What are the threats to the London 2012 Olympics?

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RAF Typhoons arrive in Northolt ahead of the Olympics.

The British Cemetery in Kabul

Apache Strike Reaps Unexpected Reward

The evolution of armoured vehicles in Afghanistan

Armoured vehicles can be the difference between life or death for service personnel on the roads in Afghanistan. Acting Corporal Martin Wotjak died in Afghanistan in 2009 after the Vector he was travelling in hit an IED.  An inquest into his death was critical of the vehicle and it has been claimed that if he had been in a more heavily protected vehicle he may have survived the blast. Since then, vehicles used by our troops have developed. I looked at what has changed in Helmand since 2009 and spoke to one soldier who had recently tested his vehicle to the very limit.

US Marines expand the security bubble around Musa Qala

The US Marine Corps in Afghanistan is pushing out the security bubble around Musa Qala, as it prepares to hand over to the Afghan National Army.

Royal Engineers help to push the Taliban out of Loy Mandeh

Checkpoints built by the Royal Engineers have helped revive an area on the northern edge of Nad-e Ali. The bazaar in Loy Manday had been a thriving market until fighting forced shops to shut and buildings fell into disrepair. But troops from the nearby FOB WAHID have been pushing insurgents out of the area and new checkpoints have helped re-establish security. Improved safety means local Afghans are starting to use the bazaar again.

A Derry Diary at the Frontline Club

On Sunday I visited the Frontline Club to watch the screening of Margo Harkin’s documentary ‘A Derry Diary’.  The documentary follows the course of the enquiry into the events that unfolded on the 30th January 1972, in Derry, Northern Ireland.  A day that would from then onwards be known as ‘Bloody Sunday’.

It was my first visit to the club that was founded in 2003 by former Grenadier Guards Officer Vaughan Smith.  The same club that has recently been in the headlines for being the safe haven of Wiki-leaks founder Julian Assange.

As I sat in its darkened screening room, looking at the exposed brickwork decorated with black and white iconic images of historic conflicts.  I began to realise that I knew very little about the incidents that had occurred in Derry thirty-nine years ago.  As a former member of the Army I clearly had heard about the incident but as it had happened eight years before I was born, my knowledge of the day was rather limited.  As Margo introduced her film I hoped that I was not about to spend a rather uncomfortable 90 minutes squirming as the reputation of British Army was hung, drawn and quartered. 

Any fears I had were soon calmed as I watched an extremely well researched and directed documentary following the families of those involved. Including the directors own story of how she had been a witness of the events that had unfolded on that fateful day.  Using archive footage and interviews from those who were there, a graphically illustrated and detailed image of the day was on offer to the audience.  It included the fact that there were Republican gun-men there that day, and that they did fire at the British Troops.  It even included an interview with one of the gunmen who fired aimed shots at the Paras.  But the theme that remained throughout was that the soldiers targeted the wrong people.

If we now turn our attention to the modern day conflict in Afghanistan (one more that I am far more familiar with), soldiers are told again and again about courageous restraint.  Courageous restraint aims to promote the feeling that it is braver not to immediately return fire when fired upon.  Soldiers are taught to assess the situation and make more informed decisions before responding with lethal force, if required.  Therefore hopefully reducing civilian casualties and winning the trust of the native population.

Whilst I am no expert on Bloody Sunday it would appear to me that those soldiers on that infamous day did not demonstrate courageous restraint. Although shots were fired at the soldiers, none were hit or injured.  Perhaps if the principle of courageous restraint had been demonstrated that day then history may reflect differently on the men of 1 PARA. I’m not saying that I can’t understand why they did what they did.  They were in a tremendously difficult situation, and one I do not envy.  But I think we now must admit that mistakes were made that day from the individual soldier on the ground all the way up to the most senior of officers.

Whilst I’m tremendously loyal to my former employer and I would never want to believe anything that shone a bad light on the British Army.  We don’t always get things right, the job that our men and women do on a day to day basis is an incredibly difficult one.  We ask our young soldiers to make life or death decisions in the blink of an eye.

We’ll never know all of the exact details of that fateful day almost thirty years ago. But the Saville report has now concluded that the British Army was at fault.  We can’t change what has passed, this is now is now part of our history.  But what we can change and I believe we have changed, is the way that we would approach a similar situation today.  The British military must now swallow its pride and accept the outcome.  It must learn from the mistakes that were made and move on, hopefully ensuring that we never have to question the actions of our hard working men and women again.

Has Wikileaks caused Red Faces in Whitehall?

