Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Afghanistan: Glimmers of hope in Helmand

Charm offensive:soldiers from the Coldstream Guards meeting Afghans in the Babaji area Photo: Heathcliff O'Malley

Thomas Harding of the Telegraph spent two weeks with the Coldstream Guards to observe the West's new counter-insurgency strategy - using cash as well as bullets and bombs against the Taliban.

As British forces prepare to spend another Christmas in Afghanistan, the public appetite for war is being tested to the limit. Every military coffin driven through Wootton Bassett is a reminder of a young life lost, and there is no prospect of a speedy end to the mission.

Lt Gen Sir Nick Parker, the senior British commander in Afghanistan, warned this week that Nato appears to have "lost the initiative". And yet the mood in Helmand is surprisingly positive, particularly when compared to the gloom on the home front.

I have spent the past fortnight with the Coldstream Guards in patrol bases near Babaji, site of the summer's bloody Panther's Claw offensive. It might be only a small snapshot of Helmand, but this is where the new doctrine of counter-insurgency is being applied and, while it is still in its early stages, there is a glimmer of hope that it will work.

Gen Stanley McChrystal, the overall commander in Afghanistan, ordered the use of "courageous restraint" because too many civilians were being killed and wounded, and their houses and crops destroyed, in crossfire. The essentials of the doctrine include dropping fewer bombs, and using cash instead of munitions.

Perhaps the most tangible evidence of the new approach is road-building. The International Security Assistance Force is forging into enemy territory with the help of a cheap, resilient, honeycomb-like frame that stabilises and reinforces soft soil and sandy roads, and allows them to be laid quickly. There are 14 miles of road due to be completed by the spring, but if successful, the Neoweb system could be used extensively across Helmand and beyond.

The benefits could be immense. Roads demonstrate that ISAF has fulfilled its promise to help local people get their produce to market before it rots. Journey times to the economic hub at Gereshk will be cut from four hours to half an hour.

New roads will also allow the British patrol bases strung out along the route to be more easily resupplied. Between the bases there will be Afghan-run checkpoints, and much of the route will be monitored by advanced CCTV cameras, some hung from barrage balloons – a scene reminiscent of the First World War.

There is also much greater deliberation about firing on insurgents, and at times, commanders will tolerate enemy fire in order to avoid civilian casualties.

"If you bomb a compound and kill a load of local nationals, then you are going to get your arse kicked by General McChrystal," says Major Toby Till, a Coldstream Guards company commander. "The message from the top is that collateral damage has to be reduced."

Cash is being funnelled to building projects, such as new mosques or electricity generators; the Americans call it "using the dollar as a weapon system" and it might be working. The hope is that a mullah whose mosque has been rebuilt will be more positive about ISAF's presence and will discourage collaboration with the Taliban.

But there is a risk of the compensation culture taking root. At one shura meeting I attended, an Afghan, with complete sincerity, suggested that five illumination bombs fired from a mortar the night before had killed eight sheep and injured two of his camels. The rounds had landed in a deserted field several miles away.

There are many obstacles to making Afghanistan stable enough to withdraw foreign troops. While the Afghan National Army remains the best hope for an exit strategy, it is simply not ready to take over security and is unlikely to be able to do so for three to five years. The police force is even further behind.

It is planned to expand the army from 90,000 to 134,000 by the end of next year, but a question mark remains over whether recruits will be properly resourced or trained. "You cannot do counter-insurgency on the cheap," one officer told me. "But we desperately need more ANA. They are effective and all the locals want to see them down here."

There are other worries, too. "We are trying to do a 10-year campaign in 18 months," a senior officer warned.

The hardcore Taliban in Babaji number between 150 and 200 but many villagers are coerced or paid – the "10-dollar Taliban" – to fight, scout or help evacuate the wounded.

The Taliban have plenty of fight in them: nightly there are reports of convoys being attacked; in one instance, a remote police outpost was overrun, with seven killed. And, in one three-hour contact, British troops fired 80 mortar rounds, five guided rockets, three Javelin missiles and thousands of small arms rounds.

The Taliban are shrewd fighters, not only in their choice of sites for bombs, but also in choosing where to initiate attacks, to give themselves the opportunity to escape the forces on the ground and the bombs and spy planes in the air. "They won't take us on unless they feel that they have us," says one intelligence officer.

This is a battle for the support of the people and to win that, British forces have to get among the population. That means exposing themselves on foot patrols, which have accounted for the majority of the 104 fatalities this year.

Click here for the full article on the Telegraph website


  1. My son is with the 2nd Yorks, he is based in Musa Quela, i see on a daily basis on TV little snippets about soldiers in Camp Bastian being on the front line?? but we all know it is more than 40 minutes from Musa Quela, take nothing away from the guys in Camp Bastian! they are doing a cracking job but there is more than one camp in Hellmand Province but nothing good is reported about these, all we see is televised reports from Bastian (mainly logicstics core) some of these guys get a chance to talk to their families but what about the footsoldiers and squadies who lives really are on the line.

  2. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 12/23/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.