Ex-soldier turned MLA questions UK Afghan combat withdrawal

Andy Allen pictured while on duty in Afghanistan before he lost both legs in a bomb blast
Andy Allen pictured while on duty in Afghanistan before he lost both legs in a bomb blast

A Northern Irish ex-soldier who survived a bomb blast in Afghanistan has questioned why troops were pulled out of Helmand last year, as news emerged of a UK team being dispatched to the region.

Andy Allen, a former Royal Irish Regiment member, said he hopes “the sterling work” put in by British forces is not undone by the events which are now unfolding, with Taliban fighters making a bid to capture the town of Sangin.

The extent of the Taliban’s control of the area was unclear on Tuesday.

Mr Allen, who was co-opted as UUP MLA for East Belfast to replace Michael Copeland in September, said their encroachment upon the Helmand town “signals worrying times”.

Mr Allen had been deployed to Afghanistan in 2008.

A ranger (which is the equivalent of the rank of private in other regiments), he was deployed to the Musa Qala area in Helmand, and lost both legs and had his sight and hearing damaged in a blast on July 14 that year.

UK combat operations – centred on the southern region of Helmand – ended in October 2014, although around 450 troops had remained in the Kabul area, in the east of the country.

It has been revealed that 10 troops from the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, 2nd Battalion, have been sent to Camp Shorabak, the Afghan government base next to where Camp Bastion used to be.

The MoD told the News Letter that they cannot leave the base or engage in combat, except if fighting were erupting around them.

Instead, they are there to carry out weapons and other training as part of a 100-strong Nato force, with the aim of building up the strength of the Afghan army’s 215 Corps during the winter, following recent casualties by local forces.

Mr Allen said: “Perhaps that outlines that the withdrawal was too early from a logistical point of view.

“Obviously what we don’t want to end up with is a situation whereby all the hard work, the blood, the sweat, the tears that were put in, is unravelled.

“Certainly, from our viewpoint, all we can do is give the Afghan army, police and Afghan people, the building blocks in order to build a better future for themselves.

“And my personal belief is we did an awful lot; a lot of hard work towards that.

“It’s only for those in higher echelons to say whether or not that was enough – but certainly they must have felt it was enough that was done if they pulled the troops out when they did.

“But – again, reiterating – why do we need to go back in now, if it was the right time to pull out previously?”

Asked if the new deployment of UK forces made him feel he and others had wasted their time in the province, Mr Allen said: “Well, I would certainly hope not. And clearly we have to call it what it is in this instance – from what the MoD are telling us, it’s a small amount of advisory, support troops. That does not signal a full reintegration back into Afghanistan.

“But nevertheless, it’s worrying in its own sense.

“Let’s hope we don’t need to go back into Afghanistan.”

Asked whether he felt the Taliban should be talked to with a view to playing a part in a possible peace settlement, he said it was up to world leaders to decide, but that his view is “these people don’t want to talk”.