Lieutenant Colonel David Eastman, spokesman for Task Force Helmand, writes about accompanying two journalists during a visit last week by the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Permanent Under Secretary of the Ministry of Defence.
We had a visit from the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards, and the Permanent Under Secretary of the Ministry of Defence, Ursula Brennan, this week. They were accompanied by the Editor of the News of the World and the BBC’s World News Editor, so I was called in to accompany the visit to assist in hosting the journalists.
VIP visits are useful for me because I can travel across our area of operations and visit units, receiving the latest updates from them in person without having to take up large chunks of my diary to do so. Being away for days at a time has its advantages, but as everyone knows, the work keeps piling up when you are away and you have to deal with it eventually!
For this visit we had the chance to see the Helmand Police Training Centre, which is leading the way in improving the training and professionalism of the Afghan National Police (ANP), who suffer from a poor public perception both in Afghanistan and on the international scene. The Police Training Centre, run with the support of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (5th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland) is making a real difference to the capability of our local policemen. Interestingly, one of the best recruiting tools that we have at the moment is the fact that the students receive lessons in reading and writing, which makes them much more important in their home villages. Illiteracy is a real problem in Afghanistan so learning the basics of reading and writing is vital if we are to help the ANP become an effective and trusted organisation.
As part of the programme, we visited Check Point Attal, which is manned by Afghan police and soldiers from the Royal Highland Fusiliers (2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland), who are responsible for the Lashkar Gah district and its environs. We also took in Forward Operating Base SHAZAAD where the paratroopers of 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment (3 PARA) are based, in Nad-e Ali North.
3 PARA and their partnered Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers have been involved in some very successful operations recently and are now operating in an area that used to be a significant insurgent safe haven. Although the insurgents were taken somewhat by surprise and pushed out by the arrival of the Paras and ANA in their midst, they have since regrouped and are attempting to probe back into the area. Unfortunately for them this has resulted in the men of 3 PARA and the ANA being able to reduce their numbers even further, whilst at the same time holding shuras (meetings) with the local elders to discuss how the Afghan government can improve their lives. The removal of insurgents, most of whom are not from Helmand, who have been intimidating the locals, has meant that there is now much more interaction between the locals, the ANA and our troops.
Speaking with the Editor of the News of the World on our return to base, he commented that he saw a completely different side to Helmand and our operations to that portrayed in the national media in the UK at present. The twin-track approach of precision strikes against the insurgent leadership and facilitators by the Afghan and our own forces, combined with equal emphasis on the provision of opportunity in the form of governance, employment and education to the people of Helmand seems to be making progress in creating a better future.