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Half-a-decade in Helmand

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

This year marks the fifth anniversary of when nearly 3,500 British troops deployed to Helmand province. This was stage three of NATO’s plan …

This year marks the fifth anniversary of when nearly 3,500 British troops deployed to Helmand province. This was stage three of NATO’s plan to bring security to Afghanistan by expanding ISAF’s influence into the south of the country.

The move meant that ISAF subsumed coalition forces that were already operating in Helmand. The deployment was consistent with the UK’s strategic plan for Afghanistan which argued for a single command and control authority which would establish a coherent, multinational approach in the province. And as a leading member of ISAF and NATO, it was important for the UK to show its commitment to the mission.

The objective was to extend government control in areas where the Taliban had held sway. This would be achieved by working jointly with Afghan institutions, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development to create provisional reconstruction teams which would establish development zones, which in time would spread outwards across Helmand, like ink on blotting paper.

Famously, during a visit to Afghanistan in April 2006, the then Defence Secretary, John Reid, said:

We’re in the south to help and protect the Afghan people to reconstruct their economy and democracy. We would be perfectly happy to leave again in three years’ time without firing one shot.

Many misinterpreted this as meaning there was an expectation, or hope, that we would leave without having fired a shot. In fact, the quote had been intended to reinforce the position that the UK troops’ goal was to protect governance and development activities as opposed to taking deliberate kinetic actions.

The fighting faced by 16 Air Assault Brigade in 2006 was ferocious, and, by the end of the year, troop numbers had been doubled. Today there are 130,000 ISAF troops in Afghanistan, of which the UK’s enduring contribution is well over 9,000.

The quality of equipment supplied to the Armed Forces began to attract much criticism, especially as the insurgents turned to improvised explosive devices as their weapon of choice, and in-service vehicles at the time were not capable of meeting the new threat.

The need for more armoured transport was especially recognised, and through the Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs) process nearly £2bn was spent providing protected mobility vehicles such as the Mastiff and Ridgback.

Between 2006-07 the UK Government spent £700m in Afghanistan. Three years later that had risen to more than £3.7bn on top of the Defence Budget. As of February 2011 more than £4.8bn has been approved for equipment through UORs.

As well as a need for extra resources, including fast jets and attack helicopters, it later called for a change in tactics, including a permanent presence to protect Sangin and other key population centres. The decision was taken to deploy UK forces to Sangin, Musa Qal’ah and Now Zad. Combat outposts, known as platoon houses, were established and soon gained a reputation as being significantly important.

Although the platoon houses did frustrate the insurgents’ attempts to threaten the development zone, it came at a high military risk, and may have produced a negative feeling among locals who found themselves closer to the fighting.

In Musa Qal’ah, for example, the Paras were pinned down by insurgents for 52 days. General Richards, the ISAF commander at the time, said:

Clearly the immediate vicinities of the platoon houses became areas where the average civilian with any sense left, and his home was destroyed.

In October 2006, to demonstrate the reach of his authority, Governor Daud reached an agreement with the tribal elders of Musa Qal’ah, establishing an exclusion zone around the town that ISAF troops would not enter; in return the elders would deny the Taliban access. The agreement lasted less than four months.

Over the next year expansion of ISAF and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) established a security footprint that allowed the re-establishment of a government presence in both Sangin and Musa Qal’ah, but the reach didn’t extend beyond a few kilometres from the district centres.

In 2008, despite showing early promise in terms of comparative stability, Lashkar Gah came under ferocious attack by a Taliban force in excess of 300. Although successfully disrupted, that attack highlighted the vulnerability of central Helmand. Shortly after his election in 2009, US President Obama approved the deployment to southern Afghanistan of an additional 17,000 troops, and a month later he boosted this by a further 4,000, specifically to train the ANSF.

And then came the appointment of General McChrystal who conducted his own review of the situation, describing it as ‘serious and deteriorating’, and as a result argued for a new approach.

His four main pillars were improved partnering with the ANSF, prioritising responsible and accountable governance, gaining the initiative, thereby reversing the insurgents’ momentum, and focusing resources where the population was most threatened.

The new approach called for proper resourcing and depended on an integrated civilian-military counter-insurgency (COIN) campaign, earning the Afghan people’s support by providing a safe environment. The strategy resulted in a further force level increase of 30,000 more US personnel and an extra uplift of around 10,000 other ISAF troops targeted at the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand.

This surge meant that a redistribution of manpower in line with COIN principles was possible. As US numbers increased, so they assumed responsibility from the UK for northern and southern Helmand, ultimately taking over in Musa Qal’ah, Kajaki and Sangin.

At the end of this process, UK troops were consolidated in three central districts, Lashkar Gah, Nad ‘Ali and Nahr-e Saraj, which contain about 30 per cent of the total population and the main economic centres. Throughout the campaign, the cost has been high, with 365 British troops having sacrificed their lives at the time of writing. Yet real progress has been made.

Some things that were inconceivable five years ago are now happening in Helmand. The strength and spread of the insurgency has been challenged; often in areas that were previously insurgent strongholds, the Afghan Government is now in control. The ANSF strength and quality has grown significantly. They are beginning to take responsibility for security and have been involved in high profile operations. As a result, economic and social development are beginning to burgeon.

Between now and 2015, NATO and the Afghan Government have agreed that responsibility for security in provinces and districts will transition to total Afghan control. After that, UK forces will no longer be in a combat role, or be present in the same sort of numbers as now. But the relationships forged in the heat of battle in Afghanistan will stay strong, based on trade, diplomacy and development, and helping to build the Afghan forces for the future.

This article is taken from the June 2011 issue of Defence Focus - the magazine for everyone in Defence.