Lieutenant Colonel Tim Purbrick, Spokesman for Task Force Helmand, blogs from Afghanistan about an important ceremony that took place on 20 July.
We have opened the door to our exit from Afghanistan.
On 20 July a ceremony took place which marked the transition of the lead responsibility for security in two key districts of Lashkar Gah from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to the Afghan National Security Forces. It doesn’t mean that we’re coming home tomorrow but it does mean that we have started the process which will lead to the cessation of the UK’s involvement in combat operations here in Helmand by the end of 2014.
When Paul Wood of the BBC was down here from Kabul a few weeks ago, he slipped out to meet a contact in the insurgency to discuss what transition meant for them. They said that they had a lot of activity, all bad of course, planned for 20 July. Thankfully they must be working off a different calendar to us, as nothing bad happened, but also thanks to the huge amount of work that 16 Air Assault Brigade did over their winter tour, and other Brigades before them, and the continuation of that work by 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines and 7th Armoured Brigade with all our supporting units, that make up the current Task Force Helmand, to ensure that the usual ‘summer fighting season’ has been significantly suppressed. Violence is down 45% across Task Force Helmand’s area of operations compared to this time last year and down a staggering 82% in the southern part of Nad-e Ali – big up to 1 ROYAL IRISH and now 45 Commando Royal Marines.
So, what has got us to the security transition ceremony at which Dr Ashraf Ghani (President Hamid Karzai’s Special Representative), General Abdul Rahim Wardak (Afghan Minister of Defence), Governor Gulab Mangal (Governor of Helmand Province), General John Allen (Commander ISAF), Sir Simon Gass (Senior Civilian Representative for NATO), General John Toolan (Commanding General Regional Command (South West)) and Michael O’Neill (Head of the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team) witnessed the most significant handshake in Helmand in our five years here, between Brigadier General Hakim Angar (Provincial Chief of Police) and Brigadier Ed Davis (Commander Task Force Helmand), which sealed the deal on the start of Helmand’s transition process?
Probably the answer lies somewhere between the sacrifice and commitment made here by our Armed Forces personnel alongside their Afghan National Security Force partners, the exponential growth in the capacity, capability and confidence of those Afghan National Security Forces and the steady extension of governance to the people of Central Helmand and their accelerating acceptance that the ‘offer’ from that governance is a significantly better offer than that made by the insurgents.
Also, when Stuart Tootal brought 3 PARA to Helmand in 2006 he deployed a Battalion Group of 1,200 into an area the size of Bristol to Newcastle with 1.2 million people living in it. We’re now in an area the size of Dorset with a Brigade of 9,500 and around 500,000 inhabitants, thanks to the surge in US forces and to our Danish and Estonian comrades. That makes a difference too, a big one.
In addition, we have instituted the Brigade Advisory Group, currently 3 MERCIAN, to mentor and advise 3rd Brigade of 215 Corps of the Afghan National Army and the Police Mentoring and Advisory Group, now 2nd Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles, to do the same for the Afghan Uniformed Police. The closeness of the relationship between our Service personnel and their Afghan comrades, forged in shared adversity and combat, is extraordinary and not marred by the recent and past tragedies caused by lone, rogue individuals. While the police have taken on responsibility for security in Lashkar Gah, 3rd Brigade 215 Corps of the Afghan National Army, under Brigadier General Shirin Shah, has been developing its ability to conduct logistic, medical, counter-improvised explosive device and communications support to leverage their clear ability and willingness to conduct operations independently of ISAF. Their recent Operation Eastern Fortress is an example of this. 3rd Brigade selected an area east of Lashkar Gah and then planned and executed an operation to set up a new Check Point in an insurgent-dominated area. It hasn’t stopped there. They’ve now forged north, expanding their protective security umbrella over communities who have known only the writ of the insurgency, and they are busy establishing a second Check Point.
We have lost 377 Service personnel since we came to Afghanistan in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks in the United States. Most of those losses have been here in Helmand. Many more have suffered life-changing injuries. As Governor Mangal said at the transition ceremony, ‘the sacrifices made by coalition forces, in five years, first led bravely by the British, then the strong Americans, and alongside great warriors from Denmark and Estonia and other nations, will never be forgotten by our people.’ And nor by us or our people.
Today is another day in Task Force Helmand. We’re still here and we will continue to be here until the end of 2014 in the combat role and thereafter in what is likely to be a training and mentoring role, striving to make Central Helmand and Afghanistan a better place for its people and Britain a safer place for ours.