The latest US Diplomatic cables to be released by whistle blowing website Wikileaks centre around criticism of UK forces deployed in Helmand Province.  The comments were made by both US and Afghan officials over the period 2007-2009.  They criticise the ability of UK forces to cope with the security within the district of Sangin, and their approach to anti-narctotics operations.

In mid 2007, General Dan McNeil Commander of NATO forces, criticised the British Forces failure to deal decisively with the drugs trade in Helmand.  He claimed that the British had made of a mess of things and that our tactics were wrong.

Then in January 2009.  Gulab Mangal, the Governor of Helmand province told the American Vice President, Joe Biden that American Forces were urgently needed as the British security in Sangin was inadequate.

“I do not have anything against them (the British) but they must leave their bases and engage with the people.” Gov Mangal

These new revelations are clearly a dent in the ego of the Ministry of Defence, but on reflection, are the really saying anything we didn’t already know?

At the beginning of 2007 the number of British Forces deployed on OP HERRICK consisted of around 6,500 troops.  Whose area of operations was the size of Wales and with a population similar to that of Liverpool and Birmingham combined (around 1.4 Million).  Over the next four years this increased to closer to 10,000.  Still not a particularly large force, not when you consider that this figure includes a large number of supporting troops that will not leave the main base, Camp Bastion.

Around the Forward Operating Bases such as FOB Jackson on the edge of Sangin, the local population tend to live in a maze of small streets and small settlements.  Soldiers regularly leave these bases to conduct security patrols, counter IED (Improvised Explosive Devices) operations and to re-assure the local community.  But we cannot have a soldier standing on each street corner for 24hours of the day.  When we return to the FOB we essentially lose direct control of the all of the ground except for that we dominate i.e. have eyes on.

More troops and more patrols gives us a greater chance of securing an area, but ultimately we can only achieve our goal through gaining the trust of the local community and this takes time.  Governor Mangal is quite right to request for more troops, if I was the Governor of Helmand then I too would want as many troops as possible in order to achieve stability.  Although the American Forces have now taken over Sangin District the British Forces did make huge progress despite Governor Mangal’s words and despite large British casualties.  When I was first in Afghanistan in 2007 driving though Sangin was like driving through a ghost town.  But when I returned to Helmand in 2009 it was clear to see that the town had made great progress and once again it had vibrant market and community.  Far from job done, but progress none the less.

As for comments concerning our counter-narcotics operations, the British have never focussed as heavily on this area as the Americans have.  Although whilst on our operations the British Forces will confiscate and destroy drugs that are found in large enough quantities.  We have never claimed to have the same approach as the US and as organisations such as the Poppy Eradication Force.

The one thing that all of the compromising cables have in common is that they are all conversational comments made in diplomatic circles, that were never intended to reach their subjects ears.  I’m in no doubt that the majority of international diplomats and politicians have at some point bent the truth or exposed another nations weaknesses, just to ensure their own countries best interests are maintained.  As for the men and women in Whitehall, I would hope that none of them would be naive enough to not realise this.  But what  I think it does bring home is that whilst I’m in no doubt that we have a fantastic and extremely capable Armed Forces.  We have once again been shown that we are not the force that we once were, and that we must not bite off more than we can chew in an attempt to prove otherwise.

Life Destroying Afflictions helped by Surf Action

CALL 08716 268133 TO VOTE FOR SURF ACTION

An organisation founded to support service personnel suffering from physical and psychological conditions has been shortlisted for a national award and they need your vote!

Surf Action, helps ex-forces, serving military and blue light services to deal with their ongoing physical and mental scars whilst enjoying themselves on the beach. 

They have been selected as one of the finalists for the Big Lottery People’s Millions Awards for 2010.  The winners of the competition, run by the Big Lottery Fund  in conjunction with ITV are awarded grants worth up to £50,000.

Surf Action was set up just over a year ago by Rich Emerson, a former member of the Armed Forces.  Rich suffered from PTSD following service in Iraq.  He found that surfing allowed him to focus his mind in a positive manner and helped him to  manage and live with his disorder.  He started the scheme after seeing a similar project in the United States and they have already helped servicemen and women suffering from both physical and psychological injuries. 

Listen to my interview with Rich Emerson
[Audio http://audioboo.fm/boos/223474-surf-action.mp3%5D

The vote will take place by phone on Thursday 25th November.  The number will be available from the Surf Action website but if you wish to register your support before hand then this can be done at the People’s Millions Website.

“Winning the vote will allow us to make a huge difference to the lives of people who have given all in the sacrifice of their country”

Rich Emerson, Director of Surf Action