US take over frontline

John A Silkstone

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British troops set to hand frontline Afghanistan role to US

Three and a half years after British troops first arrived in Helmand the towns that line its infamous “green zone” have become household names — for all the wrong reasons.

On June 11, 2006, the town of Sangin claimed its first British life when Captain Jim Philippson was shot trying to rescue an injured comrade. Two months later Musa Qala claimed its first victims when a rocketpropelled grenade destroyed an armoured car. By September Kajaki was on the map as well: Lance Corporal Mark Wright was killed in an unmarked minefield.

All three towns, and the poppy fields around them, have become synonymous with British casualties. The bulk of Britain’s 243 dead and the hundreds more who have suffered life-changing injuries fought in the upper reaches of the Helmand valley.

It is these killing fields that British troops may be on the verge of leaving.

Most of Helmand’s population lives in the five districts around Lashkar Gah. This is the area British troops were supposed to focus on when they first deployed to Helmand in 2006, but they abandoned the plan under pressure from President Karzai, who was eager to see his Government’s flag flying in towns as far apart as Now Zad and Garmsir. Since then, the violence has increased and government control all but evaporated outside the embattled district centres.

Under the new counter-insurgency strategy of the US General Stanley McChrystal, Nato troops are shifting their focus from fighting the insurgents back towards protecting the population.

“There is now a mismatch between the proportion of Nato forces, between the US and the UK, in Helmand, and the proportion of the population that they are trying to protect,” said William Hague, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, who was briefed on the plans during a two-day visit to Afghanistan. “The British [have] one third of the forces but they [are] trying to protect 70 per cent of the population.”

Military officials said British commanders were prepared to leave Kajaki, home to a massive hydroelectric power station to which they brought a turbine in a memorable and daring operation in 2008; and Musa Qala, which was the scene of a botched peace deal in 2006. But they are uncomfortable leaving Sangin because of the district’s symbolic importance. The area around Sangin’s district centre, at the junction of two rivers in the deadly green zone, has exacted the highest toll of British Forces. Senior military officers are also concerned that handing responsibility for Sangin to the Americans would echo the British withdrawal from Basra, which precipitated a massive US and Iraqi operation to clear the city of insurgents, the Charge of the Knights — an operation the British were almost entirely frozen out of.

Cabinet ministers have been briefed about the Helmand plans and a decision is expected within the next six weeks.

At present there is a company protecting the dam at Kajaki and a battlegroup in and around Musa Qala. If both districts were handed over to the Americans it would free approximately 1,100 troops for the centre of the province.

The timetable for the redeployment will depend on the availability of thousands of US Marines, deploying as part of Mr Obama’s 30,000-strong surge, as well as the Afghan forces who would accompany them. But if it is approved British Forces could leave for the last time when the current six-month deployment starts to leave this spring.

That would mean them returning to the areas first envisioned more than four years ago, when conventional forces went into southern Afghanistan for the first time since the doomed Anglo-Afghan wars of the 1840s.

“The plan was basically very simple,” said Minna Jarvenpaa, a Finnish consultant, who was one of its architects. “The idea was you secure Lashkar Gah and Gereshk and the road in between them and you create a general area of security there.”

This plan was agreed by the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. But within weeks of taking over from a handful of Americans who had been hunting Osama bin Laden, Britain’s 16 Air Assault Brigade was pinned down in positions strung out along the length of the province.

Under pressure from Kabul and the provincial governor, British troops found themselves protecting government outposts from swarms of Taleban insurgents. The first mission into Sangin was to rescue government officials besieged by the insurgents.

“The whole idea is that you focus on the urban centres and you create the space for improving governance,” Ms Jarvenpaa said.

“We were saying it back then as well. The only way for this to work is for the Afghan Government to be in the lead and at the moment there isn’t much of an Afghan Government, so you have to incubate it.

