War on Terror Special Report 20th October 2006

Report by Iain Ballantyne & Mike Barlow.
Additional material by Dave Billinge and AFPS reporters.

Royal Marines under training before their deployment to Afghanistan

Above: Royal Marines under training before their deployment to Afghanistan. Photo: Royal Navy.

Below: The men of 42 Commando Royal Marines board a Chinook helicopter to fly forward, in order to take up position in an out-lying outpost. Photo: 42 Cdo/RMs.

42 Commando Royal Marines board a Chinook

A Royal Marine from 40 Commando during an earlier deployment of UK green berets to Afghanistan. Photo: Royal Navy.

The Royal Marines have begun their six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan, on the front line in a campaign which cost their predecessor combat formation 16 killed in action. Within a couple of weeks arriving in theatre a Royal Marine from 45 Commando was killed and another from the same unit suffered severe wounds, when a suicide bomber on foot attacked their Land Rover patrol vehicle, at Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province.  Two Afghan children were also killed and other civilian bystanders injured.
Earlier, as they replaced British Army paratroopers in front line outposts, UK marines from 42 Commando RMs had clashed with Taliban fighters who were vowing to fight on against Western forces despite suffering hundreds of dead in previous battles. A Ministry of Defence statement on the suicide attack at Lashkar Gah revealed: "The attack was the result of a suicide bomb against a military convoy that was exiting the Afghan National Police Station.  The Royal Marine was severely injured in the initial incident and airlifted to hospital but sadly later died of his wounds despite receiving the best possible medical attention.  Brigadier Jerry Thomas, the CO of 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines and Commander of NATO's Helmand Task Force, expressed his sympathy for the families and friends of those killed and injured in the attack:  "Our thoughts are very much with the families, friends and colleagues of those who were killed and injured today in this cowardly and indiscriminate attack. I hope those injured will have a speedy recovery." Brigadier Thomas added: "My troops are performing their jobs here with admirable courage and professionalism and will continue to do so after today's attack. This has not deterred us from our mission, which is to support the legitimate Government of Afghanistan in providing security and reconstruction for ordinary Afghans."

