First published 24 April 2008 in the New Statesman
Rethinking the war in Helmand has made the British army revise some of its basic assumptions. Working with “reconciled” Taliban commanders is part of that new strategy
There is a popular slogan seen stencilled on American gun trucks: “We do bad things to bad people.” Prince Harry had those words on the back of his cap. In the Afghanistan War, the difficulty is working out who those bad people are. An even tougher question is: which of them to kill, and which to put in positions of power and authority?
Winning the war here is not for the squeamish, and a long way from the “ethical foreign policy” of early new Labour. It all boils down to dealing with those bad men. Some of them are already our allies. Others, including men who are currently trying to kill our soldiers, will have a place as our future allies. As one intelligence officer said to me: “In this country, you get to power because, at one stage or another, you’ve done something really awful. You can’t waste time looking for the good guys.”
He was probably exaggerating. But you can still see the problem in Musa Qala, the former Taliban stronghold and opium bazaar, wrested back into coalition and government hands last December. I was present during that combat operation and watched as the Afghan flag was raised in the town centre. I have just returned from a trip back.
If you believe the chief of police of Helmand Province, Brigadier Moham mad Hussain Andiwal, the new district governor of Musa Qala is a “war cri m inal” who was invol ved in the slaughter of prisoners, and is a leading heroin dealer – although, given their past history, he may be overegging things a little. Andiwal is referring to Mullah Abdul Salaam, the Taliban com mander who switched sides and was appointed governor of the town in January by President Hamid Karzai, with British backing.
Karzai also sent back to Musa Qala its former police chief. Known to all as Commander “Coca”, Andiwal is remembered by the British soldiers in the town two years ago chiefly for rumours that he and his men were kidnapping young boys from the streets.
Today – however unsavoury their pasts may be – both “Coca” and Mullah Salaam get cautious and qualified support from Britain. They get it because they are doing what the British need: establishing a presence for the Afghan government in a dangerous corner of Helmand, and helping to persuade both ordinary Afghan farmers and one-time enemy fighters that the smart move is to reject the Taliban.
Salaam, as a “reconciled” Taliban commander, has been in many ways a disappointment. When I was in Helmand last year, there was talk of his bringing over a large band of Taliban fighters to the government side. This never happened. But he has proved to be a persuader, travelling from village to village having outreach shuras (meetings) and telling people that the return of British and Afghan forces is the way ahead. He is doing so at great risk to his own life.
“I’m a marked man,” he told me. “When you return to Musa Qala, I will most likely be dead.”
I had tracked down Salaam while he was out of town, preparing to return to his governor’s compound in liberated Musa Qala. The word was out that the Taliban were hoping to greet him or Coca with a suicide bomb.
With his great, bushy, black and silvery beard, flowing robes and curled slippers, Mullah Salaam cuts a striking figure. As his comments were being translated, he kept uttering a strange, rasping noise. He was in a gloomy mood, his head sinking steadily between his palms as he contemplated the gap between promises of redevelopment in Helmand and the grind of reality.
“I have promised the people so much,” he said, “but we have delivered so little and people will turn on me. Everything comes so slowly.” It wasn’t foreigners such as the British he blamed, particularly. “The whole government here, they are all criminals,” Mullah Salaam said. “They keep the money for themselves.”
It is very easy to be critical about British intervention in Afghanistan, particularly for the commentators who rest easy in their armchairs. If you looked at an honest situation report after two years of bloody fighting in Helmand, it would have to include some strong negatives: towns deserted due to fighting; an opium harvest so vast that some suggest only a lack of space prevents it getting any bigger; an enemy that still roams free in great swaths of the cultivated “green zone”; and an electricity supply to the towns which has got worse. Add to that an alliance with “friendly forces” which have proved to be deeply corrupt.
Where is the good news? It certainly does not come from winning the war. Soldiers will tell you that, despite some clear territorial gains, we are nowhere close to it. And yet, among the British, morale is pretty good. It comes not because there is an end in sight, but from a series of tactical successes and a sense that a strategy for a victory of sorts is at last evolving – and the resources to achieve this are gathering on the horizon. Above all, there is a feeling of relief that this is not Iraq.
