Taliban insurgents were reluctant to take on Northern Ireland soldiers by the end of their six-month tour in Afghanistan, a top Army commander has claimed.
Addressing an audience at the Ulster Hall on the operational realities of war, Lieutenant Colonel Colin Weir, who led 1,000 men from the Royal Irish Regiment through the gruelling deployment in Helmand province, claimed the enemy had been left “licking his wounds”.
And, while he said it was too early to accurately assess the success or failure of their six-month stint which ended in March, Lt Colonel Weir said it “felt” like they had left a “much better place”.
“We are still too close to the operation to accurately assess the degree to which our actions have contributed to the overall mission’s success,” he said.
“For us the Nad-e-Ali felt much better than the one we had arrived into months earlier.
“There had been a significant drop in the levels of fighting and, indeed, in my last week of command across the area there was only one incident when a grenade was thrown at our patrols. Compare that to the first three days in the district when we had 36 prolonged battles with the enemy.
“By the end of our time the enemy were reluctant to fight us.
“Rumours circulated that instead of engaging in direct combat there would be an assassination or terror campaign.
“However, those rumours came to nothing. Those Taliban who had not been killed or captured appeared to have moved to areas away.
“There is no doubt, however, that he will come back for our successors, but, for now, he appears to be licking his wounds.”
The Royal Irish soldiers were deployed to take new ground in the Nad-e-Ali district of central Helmand alongside members of the Afghan National Army.
During the period they organised weekly ‘shuras’, meetings of tribal elders, and concerns were then conveyed back to the governor of the area. A mosque was refurbished, a bazaar reopened and people felt more secure, Lt Col Weir added. Coats and blankets were also distributed to children and the elderly, and bridges were built to improve the local infrastructure.
The battalion lost three soldiers — Ranger Aaron McCormick (22) from Coleraine, Ranger David Dalzell (20) from Bangor, and Lance Corporal Stephen McKee (27) from Banbridge — during the deployment.
This weekend will mark the end of their post-operational commitments with a medals ceremony at the Royal Irish base in Shropshire.
However, Lt Colonel Weir said it may be some time before his men can put the realities of life at war behind them.
“For my soldiers the contrast between the biblical and sometimes brutal conditions in Helmand and 21st century life in the UK could not be more pronounced,” he added. “And it is understandable that some who have returned from Afghanistan will take a little while to readjust.”
More than 1,000 soldiers from the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment deployed to Afghanistan last October for six months. They were tasked with taking new ground in the Nad-e-Ali district of central Helmand alongside the Afghan National Army. Three men were killed during the operation known as Herrick 13. Homecoming parades have been held in Lisburn and Ballymena. However, public protests were mounted after the MoD declined an invitation to stage a parade in Belfast last month.