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Deputy Commander reflects on a year in Helmand

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Colonel Gerhard Wheeler from the Royal Welsh regiment was the Deputy Commander of Task Force Helmand throughout 2010. Here he reflects on the battles, losses and progress he witnessed.

As another set of grenades ripped through the fabric of the half-built hotel, I peered out from my nearby shelter, wondering how it would all end. The siege had kicked off just a couple of hours before, when the Taliban mounted a bold attempt to attack the home of Gulab Mangal, the Governor of Helmand province.

Six insurgents had occupied the four-storey construction site that overlooked the Governor’s compound in Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s capital, but no-one was aware of their presence until the leader of the Governor’s bodyguard, an old, Soviet-era mujahideen fighter, spotted one of them preparing a grenade-launcher and raised the alarm by opening fire.

That lit the touchpaper and the insurgents returned indiscriminate fire from every storey, seemingly intent on causing as much damage as they could with the short lives they had left. To the people of Lashkar Gah, each shot the cornered fighters fired was a brutal reminder of the very real threat the insurgency continued to pose to their future.

I had arrived in Afghanistan two months earlier. My one-year posting as the Deputy Commander of Task Force Helmand was to provide some continuity in an organisation where the norm [for British forces personnel] is to serve for six months.

My job bridged the worlds of the military task force, the civilian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team and the Afghan Government. It gave me a unique perspective on the events of 2010 in Helmand. It also meant that it fell to me to provide military advice to the Governor, especially when his house was under attack.

As a result, the moment I heard reports of insurgents in the hotel, I drove to the sound of the guns. It was 29 January 2010, my wedding anniversary. I remember thinking ‘Don’t mess this up because if the Taliban don’t kill me, my wife will’.

Thankfully, the Governor was away that day but his deputy, Abdul Sattar, and I surveyed the scene around the hotel. It looked like a wrecked multi-storey car park. Its floors were exposed to the elements - the building’s facades had not yet been built, except for the corners, which had been glazed but which were now scarred by panes smashed by gunfire.

The building was surrounded by Afghan forces. Every few minutes they exchanged fire with the insurgents. Sattar asked me what I thought he should do. I was concerned. Fighting in buildings is a notoriously difficult task - think Stalingrad - and this was one of the largest structures in Helmand.

At that time the Task Force was at full stretch, holding on to what we had in the rural areas, and it would take time to assemble a British assault force to clear the hotel.

I told Sattar that the Task Force could send reinforcements but not until much later. To my surprise, he acted with calm decisiveness. He summoned the provincial police and Afghan army commanders and ordered them to assault the hotel.

Within minutes, the fire from outside rose to a crescendo as lines of Afghan police and soldiers fought their way in. The insurgents responded with dozens of grenades, which they must have cached earlier throughout the building.

The Government forces were undeterred. Several were wounded - my four-man team acted as their first aid post - but within the hour they had killed all of the insurgents and regained control of the hotel. They were jubilant. I was relieved; for the first time since I arrived in Helmand, I glimpsed light at the end of the tunnel.

Back in December 2009, I had concerns over the direction of the campaign. Sure, the situation had improved since I had first started visiting the province in the years before, but I still could not see how we could get into a position where we could transition Helmand back to the Afghans without the insurgents then regaining the upper hand.

Task Force Helmand had done, and was continuing to do, a great job where it could, but the challenges it faced seemed insurmountable. I understood the strategy we were pursuing - to convince the local population to support their government, in effect to win their ‘vote’ in the equivalent of a violent general election campaign - but I did not think we had the resources to do the job or enough Afghan local leaders or security forces that were up to the task.

The success of the Afghan forces in the hotel siege started to change my opinion and by the end of a remarkable year my view was entirely transformed.

Before the hotel siege, the British-led Task Force Helmand held responsibility for the five key districts in Helmand, which contained most of Helmand’s population, but we simply did not have enough troops to secure the area for which we were responsible.

The Afghan Government’s writ was only effective in the district centres and the population enjoyed minimal freedom of movement between these towns. Large rural areas were under total control of the Taliban.