“Sangin was meant to be a 72-hour operation. That has been extended until now. It was like a honeypot. By putting all those troops in northern Helmand it drew the Taleban from all around — and it created more Taleban, because every cousin and uncle you killed, more people felt aggrieved. The Taleban just exploded.”
 
Bit-part role for Britain as US plans to control key Afghan routes

A restructure of the rotating command has been ordered to account for the change in troop numbers from Nato forces. US forces are set to take over the dominant role in southern Afghanistan from the British under plans for a wholesale rebuilding of the region’s command structure.

The Times learnt that the existing arrangement for Regional Command South, an area the size of England and Wales, is to be abandoned after the arrival of about 21,000 US troops in the south last year with another 18,000 to 20,000 due this year.

The command — which switches annually between Britain, the Netherlands and Canada with a permanent American deputy commander — will be replaced by two divisionsized commands of about 30,000 servicemen each in the southeast and southwest.

The current system reflects the main troop contributors when Nato moved forces into southern Afghanistan in 2006. All, however, are relatively minor players now compared with the US force levels.

There is debate within the Ministry of Defence over whether to push for a rotating command in what will become Regional Command Southwest, an area of operations that will include British forces in Helmand. Britain’s Task Force Helmand will by then be 10,000 strong alongside 20,000 US Marines. It is acknowledged, however, that the balance of new troop numbers will need a reworking of the leadership. “The US Marines hardly take orders from the US Army, let alone a British command structure,” one source told The Times. “So the overall structure ... is a work in progress.”

British troops are to be concentrated in the central districts of Helmand by the end of the year as part of a counter-insurgency strategy. This repositioning will focus on an area linking Kandahar and the agricultural districts in the heart of Helmand, incorporating Lashkar Gah, Gereshk and Garmsir. Almost two million people live in the area, which is characterised by irrigation-fed fields and high-walled compounds. The movement of British troops into central areas will give commanders the numbers seen as a fundamental requirement in suppressing the insurgency and the ability of the Taleban to plant roadside bombs. The Americans estimate that a soldierto-civilian ratio of 1:40 is necessary but many commanders favour a ratio of 1:25.

US Marines are already working to the south of British forces around Garmsir. They would most probably take over the northern areas of the province but there is still debate within the MoD over whether to hand over Sangin to US forces. It has totemic significance after the deaths of so many British soldiers.

To promote freedom of movement and, commanders hope, the economy, Task Force Stryker, a mobile US brigade, will establish control of the ring road through southern Afghanistan. It has been the scene of daily Taleban attacks by insurgents, local criminals and the Afghan police force.

In a briefing to journalists this week, Major-General Carter said that in several localised pockets credible Afghan local government had “bubbled up” in the past three months. UN estimates released yesterday show that after a concerted drive by Nato forces the number of Afghan civilians killed by Western troops or aircraft has been reduced significantly. According to the UN figures the Taleban were responsible for almost 70 per cent of the 2,412 civilian deaths last year. Nato was held responsible for 25 per cent, down by 53 per cent in 2008.

The change appears to be reflected in a poll this week which found 42 per cent of Afghans felt that the Taleban was primarily to blame for the violence in the country, up from 27 per cent a year ago. Western forces were held responsible by 17 per cent, down from 36 per cent a year ago.

Major-General Carter acknowledged, however, that the state of the Afghan security forces was a problem. He said that the Afghan National Army often approached local people in southern Afghanistan as if they were the enemy rather than people in need of protection, which is how Nato forces are told to view them.

The MoD declined to comment on the command structure. In a statement Major-General Carter said: “British forces have made significant progress in some of the most challenging parts of Afghanistan and will continue to do so as the second biggest troop-contributing nation.

“Here in the south of the country, including Helmand where 9,500 British troops are based, I have already received an additional 21,000 troops and I expect to receive up to 20,000 more in the coming months.

“With such increases, you would expect me to assess how best to allocate the forces available to me to achieve my mission. This process is ongoing and no decisions have been made."
 
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