Belfast Telegraph

Mission accomplished

As the British Army hands over Sangin to US forces, Captain Doug Beattie MC says The Rifles deserve credit for helping to re-build the shattered Afghan region

As British soldiers patrol the streets of Sangin district centre they can justly hold their heads high with pride - and a degree of sorrow.

Only two years ago, Sangin was a shell of a district; heavy fighting rocked the streets and the empty, burned-out shops in the bazaar marked the reality of life in this Afghan town.

Now, after huge efforts to secure the town and its surrounding countryside, the district centre is a model of reconstruction.

There are now 167 shops in the bazaar, a weekly market, schools and a medical clinic.

There is an infrastructure the Afghan people themselves applaud and hold up as a partnership between the people, the government and coalition forces.

The transformation is completed by an effective district governor and an immature, but improving police force.

Yet, in the depths of the green zone which surrounds the district centre, the price for this success has been high.The insurgents preferred tactic of using IEDs is extracting a high price from British soldiers, their Afghan partners and the local population.

Over the winter of 2009/2010, The Rifles Battle Group - responsible for Sangin District - lost 30 men killed in action, with another 106 seriously wounded.

But success should not be measured by the numbers of killed or wounded, but by what is being achieved in the most difficult of operational environments by men and women who are dedicated to the task which has been entrusted to them.

For the soldier, the heart-pounding pace of operations drives them from one confrontation with the insurgency to another. At the same time, they are engaging with an increasing population who want nothing more than the insurgency to leave the area; for peace and stability to finally take hold in this conflicted, devastated area.

The high humidity and green foliage leave the soldier with a sense of claustrophobia even before he breaks out into clearings whose high compound walls mark the spot of another unnamed village deep in the green zone.

Getting there, at times no more than a kilometre from their base, will have taken most of the day, but after 20 minutes of talking to the local population the patrol will be on the move again to the next nameless village on their patrol.

But such patrols are at the core of what the British soldier does best: interacting with the population, understanding their aspirations for the future and their frustrations at the present.

It is a personal quest for the soldier who, in a short, six-month tour of duty, knows he will have an impact which will have far-reaching implications for those who live in Sangin. So as British forces finally come close to handing over responsibility for Sangin, there will be many who wonder whether it was worthwhile. For those who have lost loved-ones, it will feel like a waste. For those who have sweated, toiled and watched friends and comrades fall around them, there will be a sense that others will reap the benefits of their labour. But there is also a sense that, behind that professional pride, there is relief that it is now time for someone else to take charge of this most difficult of districts.The reality is that it is absolutely right to hand over Sangin at this important time in the campaign, as we did for Musa Qala and Kajaki.

The tactical complexities of the area and the need to ensure robust command and control drive the situation well beyond the need for the soldier to see a task through to completion.

The green shoots of a better life for those living and working in Sangin is assured under US control in the same way it was under the watchful eye of the British over the last four years

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