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Thursday, July 3, 2008

Afghanistan: ‘It was a battlefield last time I was here. The progress is remarkable’



"But it's Thin red line of 'eroes' when the drums begin to roll -
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O it's Thin red line of 'eroes' when the drums begin to roll ".
Rudyard Kipling

FROM the TIMES online

The Mastiff armoured car lumbered its way down the dusty main street of Garmsir’s newly opened market, past broken, mud-brick shops, and the impassive stare of watching Afghans.

With the rear door manned by a soldier of 5 Scots battalion armed with an SA80 rifle, and “top cover” provided by a wary machine-gunner, we were well-protected. But the Chief of the Defence Staff wanted a closer look at his newly secured territory. Standing up, he poked his head through the manhole on the roof of the vehicle and surveyed the passing scene.

“Want to have a look?” asked Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup. I stood up gingerly, my blue helmet a worryingly obvious target, I thought, for any passing Taleban. The roof of the Mastiff was too hot to touch, in the 50C (122F) temperature, but the experience was exhilarating.

We lurched over potholes. The dust swirled. And, through it, we studied the passing scene, attempting to gauge the mood of a liberated people. Some of the shops, battered by the armaments of past battles, stood open to the sky, others were boarded up. But there was a scattering of local traders who watched impassively as we passed. Two men, stripped to the waist, washed themselves in a cattle trough. A turbaned draper set out his goods. Then a little boy waved at us. Just one – but it delighted Sir Jock. “Oh yes, he definitely waved,” he said. On such uncertain straws of evidence are the achievements of the Helmand task force judged in these testing days of the West’s Afghan venture. They are, however, straws worth studying.

A few weeks ago, Garmsir was a no-go area for all but the hunkered down British troops in their heavily guarded forward operating bases, and for the US Marines, beginning to arrive in force. Known as the “snake’s head” because of the distinctive shape of the area – a broad expanse of fertile country in the north, tapering to a long tail of farmland, supporting a rural population, mostly cultivating opium poppies – Garmsir was, until recently, held by the Taleban.

“The last time I was here, I wasn’t able to come into the town at all. It was a full-scale battlefield,” Sir Jock said. “Now we’ve just come twice through the main street. I wouldn’t say for one moment that we’ve restored Garmsir to total peace and security, but the progress we’ve made over the last few months is remarkable.”

Seizing it back was due in part to the surge of the US Marines, with their massively resourced Marine Expeditionary Unit. But it was also achieved through a classic piece of soldiering by A Company of the Argyll and Suther-land Highlanders – the kind of infantry operation that hasn’t changed much in character since the Second World War. In the cramped forward operating base of Delhi (these FOBs, a key part of the Helmand strategy, mostly bear classic names from Britain’s military past, like Inkerman, Balaklava and Nijmegen) Major Neil Den-McKay took me up to his tiny observation post, protected by sand-bags, with a thin slit looking out over a 120-degree arc of the countryside. He pointed to an open field, falling away to a ditch, barely 300 yards away.

“The Taleban were there,” he said.

“We knew they were there because they kept attacking us. So we had to clear it.” He did so by taking a company of jocks in point formation, with bayonets fixed, straight down the ditch until they encountered the Taleban head on. “I don’t think they were expecting us,” said Major Den-McKay drily. “They certainly seemed surprised.” The Argylls drove the Taleban out, inflicting heavy casualties, and without losing a man. It may not have been more than a skirmish, but it sent out a powerful message about the determination of the British forces to make the territory their own.

Earlier, I had sat with Sir Jock and the commanding officer of the Helmand task force, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, listening to the commander of the US Marine Expeditionary Unit, Colonel Lewis Henderson, who spoke of how a combination of military might and civil resources had taken and held the snake’s head itself. He talked of the use of powerful armoury to defeat the Taleban, including blowing up more than 200 bunkers, seizing caches of weaponry and destroying the infrastructure, together with tactics designed to win over the local population once victory had been achieved.

“To sustain and secure,” was the way he described it. It was the sustaining part that provided a fascinating insight into how far American counter-insurgency tactics have developed since the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Aware of the danger of suicide bombers, one of the first things they did was to carry out random finger-printing of suspicious-looking civilians in the outlying areas of the snake’s head. It suggested that the Marines had good local knowledge, whereas in fact they had encountered what Colonel Henderson described as “black holes of intelligence”.

