published in the New Statesman, 13 August 2009.
IN 2001, British troops marched into Afghanistan on a mission to combat al-Qaeda and topple the Taliban. Eight years and thousands of ruined lives later, they remain mired in conflict, with no sign of a way out. What are our soldiers fighting and dying for? How long will they stay?
Out into the attack with the Royal Marines last year, we drove in dust-choked Viking armoured vehicles through the sand desert and to the crest of a ridge that overlooked the lush, irrigated valley along the Helmand River known to the soldiers as the Green Zone, their battlefield. Then, in the landscape below, people began to run. Men on motorbikes went from house to house to announce the battle. In all directions spread a panorama of terror, as women, children, boys, anyone not fighting, ran for safety. The Americans call this the “blue stream” – the indicator, almost every time, of an impending engagement.
Two days later, I was in another Viking, clutching some bit of metal in an attempt to anchor myself as it charged back to base across a poppy field. There were little grey puffs of exploding Airburst rocket-propelled grenades near us, and the crump of home-side mortars landing on the trenches from where the Taliban were firing. I looked out of the small porthole in the back, and there, in the middle of this “contact”, was an old shepherd nonchalantly herding his sheep across a field, unflinching.
Two visions of the Afghan population – one of terror, one of apparent unconcern. But in both, a battlefield where the population can rarely just watch unaffected.
Seven years into Britain’s fourth Afghan war (the previous battles being those of 1839-42, 1878-80 and 1919) and three years into its campaign on the Helmand River, those in command emphasise that the objective of military action is no longer focused on those Taliban firing rockets and laying bombs, but rather on people like the farmers I saw so fleetingly. General Stanley McChrystal, the US and Nato commander in Kabul, has designed this summer’s offensive in Helmand, launched ahead of the 20 August presidential election, not as a counter-terrorist mission, but rather on classic counter-insurgency principles. Success would be measured, he said, by the numbers of people shielded from violence and the influence of the enemy.
The aim of this new offensive, in which British soldiers have played a major part, is that the Taliban will be cleared and the troops will stay to hold and build something for the people. Operation Panther’s Claw, as the British part is known, has been costly. And at least 43 British servicemen have died since the beginning of May. But what of the cost to the Afghan people, so often forgotten? And do we have any conception of what the Afghan people, supposedly now so central to the west’s thinking, make of the commanders’ new slogans?
After a year spent researching a book on the Helmand conflict, twice visiting the war zone and Kabul, and interviewing more than 200 soldiers and officials who have served there, I am struck that no one has much of an idea. The lack of any real connection with, hard data on, or understanding of, the Afghan population is arguably the Achilles heel of the whole campaign. Is the population sitting on a fence, as some generals will tell you, waiting to see that Nato is in control before jumping over to support the Afghan government? Or does the rebellion, as I suspect, have deeper roots?
One thing is clear. While the cost to British forces has been great, no one has suffered more from this war than the civilians in whose fields it has been fought. They are not spectators. When Britain’s combat troops arrived in April 2006, they came on a mission promising to provide security for development projects. Instead, they entered an all-out battle with the Taliban. As the British defended themselves, using heavy weapons, the Afghan people were driven away in their thousands and turned into internal refugees. Parts of some of the principal towns of Helmand – Sangin, Musa Qala, Garmsir – were reduced to rubble. Others, such as Nawzad and Kajaki, became ghost towns.
Again and again, Whitehall warriors have repeated the big lie, talking of tipping points and endless progress. The military campaign might ebb and flow. Towns and districts have been captured and recaptured. But through it all – and despite the best efforts of so many who have tried to help and have improved the lot of people here and there – the local people have been the greatest victims of the fighting.
WHEN you are embedded in all the excitement of this war, deep in the machinations of how to win this compound or that village, or control the province, it is easy to lose perspective on what the British are supposed to be doing there. Oddly, the purpose of this conflict often seemed irrelevant to soldiers I met. A veteran corporal just back from a tour of Afghanistan in which two good friends had been killed (following two hard tours of Iraq) had some strong views on the politics of war – much stronger and more left-wing, I have to say, than most.
