentle push.
On the first occasion I saw this sensitive minefield of issues being negotiated, the discussions were being adeptly handled by 23-year-old Lt Adam Peters, from Needham Market in Suffolk – the Vikings' youngest officer – who explained that the region's security could only last if it was led by the Afghans themselves.
His platoon was mentoring its ANCOP counterparts on a reassurance patrol near Kalang in Nad-e Ali, an area hailed as a beacon of progress for the rest of Helmand province.
Lt Peters said: 'This is the trial for the whole British part of Helmand. In Herrick 11 (2009/10) this was the worst place in Afghanistan, and it stayed like that for some time afterwards. We would walk out the gate and be in a gunfight all day. There were lots of casualties from IEDs and small arms fire. It was the Taliban's centre of control.
'Now, massive progress is being achieved and the ALP and ANCOP in my area are very good. We think they're brilliant.
'I think their success will depend on the competency of the insurgency, which is what we are trying to reduce now. It takes a while to explain that we're not just here to fight the Taliban, we are here to support the Afghan government to build a better future for all of us.
'They have got work to do but I think it will be achieved. I think you may see a backward step, but the future is still going to be a place which the Taliban cannot come back to.'
In the 'transition' lands of Nad-e Ali, patrols are planned and led by Afghan police forces, to offer a reassuring presence and keep an ear to the ground for any change in the 'atmospherics' at the villages and bazaars.
During our patrol, the feeling at the bazaar seemed very positive. Grateful villagers welcomed the troops and were happy to stop and say how safe they felt now that the Taliban had been driven away and were no longer stealing their food and money, or intimidating their children.
In this secure area, the Vikings are bolstering the ANSF presence before pulling out of patrol bases and handing security responsibility over to local agencies including ANCOP, whose charismatic local commander, Major Naziz Ghoul, joined us on patrol and later told us his concerns over a cup of 'chai' and some traditional Afghan flatbread.
Through an interpreter, he said: 'We are not scared, but ISAF (the International Security and Assistance Force) have paved the way for us to make us strong. Everything we want to do, we want to do in cooperation with ISAF and the air force is a big help for us. Without them, it could collapse.
'Ten years ago we had a dictator system. They didn't have human rights and we didn't have well-trained forces. But now we have everything we want. We have freedom.
'While you are here, we don't have any big problem. But when you leave here, we have to think about that time.'
Those concerns were later echoed by ANA officer Capt Immanjan, who said his determined and patriotic warriors were worried about what could happen when they lost the ability to call on ISAF helicopters and armoured vehicles.
'It is down to the hard work of ISAF and ANA that this place is safe,' he told us. 'Three years ago, the company was not able to do any operations, but now we feel confident. When ISAF leave I don't think we will be able to do many activities like that.'
Lt Col Mick Aston, the Vikings' commanding officer, said: 'We are still a large part of the security picture here, and because of that, the locals probably attribute more of the security success to us than is actually the case. We don't want the local nationals to think their security has been provided purely by ISAF. We want them to see it is the local forces who have suppressed the summer fighting season. It is their fight, and they are the ones who should take credit for it.
'I am confident in them. They have benefited from years of high investment and you can see it not just in their equipment but in the way they think and act. All these things lead to a professional force. We don't want to build them in our own model, they have got to do it in the Afghan way and we have to steer them towards it so there's not a culture of impunity.'
While ANCOP and the ANA have the ability to mount military patrols and operations, one of the key organisations being developed is the Afghan Local Police (ALP), a part-time force of villagers working within their own communities, not unlike PCSOs in Britain.
Local recruits are being trained in weapons handling, stop and search drills and patrol tactics by units including the three Police Advisory Teams (PATs) formed by a squadron of the Norfolk-based Light Dragoons.
Lt Jamie Harle, the commander of one of the regiment's PATs, said: 'To see how hungry they are to take ownership of their own security and control their own operations… it is a massive change, and it inspires us to help them.
'We can give them the training and equipment, but to see how passionate they are about providing security to the local areas and their own families and friends – we cannot touch that. They have that motivation already so I am very confident that by 2014 they will be able to take on that security fully.'