Apart from one or two notable examples, operations in Afghanistan are woefully reported by our media. Indeed, our television and newspapers reported the Vietnam conflict more comprehensively than they do events in Helmand. Most people, and I include myself, couldn't tell you with any accuracy how our forces are currently faring; the only barometer in the public consciousness being the frequency or otherwise of corteges going down the High Street of Wooton Basset.
This very recent uplifting update then, from the Commanding Officer of The Highlanders, 4 SCOTS, is of particular interest and is a must read, for those both in and out of the Regimental Family, with interest in events and concern for our soldiers.
As it happens, I have more than a passing affection for this regiment given, I joined them when still a teenager when they were known as the Queens Own Highlanders and before they amalgamated with the Gordons, (another terrific regiment).
We wish all in the Battle Group, God speed and a safe home.
"Update letter from Lt Col Alastair Aitken MBE – Commanding The Highlanders 4 SCOTS
I write to you on the occasion of my third year in Command and what is sadly my last. It has been a distinctly unusual and incredibly frantic period that has unfolded for the Battalion over the course of the last twelve months. It has been dominated by the preparation for deployment to and execution of operations in the Central Helmand River Valley throughout the course of summer 2011.
Our preparation period of "Mission Specific Training" was more intense, complex and thorough than any I have encountered in my rapidly approaching 24 years in the Army. Much of the cycle you would find familiar from preparation for Northern Ireland in a steady progression from individual All Ranks Briefings through to Commanders' Cadres and Final Text Exercises. What is different is the myriad of other training courses that take people away from barracks to train on the enormous variety of equipments and capabilities that we are required to operate, from Counter IED equipments, vehicles, weapons and communications. Add to this the requirement to make sure that everyman has a very high degree of first aid skills and a high degree of tactical knowledge combined with above average fitness and shooting skills has meant a large amount of time away from camp. A Brecon qualified NCO would average ten weeks away from home before we even started our collective training. In all we have spent the best part of eight months away from home prior to the tour. Our biggest problem has been ensuring that we were not tired before we deployed and keeping our long suffering families on side. Suffice to say that we completed the training in good order and with an extremely good report from our final test exercise as part of 3 Commando Brigade.
We have now deployed to the area of Lashkar Gar District in Central Helmand. Despite taking our name from the District Centre of Lashkar Gar, we do not operate in what is now a thriving town, but have our focus on the outlying rural areas. The Battalion has formed the only non-3 Commando Brigade Battlegroup based around the three companies reinforced by Support Company, an Armoured Infantry Company from 3 MERCIAN and a Squadron of the SCOTS DG in the Infantry role. In addition we have a battery of guns, two missile troops, Counter IED teams, search teams, dog teams, combat engineers, and more ISTAR operators than I know what to do with. A total of nearly 1,000 men.
The operation is very fluid and there is a real sense of optimism about the progress that is being made, a sense of momentum is very apparent. Our area is by far the largest and most diverse of any in the Task Force stretching 70kms from east to west. The challenges appear from one end to the other and to meet the threats individual Multiples are moved from area to area to join different companies from the ones they deployed with. At least two of the companies are entirely mixed with 4 SCOTS, MERCIAN and SCOTS DG soldiers, so it is difficult to tell who is who.
Bravo Company is deployed in the heart of the Green Zone in South West Babaji where they have excelled in keeping the momentum going in turning one of the most kinetic areas in Afghanistan into the quietest. Delta Company currently operate in North Bolan, a mixture of Green Zone and desert but are about to move again to take on some major clearance operations in another part of the area. Alpha Company are the Ops Company and as such have been to almost every part of my patch from the high IED threat area of Loy Mandeh through to the largely uncleared and untouched Koshkawa and Surdigar areas to the east of Lashkar Gar. I also have 4 SCOTS platoons working with the other companies in the eastern regions of Surdigar and Puplazay and as far east as into Maiwand Province supporting US operations north of Band-e-Timor.
The HQ is based in Lashkar Gar itself where we have the pleasure of riding the roller coaster that is the Transfer of Lead Security Authority to the Afghan National Security Forces. Despite what you may have read in the papers the Afghan National Police in our area are highly effective and most of the commanders have been fighting battles for the past thirty years; I learn more from them than I ever could hope to teach or mentor. We fight and live together with them and they are increasingly setting the pace and direction for the way that they wish the campaign to go - a hugely positive step.
We work amongst the Pashtun people and although Helmandis have their own slightly nuanced version of the pashtun approach and code, they are essentially the same people that our grandfathers fought alongside, on the edge of the North West Frontier. They are an instantly likeable people with a straight forward approach to life, with a fierce sense of loyalty, hospitality and warrior like spirit that is instantly recognisable to any Highland soldier. Officers and NCOs have been quick to form bonds with them and have recognised that as a people they like to laugh as well as fight.
So far we have managed to keep the much heralded Insurgent "Spring Offensive" on the back foot through a combination of a frenetic pace of operations and the increasing support of the population. When we are required to fight it is intense and we face an enemy who is quicker than us and who is adept and try to get behind us and outflank us when he can. He is not afraid to stand and fight and the more that we press into his traditional strongholds the harder he defends. In one incident the firefight went on for nearly six hours with continual missile strikes and Attack Helicopter support adding to our ability to wear him down. A lot of soldiers are growing up extremely quickly.
Our casualties have been light so far with the majority being shrapnel wounds from RPGs. We have also been lucky with a number of IEDs failing to function properly or sharp witted Jocks finding them before they step on them. Operating in the high IED threat areas, particularly in Loy Mandeh (an area where just 800m from Alpha Coy, 42 Commando have had two double amputees this week) is a nerve jangling and exhausting process as patrols move slowly checking the ground whilst always being alive to the threat of small arms fire. Being contacted in an IED belt is one of the most difficult tactical problems a young commander can face.
The conditions are also staggeringly harsh. The temperatures now average 43 degrees making patrolling during the heat of the day nearly impossible. The body armour is now very comfortable, but extremely heavy with plates at the front, back and sides and integrated pouches. Ammunition, batteries, radios, weapons and of course water add to the weight making it one of the most physically intense experiences any man (and especially a Lt Col in his forties) could face. Helmand is also one of the most irrigated sections of land in the region with a criss-crossed lattice of drainage ditches around and across every field. Ditches are full of water and are deep to allow the water to flow. This means that as a patrol moves it will encounter ditches every couple of hundred yards, all of which require a soldier to climb, wade across up to his waist and then climb out; which when carrying well over 100-130lbs of kit means doing an assault course every 5-10 minutes. Added to this, ones feet are almost constantly wet and the boots have hardly dried out when it is time to push out again. The weight is falling off everyone as the body mass begins to be eaten away. It makes pushing through hawthorn bushes in South Armagh (as I did as a subaltern) seem like a pleasant holiday.
The Jocks are on good form; their constant irrepressible humour and professionalism has been a joy to see. They have found innovative ways to be comfortable even in the most extreme places and they are of course happier to be deployed (to these less comfortable locations) rather than the better Company location where they are under the beady eye of the CSM and RSM.
There is still a long way to go on the tour and there are many plans that see another increase in the pace of operations that will have 4 SCOTS at the heart of them. My final address to the Battalion before we deployed was after our farewell Kirk Service with the colours draped over the drums. One of the points that I was keen to make to the Jocks was that our tour was just one in a long line that linked them back to their forefathers at Assaye, Waterloo and Dargai all of whom would have gone through the same emotions as they were now experiencing. Our aim was to continue in the tradition of all those that had gone before and to be worthy of our glorious collective past. I am still confident that we are upholding the good name of our historical ancestry.
May 30th 2011"