What we achieved in our six months in Afghanistan

Lieutenant Colonel Charlie Herbert, the Commanding Officer of 1st Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland (1 SCOTS), looks back over his tour.

Me and some of my team

Me and some of my team

Our tour is fast approaching the end and, as I write this, we have less than a month to go.  It is a timely opportunity to look back and reflect on what we have achieved during this challenging, fascinating and, at times, frustrating tour.

Six months ago we deployed as the OMLT Battle Group – trained, structured and prepared to mentor the Afghan National Army (ANA).  As is well known, we were required to restructure very significantly in our first few weeks.  That we achieved this so rapidly and as a capably as we did, says much for the flexibility and mental agility that characterises 1 SCOTS.  That Waterloo Company went on to achieve so much in a role that they had not specifically trained or prepared for speaks equally well of the leadership, fighting spirit and initiative of all involved in the company.  They have been in the thick of the fighting over recent weeks, and have excelled.

For the rest of us in the 3/215 Brigade Advisor Group, we inherited in late March 2010 an almost brand new Afghan Brigade headquarters with no experience, little training, limited understanding of its role, and little confidence in its own ability.  We leave behind us a headquarters that is better manned, better trained, and better able to contribute significantly to this campaign.  It has been well tested too, on two demanding Brigade level operations, which, with our support, were genuinely Afghan-led. Operations OMID DO and OMID SEY were major milestones in the development of the ANA in Central Helmand and I for one am rather proud of what we have achieved with our Afghan colleagues.  All ranks should feel the same.

Similar levels of progress have been achieved across the 3/215 Brigade Advisor Group.  Our infantry kandaks have developed across the board.  They are better manned, better equipped, and boast better infrastructure than before, and their appetite for the fight is seemingly greater than it was six months ago.   We have developed a recce company, IED disposal and search capabilities, and have transformed their artillery and engineers, to an extent far greater than anyone had anticipated.  We have fielded a new Infantry Kandak, assumed responsibility for the Highway Kandak, and have worked tirelessly to support their logistical tail. We may not have created an organisation in our own likeness during our time, but we have most certainly achieved an enormous amount, and in doing so have set the conditions for success.

Of course, like other battalions out here, our tour has not been without tragedy, and our thoughts lie with the family of Lance Corporal Joe Pool who made the ultimate sacrifice earlier this month.  Killed in action at the vanguard of the Brigade Recce Force, he is missed by all of us, and will be forever remembered.  He leaves a fiancée and two young sons, and our thoughts are with them, his parents and his younger brother at this terrible time.  Our thoughts are also with those who may never fully recover from their injuries sustained during this tour.  For them, the progress made on this tour cannot compensate for the sacrifice that they have made, but I take some comfort in the knowledge that their sacrifice during Operation HERRICK 12 has not been in vain.  They are the true heroes of this campaign, and I know that all ranks and all supporters of 1 SCOTS join me in sending them our very best wishes as they battle back to fitness, with the same indomitable spirit that they showed here in Afghanistan.

I am also enormously grateful to those who have provided such sterling service on the home front. They are too numerous to mention, and it would be invidious to single out only a few individuals.  Whether involved in Rear Ops, welfare, fundraising, websites, community engagement or media activities, we are indebted to them for their unfailing support to the deployed component.

In signing off, I must add that it has been a privilege and an enormous pleasure to have commanded the 3/215 Brigade Advisor Group on Operation HERRICK 12.  We have been an unusual organisation, drawn from fifteen different Regiments and Corps, plus a Royal Navy linguist!  I could not have asked for a more dedicated, hard working or courageous group to command, and thank all ranks for what they have achieved over this tour.  Thank you.

“Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things”

Lieutenant Colonel Charlie Herbert, Commanding Officer of 1st Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland (1 SCOTS) writes about progress so far at the halfway stage of their tour.

Colonel Charlie Herbert, Commanding Officer of 1st Battallion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland

Colonel Charlie Herbert, Commanding Officer of 1st Battallion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland

1 SCOTS has now been in Afghanistan for almost 3 months, and as we approach the halfway point it is worth reflecting on the challenges and progress of the last few months.

Our role, providing embedded advice and support to the Afghan National Army’s 3/215 Brigade, is both challenging and rewarding.  It has soldiers of mixed capability and motivation, and many of the troops with whom we work have been fighting hard in Central Helmand for the last 4 years.  They are understandably tired, unnerved by the continued threat, and at times ambivalent about their own development.  However, we have a brand new Brigade Headquarters in charge of them, some newly-fielded units, and some leaders with the same desire to achieve campaign success as us.  It is therefore a mixed group who we are supporting, with differing requirements, and thus there is no easy template for how we achieve institutional development.