As Provincial Governor, Gulab Mangal was impressive - a politically astute man whose judgement and vision I came to respect - but I was unsure about the other officials in the province, particularly some of the district governors, a few of whom could neither read nor write.

More worryingly, the Afghan Police were, in the main, still perceived by the local population as being corrupt, untrained and predatory. In short, we did not have the resources to do the job and our Afghan partners seemed too weak to operate without us.

The success of the hotel siege revealed how the Afghan forces could operate independently and how the Governor was not the only effective government official in Helmand. As spring came, more fundamental changes occurred. The most important was a surge of international troops, primarily US Marines.

Our numbers doubled to over 25,000. This increase allowed us to mount a series of operations to push the insurgents further away from the population centres. We cleared village after village of insurgents. Where we cleared, we held. Where we held, we started to build. Slowly but irresistibly we started to win the population over.

First, we gained their confidence by outfighting the Taliban, and then we won their support by proving that their government could outgovern them.

Where we held a strong security presence for long enough to allow governance and development to take root, the local inhabitants gradually seemed to grow resistant to Taliban intimidation.

By the end of my tour, I was receiving visits from elders complaining that we had not yet cleared their village - an unthinkable conversation a year before.

As we pushed the Taliban out of more towns and villages, the insurgency became increasingly rural in nature. As a result, freedom of movement became a critical issue. There was little point in us securing the population centres if the people could not move freely between them.

We were not the first to recognise this truth; the Romans had been here before. Good roads bring communities together, improve access to markets and government services and allow military forces to move rapidly from one point to another.

It is also much harder to plant an improvised explosive device in an asphalt road than in a rough track. The value of roads was demonstrated to me in April when I opened a new road we had built in the Babaji area.

When I had first arrived in Helmand, it had required a two-day fighting patrol to cover the distance that I drove along that day in just 20 minutes.

During my tour, I witnessed a profound improvement in the freedom of movement in Helmand. Roads that had been impassable became busy thoroughfares; new roads connected isolated communities with the main towns for the first time. Afghan Government officials began to drive to areas where once they could only visit safely courtesy of our helicopters.

Signs of progress in 2010 were not restricted to the actions of the international community. Our Afghan allies also improved significantly. The provincial governor instigated a wave of reform that saw many of the district governors replaced with far more effective officials.

Tribal strongmen were replaced with educated technocrats. I will never forget the gasp of amazement I heard from the elders of Sangin when their new district governor pulled out a notebook from his pocket in order to write down their complaints; his predecessor had been illiterate.

I also saw a significant improvement in the quality of the police force. A police academy was built and it started to churn out trained police officers - they were not perfect but they were good enough for communities to start asking for them to be posted to their villages.

It was, nevertheless, a bloody year. I far too frequently attended vigils for members of the Task Force killed in action; more than a hundred fell during my tour. Extraordinary acts of courage were commonplace. As we had gone on the offensive, the Taliban had fought back hard.

The number of incidents rose to unprecedented levels in the summer, the traditional fighting season in Helmand. However, even during this intense period, new trends were forming that gave us hope for the future.

Although the number of incidents was increasing, so was the distance that they occurred from the population centres. Major towns like Lashkar Gah became vibrant and peaceful places people wanted to live in. For the first time the Taliban seemed to come under real pressure.

We were removing their commanders from the field at a rate that was increasing exponentially. More importantly, by the end of 2010 it was more normal to see them respond to our actions rather than the other way round; we had at last seized the initiative.

Leaving Helmand, I felt it was in a far better state than when I had arrived. Much of course still hangs in the balance. There are still hard yards to be done. Northern Helmand, in particular, will remain a tough nut to crack. We will not really know how much we have weakened the insurgency until the main fighting season begins again next summer.

Much will also depend on the way the national political situation plays out in Kabul. I will continue to observe Helmand, but, from now on, it will be from my sitting room. And if I do visit a hotel for my next wedding anniversary, I hope to hear muzak rather than gunfire.

As Deputy Commander for Task Force Helmand, Colonel Wheeler deputised for the Commander and was the lead military officer in the Provincial Reconstruction Team. He was also responsible for continuity between the brigades.