Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

Soldiers shut down last patrol base

British soldiers have shut down the last patrol base in Afghanistan

British soldiers have shut down the last patrol base in Afghanistan, which was once an "insurgent hotbed" but has now been made safe, as the drawdown of troops continues.

Patrol base 2 (PB2), located in the Nahr-e Saraj district, has over the years seen heavy fighting as insurgents tried to take control of the area.

It is the last patrol base to close this year and one of the final roles for a number of Herrick 18 soldiers returning home shortly, and only four bases, plus Camp Bastion, will remain into next year.

The area around PB2 will be completely handed over to Afghan forces who have demonstrated they can maintain the security that has been established in the area, not least after they fought off an attempt by insurgents to enter the local village around three weeks ago.

Brigadier Rupert Jones, Commander Task Force Helmand, said the area around the base had been prone to violent clashes with insurgents.

"PB2 sits in the area of Malgir. Malgir was historically a bit of an insurgent hotbed," he said.

"It's not now, it's very calm, it's stable, and that's down largely to the Afghan security forces.

"We've kept PB2 there a while longer just to try and underpin the Afghans through the summer.

"The reality is the Afghans have not needed PB2, and that's very telling.

"The insurgents have not been able to re-infiltrate into say an area that used to be a hotbed."

A large convoy of vehicles arrived to collect the remaining equipment at the base, which was once home to a number of facilities for soldiers such as a coffee shop, small cook house, and EFI (shop), and return it to Camp Bastion before redeployment.

Some items were gifted to the local community; for example, a number of tables and chairs went to a nearby school, while some equipment was left to Afghan security forces.

Soldiers clearing down the base scrapped some items which it was simply not cost-effective to return home or could not be used any longer.

Major Aaron West, 4 Rifles, said: "This is the final day of the closure of all the patrol bases in Helmand. PB2 is the last base closing on Herrick 18.

"PB2 has been important because of the area it's been in.

"Malgir, which is the area that surrounds us at the moment, was a very contested area for the insurgents and International Security Assistance Force and it had some very kinetic tours."

Maj West, 31, from Plymouth, said British troops felt confident they could finally hang up their boots and extract from the area because Afghan forces had shown they could fight off threats from insurgents with little help from the outside.

"Over the years and recently, the police and the army have been stepping up and taking the lead, and they've now established security in the area," he said.

"We've mainly been providing aid and assistance to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) during the last couple of years and then more recently just reassurance.

"We're here for them just underpinning their will and their confidence, and they've got stronger and stronger.

"It's got to the stage now where all the operations are led by them, manned by them, and so there's no real need for us anymore, so that's why we're closing it and going home."

The acid test of the strength of Afghan forces in the area around PB2 came just weeks ago when insurgents tried to enter a local village through the green zone in an unprovoked, unplanned attack.

Corporal Paul Jones, 33, from Liverpool, said the ANSF were able to "completely repel the attack without any sort of interference" from UK soldiers at PB2.

Explaining why the area was so volatile, he said: "PB2 was an insurgent stronghold.

"They have become quite annoyed that this has become quite a protected area now. From what I understand it's become sort of an embarrassment that they can't seem to get in here and take back control of it."

The capability of the ANSF in fighting off the insurgents succeeded in bolstering the decision to remove UK soldiers from PB2, according to 40-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Jon Swift, from Surrey.

Lt Col Swift, 1st Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, said of the attack: "It was probably the ( best) demonstration to us of their ability to secure their own protective community, and that's had a real palpable effect on the confidence, not only on the police force in this area but also on the local nationals.

"They've got the confidence that their police force will be able to protect them once PB2 has closed."

The British presence in Afghanistan will be almost halved by the end of this year to 5,200. All combat operations in the country should be over by the end of 2014, leaving Afghan forces fully in control.

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