Humor Magazine

Right, So It Was All 3 Para's Fault, Then!

By Davidduff

If I was a bit down in the dumps before, what with the fact that it hasn't stopped raining since last October (yes, yes, a sight exaggeration but it feels right!) then I'm totally depressed now as I advance through Frank Ledwige's gloomy assessment (see second post below) of recent British army failures - and I do mean total, absolute, complete, fuck-up failures!   As I read on through his book I tried to maintain a detached, 'judicial' attitude, well, I did until I read this:

No senior officer went to Helmand looking for a fight.  However, if one were asked to choose the most appropriate British brigade for a peace-enforcement mission, one would be hard pressed to think of a less likely candidate than 16 Air Assault brigade [the Paras].  These are the shock troops of the army, and of all British military units surely the last soldiers to be placed in an environment that required subtle and measured activity.

The infantry element of this force was the third battalion of the Parachute Regiment (3 Para) and they had form!  It was 3 Para who for some lunatic reason were chosen to help 'police'(!) a demo in Londonderry in 1972.  The IRA took a few potshots at them with the absolutely inevitable result that the Paras instantly fired back and 14 people were killed and others injured.  Now they were the first into Helmand, a province of Afghanistan of which very few officers, even or particularly, senior officers, had the slightest knowledge - although they should have because the SAS in conjunction with  American Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) had been operating there for some time and had 'sussed' the place out.  They had taken note that the governor was a drug crook but in a sense he was 'our drug crook', they had reported that the locals depended hugely on the growth and sale of heroin and they had come to the conclusion that central Helmand (but not the north or the south) was controllable with a fair degree of support from the locals provided the army 'boxed clever'.  At this point, enter 3 Para!

Before we hurtle downhill in this sorry tale it is important to understand the numbers game, or to put it more clearly, the number of actual boots on the hostile ground:

In fact, the numbers were far worse than anyone thought: to reiterate, 3,500 troops (the total numbers from 16 Air Assault brigade) does not in any way imply that 3,500 of the brigade were available for deployment on the streets.  Just as the 3,500 of the brigade could, at the time, generate only one battle group's worth of combat troops, the single battle group led by 3 Para itself had to guard and administer the positions it had taken.  Even that battalion was not to receive its entire fighting component until July, fully four months into the deployment.  One senior officer in Gen. Richards' HQ had done the sums.  He told the general that 'on a good day and with a following wind after a good deal of planning', once HQ and communications staff had been taken into account, and if the guard roster was doubled (ie, halving the raw numbers required to do guard duties and man the 'sangars' - small, temporary, fortified positions - around the clock), we can find 168 combat troops to conduct operations from the entire brigade.'

So there you have it!  Helmand is roughly two and a half times the size of Wales and we had, on a good day!, 168 infantrymen to control it.  Add to this, the delicate intricacies of Afghan society, which the SAS analysis had highlighted, in which war lords, village elders, drug 'barons', the crooked governor of the province and the central Afghan government all contributed their very self-interested skeins of power.  Into this crashed 3 Para in much the same style as they regularly crashed into Aldershot on a Saturday night!

As I have mentioned before, I am a former member of 3 Para and although I never saw action with them (thank God, in retrospect!) I am second to no-one in admiring their aggressive, 'can do, will do' spirit, of the sort which saw them slog and fight their way across the Falklands in 1982.  But just as in Londonderry, from regimental officers down to the meanest 'Tom', they are entirely the wrong troops to be involved in anything other than a straighforward 'slugfest'.  There was no immediate likelihood of that in central Helmand when they arrived but needless to say they soon developed one, in fact, far more than just one!

Again, I point my finger at the senior 'brass'.  They were in possession of the facts and they simply chose to ignore them.  We all witnessed the results when the coffins were off-loaded at RAF Brize Norton.

As far as I know not a single senior officer ever resigned in protest.


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