The single biggest loss of life during recent UK operations in southern Afghanistan was the result of a technical failure in a Nimrod MR2 Maritime Patrol Aircraft being used to gather intelligence and other battlefield data over Helmand Province. Fourteen UK Armed Forces personnel died when the aircraft crashed on September 2 and among the casualties was Marine Joseph Windall, a communications specialist from the Royal Marines. The marines and soldiers of 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines, which has been sent in to relieve the British Army's 16 Air Assault Brigade, is spearheaded by 42 Commando Royal Marines, as the lead battle group formation, while sister unit 45 Cdo is involved in helping to train the Afghan National Army to assume security responsibilities. Royal Marines are acknowledged experts in cold weather combat, almost on an annual basis deploying to Norway to receive Arctic warfare training. It is therefore appropriate that they are carrying out their tour of duty in treacherous Helmand at this time of year. However, senior sources in 3 Commando Brigade do not expect fighting will come to a halt during the severe Afghan winter. One senior officer told this magazine: "The enemy fighters will find it difficult to get around in mountains, but they may well come down to winter in the villages, where many of the Taliban and their supporters may actually have families. We would anticipate them launching localised attacks from those places." The Royal Marines are well aware their assignment is a tough one (see accompanying interview with the brigade commander) and it comes amid a period of doubt over the Afghan mission's purpose and criticism of the UK Government for failing to fund Defence properly, resulting in not enough equipment or kit that is not fit for purpose. Overstretch is another recurring theme in media reports on the military in both Afghanistan and Iraq. During a speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), in Whitehall on September 19 Des Browne MP, Secretary of State for Defence, admitted that the mission in Afghanistan has proved to be a bigger challenge than anticipated when his predecessor, John Reid, committed UK forces to operations with high hopes that not a single bullet would be fired. "We do have to accept that it's been even harder than we expected," acknowledged Mr Browne. "The Taliban's tenacity in the face of massive losses has been a surprise, absorbing more of our effort than we predicted it would, and consequently slowing progress on reconstruction. This year's poppy harvest, planted before we arrived, is larger than ever before; and across the border in Pakistan, a new approach to security in the border areas may hold hope for the future, but might even see an increase in Taliban activity in the shorter term. So, we face a number of challenges. The first is to try to ensure that the intensity of the campaign against the Taliban does not distract from the core mission, of following security with political and economic progress. In Helmand, the best prospects for this progress are in the central area around the Provincial capital. But to bolster the Government, and to prevent the Taliban from operating in the outlying areas with impunity, we took the fight to the Taliban in their own backyard, in Northern Helmand, establishing what are called 'platoon houses'. This was a necessary measure to enhance security in the province, but defeating the Taliban in a campaign of attrition is not an end in itself - we must not lose sight of the overall central mission." Mr Browne gave his assessment of the 'hard core' of the opposition that the Royal Marines are facing. "This hard core is small - maybe a thousand, it is hard to tell," admitted the Defence Minister. "But the leaders are clever, sophisticated and well aware of how to play to the world gallery. They are adept at forming alliances of convenience with the drug barons and criminal gangs, who likewise have everything to lose from any move towards legitimate governance. And together they recruit footsoldiers from among poor, ordinary Afghan tribesmen. These tribesmen are persuaded to fight not because they hate us, or because of an Afghan culture of resistance, but simply because they are paid - often with money made from drugs. It is this group, probably the majority of those involved in the recent fighting, that matter to us most. We don't want to kill them, or defeat them - we want to convince them to back peace, to back the view of the future represented by the Afghan government, rather than by the Taliban or the drug lords.  I fully acknowledge that if we cannot do this, if we cannot persuade them to put down their guns, then we will struggle to make progress, and there will be a real danger that their deaths will motivate others to join the fight, and potentially turn this into a conflict of a different kind." By this Mr Browne presumably meant Western forces must strive to avoid turning the fight in the south into a widespread insurgency drawing in fanatics from across the Muslim world. There are signs that it is already too late and the unholy alliance of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban is creating a new base of operations in an area labelled by some Jihadistan, a sanctuary straddling the Afghan-Pakistan border territory from which terrorists can launch attacks either on Western forces in theatre or on the West itself. So-called Arab fighters are allegedly flooding back into Taliban areas, bringing with them formidable insurgency skills learned in Iraq and also plenty of funding for 'the cause'. A continuing problem remains the ability of the enemy forces to evade destruction at the hands of NATO and American forces by finding sanctuary inside Pakistan where the government has recently done a deal to halt its military offensive against militants.