The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were interlinked, he said, and “a massive war over power and money and oil”. Although called terrorists, Britain’s enemies were “fighting for the same things that we’re trying to fight for”. He added: “We’re being terrorists, really. We’re going over [to] their countries, blowing them up, and taking their oil . . . We only do things that are going to benefit our own economy and that’s the only reason we’re over there, I believe.”
Even so, he said, the Afghan war was more justified. About politics, “there’s no point massively getting all worked up . . . At the end of the day, in the army, you’re just a pawn to the politicians.” As with many other soldiers I interviewed, these discussions were largely a matter of passing the time, almost an intellectual pursuit, not something that really affected morale. Many of the men said they were in the army for “the crack”, a term that covered all the adrenalin and honour and proving yourself that war involved. It was important that they weren’t doing something bad; beyond that, for most, it did not seem that the details mattered.
Ultimately, however, the cause does matter. Whether lives have been risked wisely depends both on the nobility of that cause and on the quality of the leadership that deploys the troops. It has been hard, though, for soldiers – for anyone – to follow the detailed explanations of just why we are in Helmand. It was to combat al-Qaeda that British forces first entered Afghanistan in 2001. That was a limited commitment. Five lives were lost in the first five years. Then, in 2006, when the troop numbers rose dramatically, the British headed south to Helmand with a mission described by the then defence secretary, John Reid, as being “to support reconstruction”, but which has shifted constantly. Others have spoken since of the need to support the Afghan government. Or to lift the war-torn country out of poverty. Or to fight the growth of the world opium trade that is centred in Helmand. Or, as is the official line now, to secure the country from a revival of al-Qaeda. “If we can’t even get straight why we’re there, how
can we get straight our strategy to win?” one UK battalion commander said to me recently.
Beyond the official aims, the Helmand war also has a secret life as a battle for the reputation of British arms, a battle in which the stakes have been raised high by what most in the US and UK military perceive as Britain’s failure in Basra, Iraq. I’ve found that nothing touches the raw nerves of top generals like mentioning the view that – despite an occupation lasting almost as long as the Second World War – it took decisive US action last year to rescue Basra from the murderous militias to which the British had ceded power.
So far, Helmand has fared little better. Where Britain once had a reputation for successful counter-insurgencies (whether in Malaya, Oman or Northern Ireland), the sense that Americans generally lag behind has almost completely evaporated. Now it is British leadership that is most in question. As John Nagl, the counter-insurgency guru and adviser to the US commander General David Petraeus, told me: “Until you admit that you have a problem, that you are not doing everything as well as you could, it’s really hard to get better. I have not seen that same spirit of public self-criticism in the British army . . . The British army, for which I have so much respect, which has such a history of success in counter-insurgency, has not done everything right in Helmand Province, did not do everything right in Basra. It needs to think hard about those lessons.”
After three years of British involvement, the once-quiet province of Helmand has been transformed into the most volatile region in the country. The UK has been blamed for stirring a rebellion. And, just as in Basra, it has needed the arrival of the Americans for there to be a serious shot at winning. A confidential debriefing given by a US marine commander this spring, and revealed to me in notes made by a senior British commander, voiced a litany of concerns on the part of the Americans about the way the British have been operating. UK forces were said to patrol in formations that were too large, to spend too much time “recovering” from patrols, and to patrol too often without the Afghan police or army.
They also, the debriefing suggested, have too many bases, spend insufficient time living among the people, are not in Afghanistan long enough to learn about the people or the place, and are generally deficient in trained intelligence-gatherers. They are “cautious about the enemy and overestimate their strength”, are too secretive about sharing information, have insufficient cash to dole out, and are disrupted by their system of R&R (rest and recreation). Finally – insult of insults – the British were told: “Your standards of personal hygiene and field discipline aren’t good enough and you have too many non-battle injuries.”
