The beginning of the end for Operation HERRICK… An Apache Pilot’s Perspective
Eight years of conflict in Helmand has seen soldiers and aircrew from Wattisham labour heroically in the extremes of the Afghan climate, delivering Attack Aviation in support of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The conflict remains hard fought in places for the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF), but significant progress has been made in bringing security to this troubled corner of the world.
Since first deploying to this conflict in the autumn of 2010, and now coming to the end of my third tour of duty, what has struck me on each occasion has been the subtle yet distinct changes which have taken place that have made each deployment quite unique from those previous. Arriving three weeks ahead of the Provincial Elections in September 2010, I found myself launched quite unceremoniously into an intensive fight to secure the Green Zone, an area of fertile farmland adjacent to the Helmand River, regarded as the ‘breadbasket of Afghanistan’ for the contrast it presents in a country which for the most part is arid and mountainous. Across this terrain of fields of 10 foot high crops, each one defined by deep, water filled drainage ditches and flanked by dense tree lines, British soldiers found the Insurgents and frequently called on us to protect them as they navigated this disorientating landscape. With close to 90% of the Helmand populous committed to subsistence agriculture in this region, these were the communities which most urgently needed our protection to enable economic progress to be achieved. Our role was to provide over-watch to UK, Danish and US soldiers whose task it was to dominate the ‘Green Zone’ and make that security a reality.
Ironically, their success in doing so became manifestly clear over the course of my second deployment in 2012, as the fight against the insurgency shifted away from the Green Zone towards a newly urbanising desert area north of the Nahre Bughrd (NEB) Canal, known as the Dashte. Areas which, during my first tour were synonymous with human tragedy were now areas of apparent calm, as the security established by ISAF paved the way for Afghan Uniformed Police to mount checkpoints at road junctions and canal crossing points and deter the movement of insurgents across the battlefield. To suggest these areas were now safe would be wildly optimistic and hopelessly inaccurate but the ability of ISAF to so dramatically influence the geopolitical terrain at such a local level cannot be argued. An insurgency derives its strength from the population within which it exists; when they are unseated in the way they were in the Green Zone, they found themselves on the back foot. The increase in mentored patrols, with ISAF soldiers embedding themselves with ANSF to allow them to gain confidence in their training whilst having the muscle behind them to deal with anything they encountered, was another significant change and mark of progress being made. I have seen with my own eyes Afghan soldiers racing across open ground, with nothing but an AK-47 and ill-fitting helmet as protection to chase down a lone insurgent who has been harassing his patrol with rifle fire. These are brave men who are committed in what they do.
Arriving in Helmand for my third tour in mid January 2014, the overriding theme throughout has been transition; the handover of patrol bases to the Afghans and the return home of British forces. Since the partnering of ISAF with ANSF which had become routine in 2012, almost exclusively the ANSF were now found to be operating entirely independently of ISAF. Another clear indication of progress being made towards autonomous security, this heralded a significant challenge as we came to terms with what this meant for us as attack aviators. The emphasis was no longer on reaching out and striking the enemy but allowing the Afghans the opportunity to achieve this for themselves by their own skill and means. This has led to some frustrating duties, as we respond to the aftermath of an engagement by escorting the medical evacuation helicopter to collect casualties, rather than being on hand to prevent those casualties from being sustained in the first place.
The withdrawal from the Green Zone is now complete and the transition now in its closing months. Still there is a battle to be fought and won but the focus now is the defence of the UK forces now residing in Camp Bastion to ensure the final stage of transition is successful. Since the Apache first deployed to Afghanistan in 2006, soldiers and aircrew from the Attack Helicopter Force have continuously maintained a state of high readiness to support the ISAF mission 24 hours a day. Progress has been slow, such that at the micro level it may appear absent. At the macro level, however, gains have been incremental and steady. Not all objectives have been achieved, but, for the average Afghan who wants nothing more than to live in peace, raise his family and sell his wares at market each week, he can do so with increasing confidence.