Rebecca Ricks talks to commandos in Afghanistan about handing over security responsibilities to Afghan forces...
For what is likely to be the Royal Marines’ last major tour of Helmand, Op Herrick 17 is a far stretch from the previous Commando tours of duty.
Since the war began at the end of 2001, ISAF forces have been locked in battle with the Taliban. The Westcountry has lost dozens of servicemen to the conflict.
But now progress begins to appear. As the Marines of Taunton-based 40 Commando move into the second half of their six-month stint in Afghanistan, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are taking the “lead”.
More than 650 commandos have been operating out of Nahr-e Saraj since the end of September last year. Commanding officer of the unit, Lieutenant Colonel Matt Jackson, who is stationed at Main Operating Base Price, said he is seeing what he “expected to see”.
“When we first came we knew we would be operating a sort of conceptual security. Delivering it was going to be less about ISAF and more about ANSF,” the 41-year-old explained.
“My troops are doing less fighting – the analogy I tend to use is the Afghan Security Forces being like a child on a bike with stabilisers, they’ve had the stabilisers for a long time and now they need the confidence to ride without them. We’ve taken the stabilisers off and held the back of the bicycle seat then they look back and realise we’re not holding it anymore.”
Many of the commandos refer to their previous Op Herrick tours as being more “kinetic” – where they would have been seeing much more intense exchanges of fire.
On many occasions the Marines of 3 Commando Brigade have been involved in fire fights with the Taliban – doing what they train for so long to do. But now in pre-transition Afghanistan, I sense frustration from some of the men of 40 Commando.
“I was surprised at how little there would be for us to do out here,” says Derriford Marine, Corporal Ash Hore.
“We are lucky this time we have constant internet access, phone lines everywhere – the lads are really being pampered. But any one of us would trade all this in for somewhere we could have more effect – being on the frontline helping.
“But that’s a sign we are doing a good job, at the end of 2014 we are not here anymore so it’s a good sign that we are not needed.”
The 26-year-old, who is due to marry fiancee Kerry Pearse, added: “We see the improvements in other ways, like when jobs we are meant to be doing get taken over by the Afghans, which we do get annoyed about because we want to do them, but it’s a sign of improvement. Although we knew this wasn’t going to be a very kinetic op, when we train we have to train for it to be like that.
“I tell the young Marines that if they don’t get it right you or one of the lads will be injured or killed. ”
Lance Corporal Andrew Tucker from Liskeard is a fire team commander of Alpha Company. He is usually one of a number of Marines who undertake targeted helicopter assaults behind enemy lines searching for weapon caches and disrupting insurgent activity.
The 24-year-old said: “We knew it was going to be quiet but I don’t think many of the lads thought it would be this quiet. It has been different – most of the ops are being led by the Afghans and we have been moved into more of a support role.”
In the last week he and his comrades of Alpha Company have been supporting a team of engineers inspecting the work of Afghans on a contract to maintain the Helmand canal system – patrolling along a route so dangerous ISAF troops had been banned from using it during the past five months.
Although frequently used by Afghans, the nearby main road – Highway 1 – is also notorious for being pitted with Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Just hours after the engineers checked on the canal work, four Afghan children were very seriously injured by a hidden IED.
Despite a fall in the number of British deaths in Helmand during 2012, the number of insider attacks spiked. The day before I arrived in ‘HMS Price’ Sapper Richard Walker was killed and six other soldiers injured when a man wearing Afghan police uniform opened fire.
Lt Col Jackson was one of the first to visit PB Hazrat to carry out his own inquiries. It’s not the first time he has been put in that position. In October Corporal Channing Day and Corporal David O’Connor were both killed during a gun fight involving an Afghan.
He said the three insider attacks that occurred in the area during the last four months had been the “lowest point” in the unit’s tour, and for him personally after carrying out his own intimate investigations in the aftermaths.
Nahr-e Saraj now faces issues more often away from insurgency. Whilst in Gereshk the District Chief of Police expressed his concern over the lack of education facilities and the use of narcotics. Teams from the UK have been working to provide fort-like buildings for the ANSF in order that security can continue to make progress.
“Security is only 20 per cent of the problem in Nahr-e Saraj,” Lt Col Jackson said. “It’s about infrastructure. It’s a poor country and they lack essential services.”
Despite the remaining problems, the father-of-three said he didn’t believe Nahr-e Saraj, a previous Taliban stronghold, would fall “suddenly” back to the insurgents once ISAF leave next year.
He said: “I don’t think it will fall anytime soon but they will have to come to a working relationship in the future. The bottom line is because Gereshk is politically, economically and militarily important, everybody has a stake in making sure it works. From the low-level insurgents to the police and the army, everyone has a vested interest that there is an equilibrium that works.”
He added: “It’s professionally rewarding. It’s been very interesting in terms of Nahr-e Saraj being one of the more complex areas within Afghanistan – it was one of the more kinetic areas.
“The people are prepared to talk to us which is a start. Before they would have been more reluctant to speak.”
Some elements of 40 Commando will begin leaving Afghanistan in the next four weeks with the rest of the unit returning home at the end of April.