News: Regional Command (Southwest) takes in the British ‘Desert Rats’
Story by Sgt. Frances Johnson
CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan – The British-led Task Force Helmand combined with Regional Command (Southwest) during a merger ceremony held on Camp Bastion, April 1.
Following eight years of combat operations in Helmand province, the ceremony marked the end of the United Kingdom’s military headquarters in southwestern Afghanistan. The functions of the British headquarters element now reside with RC(SW).
Task Force Helmand conducted 16 rotations since April 2006, and the historic closure of the task force is the most recent stage of drawdown for U.K. operations in Afghanistan.
“This is a significant moment in the drawdown of British Forces in Afghanistan,” said Brigadier James Woodham, commanding general of Task Force Helmand. “It has been an honor to be the last commander of Task Force Helmand and command the soldiers of 7th Armoured Brigade, the Desert Rats, on operations. The task force has achieved so much since 2006, and I pay homage to all of those who have served under the task force. We are leaving Helmand a better place, and the Afghan National Security Forces are well set to continue to deliver security to the region.”
The 1,200 soldiers under Task Force Helmand, which comprises service members from the U.K., U.S., Denmark and Estonia, transitioned directly under U.S. Marine Brig. Gen. Daniel Yoo, commander of RC(SW), with U.K. Brig. Robert Thomson as the deputy commander.
“There's always been a unity of command here,” said Brig. Gen. Yoo. “I think it's a positive reflection of where we are in the campaign. The international security forces are at a point where we can afford to start off-lifting capabilities, especially at the command level, because of the success we've seen so far in this stage.”
The work in Helmand province did not present an easy fight; throughout the past few years however, the British have contributed to the shift in roles from coalition forces fighting throughout the battlespace to advising Afghan security forces, who now have the lead for security.
“Two thousand nine was a hard year,” said Brig. Thomson, a former commander in Helmand during 2009. “It was a heavy price paid, and we remember very dearly and closely the sacrifices that were made across the brigade in 2009. I think as I come back, I'm just really struck by the distinct marked progress that has been made. I think we had four police check points in 2009, and at the lowest moment we had 40 policemen in Sangin. Today, there are over 400 policemen and 52 police checkpoints across Sangin. So the security apparatus is the right size, and the Afghans are leading that work, and that is important. Security is not an end, it is a means to an end. Another important thing is that you can see that the lives of the Afghan people have changed. We opened up the first health clinic, we manned it with an interpreter who happened to be a medic. Today we have five health clinics in Sangin. There were no real formal schools, and there are 14 schools today in Sangin District. I used a statement back in 2009, ‘success in Sangin is measured in small steps.’ I would say success in Helmand is measured in small steps as well.”
During the height of Task Force Helmand’s time in Afghanistan, there were approximately 5,800 British service members and more than 135 bases.
“The soldiers and officers of Task Force Helmand can be proud of all they have achieved in supporting the mission here in Afghanistan alongside their ISAF counterparts,” said Brig. Gen. Yoo. “They have played a vital role in securing the Helmand region and helping to develop a well-trained and effective Afghan security force.”
Although the headquarters element of Task Force Helmand will redeploy to the United Kingdom, maneuver elements contributing to the security of the Camps Bastion, Leatherneck and Shorabak complex will remain in Helmand province. Furthermore, British forces still have additional service members who will remain in Afghanistan, to include the 3rd Security Force Assistance Advisor Team, which was the first advisor team to be established and is made up entirely of British forces. They will continue to advise their Afghan counterparts as the campaign moves closer to its end during 2014.
“We are a coalition force who started together, and we will end together,” said Brig. Gen. Yoo.