Interview: Lt Col Nick Kitson - 3 Rifles commanding officer
FROM his office, Lieutenant Colonel Nick Kitson, the commanding officer of 3 Rifles, a British Army battlegroup, looks out onto the vast concrete parade ground of Redford barracks in Edinburgh.
• Lt Col Nick Kitson says he will be proud to lead his men tomorrow, describing their performance in Afghanistan, far left, as "outstanding. These guys have just surpassed everyone's expectations". Picture: Neil Hanna
On Tuesday afternoon, he stood gazing out the window as his men – and the occasional woman – marched in tight formation, rehearsing for tomorrow when they will process down the Royal Mile in their Homecoming Parade. It promises to be a deeply emotional event, for The Rifles now carries a grim legacy of its recent tour of Afghanistan: not since the Korean War has a regiment sustained more deaths and casualties in combat. "It was," said Lt Col Kitson, "a difficult deployment."
During the seven-month tour, which began on 9 October and ended on 10 April, the battlegroup of 1,400 troops lost 30 soldiers, (3 Rifles, consisting of 550 men, lost 15) with more than 100 wounded, many very seriously, including 13 amputees.
To put this figure in perspective and to illustrate the steep increase in violence during the past 18 months in Afghanistan, when Brigadier Andrew Mackay commanded the full British Taskforce in Helmand in 2007-8 – consisting of some 9,000 troops – he was required to write just seven letters to the families of the fallen. In command of a sixth of that number, Lt Col Kitson wrote five times more.
The battlegroup sustained so many fatalities that Lt Col Kitson took the unusual step of cancelling the traditional sunset service which takes place on the day of a soldier's death, when his comrades gather in remembrance to the sound of the Last Post. "I simply didn't think it was helpful," he said.
Instead, the remembrances became part of the Sunday evening service, which took place at 8:30pm inside Camp Jackson, in the dusty town of Sangin, the deadliest place in the world for British troops. At each service, a close friend of the fallen read a eulogy. The worst Sunday was 7 March, when seven soldiers, all killed the week before, were remembered.
Reflecting on the death toll and the proper way to honour the dead, Lt Col Kitson said: "It's not good for morale to keep dwelling on it. We all know well enough. A colleague who commanded the engineer regiment wrote about the post-Diana outpouring of grief, and this all links into the key aspect of selfless commitment and selfless service.
"We have gone out there to do a job, not to spend the whole time thinking about ourselves and our safety or how sad we were.
"It is a fine line to tread, making sure we remember and honour our comrades … We don't need these public outpourings of grief, because we all feel it and we all know we feel it and we know the people who we have lost. Personally, I can be accused of being an insensitive bugger, but I just didn't think that it was of any help to stir up additional grief."
There were times when he questioned his decision, though they were rare. "As a commander, self-doubt creeps in now and again – not that much, but maybe that's me just being… whatever. But there are times when there are spikes of casualties, one just before Christmas and again in early March when we had six or seven in a ten-day period, and you think, 'God, when is this going to stop?'
"I was always very confident that what we were doing was the right thing, not just my random decision but carefully planned. I have always run a very consultative ship and made sure we planned carefully. But you do occasionally think, 'what if?' Or, 'Have we pushed it too far?' And I have relied on my second in command and chief of staff to say, 'No there is absolutely no reason to have doubts, this is clearly working well and we have seen the advantages and the positives.'"
For the public back home, Afghanistan is a disaster from which the majority (56 per cent) wish to make a swift retreat. To them the country conjures up only the image of coffins draped in the Union Flag in procession through Wootton Bassett after their return to nearby RAF Lyneham. At the time of writing, the death toll stood at 284 in a nine-year-old war no nearer victory than when it began. Last autumn, US General Stanley McChrystal, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, described it as "likely to result in failure" unless yet more troops were sent. The full contingency he requested will be in place this summer. The overall situation, he said in a confidential report to US president Barack Obama, was "deteriorating".
It is worth reminding ourselves why Scots soldiers are in Afghanistan. British forces have been deployed as part of the ISAF, created by Nato, and with the complete support of the Afghan government. British forces are responsible for security for the province of Helmand, which rises like a crooked finger from the border with Pakistan and into the heart of Afghanistan, but their role there is complex.
In military jargon, their task is divided between "kinetic" and "non-kinetic" elements. The principal task – the kinetic part – is to track down and destroy Taleban and al-Qaeda fighters intent on the overthrow of the elected government. The non-kinetic element is assisting in the reconstruction of the fourth poorest country on the planet by helping to train the new Afghan army and police forces.
So where did 3 Rifles fit in? Its role was to provide security and development in Sangin, a town of 15,000 people, poorly educated and living basic lives, cooking on open fires in mud compounds. Insurgents operated in their midst, intent on preventing the Afghan government from extending its influence. The centre of the town was a bazaar selling everything from fruit to motorbikes and the regeneration of the area would be reflected by the rising number of stalls.
From his base in FOB (Forward Operating Base) Jackson, which sat near the bazaar, Lt Col Kitson oversaw an expansion of bases that greatly extended the army's control of the ground and the security it could provide the population. As the credo of the military mission was that "people are the prize", the seven bases across the area were rapidly transformed into 27 bases during the six-month period, many partnered with troops from the Afghan National Army. In order to increase the population's sense of security, troops in each base patrolled as frequently as twice a day. Under Lt Col Kitson's command, daily patrols rose from ten to up to 50, but this came at a price.
The enemy would plant Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in the roads and in the walls or open fire on the patrols as they passed. Every soldier stepping out must have had thoughts that this could be his day, but reports of members of the 3 Rifles throwing up from nerves before embarking on patrol are erroneous, according to Lt Col Kitson, who insists the single occasion when that happened did not involve a 3 Rifles soldier and may have involved a dodgy curry. Instead there have been many heroic acts, including that of Rifleman James McKie, a New Zealand soldier who saved lives when he picked up and hurled back a grenade, even while he and two comrades were coming under fire from three different directions.
Lt Col Kitson is adamant that the death toll and wounds suffered by his troops does not reflect the progress they have achieved during their tour. They have taken the "heat" out of the battle with firefights and heavy shelling, and with it, civilian casualties have fallen sharply. The bazaar is now bustling with more than 900 stalls. Once there were only a dozen schools, now there are 40, and where once the only option for farmers was to grow heroin poppy, they now have the option of growing fruit and wheat.
The previous district governor who once rounded up tramps, paying them to impersonate tribal leaders, has been replaced by Mohammed Shareef, a former schoolteacher who carries a degree of respect and recently took part in a large and successful Shura, or tribal gathering.
Lt Col Kitson said he will be proud to lead the men in tomorrow's parade. Asked how they performed, he said: "Outstanding. These guys have just surpassed everyone's expectations. You can try to compare with previous campaigns when people were up on the front for shorter periods and then back at the rear. These guys were never in the rear area. They were in their patrol place for six months – apart from a two-week break – and going out every day once or twice and with the expectation of IED (attack] and shooting. They understood the people-centric campaign. They were the epitome of the thinking rifleman."
Later, when asked to recall his fondest memory of the tour, Lt Col Kitson – who has three children, Thomas, nine, Amelia, seven, and five-year-old Matilda ("three and a half actually, one is due in four weeks") – smiles.
"A picture fixed in my mind is of children running around in the bazaar with satchels over their shoulders towards the end of the day. They had not only been to school, but they were enjoying going to school and they were running around showing they had been at school, which meant they were no longer afraid."
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