Departing British find reasons for optimism in Afghanistan
By Nick Hopkins
The Royal Marines don’t intend to make a fuss when they leave Afghanistan in the next few days; there will be a low-key ceremony at their headquarters in Helmand, and a lowering of the white ensign that has flown at their camp since last September. But the veterans among them will pause for reflection. After six tours in 12 years, and the deaths of 62 commandos in some of the fiercest fighting seen out here, the marines will not be coming back. Their time is over.
“We have taken a significant number of casualties over the years, as many as any cap badge,” Lieutenant Colonel Matt Jackson, the commander of 40 Commando, reflects. Foremost in his mind now is getting the memorial to those who fell in Sangin in 2009 and 2010 back to the UK.
“The brass plates with the names of everyone who died have been taken off. It’s difficult to take the stones with us, but we’d like to make a replica of the memorial back home.”
It is a significant moment in the journey British forces have taken in Helmand, marking the first of a number of “lasts” in the next 18 months, as the UK’s military and civilian involvement in the province winds down, and their teams become ever more diminished.
Evidence of drawdown is everywhere – the British had 80 military bases in Helmand this time last year, now they have 12. The British embassy in Kabul is sending people home, as is Helmand’s provincial reconstruction team (PRT), which has been behind multimillion-pound efforts to rebuild schools, hospitals and roads in the past seven years.
The embassy will shrink by almost half over the next 18 months – from 120 staff to 70; it has already stopped hosting some of the UK’s training and mentoring initiatives and will return to “more normal embassy duties”.
The PRT drawdown is even more marked. Last year, it had 220 people across Helmand, this year it has 140. By Christmas, only 50 will be left. It has one big building project to complete on Route 611, the main road from Sangin to Kajaki. But in Kabul and Helmand, they are deeply wary of a narrative which suggests the job is done. The phased drawdown is happening on the eve of the most important fighting season of the conflict so far – the first in which the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will be entirely in charge, with NATO providing only a safety net.
It seems an uncomfortable juxtaposition, especially with so much at stake, but commanders knew this moment would come, even if it has done so earlier than the military had hoped.
The UK’s acting ambassador in Kabul, Nic Hailey, said the next few months could define whether the country will be able cope with the tumultuous events of next year, when NATO will be a rump force and an election to replace President Hamid Karzai takes place. Militarily, politically and economically, Afghanistan’s future was coming into focus, he said. “We all talk about 2014 as the flagship date but actually by end of 2013 we will know quite a lot about what 2014 will look like. We will know who might be candidates for the elections, we will know what kind of framework the elections will be held in and we will know whether Afghanistan and Pakistan can make progress. We will know how the ANSF has coped through a fighting season in which they are in the lead.”
Lieutenant General Nick Carter, the overall commander of British forces in Afghanistan, and the deputy commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), added: “Afghan confidence is our centre of gravity at every level. If the Afghans can look back over the summer and say ‘we managed that’ with only limited help from ISAF, then I think that will give them a really good platform for managing the political transition that has to follow in 2014.”
It is a big if. Of the 26 ANSF brigades, only five have reached a standard where they are deemed fully independent of ISAF help. Another 16 are almost there, and five still need considerable support. Within weeks, these brigades, and Afghanistan’s police forces, will be expected to take charge of security across the country – a significant step up and, in some contested areas, a step into the unknown.
Carter believes the 21,000 ANSF soldiers in Helmand will be able to manage whatever the Taliban throw at them, but he qualifies the endorsement, saying people in the UK should not be surprised if ISAF has to ride to the rescue on occasions. “We want the Afghans to manage this on their own, but we do still need to be prepared to support them in the event of this fighting season becoming very intensive. “And that is why it is important that we still have combat power available. We don’t want to use it and the Afghans don’t want to call on it, but both parties recognise that it is a necessary stabiliser.” To this end, the British will have Quick Reaction Force and Brigade Reconnaissance Force units on standby throughout the summer, while preparing to withdraw up to 3,000 troops from Helmand by the end of the year. Jackson, 41, is also bullish that the ANSF will be able to handle security in the three districts that remain the British “area of operations”, but he said it had taken time, and a few awkward snubs, for the Afghans to realize they could do it on their own.
Over the last three months the Afghans have asked him “lots of times” for help on operations, but he has turned them down. “We have all suspected they are good enough. But whilst we were prepared to give our help, they were prepared to accept it. So we had to stop being asked. One day we just said, ‘right, we aren’t going out today, so you need to go and do it’.
