Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Captain Doug Beattie: Those who have never been in Helmand give their view, but the soldiers are silent
It is absolutely clear that the campaign in Afghanistan, and in particular Helmand province, isn't fully understood by the UK population. They are force-fed a diet of soldiers dying in a faraway country for a cause they don't understand or believe in, without clear aims or even proper equipment.
In their eagerness to show support for the armed forces, they take out their frustrations on the Government's lack of strategy, they finger-point at the MoD and shout about poor equipment and battle plans. Ultimately, they cry for withdrawal of all British troops.
But what effect does this negativity have on the soldier getting ready to go to Afghanistan, and what effect does it have on the soldier living, fighting and working in Helmand on a day-to-day basis? "An unwinnable war," say some. "A price not worth paying," say others. "The military presence is making the whole situation in Afghanistan far worse."
These are all headlines the soldier can't understand, doesn't agree with and makes him feel that his efforts in Afghanistan are both misunderstood and not valued. The soldiers' voice remains silent, as those who have never been in Helmand give their analysis of how the campaign is developing and how badly we are doing.
In the isolated patrol bases, news reaches the men and women only sporadically. Newspapers, usually at least five to seven days old, carry the headlines of opinion polls saying troops should be pulled out, or that the Afghan people don't want us there. Numerous interviews with MPs seem to use the military as some kind of political football, in an attempt to either attack the Government or defend it. In doing so, they undermine the very men they are trying to support.
To those deployed to Helmand, the facts are simple: they are a force for good, they think the Government has the right strategy, they have a mission statement as well as clear aims, and they think we should stay in Afghanistan and will win. Their time is spent not just fighting but building, reconstructing, developing and conducting consent-winning activities. They help with security sector reform, transforming the Afghan army and police as they work beside the civil authorities – so where do the opinion polls come from?
It is easy to see the legacy of those who have fought and died in Afghanistan. It can be measured by men such as Major Sean Birchall of the Welsh Guards, who inspired a school to be refurbished in Basaran, central Helmand. Because of his work, and that of many others, children are going to school for the first time; schools built by British soldiers, protected by British soldiers and funded by the European community. If you look beyond the headlines, you might find many stories like this.
For those who think that attacking the Government's strategy on Afghanistan doesn't have a detrimental effect on the soldiers' morale, I can tell you that you are wrong. Nobody is expected to follow the Government's policy blindly, but it is incumbent on us all to find out the facts and not just believe the headlines.
If you get the chance, speak to those who have been there, take the time to investigate those headlines, hold to account those who argue that we are achieving nothing in Afghanistan. If we do not, then we are going to lose this campaign, not in the heat of another fighting season but in the bars and front rooms as we talk ourselves into failure. In doing so we belittle the sacrifice of those who served and continue to serve this country in Afghanistan.
Captain Doug Beattie served for 27 years in the British Army, including one tour of Iraq and two of Afghanistan, for which he was awarded the Military Cross. He has written two books, 'An Ordinary Soldier' and 'Task Force Helmand'. Click here for the story on the Independent website