As I reported in this magazine three years ago, it was hard to find a British officer in southern Iraq who believed the invasion had been a good idea. The aftermath was equally depressing: in Basra, soldiers complained of training Shia militiamen who were policemen by day and planted bombs to kill them at night; officers complained of supporting a Iraqi governor who was stealing oil revenues and in league with death squads. “In Afghanistan, the police may be just as corrupt,” one senior officer told me, “but at least here they are on our side. They want to go and kill the Taliban.”
For the soldiers, Afghanistan has, at least until now, provided an enemy that shows its face and which can be fought with the weapons soldiers have to hand, from SA80 rifles to artillery guns. At a higher level, however, commanders are less convinced by such logic. But they, too, learned bitter lessons in Iraq – and, after two years of sometimes pointless fighting in Helmand, there is a feeling that a road map of sorts is emerging which could ultimately lead British forces to some kind of success. Working with the likes of Mullah Salaam in Musa Qala is part of that new strategy.
Rethinking the war in Helmand has posed a challenge to some basic assumptions, among the greatest of which is our understanding of the enemy. After the 11 September 2001 attacks, when American and British forces first arrived in Afghanistan, a basic misunderstanding became the doctrine. Because the Taliban had sheltered al-Qaeda, the Taliban and al-Qaeda were wrongly labelled as a joint force.
More than six years later, the mistake is in continuing with those assumptions, imagining that the Taliban who fight British troops are merely proxies for Osama Bin Laden. Instead, as military intelligence officers will tell you, the new Taliban insurgency is a battle not for international jihad, but a struggle by tribes, factions and strongmen against an unpopular Afghan government that appeared to have abandoned the largely Pashtun south of the country.
While religious ideology, madrasas, training camps and volunteering for al-Qaeda have a role in creating the fanatics who come to Helmand to die in large numbers, Taliban commanders in the field, who send young Talibs into battle against the British, are often local men with local grievances, local pride and local ambitions, even if they take advice from the Taliban leadership in Pakistan. “You can’t look at him and say that religion or ideology has anything to do with why he is fighting,” said one British officer, talking of a prominent Taliban commander around Musa Qala. Tribal allegiance and the Pashtun code of honour, as well as the simple provocation that foreign
troops represent, all play a part in motivating such men.
What this boils down to is a classic insurgency where some of our most ferocious enemies are potential allies. Few Afghans or Britons now believe that progress can be made without some form of reconciliation process taking place – or without working with those bad men. Most importantly in such an insurgency, as Mao Zedong said, “The people are like water and the army is like fish.” Without the tacit support of the population of Helmand, the Taliban would flap around on dry land.
A T-shirt on sale at Kandahar Airport, and worn by some soldiers in Helmand, bears the words “Taliban Hunting Club”. In Helmand, there has been plenty of killing. You can measure the rise in violence by the bullets and bombs. Each successive brigade in Helmand, except the last, has expended ammunition in ever greater quantities.
However, the grim truth, as soldiers in Helmand tell you, is that much of the bloodshed has been to no effect. Although a central zone of stability in the province has been gradually expanded, whole parts of the countryside have been “cleared” time and again, only for the Taliban to return. One former British commander bluntly called it “mowing the lawn”. A scorecard would read simply: “Many Taliban dead; precious little territory gained.”
And yet – as some commentators seem to have missed – the lesson is being learned. Last October, when a new British brigade took command in Helmand, its then commander, Brigadier Andrew MacKay, declared “a concept of operations” where the deaths of enemy soldiers were no longer a measure of success. “The population is the prize,” wrote MacKay. A campaign based on counter-insurgency principles, he said, needed operations not so much designed for “kinetic effect” (inflicting physical damage on the enemy), but calibrated to “influence” the population: decreasing support for the enemy and increasing the standing of the Afghan government.
Defeating the Taliban was not the end goal of the campaign, he explained in an interview. Even if thoroughly beaten, they might linger on as a nuisance like the Real IRA “for a hundred years”. The tactic was to disrupt them just enough for the Afghan government to be able to re-establish control – and to consolidate its hold with real gains for the local people.