We have focused our efforts where most required, developing their officers and sergeants, encouraging a sense of leadership and a greater willingness to exercise ownership of this campaign.   We have also worked hard to enhance their logistical supply processes and their personnel management systems; both areas of well-known weakness.  At the same time, we have focused our training efforts on developing those capabilities that they will need more and more as they transition to a security lead.  These include reconnaissance, IED disposal, intelligence, planning, search and engineering development, but also continued focus on the basics like patrol leadership, first aid skills, communications and shooting.  My focus – whilst overseeing all of this – has been on supporting and developing the new Brigade Commander, a bear of a man with huge combat experience but little formal training.

I am very confident that we are achieving success, but it is slow, and it is incremental.  This is perhaps unsurprising in a country that has been racked by war for the past three decades.  I suspect that we do not have decades to achieve success, and therefore it is essential that we focus our limited resources where best required.  Our progress is noted by the Afghans themselves; they are harsh judges, quick to criticise, quick to point out our own mistakes, but generally appreciative where they see our complete commitment.

None of this, of course, really illustrates the tremendous work done by the young officers, non-commissioned officers and ‘Jocks’ of the Brigade Advisor Group on a day-to-day basis alongside their Afghan allies.  Their job would be frustrating and difficult during peacetime, but the challenges are magnified a thousand-fold by the environment in Central Helmand, where the threat is ever-present, the enemy resilient and determined, and the conditions austere.  They have my utmost respect for what they do.  Ordinary people, doing extraordinary things, day after day. It is reassuring therefore to hear of the increased support this year to Armed Forces Day, where their sacrifices and their courage have been formally recognised.

Officially Half Way

Major Mark Suddaby, a Company Commander with 1st Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland (1 SCOTS) is commanding an Adviser team charged with developing the 1st Kandak, or Battalion, of the Afghan National Army. Here, Advizer 10A – as he is known, he writes about continuing to develop his ANA charges, discovering that one of his soldiers has multiple girlfriends, and almost buying a cow.

My Headquarters received a message recently requesting that one of my Jocks call his girlfriend as she was worried about him.  Apparently he had not been in touch for a while.  It turned out that the young man in question currently has five girlfriends and so was in a bit of a pickle.  In the end he rang them all, but he still doesn’t know who called our Welfare team, as he couldn’t ask directly.  Bless.

It’s not been a particularly great week to be honest.  An ANA Warrior from 4th Tolay (Company) was shot and killed this week and one of my Platoon Commanders was injured too. The Warrior sadly died despite the very best efforts of the medics on the ground.  Advizer 10A wishes my injured man a full and speedy recovery.

So, we are now officially about half way through the tour.  Half way to achieving all that we can in terms of developing the Afghan National Army (ANA). Half way to finishing our contribution to a safer and more secure Afghanistan.  Some days it’s as if we’ve only been here a moment.  As far as 1st Kandak of the ANA goes – my Kandak to mentor and develop – sometimes you can almost touch the progress that they are making.  Smell it in the air.  This is a desperately poor country. Some Warriors join for nothing more than three square meals a day.  So it is an amazing feeling when you witness a Warrior who finally gets it.  Whether it be the application of a tourniquet in basic first aid training or when one steps up to the plate during a fire-fight.

Wars change and tactics and thinking must change with it, but often Afghan officers will choose to go with what they know, even if that knowledge was gained during the Russian occupation.  This is an old country with little Western influence: things happen slowly over here.  What takes a season to become old news back home, will take a decade or longer to change here.

But training and advising the ANA is rewarding if sometimes intensely frustrating. We have dug them water wells in their outstations; built them a Headquarters building and compounds for ammunition storage; helped develop their intelligence capability and facilitated the generation of a medical reception station here in Shawqat.  We patrol and fight alongside them, ensuring that our own expertise and knowledge is shared at the moment when it is most useful – during incoming.  And yet, they sometimes look at us as if we have some hidden agenda; as if there must be a catch.

We know that the Afghan National Security Forces are the ticket to a stable Afghanistan and that is our agenda.  No more safe havens for terrorists.  Afghanistan is a poor country, which has been the battleground of two superpowers for too long.  I just hope I can make the difference that will one day enable the ANA to take over from us, so that the blood we have spilled here won’t be for nothing.

I think I bought a cow the other day after I paid a farmer for crop damage.  There wasn’t any really, but we had to walk across his field.  I don’t think he understood and tried to give me his cow.  It didn’t look particularly healthy, which may have been a contributing factor.  But when I realised we didn’t have space for a cow in our Jackals, I politely declined his very kind offer.

Oh and the Prime Minister very nearly visited one of our outstations yesterday.  We drove up to the base, did rehearsals and all the usual stuff.  But he couldn’t come. But it was my birthday.  I’m not going to divulge my age, as it is too depressing.  Still, the boys made me a birthday card out of a ration box and plastered it with photos with unrepeatable speech bubbles, so that was nice. It’s late now and I have reports to compile so this is Advizer 10A off to dream up new ways to help the Afghans help themselves.

