Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Afghans taking the military reins

British crews who fly Merlin helicopters have begun working with Afghan medics on the evacuation of wounded soldiers from the battlefield
British crews who fly Merlin helicopters have begun working with Afghan medics on the evacuation of wounded soldiers from the battlefield

Efforts to "wean" Afghan forces off coalition support have begun as troops increasingly take a back seat in combat operations.

British troops have largely withdrawn from an offensive role, instead focusing on ensuring Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are able to resist a possible insurgent advance after they have gone.

Wing Commander Jason Appleton oversees the Camp Bastion-based Joint Aviation Group, responsible for tactical air movements including Apache attack helicopter operations and medical evacuations.

He said the 2014 deadline for the end of British combat operations had focused minds on equipping Afghan troops with the skills they need to go it alone.

"There is certainly a sense that we have spoiled the Afghans and as a result they have become dependent on our support," he added. "Now the process of weaning them off has begun. When they have got to do something, they find a way of doing it. But it is human nature that, if you have got a support system there, you will use it."

His comments come after the most senior UK commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Nick Carter, said in an interview that cutting the number of British troops in Afghanistan this summer would "endanger" hard-won progress.

On the same day, Brigadier Bob Bruce, commander of Task Force Helmand, said UK forces should step back from combat and instead help the Afghans to prepare for the Nato withdrawal. The British presence will be almost halved by the end of this year to 5,200 and combat operations will cease by the end of 2014. No deadline has been set for a complete withdrawal from Helmand but it is clear behind-the-wire support functions will be phased out gradually.

Wing Cdr Appleton said: "It doesn't feel like an offensive operation any more, we are here in a mentoring and advisory role. This is an opportunity to focus on areas where the ANSF capabilities need improvement. They are pretty good at fighting, they have been doing it for a long time. But there are other areas where they still need our support."

One example is the evacuation of wounded Afghan soldiers from the battlefield. This is currently carried out by either Afghan or coalition helicopters. As Afghans take on the majority of fighting, their casualty rate has risen sharply. Many of their medics are not yet accustomed to working around helicopters. British crews who fly Merlin helicopters, similar to the ANSF MI-17s, have recently begun working with Afghan medics in an attempt to rectify this.

Squadron Leader Phil Williams said: "Their medics are very good but working with helicopters can be disorientating. They throw up dust and create a lot of noise - it can be as simple as blowing bandages around. Because they have limited resources which are needed in the air, we have taken on the job of running exercises with their medics to familiarise them with working in that environment." It is hoped such a project can be extended - for example training Afghans in setting up an improvised helicopter landing zone on rough ground.

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