Of course, such “hearts and minds” thinking was always part of the theory. The original British plan for Helmand, taking lessons from counter-insurgency in Malaya, spoke of “inkspots” of security, within which the population could see tangible development gains and in which solid support for the Afghan government could be established. These inkspots would, in theory, expand and then merge.
The reality was different. An understrength British force arriving in the summer of 2006 was spread thinly across the province. With little mobility, it became beleaguered in a series of encircled platoon houses, under constant Taliban attack. Even though the army successfully fought off the attacks, the towns became battlegrounds devastated by fighting. Development went backwards and support for the Taliban grew.
Since then, British objectives have been far more cautious. While UK troop strength has more than tripled (with more than 7,000 deployed to Helmand), MacKay’s aim in the past six months was to get away from “mowing the lawn” and concentrate instead on consolidation: creating a lasting presence of British and Afghan forces that not only expands the so-called inkspots of security, but has a “civil effect”, making life obviously better for ordinary people.
In practical terms, this has involved a big expansion of the chain of British forts – known as FOBs, or forward operating bases – as well as similar increases in patrol bases and checkpoints for the Afghan army and police, despite ongoing shortages in their numbers.
One example can be found around the market town of Sangin in northern Helmand, which was fought over and reduced to rubble during the first year of British intervention. A ring of new patrol bases has been positioned around the town. They have not halted the fighting, but they have brought a measure of relief to the town centre. The population has returned and some reconstruction has begun. A few bazaar traders even dare fly the Afghan national flag.
MacKay’s philosophy of “population is the prize” had its greatest effect during December’s military operation to retake Musa Qala, a town that in effect had been handed back to the Taliban just over a year earlier.
The deployment of thousands of British, American and Afghan troops around the target area achieved such an “overmatch” of forces, that, after some initial fierce fighting, the Taliban were forced to flee, allowing the recapture of the town with minimal destruction of property.
But key to the future was the arrival of a team of military development experts – a so-called “stabilisation team” – a day after the Afghan flag was raised. I watched as they unfolded precise blueprints for the construction of a new mosque, for the rebuilding and reopening of a school, and for roads and improvements to local water and power.
Three months later, when I returned, the impact of this strategy could be seen. The mosque project was still being held up by bureaucracy, but a small road had been built, the market had reopened, a health clinic was in operation, the school was up and running, with more than 800 pupils, and a cash-for-work scheme had been set up employing more than 300 people every day.
But if Musa Qala is the success story, it is still clear that fundamental problems remain. Even here – despite the concentration of British efforts – tangible gains for the population are slow in coming.
The most glaring problem is the limits to what the British soldiers themselves can do. While the strategy places “civil effect” centre stage, any kind of reconstruction requires an input from non-military sources, whether from the Foreign Office, from Afghan officials, or from civilian contractors. With the security situation still so unstable, their involvement is proving painfully slow in getting off the ground. “We have got to learn, and learn fast, to deliver aid and reconstruction not only when it’s all quiet and peaceful, but under the noses of the enemy – while the mortars are still raining in,” said one senior officer.
Yet the slow delivery of aid and reconstruction projects is not just down to security. It is also because British strategy relies on delivering most of its multimillion-pound aid budget by channelling it through the Afghan government in Kabul. For the soldiers on the ground – whose security depends on rapid action to win over the population – such a strategy can be hard to fathom. “All we can do in imposing security is buy time for the Afghan government to step up and do its job,” said a British officer. “The problem is that we can’t and won’t stay here for ever; things have to move faster.”
Meanwhile, the situation is getting more dangerous for the British. A softer, more end-focused approach will in all likelihood mean more bloodshed, not less. Getting the “hearts and minds” right means leaving the base and mixing with the population – and thereby facing a daily and increasing threat from suicide bombs, mines and roadside explosive devices.
Even as Helmand moves from blunt conventional war to a smarter counter-insurgency, don’t expect a quick fix.