Helmand: anatomy of a disaster?

Published on Afpak Channel. By Stephen Grey, June 15, 2010

U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Richard Mills takes over command of Helmand – Afghanistan’s most violent province — from the British this week, Britain’s Conservative-led government of David Cameron is busy in London wrestling with the question: just what has been going wrong?

The shake-up of NATO command structures in Afghanistan — which spins off a new divisional headquarters, Regional Command South West — from the British-led Regional Command South in Kandahar, now places almost all of Britain’s combat troops in Afghanistan rather uneasily under the leadership of an American.

With a force now of nearly 10,000, the Brits have been fighting in Helmand since the summer of 2006 and lost more than 290 troops. While it is perilous to consider the province’s woes in isolation from the entire country’s downward spiral, there is a need to ask why things have gone particularly badly in Helmand.

For the British, it is a matter of national reputation. Not is only is there a small matter of the British Empire’s three previous Afghan wars thought (wrongly, as it happens) to have been disastrous failures. There is also the widespread view, shared by a majority of the British Army itself, that the U.K. tarnished its reputation for counterinsurgency operations by getting wrong its campaign in Basra, Iraq, and requiring an embarrassing bail-out by the Americans in Operation Charge of the Knights in 2008.

Is Helmand another case of waiting for the Yanks to come?

Continue reading Helmand: anatomy of a disaster?

A ten point agenda on Afghanistan


Exclusive: As David Cameron gathers experts and ministers for “secret” Afghan talks, former Helmand commander Andrew Mackay and Operation Snakebite author Stephen Grey set out 10 key points for the PM’s agenda.

As the new prime minister, David Cameron now has an historic opportunity to engage in a fresh and innovative reassessment of the mission in Afghanistan. Today he will hold a Chequers summit of his National Security Council about the UK’s strategy in Afghanistan. It comes as the United States takes control of about 8,000 British troops in Helmand Province as part of a Nato restructuring.

We believe success in Afghanistan will be dependant on a) a coherent relationship with the US b) an agreed strategy within Nato clearly communicated to the public, c) an agreed approach to address the weakness of government in Afghanistan and d) a root and branch re-examination over the coming months into the contribution made on the diplomatic, military and development fronts by the UK in support of the Afghanistan mission.

Officials, diplomats and generals have often made a habit of telling politicians what they want to hear, rather than the candid truth about why we have failed to make the necessary progress in Afghanistan and why we have betrayed thus far the great sacrifices made by Britain’s armed forces.

Ahead of Cameron’s Afghanistan “shura” at Chequers, we offer some suggestions in the following 10-point agenda. It is based on our own experiences and conversations with those at the frontline of this conflict, whether inside or outside the military.

If he exercises too much caution in altering course, it will be time to start planning Nato’s exit and preparing for the consequences.


1) Leadership and will

Without UK “political will” all is lost; with it everything is possible. It has been an absent commodity for too long and we have been content to muddle through. The country is at war and requires wartime strategic political leadership that unifies the diplomatic, military and development objectives.

Continue reading A ten point agenda on Afghanistan

Afghanistan: Lost in Translation

ROUGH CUT: Afghanistan – Lost in Translation  (WEB EXCLUSIVE)

US troops operating in Afghanistan face huge risks on a daily basis. But are they denied the lethal weapon they need most?– Their voice!
Reporter STEPHEN GREY joined Marines in Khan Neshin, Helmand, as they prepared for and organised a shura (meeting) to discuss the construction of a new school. But poor translation (revealed only after the video tape was analysed later by a fluent speaker) led to a series of misunderstandings…

Just Cause: Unjust Means

Straying from reporting to comment, I gave a talk recently at King’s College, London, on the question: Is the Afghanistan a Just War? My reply was qualified:

that the cause  itself was right, but the way the war has been conducted since 2001 was very wrong..