He admitted that they knew very little about local power bases and the complexities of tribal allegiances. So instead the marines went out into the villages with grapes. Why grapes? “They give off a nice smell, and they’re not threatening,” he said. They also sent out leaflets – not warning the local people about the Taleban, but explaining what the Americans were trying to do. Reckoning that many residents of Garmsir were underinformed about the war, they distributed 400 clock radios. And they began compiling data – about the number of shops, the distribution of farms, the availability of schools. They discovered things they didn’t know before, like the fact that although this was a very poor rural population, it was surprisingly well-educated, with some of the villagers speaking two or more languages.

The British listeners were clearly impressed by Colonel Henderson’s presentation, but some of the flies in the Garmsir ointment emerged almost immediately. In the first place, the US Marines are due to pull out of the area in September, leaving this experiment in winning the peace open-ended. Could the British maintain the momentum without the kind of resources that the Americans had deployed? “The commander of the Helmand task force will deploy his units as he sees fit to ensure that we can hold on to and sustain the progress that’s been made here and bring it forward,” said Sir Jock, in the clipped manner of one who is not certain of the answer.

Next door, the man with part of the task of sustaining that progress, Doug-las Alexander, Secretary of State for Overseas Development, on a flying visit to Helmand, listened to the other side of the equation: the Afghans themselves. Seated in front of a semicircle of British and American top brass – including the minister, the British Ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles and representatives of US and British aid agencies – were three local leaders, whose powers may not have begun to match those of their audience, but whose words were listened to as eagerly as if they had been those of Metternich himself. They were the local governor, his deputy and the chief of police. On them depends the outcome of the experiment in Garmsir. Their expressions were inscrutable.

“What,” asked Mr Alexander, “do you and your families most need from us?” The interpreter leant forward, the Afghans’ eyes were blank. They answered with disappointing briefness. To say that their words were opaque, would be to overstate the case. They were unwilling to be precise, but there was some mention of the need for security; unless they were protected from the Taleban, all would be at naught. Whether they were secret supporters of the Taleban or not was, of course, far from clear.

“Can you persuade the farmers to abandon the opium crop?” asked an official. The eyes narrowed slightly. That depended on the security of the borders, was all they would say – an almost impossible condition to deliver. It was the ambassador who asked the boldest question. “How many of your men take opium?” he asked the chief of police. His eyes bulged momentarily; the Afghan National Police are a byword for corruption in Helmand. “Maybe one or two,” was all he would say. Afterwards, the ambassador told me that their estimate was that 60 per cent of the force took opium.

“Do you need roads?” asked an American official. “We can build you a road from here to Lashkar Gah as good as anything in America.” The governor looked straight ahead of him. His expression said nothing. He agreed that roads were a good thing.

Afterwards I asked Louise Perrotta, the local head of the British stabilisation unit, whose aim it is to win the trust of the people of Garmsir, whether the American approach – big projects, swiftly delivered, and backed by huge resources was the answer to gaining the support of the Afghans. “I think there is a little more to it than that,” she said carefully. Her approach is to find out more about the society in which all this is happening, to understand the mentality of the local people, to win their trust by delivering what they really need, rather than giving them what others think they should have. It is a long-term approach, and it needs a long-term commitment, which Britain will have to ful-fil if it is serious about its plan for Helmand and the future of Afghanistan. But it did strike me that a combination of American might and British diplomacy was not a bad one. Whichever approach is right, Garmsir is going to be on our international agenda for many years to come.

To Helmand and back

— A total of 44 British and other Western troops were killed in Afghanistan in June, compared with 31 in Iraq. It was the second consecutive month that more Western troops have died in Afghanistan than Iraq. There are nearly three times as many Western troops deployed in Iraq

— Located in southwest Afghanistan, Helmand’s capital is Lashkar Gah. Helmand’s desert terrain is divided into 13 districts and more than a thousand villages. It has a largely Pashtun population of just over a million

— In the 1950s, Helmand was known as ‘little America’ because it was the centre of a US development programme building irrigation channels and a hydroelectric dam

— Helmand’s economy was badly damaged during the long wars of past decades. Unemployment is high. The economy is largely based around farming and the main crops are wheat, corn and opium poppy

— If Helmand were a country, it would be the second largest producer of opium in the world, after Afghanistan as a whole

— 8,500 British troops are currently stationed in Helmand

Sources:; ;

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