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UK commander 'called for more Helmand troops'

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 07 July 2010

Exclusive: As the defence secretary Liam Fox announces the British forces will be withdrawn from the Afghan town of Sangin, the British officer who made the original evaluation of how many troops would be needed in Helmand tells Channel 4 News his estimate was "wrong".

British troops in Helmand province (credit:Reuters)

Colonel Richard Westley (retired), 1st Battalion, The Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment, was one of the first British officers to go to Helmand province in 2005.

"It was pretty deserted of troops," he told Carl Dinnen. "We were sent down from Mazari Sharif, asked to go and scope out what the UK might contribute to the mission in the south, before that mission had really got to the south.

"Arriving there we found a small American provincial reconstruction team and about 60 American soldiers in Gereshk, in central Helmand.

"So we linked up with them to try and find out some information about Helmand, because the theatre of operations were so immature at that stage that nobody really knew much about the province itself.

"They weren't under siege in Gereshk when we arrived there. Every time they deployed out of there to go on fact finding missions, they ran the risk of being attacked and on a number of occasions were attacked. The Americans had taken some casualties, some fatalities, in the area between Gereshk and Sangin before we got there.

More on the Sangin withdrawal from Channel 4 News:
- Afghanistan: UK troops to pull out of Sangin
- 'Taliban will present Sangin pullout as defeat'
- General Petraeus takes command in Afghanistan
- British fatalities in Afghanistan

"But they were really the only people who had any tangible information, and so we had about a week to 10 days to hoover up all the information we could, to go back and inform the permanent joint headquarters and other people as to our findings and whether it was viable and whether we could make a real contribution.

"It's a vast province, and that wasn't lost on us, and some of the places we couldn't get to, we had to fly over them to try and gauge the scope and the size of the mission.

"But it was clear, I think, from those early days that a battalion or a battle group was not going to be sufficient to have the sort of effect that I think people were, in their minds, imagining.

"Bearing in mind that even at that stage we knew that there was an awful lot of opium collection and production. It was an environment where we didn't know much about the topography and demography, and therefore it was going to require quite a lot of effort to get out and get that information. And, by the way, we might have to protect ourselves because it's a volatile place.

'Taliban will present Sangin pullout as defeat'
Any chink in the armour of our political commitment will be ruthlessly exploited by the Taliban and communicated in unmistakable terms to their financial backers in Pakistan and the Gulf - and to the Afghan people, writes Col Richard Kemp.

The Taliban's sophisticated media machine - the envy of ISAF and Whitehall - swung into action immediately the story was leaked in Britain yesterday. They will be presenting our redeployment from Sangin to central Helmand as a defeat.

It is far from that. With the US surge swelling to 20,000 troops in Helmand, it makes complete sense to consolidate British troops together in a continuous geographical zone of operations.

Read more here

"So all that led to me recommending, I think, what was perceived to be an inflated estimate of how many troops would be required initially in Helmand.

"I didn't look in actual numbers, I looked in capability - I looked at how we would secure ourselves, how we would find information, how we would protect ourselves, and more importantly how we would administer and sustain ourselves in terms of casualties, aviation support and force protection.

"I came up with a figure that was just under a brigade, so I was wrong too. But I figured it was just under a brigade or a brigade thereabouts (about 6,500). Which is shy of what we have there now.

"I was aware there was little appetite for deploying anything of that size at that stage. Bear in mind we didn't have anything like the equipment or even the pre-training that we have now, and of course, there was that issue of Iraq going on at the time. So people were quite stretched.

UK pull-out from Sangin 'not a retreat'
Assessing the significance of the British withdrawal from Sangin, author and former British soldier Patrick Hennessey tells Channel 4 News it is "naive misunderstanding" to regard the move as a retreat.

Read the article

"But, I sensed very, very quickly that my recommendation of force mass was going to be more than the bank would bear back home."

There are now 30,000 British and American troops in Helmand province, but four years ago the British went in with just over 3,000.

Col Westley said: "When I look at what we're trying to do now on the ground, and still quite thinly spread in the areas we want to have influence, yes I was wrong in my estimate - I'm happy to stand up and say that - but my estimate was considerably more than the appetite existed for back in the UK."

He said he thinks the situation in Helmand now would have been better if more troops had been sent initially. "I think we can be sensible about it now and say 'look at the effect that we have had in Sangin', for example.

Afghan embed: Nick Paton Walsh writes from Afghanistan
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"When I was commanding a battle group there in 2007, there were running battles on the outskirts of Sangin, the market was closed and we have a functioning market, we have an enemy that has had to use means other than toe to toe fighting in placement of improvised explosive devices, which means that we have had a positive effect.

"Now, we could not, and were not able to achieve that with force levels lesser than we have now, so I think it's safe to say had we gone in in more force at the time, then yes, we would have had a more positive effect in areas like Sangin and Gereshk."

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