The reputation of the British is on the line in Helmand, and they clearly have a mountain to climb.
THERE IS a strange mood as the coffins come back from Afghanistan. Media interest is high. The crowds at memorial events show that support for soldiers is also high. And yet there is a kind of collective hypocrisy that combines a concern for the welfare of the armed forces with a lack of interest in the war. Few are sold on the aims of the war, however often they are repeated. How many of us have bothered to learn even the names of the principal places where this war is being fought – in Helmand, the towns of Lashkar Gah, Garmsir, Sangin, Musa Qala?
What really gets soldiers’ goat, however, is the endless speeches saying “Thank you, thank you, thank you” for their sacrifice. There is that hoary old George Orwell misquotation: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” Soldiers in the field generally wish a handful fewer people were sleeping peaceably and a few more – and particularly those who work for the peacetime-focused bureaucracies of Whitehall – were spending a bit more time wide awake, supporting them meaningfully.
On top of the toll of deaths and injuries, there is the psychological damage. As you read this, several hundred soldiers are back in Britain on mid-tour leave (their R&R). Knowing that their friends are right now facing the bullets, most wish they weren’t here. They will be staring at people in the street who don’t give a damn. They will be talking to so-called friends in the pub who will listen to about a minute of the truth before their eyes glaze over and they change the subject. The soldiers will hate every minute of their so-called rest and recreation. Those I know will spend their “holiday” with a can of beer in one hand and the remote in the other, flicking between the sport and the agonising headlines that flash along the bottom of Sky News.
Talking to soldiers back from Helmand for my book took me into a dark, dark place. Among the confident lines journalists like to spin is that to spill your guts to a tape recorder will somehow do you some good: “It’s really like therapy. You’ll feel better for getting it out of your system.” For the first time in nearly 20 years of reporting, I just had to stop interviews.
I got to realise I was not a shrink. I could get someone to take me to the worst moment in their lives – to describe the horrors in their head that they themselves had yet to face – but how to get them back out again? I wasn’t sure. How do you cope with chatting to your best friend and, a second later, seeing the stump of his leg leaning against a wall?
It wasn’t grown men crying that bothered me. It was those with minds that began to wander, without them realising it, mid-sentence, jumping like a needle on vinyl as they conflated one horror into the next: a stirred-up soup of things that seemingly can’t get any worse but then still do.
And it wasn’t just combat soldiers. They at least got attention and perhaps counselling. Few would think of checking up on the storeman who broke down, blaming himself for not sending the bit of kit that might have saved a life. Or the young captains in the operations room who told me how they had to play God: to interpret the rules on which young kid who turned up at the base could get a ride to a hospital in a helicopter, and which might just be left with his family, probably to die. Or the padres who were not only the sponges for every bit of dark emotion from all around, but who helped, literally, to pick up bits of flesh and tried to put them together to create a semblance of a body to send back home.
Speaking at Chatham House in May this year, General Sir Richard Dannatt – the outgoing chief of general staff and one of the few to have the courage to speak his mind while in post – used Leon Trotsky’s warning that “you may not be interested in this war, but this war is interested in you” to underline what he called the globalisation of our national security interests. In effect, interventions such as Helmand are at the core of those interests: international activism is “hardwired into our political and national DNA”, he said.
The weakness with such arguments, over which so many in power now labour, is not the assumption that global issues affect British security, but the implication that the way we have intervened in places such as Basra and Helmand has matched the British military official slogan of being a “force for good”.
Whether you like these wars or not, Dannatt was right to emphasise the consequences of them to us all. If not the cost of billions of pounds diverted, or the cost in blood, or the cost for years to come of so many young men going through such trauma, then consider the strategic cost to national interests if such a grand adventure turns out again to be a grand failure.
Stephen Grey is the author of “Operation Snakebite: the Explosive True Story of an Afghan Desert Siege” (Viking, £16.99).