“I will argue the means and strategy used by Britain have – at least thus far –been unjust: unjust to soldiers who risk their lives, unjust to the Afghan people and not only unjust but delusional, in that all the blood spilled risks been spilled in vain.”


US Marines in Khan Newshin



Ladies and Gentleman, It is honour to speak here tonight and share the platform with an eminent speaker.  I returned from Afghanistan last night and a spell with US troops just outside Kandahar. I haven’t brought back a message of gloom.  I agree the cause for intervention in this country is a just one, even if wrongly described by our government. But I will argue the means and strategy used by Britain have – at least thus far –been unjust: unjust to soldiers who risk their lives, unjust to the Afghan people and not only unjust but delusional, in that all the blood spilled risks been spilled in vain.

Before I get to that, let me declare my prejudices. You haven’t invited me to talk theology. But, as the son of a Catholic theologian, I’m not entirely neutral on the question of the so-called ‘just war.’  Suffice to say, I’m not fan of holy war – whether Islamic jihad or Christian jihad.

To me war is an evil, a monstrous act that reflects our own weakness in failing to conceive so far a peaceful alternative. That doesn’t mean that soldiers in Afghanistan or voters like us who sent them there should be wracked by guilt or be ashamed of what we’re doing. I just don’t think you should look to God for re-assurance. Christian religion is there to look for and articulate the alternatives to war – not to bless the killing.

Continue reading Just Cause: Unjust Means

Bombed, blasted and shot yet still the Taliban come

From The Sunday Times
November 15, 2009

Stephen Grey in Musa Qala

TWO years ago Corporal Alex Temple fought like a lion to capture the Afghan town of Musa Qala from the Taliban. Last week he was back, once again in a fierce battle just two miles from its centre.

Afghan soldier opens fire in Musa Qala (Photo: NIck Cornish)
Afghan soldier opens fire in Musa Qala (Photo: NIck Cornish)

“It has changed though,” he said. “It’s more dangerous. The fighting is harder.”

Amid the thunder of battle, I saw Temple lead men forward with the same raw courage I had witnessed before. The British soldiers with him seemed more composed, unperturbed by the bullets flying past their heads. The Afghan army on their flanks was better armed and vastly more competent.

Yet the enemy had learnt too. “The Taliban can shoot more accurately,” said Temple. “And they don’t give up so easily.”

In December 2007, with the photographer Nick Cornish, I was embedded with the men of B Company, 2nd Battalion, the Yorkshire Regiment, as they joined hundreds of other British, American and Afghan troops in Operation Snakebite to take what was then a Taliban stronghold.

The capture of Musa Qala was declared a model for how this war might be won. The Taliban were bribed to switch sides, the Afghan army was portrayed as the victor and a reconstruction plan prepared. “The eyes of the world will be on Musa Qala,” said Bill Wood, the former US ambassador to Afghanistan.

Now, we were back with B Company to hold a front line that, after two years of heavy fighting, has moved barely two miles north and south of the “liberated” town centre. We watched as the Taliban were pounded with bullets, grenades, shells, missiles and airstrikes — and still they came back for more.

Two years ago our journey to Musa Qala had been tinged with tragedy. We were standing close by when a B Company platoon sergeant, Lee “Jonno” Johnson, was killed in a mine blast, one of three Nato soldiers who died in the battle. A further 17 British soldiers have died here. This time we joined a B Company team led by Lieutenant Colin Lunn, who in 2007 had “Jonno” as his platoon sergeant. They cut their teeth in combat together, over at the Kajaki dam.

