New British troops aim to beat Taliban on trust
Salisbury Plain: The next British brigade heading to Afghanistan will enter Helmand Province with a new emphasis on giving locals enough confidence to oust the Taliban from their strongholds.
Ten years and now 350 British military deaths into the mission, their focus will be on improving the lives of ordinary Afghans first and on front-line fighting second, in a clear strategy shift.
Leaders of the 6,500-strong 3 Commando Brigade believe success rests on convincing nervous residents of the long-lawless Helmand that they can place their trust in the democratic governance on offer.
The Royal Marines formation is heading back to Afghanistan in April with memories still fresh of the 33 men it lost when it led British operations in the country in 2009.
The first British brigade to go on a gruelling fourth tour, they will take charge in the southern province's central belt -- fighting the insurgency, training up local troops and assisting reconstruction efforts.
"The central pillar of our approach is to focus on the people first and the insurgents second," Brigadier Ed Davis, who will command the operation, told journalists on Thursday as his troops underwent final training.
"If we are going to succeed in Afghanistan, we need to focus on the cause of the insurgency -- which is the intimidated, vulnerable, disenfranchised people -- and not the symptom, which is the insurgent fighter.”
"It is our job to make sure we give them the confidence and the courage to reject the insurgency, accept the offer that the government is giving them and put their hopes for the future in the Afghan state.”
"They need tangible evidence that their own security forces will be able to protect them."
He added: "We'll be going out there with our eyes wide open: the progress is fragile and it is reversible."
The brigadier's troops have had 12 months of general and then mission-specific training before entering final rehearsal manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain in southwest England.
On the bleak grassland home to the famous Stonehenge monument, Chinook and Sea King helicopters sweep down to drop off a platoon outside a replica village.
While the Cold War-era buildings are modelled on Germany and the Afghan troops in the mixed patrol are played by Gurkhas, the civilians are played by genuine Afghans.
So when the troops sit down for a "shura" meeting with the local elders, complete with tea and sweets, the Pashto dialogue is translated for the fresh-faced British officers -- but these days they take a back seat to their Afghan counterparts.
Outside, as Afghan women chop carrots and boil rice on a wood fire, Marine Sam Magowan keeps watch.
"For lads like myself it's the first time out there. It's a new experience but the training prepares you well," the 18-year-old said.
"We're trained to deal with IEDs (improvised explosive devices), mine strikes, suicide bombers, small arms fire, indirect fire, absolutely everything.”
"I'm anxious to get out there, do the job and see whatever comes our way."
Britain wants its troops out of a combat role in Afghanistan by 2015 and is therefore training up local security forces so they can gradually take over.
Defence Secretary Liam Fox visited 3 Commando to see the next deployment's preparations.
"They've got the security mission on the ground to look after but they're going to be in a very different political environment when the shift in Afghan policy is going to move to the political arena," he said.
"The security improvement that we want will not be won by the military alone."
A critical part of the effort is the 200-strong Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team, headed by Foreign Office diplomat Michael O'Neill.
He said progress in building up the infrastructure of a functioning state had taken off in 2010, with governors now in 10 of the 14 Helmand districts and an increasing numbers of judges across the province.
"The challenge in 2011 is to consolidate and deepen that because it is still fragile," he said, 24 hours after leaving Helmand's capital Lashkar Gah.
"The most important part is building the confidence and trust of the Afghan people in their own government.”
"An Afghan face, an Afghan lead -- that is what will win them over."