‘An unusual state of affairs for an RAF Officer!’
The routine activities of Lashkar Gar pass slowly before me, mundane to most Afghans but peculiarly interesting to a Westerner. Why has that man got huge bundles of sticks tied to the back of his bicycle? How can so many people travel on one motorbike? Where are such a large group of burqa clad women and marginally more exposed children going? Yet despite these Helmandi idiosyncrasies, the pervading sense is one of normality. And it is this normality that is so encouraging.
Like all military personnel working at the Lashkar Gar Main Operating Base, I have had to do my share of guard duty, or ‘stag’ as the troops call it. An unusual state of affairs for an RAF officer, particularly a pilot, more used viewing the towns and villages of Helmand from 20,000 ft. Yet these brief insights of life beyond the wire are hugely revealing. The familiar Helmand images of the British Press, fire fights and war damage, seem very far removed from the day to day activities of the Afghans taking place before my eyes. The occasional sound of gun fire breaks the silence, but it is the therapeutic intonations of the muezzin’s call to prayer that is most commonly heard here.
When I was approached to be an Air Staff Officer for 16 Air Assault Brigade, I didn’t mull over the decision for long. As a Hercules pilot I had taken part in operations in Afghanistan before, as well as other far flung trouble spots across the globe. Yet as I unloaded troops, equipment and humanitarian aid in these locations, and prepared to depart back to the main airbase, I was always nagged at by a sense of guilt mixed with envy for those I had just delivered to the front line. Consequently the knowledge of a six month deployment to the heart of Helmand felt like an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. After several months of intensive pre-deployment training, most of the Brigade felt relieved to be finally heading out to the winter tour that lay in wait.
As it transpired Lashkar Gar, the capital of Helmand province, is reassuringly benign. The ISAF task of establishing safe areas for the population that are untroubled by insurgent intimidation is proving effective. Afghan National Police (ANP) and ISAF soldiers mix easily and provide a comforting presence for the locals. But it is the former who are really stepping up to the challenge. While no one would attempt to contest that the ANP are on a par with Western police forces, nor fully in control of all of Helmand, they have shown real signs of improvement, especially in the security around Lashkar Gar city. A recent reaction to an attempted suicide bombing barely involved ISAF forces, and demonstrated how far the ANP had come. There are already plans to transfer authority for Lashkar Gar directly to the ANP. Other safe areas; Gereshk, Nad-e-Ali Centre, and Chah-e-Anjir look set to follow in the not-to-distant future.
Away from the population centres however, the fight continues. This has been sporadic throughout the winter months, a traditional lull in the fighting season, but this winter has proven unusually quiet. Senior officers here are quietly optimistic that a corner may finally have been turned, something the British media are slowly catching on to. The tactic of not giving the insurgents any let up has caused many to simply flee or reintegrate with society. ‘Relentless pursuit of the insurgent’ Brigadier James Chiswell, the 16 Brigade Commander, has stipulated. Whole new areas, previously untouched by ISAF presence, are now benefitting from ISAF and Afghan Government security. Wearing down the insurgency by keeping him away from the families and farmers of the main population centres is a tactic that seems to be working.
This is where I get to play my small role. Aircraft and helicopters provided by all three services, as well as by the Americans, French and other nations, are critical to this campaign. The insurgent knows he cannot defeat these machines; indeed they will often drop their weapons and flee at the first sign of a Tornado GR4 or an Apache Attack Helicopter appearing above them. Despite their superior firepower, ISAF and Afghan National Army (ANA) troops are limited in this counter-insurgency warfare by the codes and morals of the Geneva Convention. The insurgent dresses like a local, mixes with the locals and blends in with them; state armies do not. On one of the many ‘stag’ shifts I have done I witnessed a group of US Marines patrolling through the town. The juxtaposition between their uniform, armour and helmets, and that of the local attire could not have been starker. These marines seemed otherworldly, as alien to the locals as if Storm troopers from the Star Wars films had just beamed down from the Death Star to a leafy Hampshire village. The uniforms and armour that protect and identify our troops here mean they can be targeted easily by the insurgency, whereas the enemy cannot be easily identified by us. As well as the firepower it brings, the ‘eyes in the sky’ from aircraft are therefore essential. As insurgents are spotted laying IEDs or carrying a sniper rifle, they can be attacked. And they have been, relentlessly.
Each infantry company has a Forward Air Controller who is responsible for coordinating air assets that support his troops. The troops take great comfort from the knowledge that should their position be attacked, air assets will swiftly be on task to deter the enemy and protect ISAF troops and local civilians. My role, within Brigade HQ at Lashkar Gar, is to ensure that these assets are readily available to the troops. That aircraft getting airborne from as far away as Bagram, north of Kabul, are on station at the right time to support the most dangerous phases of ground operations as they strike deep into insurgent dominated territory.
It is hugely rewarding to see the progress that the Army battalions are making, bringing security to greater sections of the population than ever before. It is also satisfying to see the contribution that the aircraft of the RAF, as well as the Army Air Corps and Royal Navy, make towards keeping those troops defended, supplied and sustained. I leave this tour with some pride at the small part I have played in bringing peace to this corner of the globe, but also a great sense of humility at the dangerous and difficult conditions that the young soldiers are working in every day; a thought that takes on greater levity with a glance at the list of names on the ‘In Memoriam’ wall not far from my desk. Thoughts of my imminent return home are laced with relief and excitement, but also a sense of sadness for those who return missing limbs and with injuries they will never recover from. An interesting tour for a Hercules pilot and one that I’m extremely glad I have done.