Soldiers in Afghanistan face one-year tours of duty
The length of tours for key units of the British military serving in Afghanistan is likely to be doubled to a year for the crucial drawdown period leading to the end of combat operations there in 2014.
The "spine" of brigades sent in the future may be deployed for up to 12 months rather than six, the commander of Task Force Helmand, Brigadier Ed Davis, told The Independent.
The extension of tours will be highly controversial at a time when cuts are being made in numbers of personnel, and when the Libyan mission means that British forces are engaged in fighting on two fronts, leading to complaints of overstretch.
But Brigadier Davis, of 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines, stressed that the continuing Taliban threat showed the need for longer deployment of some UK contingents, especially those "mentoring" Afghan forces, to provide more continuity – and that this necessitated much longer periods in Helmand.
He said: "The constant churn of people with whom you have really strong relationships is hard, so I think you need to reduce that by having people in theatre for longer. I suspect over time we'll see these changes and a larger percentage of people doing longer tours ... We are looking at nine to 12 months."
A suicide bombing of a police station at Lashkar Gah yesterday, which left 11 people dead, including a child, is a source of concern for the British command in Afghanistan. It handed over control of the provincial capital to the Afghan government two weeks ago as the security situation was deemed to have improved. The attack showed the determination of insurgents to turn the city back into a battleground, say senior British officers, and the need for prolonged commitment to training Afghan forces.
Michael O'Neill, the head of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Helmand, the civil arm of the British presence in the province, backed Brigadier Davis: "This makes good sense. We are at a critical time and it is extremely important that we do have this continuity. Most of the people at the PRT are doing more than six months, up to a year, some have extended to 18 months. We find this is very helpful in building up relationships with Afghan partners and also in seeing through projects. There are obviously some stresses involved, but overall people cope well."
Brigadier Davis added: "When you are mentoring, when you are not in charge, you are not leading, you're very much leading from behind. I am talking about a number of groups, some of the specialists, the mentor teams, advisory mentor teams, and maybe some of the other functions we might be looking at extending like intelligence. This is because the 'knowledge depth' is so great, it makes sense to have people here a bit longer."
Afghan political and military leaders also stressed they approved of extending the tour for key units. Gulab Mangal, the governor of Helmand, said: "It is essential to build on the long-term relationship between the British and their Afghan colleagues. Extending the time, for a little while, will help to do this."
Brigadier Davis stressed: "The bulk of the structure and the six-month employment sample will carry on, I think certainly for the foreseeable future. The programme will go through until 2014, that's the intent at the moment."
A Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesman said: "The MoD is always examining how best to generate and sustain our armed forces, including by looking at the length of tours and the intervals between them. However the vast majority of personnel serve six-month tours and there are no current plans to change this."
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