Afghanistan: A new role for British troops

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The Independent Online

This time last year Major Tom Bewick was scrambling along a ditch under heavy Taliban mortar and rocket fire in hours of rolling, close quarter combat in the heart of the Helmand badlands.

Since then he has returned home, got married, had a baby and volunteered to go back with the next brigade deploying to the frontline, an example of how the Afghan war has become the defining feature in a British soldier’s life.

The Independent accompanied Major Bewick and his troops in Operation Kapcha Salaam, of ‘Cobra Salute’, to Lakari, on that last action. The furthest that a British combat team had ever gone in the lawless ungoverned space of southern Afghanistan.

Major Bewick’s next mission will see the start of a new role for British troops in the conflict, providing security for Marjah, the tract of Taliban territory due to be recovered in an impending operation.

General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, has warned that holding the area would provide more of a challenge than taking it. The insurgents may disappear in the face of vastly superior Western firepower during the assault, but, as they have shown in the past, they will return to fight another day. At the same time the loyalty of the residents would have to be won and maintained, not the easiest task for a foreign force in the fiercely independent Pashtun belt.

Major Bewick will be chief of staff to the 4th Mechanised Brigade which is being sent at a time of relentlessly rising number of fatalities. The last few days saw the numbers of British dead rise to 256, reaching and surpassing the toll of the Falklands War. There is little doubt that other such grim milestones will be reached in this bitter attritional struggle.

Speaking at the brigade’s pre-deployment exercise on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, Major Bewick, 36, said “It will be silly to say that this is something one does not think about. We see what is happening every day, the news that is coming through. There are risks involved and each time one goes back that risk heightens. But I had no hesitation about volunteering for this brigade, I picked up a bit of local knowledge when on the ground and I want to pass this on in my new job. Obviously my wife is a bit apprehensive, but she has been fully supportive.

“It is, I think, important to have continuity, learn from what you have done in the past, understand the Afghan people, that is the only way we have ahead and I just want to play my part in that.”

It has been eight years since the fall of the Taliban and four years after the Helmand deployment took place with the then defence secretary, John Reid, declaring that he hoped the mission would finish in the near future ‘without a shot being fired in anger’. In that time, and six million rounds later, a generation of British forces have been ‘blooded’ in Afghanistan.

The Royal Marines’ 40 Commando will become the first unit to return for a second tour to Sangin, an area which has become a lethal centre of roadside bombings in Helmand. Lieutenant Colonel Paul James, the commanding officer, said “ At the end of the day the best defence against IEDs ( improvised explosive devices) is information from local people. We have spent a lot of time in our training on local culture and the Pashtu language. We have had to think in a new way and we are doing that.”

The 4th Brigade will arrive when the role of the UK force in Helmand will be changing with the dispatch of thousands of American troops into the province in the ‘surge’ authorised by Barack Obama.

The British contingent now provide 30 per cent of the Nato force in Helmand - with the US providing the vast bulk of the rest - while attempting to control 70 per cent of the territory. That position is expected to be reversed with the British concentrating on a number of smaller areas.

Brigadier Richard Felton, commanding officer of 4th Mechanised Brigade, said “Our aim would be to win the consent of the people. The fact is that you don’t actually win a counter-insurgency campaign like this by killing the Taliban, you have to win over those who want to change. We have also got to be very, very careful about civilian casualties, for each member of public who is killed you are creating a dozen more people sympathetic to the insurgency among his friends and relations.

“Progress is being made, Gen McChrystal has brought a new focus to this mission, and we are building on that.”

At the end of Major Bewick’s mission in Lakari a local farmer came up to say to us “ This is our land, we need it to live. You and the Taliban are using it to fight your battles. The Taliban will return and we will suffer. You are here now, but you will be gone, we know that.”

It will be the task of the 4th Brigade to make sure that areas such as that are not abandoned, otherwise, there is at last general acceptance, there will be no hope of winning the confidence of the local people.”