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Chief's tribute to Helmand troops

A senior British military commander has paid tribute to the courage and achievement of his troops in Helmand as one phase of the mission ends and power is transferred to another brigade.

In the week that Afghanistan's president Hamid Karzai criticised Nato troops for failing to bring security to the country over a decade and more, outgoing Task Force Helmand commander Brigadier Rupert Jones said he had seen real improvements on the ground.

Speaking from Camp Bastion ahead of an official ceremony where he will hand over authority to Brigadier James Woodham, he said of the six-month tour: "I think I'd sum it up by recognising the achievements of the Afghans.

"That's what this summer was about, it's not about International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), it's about the Afghans, but we shouldn't underestimate how challenging that has been for Isaf troops.

"It's been a really uncomfortable period because we like to be in control, and we've had to hand off control to the Afghans.

"I pay tribute to everyone in my task force - the commanders and the soldiers for the courage and the discipline and the determination they've displayed."

Brig Jones would not be drawn on the comments made by President Karzai in an interview with the BBC, in which he is reported to have said the Nato exercise in Afghanistan has caused "a lot of suffering, a lot of loss of life, and no gains".

Brig Jones said: "It's not really for me to comment on the observations of the president of this country, but what I can tell you is what I hear from local Afghan commanders and leaders, and what they say is they recognise the huge security progress that's been made in this country, the unrecognisable development situation here, and they acknowledge that was in very large part due to Isaf.

"They know that Isaf are stepping back and they are very confident now in their ability to go forward in the lead."

Speaking in one of his last major interviews before his successor is elected in six months, President Karzai told BBC Newsnight that allied forces incorrectly focused the fight on Afghan villages rather than Taliban safe havens in Pakistan.

He also made the claim that Nato was colluding with the Taliban to justify a continuing military presence in Afghanistan.

Brig Jones said: "I'm not going to pass comment on what he may or may not have said.

"What I can tell you is that the Isaf forces, as they have always done, have been here to help the government of Afghanistan to work with our partners, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF,) and those security forces know that we're absolutely by their side supporting them."

Today marks the changeover from 1st Mechanized Brigade, leading Herrick 18, to 7th Armoured Brigade, leading Herrick 19.

Thousands of troops from Germany-based 7th Armoured Brigade, better known as the Desert Rats, have recently completed their training on Salisbury Plain ahead of their tour.

They will be heading out to complete the drawdown in Helmand province and troops are expected to do very little fighting on a nine-month tour, three months longer than the usual, as Afghan forces take the lead on all operations.

Part of the job will be the closure of bases around Helmand and the return of equipment to the UK.

Patrol Base 2 (PB2) was the last to close this year and only five bases remain into 2014, including Camp Bastion, which are expected to close eventually .

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 next year, leaving Afghan forces fully in control.

Brig Jones said there was some sadness to be handing over to Brig Woodham and the Desert Rats as it had been a "great privilege" to command the task force.

He said: "But actually it's a day of great pride to look back on what's been achieved this summer, primarily for the Afghan security forces."

Brig Woodham said the campaign, as part of Herrick 19, would continue on the same course set by its predecessor, but would change in the sense that the ANSF would become even more independent.

"It's absolutely clear to me that the Afghan National Security Forces are in a very different place to where I remember them going back to 2009 and 2010," he said.

"The Afghans have led the security delivery during this last summer and they've done so with real skill and with real confidence, and I think that's going to be the lasting legacy of Herrick 18.

"The work that they've been able to do underpins that success and one which we'll take on during Herrick 19."

He added: "Of course, the campaign shifts and changes over time. The thing that will change will be the Afghan National Security Forces doing more and more and more for themselves so absolutely, as and when they're ready, we'll be able to pull off even further."

Around 100 soldiers from both incoming and outgoing brigades gathered together to take part in the formal transfer of authority ceremony.

A dedication was made by the military chaplain before Brig Jones spoke to the gathered troops.

He told them: "2013 was billed about the Afghan National Security Forces taking the lead through their first summer fighting season.

"The measure of success would be their ability to come through with their will and confidence boosted, having held against the insurgent.

"When we look back, I think we can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that they have achieved that.

"Indeed, they have exceeded all expectations. They have flourished on their new-found independence and they have been buoyed by their own successes."

He paid tribute to the men and women of 1st Mechanized Brigade, as well as their families and those who lost their lives, before the green and red flag of 1st Mechanized Brigade was lowered as buglers played.

The blue flag of the Desert Rats, decorated with the red animal after which the brigade was named 75 years ago in the sands of North Africa, was then raised to the sound of bagpipes.

Taking to the plinth, Brig Woodham commended 1st Mechanized Brigade and said he was determined to leverage their investment to bring the campaign to a successful conclusion.

"As I look forward to Op Herrick 19, I expect the ANSF will go from strength to strength. We will continue to be there, able to assist them as they require it, and we will work closely with them to further increase their independence and sustainability."

He finished by telling soldiers: "I congratulate the 1st Mechanized Brigade on a job well done and I wish them a safe and swift trip back to their families.

"For the Desert Rats - we've got a job to do."


From Belfast Telegraph