“Afghans are very good at fighting. Firefighting with the Taliban, they enjoy that. But they do find the logistics a bit boring.” In this area of Helmand at least, where ISAF and the ANSF have made securing the towns a priority, Jackson believes the Afghans can protect and hold. “The Taliban appear to be in disarray at the moment,” he said. “They are finding it difficult to re-infiltrate [the towns]. To say that it will be eventless over the summer is a little naïve, but I just don’t see what kind of activity the insurgents are going to be able to undertake.” It may be different elsewhere, particularly in places such as Maidan Wardak province, near Kabul, where the insurgency is still strong, and any governance is resisted.
“There will be parts of Afghanistan that are not within ANSF control in 2014 and I think that is inevitable,” said Hailey. “That’s also the case in some other countries, but it doesn’t mean those countries are fundamentally unable to run themselves. In the most likely scenario there will be some remaining insurgency beyond 2014 and the rural parts of the south is where it will be. “But you don’t need to have a perfect Afghanistan where there is no single insurgent to have a gradual spread of Afghan government control.” If the Taliban formally came into the political process, then the security situation would be very different, but nobody in the diplomatic community expects that to happen this side of next April’s presidential election.
The best hope is that the Taliban prefer not to disrupt the process, and then negotiate with the new president once NATO has all but disappeared. “There are three big transitions in 2014,” says Hailey. “The security, the political and the economic. The political one is the key. It’s the strength of the political settlement…the transfer from President Karzai to his successor being peaceful, his successor having enough credibility with the Afghan people to hold the country together, and the whole process being seen by enough Afghans as inclusive enough that they broadly accept the view of the majority. If those things happen we are on a pretty good footing.” The Taliban, he says, are mulling over their options, but it is taking time because they are not unified, and any move is likely to split opinion among their senior commanders. “I think they find it quite hard because they have spent the last ten years fighting and they are not a movement which has a lot of practice thinking about political strategy, and I think they are probably quite divided internally.”
On the civilian side, reconstruction chiefs such as Catriona Laing, head of the PRT mission, are similarly eager to see whether the work they have done will take root or wither as the UK leaves. Much will depend on security – and whether money will flow from Kabul to sustain the province. The new governor, Naeem Baloch, has ambitions to make Helmand a democratic tested for the rest of the country.
Somewhat against expectations, Afghans in central Helmand have developed a taste for local elections, voting for councillors in seven districts as a way of keeping officials in line.
More than 6,000 people registered to vote in a recent election in Narwar district, compared with fewer than 400 who took part three years ago. Baloch wants to extend the initiative to areas in north Helmand – an idea that would have been unthinkable until recently because of the violence. Helmand is the only province to hold district community council (DCC) elections, but two others have said they want to start them too along the lines the PRT developed here.
“The councillors have become the voice of the people, part of the checks and balances system,” said Laing, “They are the eyes and ears. People do not want the Taliban here. We have seen a huge drop off in support for them. Only 18 months ago there were still about 22% of people here who said they were interested in seeing the Taliban back in government – that is down to 8%.”
But with the PRT drawing down, it is up to the Afghans to decide whether to persist with schemes such as these, and it will be up to the Afghans to decide which of the many schools and health clinics provided by the British will remain open.
The UK built far too much in Helmand as it tried to win the trust of the people – 168 miles of new road; 55 health centres; 26 new schools (and another 86 refurbished and reopened). But there isn’t enough money for all of them, so difficult decisions will have to be made – but not by the British.
“It has to be an Afghan lead,” said Laing, who will step down in September. “It’s about what the people want. It’s not about us any more. We are leaving a little faster than I anticipated, but I think setting an end date is a positive thing. It does force people to think about what matters more than if you were just drifting along. “Obviously the money has to flow from Kabul. And there is a risk if it doesn’t come. But if the money keeps flowing I don’t see any reason why things should slide. I’m not naive about this, but I don’t see how the Taliban offer can land in Helmand, and if it can’t land in Helmand then it cannot land easily anywhere.” None of the senior British military and civilian officers will be here to see whether their optimism is misplaced. After 12 grinding years in Afghanistan, and seven in Helmand, the UK has begun its long march home. Carter concedes there are important lessons to be learned from the conflict, paramount among them the need for the military to be “clearer about the risks and the challenges of what is possible”.
“I think the generation that has lived through this period has a pretty good understanding now of what needs to be done in the future,” he said. For Royal Marine officers such as Major Karl Gray, 38, who is on his fourth tour, and whose friends are among the 441 British servicemen who have died, leaving for the last time will allow him the chance to reflect properly on what has been achieved, and what has not. “We all mourn in our own way, and that’s what we will do,” he said. “We are never going to see a perfect Afghanistan. But it is working, and that is the best we can hope for. I can say, with hand on heart, having been here several times, and seen the progress from those early days, that those lives have not been lost in vain. It is small consolation to the families but at least it is some consolation.”
Nick Hopkins is the Guardian’s defence and security correspondent.