UK troops prepare for Helmand tour

Soldiers training
Image caption Many of the UK troops heading to Afghanistan will advise their local counterparts as part of plans to eventually cede security responsibilities to them

On a bitterly cold Salisbury Plain, where the mud is lightly dusted with snow, British troops are taking part in final training as they prepare to leave for their summer tour of duty in Helmand province.

On a day like this, it is hard to imagine that dealing with the searing heat of an Afghan summer's fighting season will be one of the many challenges British forces will face there.

The other will be ceding control of operations to Afghan forces, and stepping back while trying to ensure that Afghan troops are ready and able to take the lead in the continuing fight against the insurgency, as Nato forces begin to withdraw.

Many of the soldiers in 1st Mechanized Brigade have served in Afghanistan before - some on one of the toughest tours of duty, in the town of Sangin in 2009, a tour which left many riflemen dead or injured.

Those from the 4 Rifles who are now returning to Afghanistan will have a different job, as advisers to their Afghan army counterparts.

Cpl Ashley Green admits that 2009 was difficult, but insists he is looking forward to going back.

"It'll be a totally different tour, as this time we'll be advising the Afghan army, but I'm keen to see the progress that's been made since we were last out there. The last time was a busy tour," he says, with some understatement.

But working so closely with the Afghan army can sometimes leave British troops more vulnerable to insider attacks, which have increased in number over the past years.

Each unit about to deploy trains its own "guardian angels" - soldiers who stand watch over their comrades, even when they are with their Afghan allies at a meeting, or "shura".

Rifleman Luke Lawrence will act as one of those guardian angels, but insists that the threat of insider attacks is minimal. "I'm fine working with the Afghan army - it's no problem," he says.

This brigade will also be smaller than the last.

Some 8,000 British forces and others will take over from the current brigade in Helmand, which by Christmas numbered 9,000, but whose forces are now gradually coming home, with the first Royal Marines from 40 Commando currently returning to the UK.

The diminishing number of Western forces in Helmand is one of the first visible signs that Nato's 13-year involvement in Afghanistan is gradually drawing down, though British commanders are keen to stress that they will do all they can over what they term an "important summer" to ensure the Afghan army and police are ready to take on the fight.

The UK's combat operations will finish by the end of 2014, with the next British brigade going out to Helmand in September due to number just 5,200.

Brig Rupert Jones, commander of 1st Mechanized Brigade, admits that ceding control of operations on the ground is hard, but also a vital part of the handover, with Afghan forces now leading 80% of operations in central Helmand.

"The security situation has been transformed, and that's a big change. We in the military like to be in control, but handing over control… is a mark of progress," he says.

His brigade will still face the threat of insider attacks, improvised explosive devices and small arms fire.

But he says that those due to deploy have trained hard for two years to deal with them.

"Those threats are still there, but they have reduced as the security situation has improved," says Brig Jones.

Those on Salisbury Plain admit that the Afghan army will still need help in building their own capacity in medical evacuations and treatment, surveillance and other "enablers".

However, their hope is that with British advice, training and support, most operations will be undertaken by the Afghans working on their own, with British forces taking a back seat.

Threat remains

If British troops do come under threat from insurgents, they have new technology to gather intelligence - the Black Hornet, a miniature surveillance helicopter with cameras to spy out hidden dangers.

The hope this summer, among the brigade due to deploy, is that there will be less fighting, and that Afghan forces will prove more than a match for the insurgency.

But they know that does not mean that the threats to life and limb in Helmand have gone away.

Brig Jones understands all too well the worries that the troops' loved ones face back at home.

His father, Col H Jones, was killed at the Battle of Goose Green in 1982, and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his valour.

As families bid farewell to servicemen and women, Brig Jones is keen to reassure them that his forces have the best training and equipment possible.