Despite the current difficulties, the head of the Royal Navy, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Jonathon Band was bullish about the Afghan deployment when he spoke to WARSHIPS IFR and keen to stress the important role of maritime forces, hundreds of miles from the sea in a land-locked country. "I am entirely happy that 3 Commando Brigade and other units are fit for purpose and will do what one would expect on such a deployment," said the First Sea Lord.  "As the Secretary of State for Defence has said it is a challenging campaign. The United Nations has said it wants to bring a new phase to this country. We are part of the international effort to bring this about. Added to the deployment of the commando brigade, 800 Naval Air Squadron are the next Harrier formation to be deployed to Afghanistan, meaning that for the next six months about half the British force will be naval personnel. People think that land campaigns are about armies, but this is a case of Joint Forces." However, there remains concern that Britain's NATO allies are failing the defence alliance by not contributing troops to more dangerous areas of Afghanistan. In September there was extensive lobbying by the commander of NATO forces, US Marine Corp General James L. Jones, for a boost. Poland is to send at least 900 more troops to Afghanistan early next year, but the deployment is not connected to NATO's call for reinforcements in the face of escalating violence. They were meant to join 100 Polish personnel already in eastern Afghanistan, in what was  described as a routine procedure. Polish NATO spokesman Lt Col Goetz Haffke said: "This is part of a regular reinforcement and rotation that had been planned previously." General Jones requested 2,500 extra troops from NATO members, but the East Europeans are more willing to meet the call for higher force levels than 'Old Europe'. Latvia, with an army of only 1,817 men, is prepared to increase its presence in Afghanistan from 36 to 56 personnel, while the Poles have agreed to NATO using their troops as a tactical theatre reserve, in other words a fire brigade force that can reinforce formations engaged in heavy fighting with the Taliban.  Meanwhile, Romania deployed a battalion in October, to reinforce its existing force in Afghanistan. It will act as the operational reserve in the meantime. The brunt of the fighting in the south of Afghanistan has been borne by British and Canadian troops, with vital support from American, Dutch, Estonian, Romanian, Danish, Polish and Portuguese units. In another example of maritime forces making their presence felt deep inland, in September the nuclear-powered super-carrier USS Enterprise launched Hornet F-18 strike jets against numerous targets in southern Afghanistan. A US Navy press release revealed that on September 12 'Enterprise-based aircraft performed strafing runs against both Taliban extremists preparing for operations and a building suspected of housing Taliban extremists. The ship's aircraft also expended Guided Bomb Unit-12 bombs against a Taliban fortification near Kandahar.' Two days later aircraft from the Enterprise carried out further strafing and bombing runs around Kandahar. According to the US Navy between September 3 and mid-month USS Enterprise aircraft flew around 225 sorties and 'delivered more than 60 precision weapons against Taliban extremists.' For more on the USS Enterprise air strikes see P12/13. In delivering an assessment of how well NATO had fared since taking over responsibility for southern Afghanistan to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in late September in Washington D.C., General Jones gave both good and bad news.
He said that NATO forces involved in September's big push against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, codenamed Operation Medusa, had "performed extraordinarily well".  According to Gen Jones the Taliban risked open battles with NATO forces because they felt pressured to do so. He observed that until then there hadn't been large numbers of anti-terrorist forces deployed in the region. However the NATO military chief pointed out that ultimate success in Afghanistan does not reside in a purely military effort. Gen Jones stressed that training of Afghan soldiers and police, as well as reconstruction and reform efforts, also play a major role.  Afghanistan's army now has 30,000 soldiers, Jones said, noting the total number of trained troops will eventually reach around 70,000.  "The Afghan people are proud of this developing army," he revealed. "They identify with it," he said, because it has earned the reputation of being a capable, strong institution in Afghanistan. The general is very worried about the burgeoning drugs trade in Afghanistan. "Afghanistan does not need to be a narco-state, but it is, unfortunately, well on its way," he told senators. "We need to find the right means to ensure that farmers can economically grow and sell legal produce in addition to developing an overarching and understandable way ahead in the overall fight against narcotics." Jones said about 90 per cent of Afghanistan's narcotics products end up in illegal drug market-places across Europe. He added: "The money comes back to Afghanistan and other places where terrorism is evident." The general explained that terrorists use drug money to buy components for Improvised Explosive Devices and other weaponry that kills or wounds US and allied troops. Current estimates say this year's Afghan poppy harvest will exceed last year's by as much as 59 per cent, Jones said. "This is a problem, and a situation that is going in the wrong direction."

According to the NATO commander proper training of Afghan police, moving ahead with judicial system reform and developing an effective counter narcotics program constitute "three of the most important things that must be done in Afghanistan in the near future." Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently told the United Nations Security Council in New York: "Afghanistan is committed to fighting narcotics, alongside terrorism, with strength and determination. And through a combination of law enforcement and economic measures, we expect that the international community will continue to support us in this fight by enabling us to provide meaningful alternative livelihood to our farmers."

It is a complex task and obviously not easy for an elite military  formation like 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines while simultaneously having to fight a tenacious Taliban foe.

• For more reports on US and British naval forces in the Gulf, see WARSHIPS IFR magazine.