News story

Eighteen months in Helmand: complexities, challenges and (no) complacency

I am often asked what it was like working in Helmand. It is always hard to answer the question, at least succinctly, because the experience was so many things.'

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

Philippa Brown is a Home Office civil servant, currently on sabbatical studying in the US. She was deployed by the UK Government’s Stabilisation Unit, owned by the FCO, DFID, and MOD, to Helmand where she spent eighteen months as the head of the counter-narcotics team in the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team. Three months after her return, she reflects on the challenges of supporting the Afghan Government’s counter-narcotics strategy.

“It has now been over three months since I left Helmand; it feels like a good point to step back, to reflect on my time there and try to convey a sense of what it was like.

I was expecting it to be tough - heading the counter-narcotics team in the most poppy-dense province in Afghanistan would be nothing if not challenging. I had heard much about Governor Mangal - he was reputedly an Afghan Provincial Governor who wanted to take genuine CN action - so I was curious to see what counter-narcotics (CN) would look like in Helmand. I was expecting to find things a little, well, uncomfortable - living on a military base sounded like a pretty no-frills option. Working in such a complex environment also presented its own challenges - both multinational (UK, US, Estonian, Danish) and civilian-military in hue. Given that cross-government working can be tricky, I wondered what the organisation would be like - and what its role with the Afghan government really entailed?

Arriving in country is always memorable. I had flown ‘military’ into Kandahar before so I had some sense of what to expect, but the moment that everyone put on their body armour and helmets in preparation for landing, it really hit home that I was going to be away from my friends and family, working in Afghanistan, for at least six months. Sitting in complete silence, complete darkness with several hundred other people, alone in their thoughts, is a truly sobering experience. I felt elation at the prospect of working in such a fascinating area, and hoped I would be up to the challenge. I think that might have been the last quiet moment I had for the next 18 months!

Helmand lived up to its reputation. The work was extremely fast-paced, and that pace was relentless. I was not surprised to find myself in difficult meetings on an almost daily basis with my Afghan and international counterparts, working through the myriad of delivery problems facing all projects in Helmand.

Life in camp in Lashkar Gah was more comfortable than I had feared. The accommodation for the PRT isn’t fancy but it is comfortable. The camp has a collegiate feel. Everyone eats together in the military galley/cookhouse/chow-hall (each service has its own lexicon); it has the reputation of being the best military-fare in theatre. There is a (poppy-free) flower garden, lovingly cared for by Nasari. The garden was sometimes referred to derisively in press reports as evidence of the disconnect between those in camp and the Afghans we were there to support, but the presence of the flowers had a huge impact on morale. For some it was a reminder of home; for others it provided a chance to contemplate something very different from the daily challenges; but for all of us it was a splash of cheer in our very functional world.

Counter-narcotics in Helmand is high-profile. Governor Mangal has received considerable praise for his strategy, the Food Zone Programme, and PRT support for delivery was crucial. By way of an analogy, if the provincial CN strategy were a car, the PRT CN team would be the engine, with donor funding as the fuel. Critically, the Afghan Government is in the driving seat, directing the strategy. Each element of the Food Zone Programme depends on the rest to move forward. Without the involvement of the PRT a CN strategy would exist, but it would look rather different.

I was surprised to find so much of my time taken up with the representational side of CN. Although the PRT were firmly in a supportive role to the Afghan government, we were the de facto face of CN for much of the military in Helmand and we were also responsible for briefing visiting officials, MPs, Congressional Delegations, ministers and journalists. We debated and defended CN policy several times a day and regularly pushed back against the ‘why don’t we just….’ line of questioning which underestimates the complexity of narcotics and the circumstances in Afghanistan: ‘why don’t we just buy it?’; ‘why don’t we just destroy it all?’; ‘why don’t we just legalise it?’; and, incredibly, ‘why don’t we just send in helicopter gunships with industrial flamethrowers underneath and call them ‘dragons’?’. These questions did not recognise the real Afghan ownership of CN: the Afghan Government has a clear CN strategy and our role is to help them deliver it.

And deliver it they do. The Helmand Food Zone Programme is in its third year of delivery and is a more comprehensive strategy than ever, with genuine involvement from the key Afghan line ministries, particularly the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock. Nearly 50,000 farmers will benefit this year - almost 150,000 have taken part in the programme since 2008.

So what? What difference has it made? Causality is a tricky thing. After a huge 33% reduction in cultivation levels in 2009, Helmand saw a second year of declining cultivation levels in 2010. This year’s reduction is more significant than the first in some ways because the high wheat prices thought to have affected much of the 2009 reduction were not as significant this time round - and this year’s reduction bucks the national trend of stable levels of cultivation. How much of this reduction the Food Zone Programme can claim credit for is unclear. But it cannot be discounted as a factor. There is no room for complacency and more work to do before Helmand can claim a long term change in the level of cultivation. We have, however, seen signs of a shift in farmers’ decision-making - within the Food Zone area, farmers are increasingly using their best land for legal crops. There are political benefits too. The Food Zone Programme has helped to strengthen the legitimacy of the Afghan Government - farmers receive tangible support from their government and Governor Mangal has extended his reach into his province through the Programme.

Key elements of the programme were delivered more effectively this time round. In addition to the farmers who received a diversified range of agricultural inputs this year (not just wheat seed), a properly targeted eradication campaign took place; it was the first time that eradication was delivered in a truly targeted way in Afghanistan, focusing on those who have access to alternative livelihoods, access to markets and to good agricultural land. This represents an important milestone in CN delivery and a source of justifiable pride for the Counter-Narcotics Police team responsible.

Post-tour reflections
Back to the question of what it was like. Was it hard? Yes, it was the most challenging job I have ever done. Was it rewarding? Sometimes, but the fast pace often means you don’t have the chance to step back and contemplate the team’s achievements. After a few months away from Helmand, I feel better placed to answer that - yes, it was immensely rewarding.

What did I get out of it? A broader, well-developed range of skills and experience: high-profile programme delivery; an enhanced admiration for the Afghan government and the civilians and military who support it; an appreciation of the delicate balance in civilian-military relationships; and a set of friends for life.

Would I recommend it? It isn’t for everyone but if you are enthused by the prospect of a challenge, working extremely hard for often little credit, and supporting the Afghan government, then it is a truly amazing experience.”

Visit the UK Government’s Stabilisation Unit website for more information on the its work.

Updates to this page

Published 11 January 2011