Continue reading Bombed, blasted and shot yet still the Taliban come

The Fog of War

published in the New Statesman, 13 August 2009.
Stephen Grey

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. Continue reading The Fog of War

A Lack of Cover

The deaths of British soldiers in Afghanistan are not being given prominence in the press because the MoD is restricting access to conflict zones, making truth a casualty of war, says frontline correspondent Stephen Grey

* Stephen Grey
* The Guardian, Monday 15 June 2009


New York Times photographer Tomas Munita at work in Paktia Province, Afghanistan, on a mission with US troops. Photograph: Scott Peterson/Getty Images

Thirteen British soldiers died last month in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Their deaths were reported, for the most part, in small paragraphs on the inside pages of newspapers. Why? Because journalists find it almost impossible to reach and report from the frontline of the conflict. When the Royal Marines launched a fierce hand-to-hand battle last Christmas in the muddy poppy fields of central Helmand, four soldiers died – but the only news that escaped was a press release from the Ministry of Defence.

As in so many wars, truth seems to be the first casualty of this conflict. There has been a devastating breakdown of relations between many defence correspondents and officialdom, journalists say. “Dealing with the Ministry of Defence is genuinely more stressful than coming under fire,” says the Telegraph’s defence correspondent, Thomas Harding. “We have been lied to and we have been censored.” Continue reading A Lack of Cover

Jonno the Brave


More than 150 British service personnel have died in Afghanistan. Like many of them, Sergeant Lee Johnson was just a name until Stephen Grey – who witnessed his death – uncovered his profoundly moving story

B Company of 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards) was formed up and ready for action. The officer commanding approached and reviewed his men. “Permission to have a go, sir?” asked Corporal Carl Peterson.
“I don’t think so, lads,” said the OC. “Not tonight.”
They were, after all, in Blackpool.
Major Jason Alexis Little, 36, had a twinkle in his eyes. He had known some of these men for nearly 16 years. He had grown up with them. They all addressed him formally as “sir”, but for the seniors among them he was simply Jake and he was one of them.
He probably knew Sergeant Lee “Jonno” Johnson the best. Jonno was the reason they were all standing outside the Walkabout club in Queen Street, Blackpool, in early September 2007. The bouncers had just evicted him for being drunk, not to mention for wearing flip-flops. Jake had gone out to remonstrate. If Jonno was a little drunk, as most were that night, then he was a happy drunk and no cause for worry.
The rest of the company had followed Jake out and that was why they were lined up for action. Jonno was something of a legend in the regiment and not always for the best of reasons. As a boxer and army judo champion, his nicknames varied from “Judo Johnson” to “Mad Dog Johnson”. Every man with something to prove wanted to take on Jonno and it invariably ended up in big trouble.
When Jake had joined B Company as a green young subaltern, Jonno had seen himself as his protector. If they were in a club and someone started to pick a fight with Jake, he would come steaming to the rescue. Although they were poles apart in many ways, everyone remembered them as very close.
While Jake had been steadily promoted, Jonno had moved up the ranks and been busted down again more times than anyone could remember. It had taken him until he was 33 to realise he was a good soldier, a born leader. Everyone in the regiment was proud of what he had become. But even as he achieved self-belief he became convinced that he was about to die. Continue reading Jonno the Brave

Officers attack 'MoD muddle'

From The Sunday Times
March 22, 2009
by Tony Allen-Mills

SENIOR British Army commanders have denounced the government’s strategy in Afghanistan as a “constant muddling through” that has resulted in a “failing” approach to defeating the Taliban after three years of bloody confrontation.
In a series of outspoken interviews, several high-ranking officers who commanded British troops in Helmand province express anger and frustration at what one brigadier described as “making it up as we go along”.
Brigadier Andrew Mackay, who commanded Helmand’s Nato forces for six months last winter, claimed a British failure to deliver economic development or reconstruction for ordinary Afghans meant that “one of the central tenets of counter-insurgency doctrine is failing”.
Major Nick Haston, who was Mackay’s deputy chief of staff, revealed he had resigned from the army in protest at bureaucratic incompetence. He said troops had been so short of vital equipment that his staff bought spares on the internet. “I would say that some of the people that procure (equipment) in our Ministry of Defence haven’t a clue,” said Haston. Continue reading Officers attack 'MoD muddle'