‘Black Rats’ prepare to continue Afghanistan transition process
Brigadier Bob Bruce, Commander 4th Mechanized Brigade, has given the following briefing ahead of his unit’s deployment to Afghanistan in October as the UK’s Task Force Helmand on Op HERRICK 17.
I’ve been in command of 4th Mechanized Brigade for 18 months. I took over command of the brigade just after it came back from its last tour of duty in Afghanistan, and I’ve been at the helm for the entire training package that will launch us back out into Afghanistan this time round.
I’ve deployed with this brigade three times in the past in three different ranks. I was a captain in 4th Mechanized Brigade in the first Gulf War. I was a lieutenant colonel in the brigade, a CO, in Iraq on Op TELIC, and then I have the great honour now to take the brigade, as its commander, out to Afghanistan.
I was commissioned in 1987 and sent out to Germany, where at the time our major challenges were the Cold War and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I often reflect, and I think it’s worthwhile to reflect for a moment now, on the extraordinary changes that have happened during my 26 years of service, and that in a small way I’ve been involved in. I was a part of the British Army of the Rhine when the Cold War ended. I eventually deployed to Iraq for the first Gulf War, and then 16 years later I was a CO as we were handing back control for Basra back to the Iraqis. I deployed to South Africa in 1985, just after President Mandela came to power. My job there was to help to integrate the former guerrillas of the ANC and the PAC who’d been hell-bent on bringing down the apartheid state with the former soldiers of the South African Defence Force, whose job it had been to defend that state, and the product of that integration was the new South African National Defence Force. I’ve worked in the Pentagon, 2003 to 2005, that covered the period of the invasion of Iraq, and then this ominous growth in the threat from IEDs [improvised explosive devices], and I’ve been to Afghanistan every year for the past five years and have seen enormous changes in that context. Now the reason I mention all that is to illustrate that the delivery of change, the management of change, has been a recurring theme in my career, and this process of change that’s happening in Helmand at the moment, the process of transitioning to an Afghan lead for security responsibility is not actually new or novel to me, or indeed many of the people in the Task Force. It’s a challenge that I acknowledge actually up front, and I think that my experience and training has made me pretty well prepared to accept it.
This Task Force was last in Afghanistan in the summer of 2010. It comprises my brigade, 4th Mechanized Brigade, but reinforced that it was in 2010 with 40 Commando Royal Marines, and also a number of specialist elements from around the Services. For example we have the specialist Counter-IED and Search capability that comes with 36 Engineer Regiment. Roughly speaking about half of the Task Force who will deploy has been to Afghanistan before, but almost all of that 50 per cent will be deploying this time in a slightly different job. Many in fact will be deploying in a higher rank, and therefore with increased, certainly new, responsibilities. It’s worth also pointing out that nearly 400 of the Territorial Army and the Reservists will deploy with us, and some of them are here today. I’ve asked them to identify themselves to you because you will not spot the difference. They join us during the big muscle moves of our training, and they are absolutely integrated into everything that we do, as they will be on the tour itself, and in fact as a similar number have been on successive deployments out to Afghanistan for the past several years.
As we have deployed Task Forces to Helmand of course we learn the lessons of that deployment, and we constantly adapt the training to make it better and better. And we are regularly in receipt of new pieces of equipment. Through this process of continuous improvement, I absolutely believe that we will be the best prepared and the best equipped British Task Force ever deployed on operations, and I hope, and I’ve absolutely no doubt that our successors will be in an even better place. That sense of confidence is tremendously important to our soldiers, our marines and, of course, their families.
Looking towards the challenges that we’ll face on the tour, I think that they can best be summed up under three headings. The first, and I think the most important is that we will have to continue to develop this process of enabling the Afghan National Security Forces to take control for security in their own areas, and that’s going to involve us working very closely alongside them, and that it something absolutely that we will do, from me all the way down to the most junior soldier and marine.
This very close level of cooperation of course is not without risk, and we will take great steps to reduce the dangers to our troops deployed. I have spoken already to my Afghan counterparts , I have met them in Afghanistan and I’ve worked with some of them before, and I have hosted them here in the UK, and I have urged them to work with their people also to reduce these risks, and I know that they are doing that. And of course, this is their counter-insurgency. It is in their country, and they must win it for themselves. Our role will be to support them, to help them, even to enable them where we can to do that, but it is theirs. And that absolutely demands this close level of cooperation, and of course it’s worth bearing in mind that thousands of ISAF troops work alongside thousands of their Afghan counterparts every day in Afghanistan, and they do so very successfully.
The second of the three major parts of our challenge is that, as the Afghan National Security Forces grow their capability and capacity, and as they and the Afghan people grow in confidence, then we will reduce our own profile, ultimately sending some manpower and kit and equipment back to the UK, and I am planning to send 500 troops back to the UK by the end of this year.
The third big part of our challenge is that, recognising that we will deploy for a six-month period but as part of a coordinated ISAF campaign plan, we will look beyond the tape, beyond the end of our tenure, and work hard to set the conditions for success for those that will follow us.
Now this whole theme of continuity will be at the forefront of our minds, and in many ways we have a bit of a headstart. We will take over from 12 Mech Bridgade, part of 3 (United Kingdom) Division, we will hand over to 1 Mechanized Brigade, again part of 3 (UK) Division, and although that sort of relationship isn’t crucial, it certainly is quite handy in terms of us developing this continuity.
As I mentioned, I have been to Afghanistan, for varying periods of time, every year for the past five years, and I have seen tremendous change during that period. I have seen, particularly recently, tremendous improvements in the capacity and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces; I have seen them really seize opportunities to take the lead for security responsibility; I have seen the overwhelmingly positive response of the Afghan local people when this happens, and I think that my Task Force is really fortunate to be deploying at the time that we are. We will benefit enormously from the huge work, and the very significant achievements of those who’ve gone before us, but I’m sure that we will be there at a time when this process of change, this process of transition to an Afghan lead is absolutely bound to draw the flame of pride, of confidence and of self-reliance in the Afghan people.