News story

The changing face of Helmand

Catriona Laing talks of the changes she witnessed during her 18-month deployment as the UK's senior representative in southern Afghanistan.

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

Local farmers work on an agricultural project to test best practices for growing crops in an area which normally produces poor yields (library image) [Picture: Senior Aircraftman Neil Chapman, Crown copyright]
Helmand farmers work on testing best practices for growing crops

A lot has changed in central Helmand province in a relatively short space of time, especially in the central valley region around Lashkar Gah, home to 80% of the population.

Today, from an Afghan’s perspective, security is less of an issue than prices at the market. Unemployment runs at an enviable 4%, there are girls in schools, health centres for the sick and elected representatives in government. How has this happened, and perhaps more importantly, will it endure?


Catriona Laing, who recently returned to the UK following an 18-month deployment as Head of the UK Mission in Helmand, leading the Provincial Reconstruction Team, says she is convinced that it will:

Our strap line is locking in the gains we’ve made.

Those gains, she explains, stem from 3 central priorities:

  • supporting the spread of government influence throughout Helmand province
  • making the instruments of government accountable to the people
  • demonstrating that proper budgeting and financial planning mean the population can see tangible benefits from supporting the government at the provincial and district levels

Centuries of experience have taught the Afghans to be talented pragmatists. Ingrained is the knowledge that survival depends on having a heightened appreciation of who holds the real power and then making sure you are on their side.

The question they face every day is ‘who has the most influence over my life?’ For a long time the brutal answer was the Taliban. But all they offered was a harsh system of justice. Then it was ISAF, offering security and dollars for irrigation ditches in exchange for the hearts and minds of the population.

The challenge facing Catriona and her team was convincing the local population that the real answer to that question was ‘actually, it’s you, through your government and your own security forces’. But for that message to stick, Catriona was well aware that the government had to be trusted, and it had to deliver:

When I started this job I knew we were entering a complex phase and that the transition of authority and responsibility to local institutions for things like security and development would be accelerating,” she said.

We were coming to a point where we would have to narrow our focus to only mission-critical outcomes.

Helmand plan

Catriona Laing chats with Helmand's provincial governor, Naeem Baluch
Catriona Laing chats with Helmand's provincial governor, Naeem Baluch, on 28 July 2013 [Picture: Crown copyright]

So the first task Catriona set herself was to review the Helmand plan, a route map that was produced to establish a sustainable future for the province:

It was a useful document,” she said. “It covered pretty much everything from infrastructure to governance, but it wasn’t very good in terms of prioritisation.

Reviewing the plan meant that she could set her team to work on those things that would make a difference, ensuring the Afghans have a self-sustainable future:

It was clear that everything we did would have to boost the legitimacy of the government and boost the people’s trust in it.

Which set a curious guideline for the team. If as a result of their efforts local people believed they were doing a good job, then they had failed in their objective. It was the government’s legitimacy that needed boosting, not theirs.

When the Helmand plan was in its infancy, redevelopment projects were effectively owned, prioritised and managed by coalition stabilisation teams. A huge amount was achieved; roads were built allowing the population to move their goods and services around but also physically connecting them to their government.

It was the start of a new way of living. With security in place and access to the decision-makers assured, the balance of power was shifting into the hands of the people.

Elected district councils have been very successful,” said Catriona. “We have just had the second round of elections in Nad ‘Ali. This time more than 6,000 people voted. In the last election it was only 600.

And, despite personal risk and the fact that payments for officials have reduced from $150 to just $50 a month, there are also more people who want to stand for election:

It’s a massive success story,” said Catriona. “It’s Helmand’s legacy as it is showing how local government can and should work, and it is shaping the national debate.

With checks and balances in place, a sustainable equilibrium has been established. In Helmand there are 3 power bases, the District Chief of Police (DCOP), the governor and the elected council – effectively the tribal elders. True, the elders have always been the voice of their communities, but now they have teeth because everyone in the game is locked in by formal systems which work because they boost their legitimacy.

Take the role of the DCOP as an example. There was a time when, heading his own army of police, a DCOP could all too easily establish himself as a one-man justice system. Now the district council’s justice sub-committees call the DCOP in every week to account for what he is doing. If they find he is not delivering, or doing something they find intolerable, they have the power to act.

Tribal system

Catriona explained:

There is a very complex tribal system that we can’t hope to understand, but what we can do is to help set up the balancing systems so that no single point of power can become too powerful.

Now that the institutional mechanisms are in place and working, and with funding going directly into the Helmand budget, the government can demonstrate that they have the power to deliver the services and investments that the people demand.

And, the thinking goes, if it works here, then why not elsewhere, and not just spreading out to northern Helmand province but nationally too.

An officer from the Afghan Uniform Police proudly holds up his certificate and ID card
An officer from the Afghan Uniform Police proudly holds up his certificate and ID card after his graduation (library image) [Picture: Sergeant Russ Nolan, Crown copyright]

It is hoped that with the Afghan National Security Forces successfully taking the lead during this year’s summer fighting and pushing the security bubble northwards, and as the inhabitants of Musa Qal’ah and Kajaki see their southern neighbours enjoying improved standards of living, the desire to be a part of it will soon flourish.

It is hard for the Taliban to provide the same narrative as before, ‘the government is corrupt, we can provide you with fair justice’,” said Catriona. “It is clear that’s not the case. The government functions normally, building and maintaining clinics, schools and roads. It will be increasingly hard for the Taliban to motivate fighters.

And if they do take a district centre, what then?

Without access to the government budget they can’t do anything,” said Catriona. “People’s expectations are different now.

Thinking locally

Ministries and donors in Kabul are interested in the integrated planning and budgeting system work in Helmand. The time is ripe to influence the debate as the Ministry of Finance is preparing its own proposal for provincial budgeting in the next few months. Catriona is pushing hard to ensure the Helmand model informs this work. The national government is, by tradition, very centralist. Kabul decides what each province will spend on things like education in Kandahar and Helmand.

One of the arguments has been that the provinces can’t be trusted and they are not developed enough to cope. But Catriona says that Helmand has proved that it is possible and desirable to trust the provinces:

It means they can prioritise the projects that matter locally, and they have demonstrated that they are accountable and they scrutinise very firmly the progress of projects they have funded.

This, Catriona hopes, will be her legacy. Which has taken her by surprise:

I am now a big fan of localism,” she confides. “I used to think ‘who’s interested in local government? I do the big picture stuff!’

I knew Helmand would be fascinating. But it’s been a surprise how important it is to understand the local dynamic and the impact of allowing local improvisation to flourish, and how important it is to make sure that success is fed back to the centre.

It seems that, in central Helmand, change is catching.

This interview by Ian Carr features in the September 2013 issue of Defence Focus – the magazine for everyone in Defence.

Published 1 October 2013