Monday, February 22, 2010

Afghanistan: Traces of hope in Helmand

Thomas Harding, The Telegraph

The latest push against the Taliban at last appears to be changing Afghanistan for the better.

Symbolic moment: Private Aziz Watandosd of the Afghan army flies the Afghan flag in Showal Photo: Julian Simmonds

Four years, 263 British lives, £10 billion spent and the generals say that we have finally got to the “end of the beginning” in Afghanistan. Operation Moshtarak is in its second week and, like the early spring that has arrived in Helmand, it feels warm and comfortable – unlike the days of hailstorms, cold, thunder and lightning that preceded its launch.

The Taliban face being driven out of central Helmand, denied the luxury to plan killings from their strongholds and raise finances from the opium trade. Of course, they have not gone away. There will be more deaths of soldiers and civilians, in attacks that could become ever more barbaric and desperate. But the insurgents are certainly on the run. More importantly – much more importantly – the American, British and Afghan forces that have poured into the area are getting among the population and preventing the insurgents from reaching the civilians. Although the American push in Marjah is harder going, with the Taliban concentrating their forces to make a stand, the insurgents have seemed utterly incapable of mounting significant attacks in the British sector of Nad-e-Ali.

That the British now have enough helicopters has certainly helped. With contributions from the Canadians and five extra RAF Merlins, the British have at last been able to generate a force capable of breaking records for air assault and resupply. Landing at several locations simultaneously – 1,200 troops deployed to 16 different sites within two hours, in complete darkness – caused considerable disorientation among the enemy, who were unsure where to attack, or which flank had been taken.

And despite the lack of set-piece battles, there have been some highly symbolic moments, which will cause as much damage to the Taliban’s image as a Hellfire missile landing among the leadership. At dawn on the third day of Operation Moshtarak, I watched alongside a small huddle of soldiers as the Taliban’s flag was hurled down from a disused crane in Showal, the small town that was the capital of its shadow government, and replaced with the national ensign. It had been there for almost two years. For a few minutes we chatted, took pictures and shook hands. A text message was sent via satellite phone to an officer at brigade headquarters: “The flag of Afghanistan flies over Showal.” Within hours, the news spread, and a stampede of generals and politicians ensued, which culminated in the arrival of Gen Stanley McChrystal, the American military commander, the Afghan governor of Helmand and the defence and interior ministers.

As I interviewed him for the eight minutes it took us to walk up to the crane, Gen McChrystal was understandably chipper. Helmand had “turned a corner”, he felt – and while he was still reticent about declaring victory, and warned of Taliban violence ahead, he was clearly a man who felt the scales had finally been tipped. His plan was working – endorsing his bid for an extra 30,000 troops, which President Barack Obama acceded to at the end of last year.


  1. I pray every day for all of our troops, and the Marjah offensive will be a huge success. Headline: "A NATO airstrike in Afghanistan mistakenly killed 27 civilians." NATO: You're going to have to do far better than this, or get out. All the good that you accomplish (and you are accomplishing a great deal) will be lost with these "mistakes." It wouldn't be a surprise if this airstrike drives relatives of those killed into the hands of the Taliban. They thrive on these "mistakes."

  2. "That the British now have enough helicopters has certainly helped."

    What a strange thing to say given that our politicians had "assured" us that our military "leaders" had "assured" them that we always had enough helicopters to "do the job".

    Just goes to show that you can't trust a word that any of these people say.

  3. I agree with John Umana.
    For goodness sake, Nato - ***STOP THE AIR-STRIKES!***

    **Get your act together, McChrystal.**

    For every one Talib fighter that air-strikes kill, you seem to be killing TEN civilians.

    This is a **counter-insurgency** campaign. let me spell it out for you - **IT CAN NOT BE WON BY USING AIR STRIKES, BUT IT CAN BE ##LOST## BY USING AIR STRIKES.**

    Please - no more of the "blunt instrument" tactics of air-strikes or "wayward" missiles.

  4. I think the airstrikes are relevant to our winning this war...yes..mistakes have been made...and yes..maybe relatives of those killed may go to the Taliban - but - look at the bigger eliminate the Taliban (who are hiding in their villages - and being fed by the villagers)we need to move hard and fast - our troops are going through hell...and I'm sorry, but my loyalty our with our troops/ISAF - if you look at the rights and wrongs - look deeper - we are suppose to be there to give the Afghans 'freedom' well 'freedom' comes at a price - not just for the Afghans but for us..263 deaths...but these deaths were incurred to help this country..not to mention the wounded -so if airstrikes stop this be it!

  5. We've got to be smart, maybe smarter militarily than ever before in waging a war such as this. Many Taliban utterly hate the Arab al-Qaeda who prompted this war in Afghanistan since 2001 by ruthlessly attacking American civilians in the 9/11 attacks. But it's not enough to say, "They started this." We want to move the population in our direction, not against us. I have nothing but praise for our courageous men fighting this harsh and difficult war. God please watch over them, and watch over innocent civilians as well.