International media attention for 1 SCOTS Brigade Advisory Group

Captain Paul Green, the Press Officer for 1st Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland (1 SCOTS), writes about all the media attention the regiment has received so far in Afghanistan.

Captain Paul Green

Captain Paul Green

I have had a very busy period as the unit’s Press Officer (UPO) since arriving in Afghanistan.  The first thing I had to do was tackle eight days of Reception, Staging and Onward Integration (RSOI) training to enable going ‘outside the wire’ (leaving Camp Bastion) on media assignments.  RSOI consisted of a range of theatre-specific training. It was a tough start to my deployment, as my acclimatisation to the Afghan climate (temperatures of  approximately 35⁰C) began at the same time. Once the RSOI package was completed I moved from Camp Bastion to Camp Tombstone to carry out essential media duties combined with overseeing administrative activity for the next 6 months.

3/215 Brigade Advisor Group is at the very heart of Commander ISAF’s vision of the future of Afghanistan, where we will eventually hand over security responsibilities to the Afghans. We coordinate the training and advising of  Officers and soldiers in the Afghan National Army (ANA). Our soldiers live and work with them.

Because of this embedded partnering there is a great deal of interest in us and we get lots of visits, both from the military and the media.

Within days of my arriving in Camp Tombstone I hosted a visit from the in-theatre Combat Camera Team, filming us training the ANA. The very next day, just to keep me on my toes, I had a visit from a journalist and photographer from Defence Focus magazine – who also wanted to report on the ANA mentoring, advising and partnering.  Defence Focus’s primary audience is serving UK Armed Forces personnel and MOD civilians (around 300,000 people in all). Defence Focus’s secondary audience is the wider UK defence community, including reservists, Service families, the defence industry and external defence media.

Fox News also descended on us. Reporting for them was ex-US Marine Colonel Ollie North who was a prominent figure in the Iran-Contra affair in 1986 (well some of us remember him!), and he reported live on the excellent work ISAF personnel were carrying out training the ANA in theatre specific and life saving drills.

The Challenges of working with an embryonic Afghan National Army

Lieutenant Colonel Charlie Herbert, Commanding Officer of 1st Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland (1 SCOTS) talks about advising the Afghan National Army (ANA).

1 SCOTS has now been in Helmand for 8 weeks.  The Battalion provides the core of the 3/215 Brigade Advisor Group; a bespoke organization whose role is to institutionally develop our partners in the Afghan National Army (ANA). It is an unusual role, but one we are well suited to, having lived and fought alongside the Iraqi Army during an intense period of operations in 2008.  Although formed around 1 SCOTS, the 3/215 Advisor Group is drawn from 18 different units across the Army, reflecting the diverse and specialist nature of this role.

Colonel Charlie Herbert, Commanding Officer of 1st Battallion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland

Colonel Charlie Herbert, Commanding Officer of 1st Battallion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland

At one end of the spectrum we provide two man infantry advisor teams embedded into every ANA company.  These bold and determined men live, eat, train, support, patrol and fight alongside their Afghan colleagues every day.  At the levels above this we have six man teams, headed up by a Major with every Infantry Battalion Headquarters, and a larger team embedded in the Brigade Headquarters.  I myself advise the Brigade Commander, a bear of a man with a fine fighting pedigree, but little formal military training.  Specialist personnel support the development of the ANA  artillery, engineer and reconnaissance companies, with others embedded at every level of the logistic chain.

The challenges of working with an embryonic ANA are huge.  They do not lack experience, and many of them served either with the Soviet-backed DRA Army in the 1980s or on the opposing side with the Mujahideen.  Both groups have their own different way of doing things, and their approach to planning and coordination is very different to our own.

However, there is no doubt that the ANA and their colleagues in the police offer the key to success in this campaign, and none of us are under any illusions of the importance of our role.  Weekly we seek to develop their capabilities, increase the number of troops available to patrol, and develop their sense of leadership and responsibility.  If in due course we can align the will, the capacity and the capability then I am confident that the ANA will be able to achieve the results that we seek.  An effective indigenous solution has been at the heart of almost all counter-insurgency campaigns in the last century, and I suspect that their role will prove even more decisive in Afghanistan, a nation not blessed with much tolerance for foreign outsiders.

I am particularly heartened by the manner in which my young Officers and soldiers have thrown themselves into this job over the past weeks.  All believe passionately in what they are doing, and all are going that extra mile to really make a difference in our time.  Living alongside the ANA is not for everyone.  Conditions are basic, the pace relentless and the dangers ever present, but the rewards are huge.  Afghans are remarkably hospitable, and the shared adversity develops real bonds of trust and friendship between us and our Afghan allies.  Ordinary people, doing extraordinary things, day in and day out.