Page last updated at 11:02 GMT, Thursday, 17 September 2009 12:02 UK
Green Howards' Sangin tour



The 2nd Battalion, the Yorkshire Regiment, get ready to head to Afghanistan

By Mark Urban
Newsnight Diplomatic editor

The RAF Tristars are busy shuttling to and from Kandahar this week. One of the twice-yearly British troop rotations is in full swing.

Among the British military personnel heading out to Afghanistan are members of the 2nd Battalion, the Yorkshire Regiment.

I've never been on holiday, I haven't even got a passport. My first holiday is going to be Afghanistan"
Private Mark Bugg

Many of the Green Howards, as they are known, have been to Afghanistan before - the regiment is returning there after being back in the UK for little more than 18 months.

But for the new recruits it will be their first tour, and for some of the younger soldiers, like Private Mark Bugg, their first trip abroad:

"I've never been on holiday, I haven't even got a passport," Pte Bugg explains. "My first holiday is going to be Afghanistan."

But of course the stint in Afghanistan will be anything but a holiday.

Pressures of command

A sense of apprehension hangs over A Company in particular as it will be serving in one of the toughest corners of Helmand.

Their commander Major Rob Palfrey says that his first concern is to bring all his men home, his second to keep them in one piece, and his third, "is knowing that I'm very unlikely to achieve one or two".

British soldiers training in Norfolk's 'Afghan village'

Maj Palfrey says he has been asking himself over and over again during the months of training whether he has done everything possible to ensure that his men are as well prepared as they can be.

Some of the men have been working towards the deployment for 10 months.

The training has included live firing exercises, drills in the Army's new Afghan village near Thetford in Norfolk, and intensive battlefield first aid lessons.

But a summer of heavy casualties has also heightened the anxieties of the families of the men going out this time.

Families' fears

Linda Hale, mother of Chris, who has just deployed to Afghanistan with the regiment, says "it absolutely terrifies me".

The steady diet of news reports, she says "all seems to be about bad things", rather than about the soldiers' achievements.

Vicki Swithenbank ,whose husband John is a sergeant in the same company, agrees that the tide of casualty stories has been distressing but argues, "I can't let that effect me daily, and I can't mope about the fact that he's going".

Soldier's wife on 'being part of the Army too'

Each of the Green Howards companies will be deploy as "omelettes" in Army-speak - Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams, or OMLTs.

The job of OMLTs is to accompany Afghan National Army (ANA) units on operations.

Newsnight has been filming A Company for the past four months. We will be following the progress of the soldiers and their families through a six month tour in Helmand.

Maj Palfrey's 50 men will bring their own expertise to the Helmand battlefield as well as offering air, artillery, logistic and medical support to the Afghans they are with.

The OMLTs' job is considered far from easy by the wider Army, because the British teams fighting alongside the ANA can be as small as six or seven soldiers, among 30-40 Afghans, and if something goes wrong it can be tricky.

One officer from another regiment told me about leading an Afghan company to mount an assault, only to turn around and find, "I was about to deliver a one man assault - they'd all disappeared".

Language barrier

Developing the Afghan army is though the key to consolidating any hard won gains on the battlefield.

Nato wants many more ANA soldiers to be sent to Helmand, so that once an area has been cleared of Taliban, Western soldiers can move on, and security operations can have more of an Afghan face.

In the barrack blocks of Weeton Camp in Lancashire where the Green Howards are based there are posters showing handy phrases in Dari, one of the Afghan languages.

When I asked Private Chris Hale whether he had managed to memorise some useful words, he smiled sheepishly and replied, "a few".

Most of the communication is usually done by team leaders who use interpreters.

The language issue though underlines the complexity of the mission and the limits of what soldiers can achieve on the six month tours favoured by the British Army.

Dari is the ANA's language of command but most of the locals speak only Pashto.

Talking to the Green Howards, many say they are realistic about how much they can achieve with their Afghan partners during the coming months.

Back home their parents, spouses, and children will be watching each news report with, "dread" to use Linda Hale's word.



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